A Review of (Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us)
Brian Klaas’ new book examines why certain types of individuals tend to attain institutional power, as well as how this power changes their psychologies, actions, and moral compass. The issues raised are particularly relevant for the analysis of contemporary Middle Eastern politics and economics.
Brian Klaas’ “Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us” (Simon and Schuster, 2021) emphatically invites scholars to create the subfield of “Power Studies” in its wake.
Few books present a genuine opportunity for the creation of a new sub-discipline. Nonetheless, Brian Klaas’ “Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us” (Simon and Schuster, 2021) emphatically invites scholars to create the subfield of “Power Studies” in its wake. To conceptualize what practitioners of Power Studies might investigate, let us draw an analogy with how E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s “The Nuer” and “The Sanussi of Cyrenaica” galvanized the creation of the subfield of Social Anthropology.
First, Klaas systematizes a way of thinking about who seeks power and why. Second, he examines how possessing organizational, political, and monetary power operates on individuals. Finally, he postulates how various systems governing the exercise and oversight of power work upon incumbent powerholders and through them onto the societies and organizations they rule.
Klaas presents personality typologies of individuals who are likely to seek and obtain power.
This is quite analogous to Evans-Pritchard’s methodology for categorizing how tribal structures operate in specific societies and how these structures mold the actions of those communities in which they exist. Seen with this framing, we can summarize Klaas’ approach thusly — he presents personality typologies of individuals who are likely to seek and obtain power; he then investigates how those typologies influence individuals’ actions in their exercise of power.
Just as Evans-Pritchard channeled the then prevalent mid-20th century literary conventions in his narrative histories of the Nuer tribe and the Sanussi Sufi Order to make broader points about segmentary tribal structures, Klaas’ mid-21st century oeuvre reads like a podcast: each chapter presents a complete narrative arc punctuated with a series of digestible anecdotes and easy to remember findings.
Klaas also channels contemporary social concerns over “white male privilege” to investigate why tall white men with certain aggressive personality types disproportionately occupy the pinnacle positions in governmental and private sector organizations. He presents studies suggesting that unconscious evolutionary biases generate selection pressures that favor physically imposing cis-gendered males of the dominant social grouping, arguing that the ensuing distribution of power might have been ideal for hunter-gather societies, but leads to suboptimal leader selection for the information age.
For Klaas, these outdated evolutionary pressures have become reified into engrained psychological biases, cultural norms, and institutional structures, leading most societies and organizations to choose their CEOs, politicians, and police chiefs using cognitive and institutional structures that were effective for choosing tribal warlords multiple millennia ago.
Outdated evolutionary pressures have become reified into engrained psychological biases, cultural norms, and institutional structures.
Klaas is also interested in what I term “incumbent psychology.” In my book “Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder,” I coin this concept to investigate why powerful elites tend to look backwards and make conservative choices promoting the status quo, rather than forward-looking ones leading to optimal long-term responses to new challenges. Klaas proposes the stimulating hypothesis that societies as a whole employ incumbent psychology in how they select their leaders.
“Corruptible” is concerned with solutions as well. The book closes with an examination of how to create different selection mechanisms which correct for humans’ unconscious bias. Scandinavia and New Zealand are trotted out as examples of societies that have created oversight mechanisms to arrive at more optimal leader selection criteria and oversight mechanisms for the real-world situations of the 21st century.
Similar to the foundational texts of other sub-disciplines, Corruptible is not filled with primary research, but rather with a novel way of recombining existing research to investigate a new problem set. “Corruptible’s” primary value-add is its framing of the corpus of existing academic research to bear upon the psychological, structural, and institutional logics underpinning why given individuals and ideologies obtain institutional power, and why being in power (especially being born into it) changes individuals’ psychologies, the advisors they select, and the institutions they create. Although Klaas is concerned with answers and proposes many real-world reforms, like any thought-provoking text, a deep study of Klaas’ work inherently poses yet more questions.
The issues raised are particularly apposite for the field of Middle Eastern Studies. In fact, they highlight many of the gaps in the current debates. Power in the greater Middle East is frequently investigated as “exceptional” due to being exercised in culturally specific ways having to do with the region’s history, anti-colonial struggles, ethnic/tribal/sectarian divides, and the role of Islam in legitimating sovereignty. Furthermore, Middle Eastern Studies practitioners tend to focus on social, economic, and political problems rather than solutions or root causes. The field is very successful at documenting and decrying the abuses of the powerful without truly examining their antecedent causes.
