I’m reading Robert Green’s The 48 Laws of Power, a contemporary Machiavelliean manifesto.
Written in 1998, it was an instant New York Times bestseller and remains a favourite of American rappers and the business community.
Its premise is that powerful people follow a set of rules and Green examines history’s adept players and the consequences for those who aren’t.
For instance, take the story of Mr Peale who dared cross P.T. Barnum, the circus entrepreneur. In 1841, Barnum negotiated to buy the American Museum in Manhattan and reached a verbal agreement with the owners. However, they changed their minds and sold it to Peale, the owner of a rival museum.
The outraged Barnum gained revenge not by destroying the reputation of the American Museum owners but that of Peale. He wrote anonymous letters to the papers slandering the hapless man and advising people not to buy his stock. Peale’s reputation plummeted, the deal for the American Museum fell through and it was sold to Barnum instead.
The story serves as an example of Law Number 5: So much depends on reputation – guard it with your life.
To destroy the reputation of a rival is to render them powerless and return them to the back of the queue (if they manage to escape with their lives).
And it is a very long queue.
Courtiers, celebrities, generals, kings, queens, politicians, managers, bankers, religious orders, financiers and many others have plotted, schemed and murdered their way to power.
Driven by ego, these people are dysfunctional and dangerous. To them you are either a threat, a nuisance or a nobody. Whether you are targeted for destruction depends on what they gain from your demise.
Scheming, manipulative people are everywhere. They are your boss, your local member of Parliament, your banker, sometimes your best friend; the latter operating under Law Number 2: Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use your enemies.
A former financial journalist told me that women who successfully compete for corporate power must study male tactics. Men, she explained, socialised with one another, stole ideas and presented them as their own; a perfect example of Law Number 14: Pose as a friend, work as a spy.
If you want to see Green’s laws represented on screen, watch Game of Cards, a series set in the White House.
Kevin Spacey, as Southern congressman Francis J. Underwood, plots the downfall of rivals and the promotion of allies in a masterful display of cunning and Law 25: Play the perfect courtier and Law 26: Keep your hands clean.
With such a heartless, scheming bunch of people at the apex of power it is little wonder that politicians, media barons and CEO’s care little for the masses as they plunder, impose draconian economic measures, engage in war and destroy trade unions. They are, after all, only looking out for their own interests.
The 48 Laws of Power is a work of non-fiction but belongs in the horror genre because the characters in this book are truly monstrous.