(Colin Todhunter) When attempting to analyze what is happening in the world, it is important to appreciate past economic, social, and political processes that led us to where we are today. Understanding the tectonic plates of history that led certain countries towards fascism, communism, or capitalist liberal democracy, for example, is essential (1) (2).
At the same time, however, it can become easy for us to push aside the individual as we focus on theoretical perspectives that refer to the ‘underlying logic of capitalism’ or some other notion that draws heavily on theory. It can get to the point where individual motive or intent (agency) is airbrushed from the narrative because human action is deemed to have been shaped by the dead weight of history or forces beyond our control.
While not wishing to understate the role that such constraints have on human action, I wish to draw attention to researcher Stefan Verstappen who provides valuable insight into how individual agency has shaped and continues to shape society (3).
While Machiavellianism has long been associated with politics and public conduct, Verstappen shifts focus somewhat by arguing that people with psychopathic personalities have for thousands of years tended to grasp power and impose their views and deeds on the rest of us. In order to get power, he concludes that people cheat, kill or lie their way to the top. Whether it has been due to the butchery or lies of royalty, religious leaders, politicians or corporate oligarchs, nice guys have tended to finish last.
What leads him to conclude this?
Psychopathy is a personality disorder identified by characteristics such as a lack of empathy and remorse, criminality, anti-social behaviour, egocentricity, superficial charm, manipulativeness, irresponsibility, impulsivity, and a parasitic lifestyle (4).
With that definition in mind, look around: the criminal, parasitic activities by bankers that have plunged millions into poverty; the destruction, war, and death brought to countries in order that corporations profit by stealing resources; the dropping of atom bombs on innocent civilians in 1945 or the use of depleted uranium which again impacts innocent civilians; and the many other acts, from the use of death squads to false-flag terror, that have brought untold misery to countless others just because powerholders wanted to hold onto power or to gain more power, or the wealthy wanted to hold onto their wealth or gain even more.
Based on these terrible deeds, it becomes easy to argue that the people ultimately responsible for them do not adhere to the same values as ordinary people. It may be even easier to conclude that it’s not the cream that rises to the top, but, in many cases, the scum.
Now such a scenario might seem awful enough, but the people who tend to control the world, the ones responsible for these acts, try to impose their warped worldview and twisted values on everyone else. Hollywood films, commercials, and political ideology are all engaged in forwarding the belief that it’s a dog eat dog world, war and violence abroad is necessary, competition and not cooperative is what counts, aggression and not passivity is the key to ‘success and that success equates with amassing huge amounts of personal wealth and lavish displays of conspicuous consumption.
“A person with a psychopathic personality, which manifests as amoral and antisocial behavior, lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, extreme egocentricity, failure to learn from experience, etc.” – definition of a psychopath from Dictionary.com
Again, bearing this definition in mind too, the acts mentioned above are not those of properly functioning social beings that contribute to a sense of communality, altruism, love, or morality; quite the opposite in fact.
Yet this is the type of stuff that is rammed down our throats as constituting normality every day. Whether it’s the ‘Big Brother’ TV show or ‘The Apprentice’ show, these values are promoted day and night. The ‘Big Brother’ winner is the one who can survive and outdo the competition in terms of the duplicity and backstabbing involved along the way. The winner of ‘The Apprentice’ must be more aggressive, more duplicitous, more devious and cunning, and more willing to trample over everyone else. And the winner is judged as such by a multi-millionaire who himself was cunning and ruthless enough to have made it to the top of the pile and has amassed millions for his own personal benefit. These are the role models to be admired and emulated!
These are the measures of success, of sanity, of normality.
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti
Apprentice competitors are highly driven individuals: not driven by a need to help humanity, but by egocentricity and greed. And, ultimately, these are the values that many mainstream opinion leaders, senior politicians, and their corporate masters hold dear.
These values of egocentricity, aggression, competitiveness, duplicity, and greed are not confined to some TV shows. There are part of a much more sinister process. They are inextricably linked to and underpin the actions that resulted in the killing of half a million children in Iraq for geo-political gain (5) and the sending in of military forces into the jungles of India to beat, rape, and dispose of a nation’s poorest people because they stand in the way of profit and greed (6). From Congo and Libya to Syria and beyond, we witness the outcome of a terrifying mindset that is nurtured and encouraged throughout society.
Too many people have become “well adjusted to the values of a profoundly sick society,” whether residing in middle England, middle America or the gated communities of south Delhi or Mumbai. Humanity is being beaten down to be neurotic, vicious and to regard these traits as constituting normal, acceptable behaviour. Thanks to the media, this becomes ingrained from an early age as comprising ‘common sense, and those who question it are merely sneered at or ridiculed by a system that promotes a mass mindset immune to its own lies.
Whether this is all due to psychopathy, narcissism or ‘Machiavellian personalities’ is open to debate. Moreover, as implied at the outset, historical and sociological factors often compel usually decent people to act in terrible ways. The debate within academic sociology between structure and human agency is after all a very long one (7). Whatever the underlying reason, however, as a global community we are being force-fed a diet of perverse values and destructive actions, all spuriously justified on the basis that ‘there is no alternative’ and ‘needs must’.
Corporate capitalism, consumerism, the new world order, a war on terror (or drugs or poverty, take your pick), neo-liberalism – call it what you will, but it’s all based on the filthy lie that those in control have wider humanity’s interests at heart. They don’t. By any means possible – war, murder, torture or propaganda, they seek to convince people otherwise. What price human life? None whatsoever for such people.
1) Robert Brenner (1976), “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe”.Past and Present 70
2) Barrington Moore (1993) [First published 1966]. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (with a new foreword by Edward Friedman and James C. Scott ed.). Boston: Beacon Press.
3) Defense Against the Psychopath (2013): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgGyvxqYSbE
4) Polaschek, D. L. L., Patrick, C. J., Lilienfeld, S. O. (15 December 2011).“Psychopathic Personality: Bridging the Gap Between Scientific Evidence and Public Policy”. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 12 (3): 95–162.
5) Reuters report (2000), UN Says Sanctions Have Killed Some 500,000 Iraqi Children: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines/072100-03.htm
6) BBC Newsnight interview with Arundhati Roy (2011):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrYQmRBdMPQ
7) Colin Hay (2001), What Place for Ideas in the Structure-Agency Debate? Globalisation as a ‘Process Without a Subject’: http://www.criticalrealism.com/archive/cshay_wpisad.html