Robert Greene: 50 Cent, Machiavelli and the laws of power

If you want to know about power, Robert Greene is the man to talk to. His book ‘The 48 Laws of Power’ draws on the lessons of history’s most powerful people from Napoleon to Leonardo Da Vinci and has been adopted as a sacred text by everyone from Busta Rhymes to Jay-Z. Its lessons on playing the game without compromise led to the New Yorker calling him ‘Hip Hop’s Machiavelli’, and Kanye West identified with the book so much he once rapped “The only book I ever read, I could have wrote, ‘The 48 Laws of Power’.”

Greene has now teamed up with 50 Cent to unveil ‘The 50th Law’, a guide to conducting yourself fearlessly in order to gain power and influence. But as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility, so we caught up with Greene to talk about how power corrupts and how we can all change the world for the better.

We started by asking for his perspective on corruption, and he took us right back to 16th Century Italy and the master of cunning himself, Niccolò Machiavelli:

“There’s a concept from Machiavelli that I like called the ‘New Prince’. Unlike a prince who has inherited power from family, privilege or connections, the New Prince is someone who comes from the lowest strata of society. In a time where people are experiencing war or hardship they use their own energy and ambition to create a new way of thinking. What they create is very powerful and people want to follow them. It’s only then that corruption begins to take place because power begins to settle down into something comfortable. When people are living in poverty they’re motivated to get things and solves problems. The moment that goes away they start using up what other people have created, acting politically to try and keep what they have. Machiavelli said that this creates a cycle of corruption and decay and this is when things fall apart. But now the cycle returns and another ‘New Prince’ comes up who creates something new for themselves.”

In ‘The 50th Law’ you use 50 Cent as an example of a ‘New Prince’, someone who has worked his way up from a desperate situation to a position of huge wealth and power. What about the rest of us? Can anybody be a New Prince?

“I’m in two minds about that. My optimist side believes that everybody has the potential. I really rebel against this idea that we are creatures of our background or that we’re doomed by our DNA to be a certain way. Deep down inside I believe everybody has the capacity to change. On the other hand, clearly some people have more drive and energy. Some people just want to be comfortable in life. They don’t want to get things on their own. There are a lot of people like that. Then there’s the 5 or 10% who really are motivated but are in a bad situation. The idea of the ‘New Prince’ resonates with their own spirit and individuality.”

One major criticism of your books has been that they encourage people to think more selfishly and encourages people to manipulate others. How do you respond to these criticisms?

“People always ask if I’m concerned that the really ugly people in life, the manipulators and the dictators, are going to use my book to get power. I’m sure that does happen and I certainly regret that, but really those people don’t need a book. They’re going to be like that anyway, nothing’s going to change that.”

But you say in your book “Understand that everyone is after power, and that to get it we all occasionally manipulate and even deceive. That is human nature and there is no shame in it.” Aren’t you basically telling people they can do what they want without worrying about others?

“Well, I don’t really go at things from the moral angle. That’s for other people to write about and for people to practise on their own. Morality is something that a person has to come to by themselves. I’m extremely tired of people preaching to us about morality when they’re not necessarily practicing it themselves. The real problem in the world is that people are timid. There are always the manipulators out there, but most people are actually quite afraid. They’re afraid of confronting people and the political games that people play. That, to me, is a much greater problem. People who don’t feel that they can be an individual. People who can’t say to that asshole in the office ‘Fuck you, I’m going to fight back’. It really irritates me, to be honest. I get tired of everyone focusing on the evil-doers. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect everyone to act better. You’re always confronting those people and situations. It can be the boss who seems to care for you and then the next day you’ve got a slip of paper saying ‘You’re out of here’. I don’t feel bad about my books because I get emails from people saying ‘thank you’ for opening their eyes to what’s really going on in the world.”

You sound a bit like Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher who said that life in nature is “nasty, brutish and short” and that everyone is out to get everyone else. Is that how you see the world?

“No, I think ‘The 50th Law’ is a hopeful book. It talks about the miraculous side of life and the sublime. But I do think that the sweet, moralistic approach that people tend to sell in books is quite cynical. I’m trying to say that you have the power to change your life. That life doesn’t have to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. It will be ‘nasty, brutish and short’ if you don’t open your eyes, and you’re just naïve and believe that your boss has your best interests at heart. Then you’re going to have a pretty unhappy life. If you’re aware and awake you won’t. I don’t feel my books have a doomed atmosphere or say that you need to be paranoid. Not everybody out there has a knife ready to go into your back, but there are people out there who do and you need to be aware of it. If you start thinking everybody is out to get you, you turn into Joseph Stalin and that’s not what I’m advocating. But I am somewhat brutal, and I am Machiavellian, and I am amoral.”

But what about society? Don’t you think people are too individualistic?

“The problem isn’t that people are too individualistic. The problem is that they’re not individualistic enough. People are afraid to be themselves. What came out of Descartes is ‘think for yourself and don’t depend on authority’. That was a reaction against the dark ages, and that’s what we’re returning to now. People just follow what other people say. They take their job and just accept it as it is. They’re not being individual enough. They may cooperate in groups but they’re coming at it from a position of insecurity and weakness. They’re getting comfort from the group, but I maintain that if you’re a true individual who is comfortable with themselves and knows what makes you different, then you’re actually a better person in that group. You feel more comfortable. That’s not always true. There are a lot of people who are individuals who end up becoming right assholes, and that’s not what I’m saying.”

In the book you quote Richard Wright: “Men are men and life is life, and we must deal with them as they are; and if we want to change them, we must deal with them in the form in which they exist.” How can we challenge corrupt leaders?

“I think young people are at a stage where they’re figuring out who they are. They create new trends which filter through society. They’re searching for something, and that’s a beautiful thing. I think every human being should be searching and not feeling like they know anything for certain. But what that spirit of searching needs is an element of rebellion. That’s what I feel is missing. I think young people respect the order a bit too much. They’re not questioning authority figures enough. They’re not translating this hunger to find out who they are into action. If young people aren’t doing that, then we’re doomed because that’s where all the ‘New Princes’ emerge in our society. That’s where all the real change happens. So my message to young people would be: question everything. Nothing you inherit in the world has to be the way it is. There is a lot of corruption, just look at Wall Street. That’s because people got power and are holding on to it. You need to have the attitude that you’re going to shake the foundations and bring all those people down and create something new.”

Originally published in Ctrl.Alt.Shift: The Corruption Issue.