Introduction to the 48 Laws of Cooperation

I just finished Robert Greene's notorious 48 Laws of Power.

The book is exactly what it sounds like: a guide to acquiring power in 48 easy steps. It's a self-help-book-meets-historical-medley that makes for an engaging albeit cynical read— everyone's out for themselves, and it's dominate or be dominated.

No surprises, the book has become a cult classic among hip-hop artists, and entrepreneurs, but also prison inmates and domestic terrorists. Now, these less-than-reputable associations may lend the book an exciting bad-boy appeal (Law 6), but, at the end of the day, popularity among criminals also hints at some kind of defect (Law 10).

Don't get me wrong, I loved the book (if only for the historical examples), but Greene's theatrically nihilistic worldview gets a few key things wrong. I thought I'd point those out, and offer an antidote in what I'll call, The 48 Laws of Cooperation

1. Power is a weak end

First, power is not an end but a means. You can tell your audience to always keep "the end" in sight (Law 47), but if you don't teach your audience which goals to aim for, power becomes its own end. You end up proselytizing a cult of power that leaves us all weaker.

Instead, power needs a purpose that goes deeper than saturating one's need to believe (Law 27). Power is a tool to work towards your own well-being (and, if you're feeling generous, the well-being of those around you). Only the most thoroughly psychopathic can extract well-being directly from power. For the rest of us, our most reliable and profound sources of well-being often require us to willingly give up power1 : to do things for others, to open up and be vulnerable, and to efface the ego.

If you're not using your power to help the people out of power—to make the game more immune against the power-hungry—you're a sad, unenviable douchebag.

2. Power is an incomplete lens

Second, power is not everything in human interactions— not nearly.

With power, interactions become a zero-sum affair: dominate or be dominated. The vulnerability is that this lens is self-affirming. If you seek power, you surround yourself with power-hungry competitors who confirm your cynical suspicions and, in turn, their own.

The most interesting (and complex) interactions have less to do with power, and they are not nearly so minimax-able. These situations are closer to Prisoner's Dilemma's: You and your "opponent" are equals. Your interests are almost aligned but not quite. Cooperation is in sight but, unless you put in the extra effort, no guarantee.

The power-hungry cynic will choose defection as soon as it becomes strategically favorable (Law 13) because they cannot imagine their opponent acting any other way (or if they can, they disparage the opponent as a "sucker" to be taken advantage of; Law 33). In the long run, such a strategy will leave your community fragile, its members wary and distrusting, and you alone in all existence.

Just try it. Try the 48 laws out on your kids. You will be estranged before they leave the house. Try it out on potential partners. Yours will be a string of unhappy flings. Try it out at work. "Friend" will be an abstract dictionary definition without any foothold in your world. You may be the greatest actor and deceiver (Law 3) of all time, but you can't stay (or want to be) impenetrable to those closest to you. And eliminating all your emotional intimates is a self-evidently imbecilic move (Law 18).

3. History remembers the lucky

Third, Greene gets to cherry-pick the greatest power-seekers in history. But the stories of most of those who tried and failed don't get written. If you try and follow the greats, odds are you will end up with the rejects. If you view the world as you-against-everyone-else (which is the cynical result of all the power worshiping), the numbers will be on your opponents' side. You will lose (and maybe end up in prison worshiping the book whose mentality got you in this mess).

Better to cooperate than to defect. Your best chance at both security and well-being is to side with a community that looks out for you. When you willingly sacrifice your individual power for the good of those around you and they reciprocate, you will be infinitely more powerful than you could ever have been in a group of self-interested megalomaniacs.

Listen to Seneca: "If a thing is in your interest it is also in my own interest. Otherwise, if any matter that affects you is no concern of mine, I am not a friend. Friendship creates a community of interest between us in everything. We have neither successes nor setbacks as individuals; our lives have a common end."

Greene gets a little closer to "cooperation" with his other book, The 33 Strategies of War. But it remains the perspective of the general, the man above and beyond his fellow soldiers. It can be lonely up there.

Like power, cooperation is no guarantee. It takes work to realize; you have to follow rules and principles— say about 48 of them.

In the coming weeks, I'll be releasing my antidote to Greene, The 48 Laws of Cooperation, in serial form. Sign up to stay tuned.


P.S. In Greene's defense, his book is not as unrelentingly cynical as I paint it to be. Obviously, cooperation has a value to the power-hungry. Call me a romantic, but I just don't agree that power stands above cooperation. In fact, I think this mentality is one of the deadly diseases of our time and place.

Forgive me where I exaggerate. Then again, Law 6 and Law 42 tell me a good way to gain attention is to attack a well-established person in power. Today, that person just so happens to be you, Mr. Greene.

P.P.S. Greene accuses those who claim they are outside the game of power to be lying (or to be ignorant). That those who make an appeal to equity want to parcel out the resources myself. No, my appeal to equity does not mean that I want to be the one to redistribute the power. Despite all of its failures, democracy remains our best solution to that. But yes, I'm sure that being seen as generous and liberal (in the classic sense), i.e., signaling my virtue, is one of my motivations for writing about cooperation. Again no, my demonstration of honesty in revealing this motivation is not designed to gain more brownie points. Then again, this whole meta-self-referential analysis probably is.


Footnotes

Footnotes

  1. Actually making sacrifices — not just making the appearance (Law 22).