Power in the greater Middle East is frequently investigated as “exceptional” due to being exercised in culturally specific ways.
Implicitly, the book challenges the prevailing approach of how think tanks and academia examine power dynamics in the Middle East, even though Klaas does not specifically examine Arab cultural norms, monarchies, or Islam. Klaas’ approach challenges us to look at the Middle East as unexceptional vis-à-vis its dynamics between the ruled and the rulers. Klaas’ sparse references to Muqtada al-Sadr and Saddam Hussein illustrate the very normality of their psychologies in a global perspective rather than their exceptionalism. Klaas illustrates that if structures are not in place to curb the psychological appeal of power to those who are “corruptible,” then they will likely outcompete other individuals and groups in arriving to power.
Simultaneously, he demonstrates that if structures are not in place to oversee the exercise of power, those in positions of authority will inherently be drawn to abuses of their power. Both of these dynamics are all too common in Middle Eastern societies due to the structural conditions prevailing there, not due to Arab or Islamic cultural norms.
This point is illustrated extremely clearly in his investigation of King Leopold II of Belgium in the book’s core chapter “Bad Systems or Bad People?” Leopold governed Belgium in a transparent and liberal way, while he concealed his rapacious pillaging of the Congo. Was it sheer racism that led to his difference in governing styles over his different realms? Klaas demonstrates that it was not. Rather, it was the presence of oversight structures in the exercise of power in the Belgian context and their utter absence in the Congolese one.
Nearly all aspirants to power and incumbent authority figures have been proven by psychological studies to be “corruptible.”
The importance of this finding for the Middle East is manifest. According to Klaas nearly all aspirants to power and incumbent authority figures have been proven by psychological studies to be “corruptible” due to possessing the “dark triad traits” of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. Who ends up as Governor of the Central Bank of Iraq and who ends up as Governor of the Bank of England has more to do with the structural conditions and oversight mechanisms in those institutions and countries’ governments and less to do with the cultural tolerance for corruption or historic legacies of sectarian violence.
Crudely put, there is a surprising amount of empirical research suggesting that a roughly proportional number of narcissistic psychopaths wish to be Prime Minister or Central Bank Governor in both the UK and in Iraq, yet British institutions tend to promote non-psychopaths, while Iraqi ones are far more likely to empower sycophants and Machiavellians.
From this perspective, the self-centered, personalized, corrupt psychology of many Middle Eastern powerholding elites is not a product of Arab, Islamic, or Turkish cultural norms or some perverse tolerance of corruption or tyranny, but rather of the unique absence of oversight structures supervising powerholders in the region. On the one hand, this seems an obvious lesson that connects the Middle East with its sub-Saharan African and Central Asian neighbors whose cultures are different but whose corrupt societal outcomes are similar. Yet, although it is intuitive, it explains a great deal that is ignored in today’s Middle Eastern Studies field.
The Arab Spring movements did not create new robust institutions to police the powerful.
Structurally, it is the very nature of Middle Eastern institutional systems that incentivize specific behavior patterns on behalf of aspirants to power and powerholders. This analysis sheds light on why the regime changes that transpired during the Arab Spring did not lessen the corrupting nature of power in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, as they were not complete revolutions and hence did not change the underlying structural conditions at play in specific ministries and state-owned companies. The Arab Spring movements did not create new robust institutions to police the powerful and promote those with integrity to desire entering public service. In fact, in various instances, they caused exciting elite power holders to further eviscerate oversight mechanisms and consolidate the opaque levers of power over their specific fiefdoms.
This breakthrough presents novel opportunities for scholars, policymakers, and ordinary citizens to investigate how power operates in their societies and how to reform institutions to make them operate more justly and meritocratically. Therefore, despite almost all of “Corruptible’s” empirical research deriving from American and European case studies, the book would be a useful addition to most introductory university syllabi of Middle Eastern Politics or History.
Jason Pack is the author of Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2021) and president of Libya-Analysis LLC.