Mark Safranski, friend and the Zenpundit, has published a post on the super-empowered individual. Below I reproduce the comment I made to Mark’s post with a few amendments for clarity.
Mark’s post may be a trifle backwards: features of modern economies can exist only within very narrow, fragile bands of technological and social conventions. Consider “Just In Time” inventory systems, outsourcing, offshoring of back office functions, and the shallow bench of most modern companies. These are all maximally vulnerable to disruptions in communications, transportation, and social networks.
It would be possible to create a more distributed, resilient economy capable of routing around potential disruptions but that would entail overturning privileges and strategies that form the support of some of the most powerful institutions in the country and in the world.
Mark’s two examples of super-empowered individuals couldn’t be more different. Archimedes exploited physical principles. Hitler exploited the economic, social, and political conditions he found around him.
That, I think, is the mark of the contemporary super-empowered individual: a clever exploiter of the system. The examples of this are Bill Gates and Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden doesn’t have the ability to make weapons of his own, he buys them or exploits powerful technology belonging to others; nor does he employ these bombs himself, he inspires others to do his dirty work for him. He works as much through a “collectivity” as anybody.
Only the destructive potential of these super-empowered individuals, a feature not of their own will and capabilities but of the devastating power of the technology available to the societies they may bring down, are new. This very discussion began nearly 200 years ago and, at the time, Napoleon was the model for the discussion. Another possible illustration for Mark’s post rather than The Incredible Hulk (used in his post) might be David’s famous portrait of Napoleon (reproduced above).
Nietzsche explored the idea in his Also Sprach Zarathustra, delineating concepts like the urge to power, the urge to destruction, and self-transcendence.
But I think the definitive exploration of the question resides in Dostoeyevskiy’s Crime and Punishment. The isolation, madness, consciencelessness, and ultimate weakness of the superman is revealed there. Dostoeyevskiy’s superior sympathy with the human condition seconds the teachings of the Buddha and Jesus: conscience and compassion are essential.