Chapter One: The Laws of Power

The small town of Burlington was hit hard by structural change and the financial crisis in 2008. HURTLAND is an essay about a group of young adults and their struggle with daily life in Southeast Iowa.

Introduction and all images by Kevin Mertens

All I really knew when I started this project was that I wanted to photograph in my father’s town of birth. For years I had thought about documenting life in Iowa. I flew over, got a rental car and started driving around. This place, where I had been so many times since my childhood, felt different now while looking through a viewfinder. Weeks passed by and I just couldn’t quite find the story that I had originally imagined. It seemed like I first had to re-discover the reality of the area. As if, what I had in my mind were images of my desire that didn’t reflect the actual situation. I asked myself how it could be that in past visits I hadn’t noticed all the worn-down houses, the empty stores, the exhausted looking people. An analog camera forces you to focus.

The farm, on the other side of the Mississippi, 2011

The undercover cop

One evening and by coincidence I met Jerod, a tall, friendly, non-stop talker, as I was shooting a street-scene near his house. He saw me and wanted to know what I was up to. As I told him where I came from and what I was doing, he invited me for a beer in his front yard. Thankfully, he later introduced me to the others from the area. In the beginning some of them actually thought I was an undercover cop. After some time though, they started to trust me and let me into their lives, with all the pain, struggle, beauty and hope that belongs to it.

The first chapter of HURTLAND deals with The Laws of Power, which I became aware of through Robby, who had written some of these strange and uncommon rules onto a piece of paper. We talked about them and their meanings and I was curious where these laws came from. It turned out that while serving a term in prison, the father of Robby’s roommate had written them into a small notebook which he later passed on to his son. To me it seemed rather odd that these rules could be applied to daily life in Southeast Iowa. But I guess when times are difficult, and they are in this area, you look for ways to ‘elevate above the battlefield’.

The 48 Laws of Power

Essay by Christine Käppeler

In 1998 the career-guidebook The 48 Laws of Power was published in the USA by Viking Press. The publishing house was founded in New York in 1925 with the intention of releasing fiction and non-fiction works ‘with some claim to permanent importance rather than ephemeral popular interest.’ The 48 Laws of Power immediately appeared on the New York Times’ business best-seller list in sixth place. Alone in the USA the book sold over one million copies. It was translated into 21 languages and released as an audio book in 2007.

The author of these 48 laws of power wasn’t a successful management consultant or retired CEO as the faith in his expertise as career-coach shown by so many readers might suggest. Robert Greene was born in 1959 in Los Angeles and studied classical philology and comparative literature at university. He worked as a writer for various US newspapers and magazines, particularly for the men’s magazine Esquire, and had a try at scriptwriting for Hollywood, with moderate success. According to Greene, he had approximately 80 jobs – including working for a detective agency – before the idea for The 48 Laws of Power came to him while being in Italy: he would create a contemporary manual modeled after Niccolò Machiavelli’s legendary The Prince.

In his political treatise published in 1532 Machiavelli presents in 26 chapters how a prince can gain, increase and hold on to power. In doing so he refers not only to Italy’s relatively young history, but also draws on examples from classical rulers. Robert Greene’s spectrum is even broader: the register of persons in The 48 Laws of Power ranges from A for Abraham right through to Z for Zeus – alone under the letter B, such varying persons as Buddha, Napoleon Bonaparte, Humphrey Bogart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Ingmar Bergman are to be found. In total the book cites 750 persons: even God appears nine times. Only contemporary politics is missing: Greene leaves out all US presidents from Henry Ford onwards, and also Margaret Thatcher.

Law Nr. 1: Never outshine the master
Law Nr. 2: Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies
Law Nr. 3: Conceal your intentions
Law Nr. 4: Always say less than necessary
Law Nr. 5: So much depends on reputation - guard it with your life
Law Nr. 6: Court attention at all costs

In the foreword Robert Greene describes the intention he had when he wrote the book: ‘No one wants to relinquish power, everyone wants more. However, in today’s world it’s dangerous to be perceived as too power-hungry; to play your power-games too unashamedly. Fairness and decency are expected of us, and therefore we must be subtle – kind, but cunning; democratic, but devilish.’ In 480 pages Greene’s book shows us how it’s done. The book follows a rigorous structure: every law is explained in a few words, and is followed by two historical examples; in the first case, breaking the law resulted in failure; in the second case, obedience to the law was rewarded with success. Then Greene shows the reader the ‘key to power’ illustrating it with a symbol. In the case of the first law – Never outshine the master – it is for example ‘the stars in the sky’: ‘In any given moment there can only be one sun. Never obscure the sun, never attempt to equal its brilliance: seek instead to make the sky paler and find ways to strengthen the main celestial body’s magnificence.’ In a gesture of sharp-mindedness Greene does sometimes present counterexamples, in which the reversal of the law’s teaching could indeed be reasonable.

In front of a group of Yale University students Greene once described an anecdote from the beginning of his professional life: as a rookie in a creative agency he felt bullied by his superior. He explained how he therefore tried to be more brilliant than her and to include her more in his ideas – without success. It was only years later whilst writing the book, Greene told the students, that he recognized he had violated the first Law: Never outshine the master.

Every misfortune that we suffer makes us stronger

His book was conceived as a manual for survival in the modern business world. However, it didn’t just attract many eager readers: it developed a genuine following. Rappers such as Jay-Z, Kanye West, Busta Rhymes and 50 Cent declared themselves fans. DJ Premier, who until 2003 together with Guru formed the duo Gang Starr, had the statement of the fifth law – Reputation is the cornerstone of success – tattooed onto his right forearm. Similarly, Busta Rhymes is said to own a limited edition of the book, with his name engraved on it, which is rumored to have helped him in negotiations with difficult film producers. With 50 Cent, whom Greene declared the Napoleon Bonaparte of hip-hop, he wrote the sequel The 50th Law in 2009. This book also contains references to historical role models such as Dostoevsky, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Japanese monk Yoshida Kenkō (all are mentioned in the 48 Laws), as it develops the very thesis to which 50 Cent’s body is a living testament: every misfortune that we suffer makes us stronger.

In 2010 the Harvard graduate Avi Steinberg published a tragicomic book titled Running the books: the adventures of an accidental prison librarian on his work as a librarian in a Boston prison. Steinberg explained to a New York Times reporter that the most popular book in his library was Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power. In the same year Greene confirmed to the L.A. Times that he has an entire cardboard box full of fan mail from prisoners.

In an interview Robert Greene conceded that there are laws he himself would never implement in his own life, such as Law No. 15: Crush your enemy totally. Also Law No. 7: Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.

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