Power

Power, money and respect. In the world of organised crime these are the end goals that people pursue, but they are not equal and they don’t walk hand in hand. In crime fiction we’ve spent countless words picking apart and examining the guts of that triangle, as well as how the three sides connect. As with any industry you can have respect without wealth or influence; a hardworking and likable person can be broadly admired without ever rising to consequence just as a rich person can be considered profoundly lazy and hatefully stupid. Respect and money are independent of each other and transient and chased only by those who fail to see the limits to their value. The only one of the three grand prizes that can pull the other two with it, and that, when used properly, can give you everything you’re looking for, is power.

Wealth has never been any guarantee of respect. Starting out life with a lot of money can be a disqualifier for unbridled admiration in an industry that values few things more than pulling yourself up from nothing, climbing over the fallen friends and foes that litter your history to gain access to the luxury lifestyle the rest didn’t have what it took to claim. If you skipped the hard journey to the top, those who weren’t so fortunate are unlikely to bow at your feet, no matter how much good work you’re convinced you’ve done from your position of privilege, no matter the adulation you believe you’ve earned. If they don’t respect you then how are you ever going to have lasting power over them? The remaining alternative is to rule by fear, which can be very tempting if you have no interest in being loved. To quote Lorenzo Carcaterra in the novel GANGSTER –

It is rare in the gangster life to find someone to confide in. It is even rarer to find a friend… Those friendships last as long as there is profit to be made.

To reach the top you must see people as money and if that’s all they are then why care about them? Treat them as you would any other replaceable asset. It’s an attitude that often only serves to give the people around you more reason to hate you and plot your downfall. Getting to the summit is a matter of fighting, staying there a matter of survival. You won’t achieve that alone.

The scramble to the top of the mountain isn’t made in the open. Among the most important skills in the race for power is persuading people you’re someone else, not an insatiably greedy, heartless, ruthless manipulator driven by self-interest but in fact a relatable and charming person who’s very much on their side, who understands and shares their needs and wants like no one else. Everyone wears a mask. Take the description of garrulous bastard Lieutenant Dudley Smith from James Ellroy’s L.A. CONFIDENTIAL

Smith laughed; Jack eyed the cut of his suit: baggy, good camouflage – make me a stage Irishman, cover my .45 automatic, knuckle dusters and sap.

The cynical and brutal trying to seem caring and soft. The exploiter trying to seem like the friend. Persuade those you meet that what you say means everything and what you do means nothing, and that critical analysis of facts is an insult to the loyalty and integrity shown by all sides. Both on the way up and while at the top any person will need an ever growing wall of human shields, to be surrounded by people willing to furiously defend their imaginary honour, to argue in their favour when others dare attack, and it’s best those people remain as cheerfully ignorant as possible. You need clean businesses to hide the money the dirty ones make, and you need loyal and honest people running those clean businesses so that when they fight your corner they have the credibility that seemingly decent people bring to all battles. It won’t be you who convinces the rest of the world you’re a respectable human being, it will be the good people you’ve conned along the way. Sometimes the challenge is as small as appearing to be the lesser of many evils, letting others fight furiously to create something different in a world where some will always just want things to stay the same. It’s the manifesto of Nick Corey in Jim Thompson’s Pop.1280, in which the unstable liar persuades the world that power is safe in his hands because he won’t wield it with any effect –

It was a case of nothing looking better than something … I’d just let things go along as they always had, because there wasn’t much point in trying to change ’em. And when the votes were counted, I was still sheriff.

The challenge of having power is not only using but maintaining it, and making sure you don’t spend every second in charge clinging on to it by your fingertips. Sometimes the only view you have from the top of the mountain is the filth you’ve scrambled over to get there, yet it’s a sight many want to see. There will always be others chasing what you’ve caught and the ability to fight them off depends as much on silencing their voice as beating them back, allowing them no credibility by denying others the right to hear them. This advice can be called classic as, predictably enough, Machiavelli was dishing out the same guidance in THE PRINCE on dealing with those whose wavering loyalty leads to questions about your leadership and those who wish to challenge you –

I answer that a capable and courageous prince will always overcome these difficulties, now, by holding out hopes to his subjects that the evil will not be of long continuance; now, by exciting their fears of the enemy’s cruelty; and, again, by dexterously silencing those who seem to him too forward in their complaints.

This will become easier as time goes by, as the power to silence grows, supporters become used to your absolute influence and all of the lies you’ve told to get to the top become such a part of your own thinking you can’t distinguish facts from your own fiction. Gaining power means having the ability to enrich yourself and your friends, to finally demand the respect you’re due, and it will last just long enough for you to relax and fail to spot the next person coming up to elbow you out of the way and take your place. Or your eventual fall could come from the opposite direction, the fight so poisoning your view that all the good things of the world become a threat you can’t understand. In Graham Greene’s BRIGHTON ROCK PINKIE has fought for power and ended up with fear –

An enormous emotion beat on him; it was like something trying to get in; the pressure of gigantic wings against the glass… If the glass broke, if the beast – whatever it was – got in, God knows what it would do.

Anyone can fight for it, and almost anyone can reach the top with the right amount of effort and luck, but power is only ever as stable as the person wielding it.

Malcolm Mackay