On psychopathy and power

Due to a very painful and disturbing revelation in my personal life I have had the unfortunate occasion to spend the last several days thinking a lot about psychopaths and what makes them tick. I don’t want to get into the hairy details at this time, but I would like to share some of the more general thoughts that have been coming up here on the matter.

It is interesting that psychopathy should have reached a dark tentacle into my life in the way that it did, given that the three years I’ve been at this gig have been spent writing more and more about the way our world is run by calculating manipulators who are devoid of empathy. I often say that we have found ourselves ruled by psychopaths because we have a system wherein (A) those who are willing to do anything to anyone are rewarded with immense wealth, and (B) immense wealth translates directly to immense political power. Add in the fact that studies have shown that wealth itself kills off empathy and compassion, and you’ve got yourself a perfect recipe for a plutocratic dystopia dominated by antisocial personality disorder.

I’m not really interested in getting into the specific clinical diagnoses of psychopathy and sociopathy for the purposes of this discussion. What I’m talking about here is a specific slice of humanity that is neurologically wired in such a way that they experience the world more as a series of puzzles which can be manipulated around to get them whatever they want regardless of who it hurts, rather than experiencing a world full of fellow sentient beings with whom you can have deep, meaningful connections and interactions. Not all people who are diagnosed as psychopaths are high-functioning enough to manipulate people at high levels, and not everyone who manipulates people in this way would necessarily be diagnosed as a psychopath or even a sociopath. Feel free to mentally substitute whatever term you prefer.

Whatever you want to call it, people who have this condition (and are able to avoid prison) tend to do quite well for themselves by our society’s standards. Because they don’t see other people as anything other than tools and resources, they don’t let empathy and compassion stand in their way when viciousness and exploitation will help them achieve their goals. Because they don’t value connections with other people, they don’t see narratives and descriptions as paths toward deeper understanding, but as tools which can be twisted and distorted in order to secure themselves more wealth, status, sex, or whatever else they want. They quickly rise to the top in corporate and financial settings, in media institutions, in government agencies, and in politics. In modern society this ability is a natural advantage that the rest of us simply cannot compete with.

But it’s not just our current iteration of society which elevates psychopaths to the top. A casual glance through recorded history all around the world reveals an essentially unbroken track record of genocide, slavery, torture, exploitation and degradation as far as the eye can see, with the driving characters time and again being depraved dominators, conquerors and mass murderers. Research some of the horrors that were inflicted upon the Aboriginal people of Australia and the indigenous populations of the Americas and you’ll see that the whole thing was driven by a total lack of empathy for those human beings. Throughout history our main problems have been caused by the way we keep designing systems which elevate psychopaths to positions of leadership, who then go on to make psychopathic decisions.

Given the fact that people who are indifferent to truth or human suffering have always been so adept at ascending to power positions, it’s hard to even imagine a society where we don’t find ourselves ruled by psychopaths. George RR Martin set out to tell a story about a cast of characters all vying for power in an epic game of thrones, and that story wound up being populated almost entirely by psychopaths and sociopaths. It makes for a compelling tale because it’s very believable based on what we all know deep down about human behavior patterns, but it’s also a relentless assault on the audience’s empathy center.

So what can be done, then? How can we ordinary, feeling, caring human beings protect ourselves from this segment of the population which has been driving us into disaster after disaster since the dawn of civilization before they get us all killed?

Psychopathic leaders have never had any trouble figuring out how to get rid of segments of the population who they deem problematic: they round them up and exterminate them. This would obviously be out of the question for many reasons, not the least because in order to implement it we’d need to become psychopaths ourselves. We’d be “curing” the sickness by becoming the sickness.

Passing a bunch of laws against manipulation and deception wouldn’t work either. Manipulators actually love rules and laws, because they can figure out how to manipulate them and use them to their advantage. Julian Assange is currently awaiting extradition hearings in Belmarsh Prison because a bunch of psychopathic manipulators decided to pretend that it was very, very important to respect a series of laws and rules ranging from bail protocol to whistleblower source protection to government bureaucracy to embassy cat hygiene, and they were able to engineer a result that just so happens to look exactly the same as imprisoning a journalist for exposing US war crimes. All the worst atrocities in human history have been perfectly legal.

