The 48 Laws of Power: Perspectives Beyond the Library World

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that, on the whole, libraries, archives, and museums (LAMs) tend to occupy a precarious position. Those of us who work for these organizations, or aspire to do so some day, are repeatedly on the defensive against claims that libraries are obsolete, that archives are dusty basements, and that museums are out-of-touch with average people. Consequently, efforts to secure funding, resources, and general support all too often become a battleground. There is a constant pressure to demonstrate the impact that our organizations have, to show our stakeholders that their investment in us—whether through tax dollars, donations, or simply their participation in our programming—is worthwhile. Even when we work hard at this intense game of show-and-tell, layoffs, budget cuts, and, in extreme cases, closures can still happen. This perennial struggle can justifiably cause a sense of powerlessness. What, then, can help us be more powerful?

This is the initial question I had before I began listening to the audiobook of Robert Greene’s 1998 book The 48 Laws of Power. I first became aware of this book while listening to entrepreneur Myleik Teele’s My Taught You podcast. In several episodes, Teele has raved about The 48 Laws and expressed a desire to interview the author on her show. From the title, it at first seemed to me like this would be a typical self-help, feel-good book. But if it elicited so much enthusiasm, I thought, perhaps it would offer some out-of-the-ordinary insights.

The opening lines of the audiobook quickly disabused me of the assumption that Greene was writing anything that could be called “feel-good.” The author’s thesis is that power is neutral and amoral, and that one should not take endeavors to gain power too seriously. In his view, power plays are all an amusing game, a masquerade of sorts. He asserts that people who do not want to strive for more power out of an adherence to morality or equality are destined to be taken advantage of by those who are willing to play the game. And just what are the laws that dictate this game? The 48 Laws feature such directives as “Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit,” “Learn to keep people dependent on you,” and “Keep others in suspended terror: Cultivate an air of unpredictability.” To illustrate adherence to or breaking of his laws, Greene mobilizes examples from history, especially examples from royal families and their courts. These anecdotes are punctuated by sinister-sounding string quartet music.

Listening to the narrator begin to progress through the book, I immediately felt disgusted. Honestly, the only reason I finished the book was so that I could write this blog post. Part of my intense negative reaction to the book hinges on the issue of whether it is intended to be serious advice or not. I am not sure which possibility would be worse. In one interview with the author, he states, “Everyone assumes I practice all of my own laws but I don’t. I think anybody who did would be a horrible ugly person to be around.” Another interview characterizes him as “a realist.” In both interviews, he highlights cases of people who have used the rules to keep others from exploiting them. While I do admit that these cases are a valuable outcome, I could not help but suspect that he is simply practicing Law 3: “Conceal your intentions.” Also, in spite of whatever intentions Greene may have had, one must have an honest look at who is gravitating to The 48 Laws and his other titles: The Art of Seduction and The 33 Strategies of War. I was particularly alarmed to find out that his work is beloved in Red Pill and Pickup Artist (PUA) forums. Even before I discovered this fact, though, it sounded to me like a manual for how to be an abuser.

Aside from the nature of the laws themselves, the assumption behind them is that power is primarily about personal behavior and attitudes. Greene’s claim that power is neutral quickly falls away when applying his laws to people who are disadvantaged by various forms of structural oppression. For example, if I, as a Black woman, were to follow the advice in Law 1: “Never outshine the master,” where the author makes the suggestion to intentionally “make harmless mistakes” to invite the assistance of a superior, that would simply contribute to the stereotype of Black women being incompetent and unintelligent. Likewise, Law 20: “Do not commit to anyone” makes it all too easy for unjust aspects of the status quo to continue. If someone makes transphobic statements in my presence, for instance, a decision not to challenge those statements on my part would cause the speaker to assume that everyone listening is in agreement with the statements. Further, if someone in the vicinity happened to be trans and closeted, that person would feel unsupported and interpret the space in question as an unsafe one. As such, I do my best to speak up in these situations. I am committed to a society that is more equitable toward those who face systemic oppression, power be damned.

This leads me back to my initial question of what LAMs can do to become more powerful. My conclusion is that power, as framed by Greene’s laws at least, is perhaps not the most accurate term for what it is that we want and need. After all, the organizations in our field already have a history of committing greatly harmful acts in the name of power. Public libraries played and continued to play a big role in assimilating immigrants into the U.S., using various levels of coercion. Many library directors, especially in the South, staunchly resisted racial integration efforts in the 1960s. Finally, it was not too long ago that archives were exclusionary toward people deemed not to be serious enough researchers. In the struggle to assure the longevity of our profession, we must ensure that the methods we use do not undermine the values of our profession.

The cover image is of the cover of Robert Greene’s Book The 48 Laws of Power. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Ayoola White is a history and archives management student in her penultimate semester at Simmons College.

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