In his book, 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene provides insight into how people gain and maintain power in modern society. His book is not written from a sociological perspective, of course. Rather, it is more a management or personal guidebook to gaining power. Still, if one looks to the book with sociological theory in mind, it easy to make connections between Greene’s work and some of the theories that explain modern society. Specifically, Greene’s theories help to shed more light on the practical elements of a conflict-based society and how those conflicts are resolved.
Conflict theory, which originated under Marx and has continued with other theorists, denotes that throughout history and continuing into modern society, interactions between people and between different groups of people have helped to produce the social order as it is currently constituted. This sociological theory focuses its attention on the role that power plays in creating the social order. The theory, which emphasizes social fragmentation, notes the reality that resources are limited and scarce in society. Fragmented portions of society are then required to increasingly compete for those resources, and in doing so, they often play out their inter-group conflicts. This theory is also one that helps to explain just how social order is maintained. It is not maintained necessarily through an organic process where all parties agree to live in a certain way. Rather, it is maintained through domination of the group with the most power, which tends to secure a social equilibrium on its own terms. An important part of conflict theory is that the power structure does not maintain itself. Rather, there is a very tangible effort by those in power to increase and hold on to their power, which sometimes requires them to utilize a variety of tactics.
Even saying that the powerful use a variety of tactics to hang on to control is not specific enough. In fact, it’s a relatively general way to approach questions of power. This is where Greene and his book come into play. They provide veritable color to a black and white argument about the maintenance of power. Put in another way, they help to inform conflict theory by demonstrating the specific ways in which people with power can put their power to use in order to arrange the social order in a way that makes sense for them.
Law 10, for instance, speaks to the reality that the successful tend to stay away from the afflicted. One of the ways that the powerful maintain power is to enhance their own networks while not allowing other individuals to take part in the game. This can be seen in how legacy policies work at top universities. It can also be seen in the hiring patterns of some of the high-end industries in the United States all the way down to the summer camps that are only accessible for a small sub-set of the population. That law says, “You can die from someone else’s misery – emotional states are as infectious as disease. You may feel you are helping the drowning man but you are only precipitating your own disaster. The unfortunate sometimes draw misfortune on themselves; they will also draw it on you. Associate with the happy and fortunate instead” (Greene). The idea here is that smart, successful people are often not willing to even associate with the struggling, let alone allow the struggling masses to be a part of their social strata.
Often, the practical effect of conflict theory is realized in the working world, as the powerful are able to put the less powerful to work in order to benefit the powerful from a financial perspective. Green writes of this, “Use the wisdom, knowledge, and legwork of other people to further your own cause. Not only will such assistance save you valuable time and energy, it will give you a godlike aura of efficiency and speed. In the end your helpers will be forgotten and you will be remembered. Never do yourself what others can do for you” (Greene). The rule here, which is basically an advisement from Greene, is that people should put other people to use for their own purposes. When one group has the bulk of the power, other groups are in a position where they must work harder in order to move up the social ladder. This is the effect of hereditary wealth, and it describes the ways in which professional networks work, too. What sorts of people get into the position to be able to use Greene’s law in this case? The only individual who has the ability to use others in this way is the individual who already sits in a position of power and privilege. In essence, social order is maintained through domination because no matter how hard the person below works, he is still working for the pleasure and benefit of the more powerful person. This, in essence, is what conflict theory describes, and it is how society’s social order is maintained.
Ultimately conflict theory helps to explain the ways in which the world’s social order is arranged. While Robert Greene is not writing specifically about conflict theory, his work does provide a means of understanding conflict theory. With his laws of power, one can understand better the methodologies used by those who dominate society according to the conflict theory perspective.