I’ve seen some people advocating mandatory brain scans for anyone seeking a leadership position. It is true that a psychopath’s brain shows up differently from the rest of us on a PET scan, and it is possible to envision a future where the collective is so aware of the pernicious dance between psychopathy and power that such a policy might be set and enforced. The problem of course is that manipulators manipulate, and there are many ways to manipulate one’s way around such a system; they’ve been inserting themselves into unofficial leadership positions for ages, for example, which they’d never need to be tested for. Plutocrats, advisors and propagandists are all in unofficial leadership positions.

Maybe you’ve got your own ideas about this, but I personally can’t think of a single solution to the fundamental problem of psychopaths inserting themselves into positions of power which doesn’t involve drastic, unprecedented changes in our civilization and our culture. Even if you completely tore down capitalism, ended plutocracy and replaced the entire system with a government-planned economy, you would still have positions of power and the absolute certainty of psychopaths manipulating their way into those positions sooner or later.

I’m talking about changes as drastic as the end of anyone having any power over anybody at all. A society where the idea of having power over anybody became so culturally taboo that even an unequal power dynamic between spouses would be seen as outrageous and ugly, to say nothing of governments or police forces. Such a society is very far from what we’ve got now, but it would surely be a very inhospitable environment for psychopathy. There would be no positions of leverage for one to manipulate their way into in order to force others to give them what they want, and if you started trying to create one everybody would immediately point at you and yell, “Hey! What are you doing? Stop that, that’s weird! If you want something from us you need to form consensual collaborative relationships with us, just like we’re all doing.”

It’s also possible to imagine a culture in which manipulation is seen as an unacceptable taboo which immediately draws public backlash in the same way. In such a culture children would learn from the youngest age what honest and sincere interaction looks like, with examples of deceit and manipulation clearly illustrated for them in all forms as something gravely disordered. Advertising would cease to exist in such a society, as would propaganda in all its forms. And psychopaths would be like fish out of water, because manipulation only works when it isn’t recognized as such.

One can also imagine a culture which values empathy, compassion and helping others instead of valuing wealth, accomplishment and conquest. In such a culture we’d see the ability to connect with people and work for the good of the whole elevated, rather than seeing the ability to do whatever it takes to claw your way to the top of the heap elevated. In such a society psychopathy would actually be an immense disadvantage, rather than an immense advantage.

And that, in my opinion, would be the marker of a healthy society: one in which psychopathy and sociopathy become grave mental handicaps that the afflicted need to actively seek help for. A society that is so empathic and collaborative that having a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder isn’t such a big deal because your neighbors work with you and help you with what you need rather than pushing you to conform and achieve, while having psychopathy or sociopathy is a debilitating disorder which will turn you into a pariah sleeping on park benches if you don’t get help. Right now we have the opposite: people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other serious mental illnesses are treated like worthless hindrances to a society which values achievement over empathy, while psychopaths and sociopaths almost never seek help unless it’s court-ordered.

A healthy society would flip this. It would reward the things psychopaths are unable to do, and it would reject the things that psychopaths excel at. We can actually look at what psychopaths are and are not good at, and from there kind of reverse-engineer an idea of what a wholesome society would look like.

Is such a society possible? I don’t know. I recently put together some evidence which seems to suggest that our species may be on the verge of a drastic shift in consciousness, which would be the only facilitating agent I can think of that would make such massive cultural changes feasible. We seem to be headed for either huge changes or extinction relatively soon, so if there’s a future humanity on the other side of what’s coming, it likely exists because it made extraordinary changes in both its behavior and in its relationship with the phenomenon of psychopathy. We’ll either make the jump or we won’t.

Caitlin Johnstone is a Melbourne-based journalist who specialises in American politics, finance and foreign affairs. Her articles have been published in Inquisitr, Zero Hedge, New York Observer, MintPress News, The Real News, International Policy Digest and more. Caitlin is the author of Woke: A Field Guide For Utopia Preppers, an illustrated poetical guide to reclaiming the earth from the forces of death and destruction.

