Will the Disordered Always Rule Us?


A systemic explanation of political inequality and economic crisis is necessary to counter superficial theories that pin the blame on destructive individuals, such as psychopaths, rather than the workings of global capitalism. But evidence is strong that selfish, insensitive individuals invariably dominate hierarchical organisations. Does radical democratisation offer a way out or are opposition movements susceptible to the same psychological flaws?

“Humankind cannot bear too much reality,” said the poet TS Eliot. The shunning of discomforting truths lies at the root of various superficial explanations of economic turmoil. The blaming, for instance, of men, irresponsible borrowers or psychopaths all point to a refusal to accept that systematic causes are at work. Because there is a resolute unwillingness to change the economic system, culprits must be found that allow that system, capitalism, to remain uninterrogated.

The psychopath theory of financial crisis is prime illustration of this tendency. The fact that psychopaths are four times more common in senior management positions than the general workforce, is used to account for the destructive outcomes precipitated by the psychopathic institutions these people work for. Corporations – peculiarly selfish, manipulative, lacking in remorse or empathy, obsessed with surface image, irresponsible and grandiose – escape scrutiny because all attention is focused on the psychological flaws of some of the people employed by them.

Thus, with a wave of the ideological wand, the institutional flaws in society are glossed over in favour of the fruitless tail chasing of personal failings. A dearth of emotional empathy among senior executives, however much it can be demonstrated to exist, does not lead banks to create derivatives based on shifting sands of personal debt, it does not prompt corporations to systematically avoid tax and, it does not spur pharma companies to make small modifications to drug patents in order to extend their life, thus precluding vital advances in treatments by others. In all cases, institutional interests do.

Arrested development

However, a purely systemic or institutional explanation of the world’s troubles is in danger of overlooking some salient facts. Many psychologists argue that early experiences, rather than genes, have a crucial effect on how we turn out as adults. Unempathetic early care, says the clinical psychologist Oliver James, often leads to personality disorders in later life (psychopathy is an extreme form of personality disorder). James claims in his 2002 book They F*** You Up, that while 13% of the general population have a personality disorder, it is present in a majority of high achievers be they in politics, business, or the arts. “Early care that lacks empathy,” he writes, “creates an immature adult with arrested development, prone to the reckless and amoral acts of a young child, to the ‘me, me, me selfishness and inflated grandiosity found in the fantasy life of the toddler.”

While many people with personality disorders do not progress in their careers, a minority, conversely, are extremely successful. “Many of the traits that accompany Disorder are also an advantage in reaching positions of power,” writes James. “Being a chameleon, with the self-monitoring, game playing distance that often accompanies dissociation, has been shown to enhance career success in organisations. If concealed well enough, an omnipotent drive to control others can motivate the industriousness that is so vital to success … ruthlessness is easier if you lack empathy for the emotions of others, as borderline people often do, and being ruthless is usually necessary if you are to reach the very top.”

The question is, does it matter? Does it matter that some senior executives have simply no remorse for the harm they cause while the mentally healthy majority rationalise it as unavoidable or ultimately for the best? It is arguable that the latter situation is more sinister because to change it involves penetrating a highly resistant ideological carapace. However, the insights advanced by psychologists such as James are inherently fatalistic – regardless of ideology and the surrounding political and economic system, those who rise to the top will invariably be personally ambitious, lacking empathy with and interest in the welfare of others. He believes that, though the problem may wax and wane, the personality disordered will always be in positions of power. “There is no obvious solution to this problem,” he writes in They F*** You Up. “To run a large business or government department requires extremely hard work, and it may even be that the disordered are the best equipped to make what others would be a sacrifice of their personal lives.” Ruling elites are always more disordered than the populations they rule over, he claims.

It should be pointed out that the idea that disdainful treatment in early childhood often leads to ambitious, narcissistic, personality disordered behaviour in adult life, is not universally accepted by psychologists. Another argument, one advanced by Dacher Keltner in The Power Paradox, is that the seductions of power pervert people whose intentions are benevolent at the outset. It is in the midst of achieving power and ruling others that the rot sets in. But, whatever the cause, the results are very similar. Those in power “may be the very people most blind to the problems of powerlessness, poverty and inequality,” Keltner writes. Self-absorption and insensitivity to the experiences of others inevitably follows the attainment of power.

Stalin was a psychopath

The problem of the successful psychopath or personality disordered manager is not just prevalent in capitalist organisations. There is an unmistakable alignment between the aims of capitalist corporations – destroying the competition and achieving monopoly status – and the personal aims of ambitious senior managers, beating rivals and contributing to the success of the corporations, oblivious the externalities and costs to others. But other types of organisation are not immune. Speak to the employees of government departments, charities, universities, schools or quangos and you will soon realise that senior managers making other people’s lives a misery is not a malaise confined to commercial organisations. Money is not the only motivation, power is as well, and you can find power in definitely non-capitalist organisations such as, historically speaking, ruling Communist Parties (Stalin is widely considered to have been a psychopath) or contemporary public sector institutions.