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4 Responses to On psychopathy and power

  1. I’ve been pondering this for many years, after having been on the wrong end psychopaths in a personal, micro context, which, when trying to get help and coming up against the establishment that I previously thought was supposed to be on the ‘right’ side but was not of course, led me to realise that society in a macro context is a psychopathic system.
    There are no level playing fields in this world.
    The issue of how to flip the problem is such a seemingly impossible quest, I concluded like so many before and after me have done, that the only thing left is a solution that per se cannot be anything other (even when trying to justify it as being for the greater good) than psychopathic: be like the Ennui and push them off the edge of the ice.
    Bit Nazi-ish isnt it? Scan everybody’s brains and dispose of the psychos. Which kind of makes the rest of us – those with empathy, compassion and integrity – also psychopaths as nobody with empathy, compassion and integrity, could do such a thing.
    Got us over a barrel, haven’t they?

  2. sorry for the typos etc – I should have read over it before hitting the Post Comment button.

  3. Sorry to hear of your personal brush with the patterns you are talking about. I have had some myself. So of course I have put in years of thought on this. If we had a better society, we would create fewer of these monsters. But even fewer would still be devastating.
    I think about things like term limits, for the political ones. No large contributions as well. Corporations are not people. We can guard against them in certain places. Ah, and Bernie’s thought: eliminate billionaires. He is right. I wonder if we have enough time, given they have their hands of the nuclear button. Yeah, Strangelove was a psychopath, too. So we have lots of poisons to get rid of, and lots of destruction for fun and profit.
    Come to think of it, my first brush with this astonishing pattern was when a kid told me there such things as concentration camps in Germany. I was maybe 5 years old, and I felt personally involved, and blown away by the news of Man’s inhumanity to Man. Since I understood I was Jewish, I identified with the victims. That was rough. It still is. Of course. So many bad people, so many new victims- all the time.

  4. After many years pondering why the world works the way it does, I have come to essentially the same conclusions as Ms. Johnstone. Rather than absolutely the problem, Capitalism is an expression of the psychotic element of humanity. Reading Michael Hudson’s book “and Forgive Them Their Debts” recently, it drove home that the roots of these psychotic elements’ domination can be traced back to the rise of civilization and the accompanying division of labor (thus creating classes) ten thousand years ago. It became clear that the creation of the Priesthood/Warrior class/Merchants in the birth of civilization was mid-wifed from the start by those elements of humanity drawn to power and domination. The kicker is that the rest of humanity . . . the normal part . . . acted and acts as enablers at almost every turn. The question then is why?
    As hunter-gatherers, still the bulk of human history, there were no social or political structures beyond allegiance to your tribe or group, as social class was virtually non-existent, that could be commandeered by this psychotic element. Hunter-gatherer social organization was thus rather flat from the standpoint of hierarchy. Since the human psychotic element has likely always existed, I surmise that these elements must have offered some sort of evolutionary advantage whereby they, lacking any compunction against killing, usually were left to do the hunting and fighting. Existing as small groups meant everyone in the group knew each other and no one individual could amass enough power (as usually done through accumulation of wealth which was virtually impossible before the rise of agriculture and sedentary lifestyles) to be able dominate the group. Indeed, the worst form of punishment amongst hunter-gatherers was banishment as separation from the group meant almost certain death. This, no doubt, had an arresting effect on would be megalomaniacs.
    Observing some of our primate cousins, it seems humans are an amalgam of Orangutans and Bonobos. We have the violent impulses of the former combined with the sexual predispositions of the latter. Not the most ideal makeup to say the least as the struggle for mates and power form a potent combination in directing human behavior. Of course, unlike our close primate relatives we can think abstractly, plan and, above all communicate. But again, these features seem to act more as mediators than final arbiters of our behavior. Often, the reptilian part of our brains (the much older part by millions of years) decides what it wants and then enlists the rational part in both rationalizing and carrying out the actions needed to obtain the desired results.
    There is another school of thought on this. Denis Rancourt (former tenured full professor of physics at the University of Ottawa, Canada) believes Humans are predisposed to “dominance hierarchies” whereby individuals can alternate or combine aspects of two modes of being within a matrix of hierarchies. As he describes it:
    One mode is the mode (and strategy) adopted by the dominated individual. This mode is one where the individual seeks “fairness” and minimal aggressions in their environment. The individual seeks a “safe space” and has no actual design to displace dominants. The culture of individuals that coalesce into such a stratum of the hierarchy is one where “kindness” and “being a good person” are the highest social values that are encouraged and rewarded. Altruism and “goodiness” are elevated to a status meriting religious indulgences. Viciousness actuated by enforcers within the social stratum is turned towards violators of this code.” (https://dissidentvoice.org/2018/07/social-animals-have-two-modes-of-being/).
    The other mode is the mode (and strategy) adopted by the individual who intends to be and to remain dominant. It is an outlook of waging and winning battles for dominance. This is the climber with a “killer’s instinct”, prepared to joust for relative advantage and eager to dominate.”
    Elsewhere, he extends his arguments saying:
    The reality of social animals is dominance hierarchy, which spontaneously adapts itself to environmental conditions and to the population size, while integrating accumulated knowledge and technological advances.
    Dominance hierarchies are both stable and evolutionarily advantageous only if effective balancing forces against creeping or runaway totalitarianism are admitted. A dominance hierarchy is doomed when its highest codes allow an elite class to have disproportionate power, including the power to modify the highest codes without restraint. In particular, in a society in which the state — controlled by an elite class — effectively has a technological monopoly on lethal force, the balancing mechanism of free expression, free association, and real influence — otherwise known as “democracy” — must be allowed. (https://dissidentvoice.org/2017/09/cause-of-usa-meltdown-and-collapse-of-civil-rights/)

    Rancourt is on to something her. His take would explain why its been so difficult for humanity to move beyond a system such as Capitalism. He realizes that his theory implies that socialism may in fact be impossible given our evolutionary inheritance.
    As Caitlin Johnstone keenly noted, what we need is
    A society where the idea of having power over anybody became so culturally taboo that even an unequal power dynamic between spouses would be seen as outrageous and ugly, to say nothing of governments or police forces. Such a society is very far from what we’ve got now, but it would surely be a very inhospitable environment for psychopathy. There would be no positions of leverage for one to manipulate their way into in order to force others to give them what they want, and if you started trying to create one everybody would immediately point at you and yell, “Hey! What are you doing? Stop that, that’s weird! If you want something from us you need to form consensual collaborative relationships with us, just like we’re all doing
    More than taboos and social opprobrium, I believe agglomerations of power such as the military, police, intelligence agencies and financial institutions such as the Federal Reserve must be outlawed. Rather than community watchdogs over the police, communities must police themselves. No standing armies and all citizens are required to undergo weapons training. Political borders will be abolished and replaced by a federated system of global governance. This is not to say there will be forced social or cultural homogenization. The English could still be English, The German, German and the Sudanese, Sudanese for example. But these would remain as cultural divisions and not hard divisions encased in the mote of the Nation State. Globalization is indispensable. However, it must proceed from the bottom up rather than the top down based on cooperation, mutual aid and respect for all cultures.
    No major issue confronting humanity, from climate change, to uneven development, to regional differences in resource availability or allocation and much more can be solved at a national level. James Lovelock’s Gaia theory that the entire planet acts like a living whole and can be considered a living creature has long been accepted by most of the scientific community. The nation state is thus an affront to the living earth and is completely inadequate for dealing with the myriad complex issues created by humanity’s ascension to the top of the food chain. The planet, at this point, sees us as a virus and like our own bodies when struck by a virus, it is catching a fever in an effort raise the temperature on us and kill us off. The first order of business then is a revolution in our consciousness so that we may be able turn back the tide of psychopathy that has been dominant since the rise of civilization (now dressed in the garb of Neo-Liberal Capitalism) some 10,000 odd years ago.