It is unquestionably true that the public sector has mimicked the private sector in the last 30 years. The thumbprints of right-wing economists such as Milton Friedman and James Buchanan are all over the Anglo-American public sector, evident in a disdain for the public service ethos, ubiquitous outsourcing and an obsession with measurement and targets, as proxies for growth or sales. But even a public sector cleansed of all capitalist imitations would not be rid of hierarchy or unaccountable management power.

And society itself has been psychologically remoulded. In a later book, Office Politics, James says the disordered traits of the ruthless, the calculating, the remorse-less and the narcissistic at the top of society in the US and Britain “have spread widely through those populations”. According to Professor Jean Twenge, who seems to have made a career out of tracking psychological traits over time, narcissism has dramatically increased in the US since the late 1970s. By 2006, two-thirds of American college students scored above what had been the average narcissism score in 1982.  Narcissistic people tend to have insecure high self-esteem, to be insensitive to others and to have a preoccupation with their own success. In the 1970s, Murray Bookchin pioneered the concept of the “market society”, the idea that the amoral, selfish values of capitalism were now longer confined to the economy but had burrowed deep into society itself. In vogue philosophers like Michael Sandel are belatedly discovering exactly the same concept and it is undeniable that western societies are more ‘marketized’ than they were thirty years ago. The old left-wing dictum, change the institutions and you will change human nature, still holds, but the question now arises, who exactly is going to change the institutions?

What’s the cure?

If there is an antidote to the personality disordered executive or politician it seems to be the same as the cure for capitalism – radical democratisation. Psychopathy or personality disorder thrives in hierarchical organisations. “Triadic [personality disordered] behaviour flourishes where ruthless, devious selfishness is advantageous and where an individual is very concerned to gain power, resources or status,” write James. Bastions of power in corporations that offer the opportunity to rule over subordinates, or niches in governments that permit the manipulation of public opinion, would both be closed by radical democratisation.

The much-vaunted accountability of representative government has proved to be a hollow solution. Indeed, periodic elections serve to mask the problem by claiming to nullify it. However, alternative forms of radical democracy have re-emerged in recent years, which promise to transcend the fatalism of the psychologists.

It is no accident that contemporary oppositional movement such as Occupy and the Indignatos in Spain  have endeavoured to be leaderless movements, based on direct democracy, denying representatives the niches to dominate others. They embody a conception of politics which rejects the strange Janus-faced character of modern representative government. The money-saturated weakness of mainstream parties which sees them all cling like limpets to a failed consensus, allied to an adversarial practice in which, come election time, each faction tries to annihilate the other through negative campaigning and the manipulation of public opinion.

The thought of Bookchin, which pre-figures even if it doesn’t directly influence, Occupy and the Indignatos, comes from a completely different place. Embodied in Bookchin’s concept of dissensus, disagreement is not something to be frightened of or eradicated, but to be positively encouraged as a consequence of genuine, face to face political participation. Echoing the philosopher Hannah Arendt, he thought political freedom was a fraud without participation in government.  He believed that the effect of the “market society” he identified could be counteracted by new institutions, face to face assemblies of the population. In contrast to the eminently selfish institutions of capitalism, these would be selfless institutions, aiming to foster capabilities in their participants that were denied or squashed in the world outside.

But there is a problem here. These new democratic institutions, shorn of the pathologies of representative government or corporations, inevitably have another role – that of challenging for, and achieving, economic and political power. They would first espouse a minimum programme of reforms but later a maximum programme of forming a “dual power” to challenge and ultimately replace representative political institutions and capitalist corporations. We are plainly nowhere near that situation at present, but the question, I think, should be put. Would the degree of centralisation inherent in enabling these horizontal organisations to challenge hierarchical power, provide a breeding ground for exactly the psychological pathologies James speaks about? The history of the Left is replete with examples, from Stalin to Mao, of charismatic individuals dominating the institutions they helped to create, and of radically democratic institutions, from the French revolutionary sections to the soviets of 1917, being perverted or destroyed to buttress hideous dictatorships and personal cults. I’m not arguing this happened for immutable psychological, rather than ideological, reasons, but it is indisputable that the modern Left has seldom managed to oppose the status quo without lapsing into cliques and factions irrelevant to the mass of people and frequently speaking a different language. If the Left does succeed, in the coming decades, in becoming much more popular will it not be hampered by similar psychological flaws as the society from which it emerges?

Bookchin, in his later years, said it was unavoidable that vanguards, minorities of people with more knowledge and commitment, would come into existence. “The main problem of political organization is how to institutionalise the relations between those who know more and those who know less,” he argued, “and to do so in such a way that the more knowledgeable leaders – and leaders do exist even in confederal movements! – do not turn into bureaucrats or authoritarians.” This strikes me as a political tightrope from which it is easy to slip.