Time for Change: Why the Corrupt Few Wreak So Much Death, Destruction, and Suffering on the Rest of us
Perhaps the most important question of our time why, throughout human history, have despicable characters repeatedly risen to the pinnacles of power. The 20th Century alone witnessed an estimated 140 million war deaths and another 16 million from genocide. Mass starvation kills millions in an era when there is plenty enough food to feed the world. And not coincidentally, in the world today 40% of the world’s wealth is held in the hands of 1% of its inhabitants, while the bottom 50% owns only 1% of the world’s wealth. That means that the top 1% owns 40 times more than half the world’s population. There are of course numerous reasons for this sorry state of affairs. But certainly the tremendous wealth and power disparity in the world, along with the abuse of that power by so many who have the most of it explains a great deal. Why have so many despicable characters throughout history acquired the ability to inflict so much suffering on the rest of humanity?
I have read two books in particular that provide much insight into this issue: “The Authoritarians” by Bob Altemeyer (This link is to a free electronic version of Altemeyer’s whole book); and, “Political Ponerology – A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes” by Andrew M. Lobaczewski. Both books talk about much the same process, but Altemeyer approaches it from the individual psychological perspective, whereas Lobaczewski approaches it more from the societal level. Both books were recommended to me by fellow DUer Larry Ogg.
Bob Altemeyer is a retired psychology professor who spent most of his life researching authoritarianism. Lobaczewski was a Polish psychiatrist and one of several scientists who took part in the research and the writing of “Political Ponerology”. But he was the only one left alive by the time it was completed. Lobaczewski and his fellow scientists were victims of one of the most evil repressive regimes of world history – Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Lobaczewski describes the history of the manuscript for the book:
The original manuscript of this book went into the furnace minutes before a secret police raid in Communist Poland. The second copy, painfully reassembled by scientists working under impossible conditions of violence and repression, was sent via courier to the Vatican. Its receipt was never acknowledged – the manuscript and all valuable data lost. In 1984, the third and final copy was written from memory by the last survivor of the original researchers: Andrew Lobaczewski.…After half a century of suppression, this book is finally available.
Altemeyer describes in great detail what he refers to as authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders. Both are required in order to produce what Lobaczewski refers to as a pathocracy, which he defines as a social movement, society, nation, or empire wherein a small pathological minority takes control over a society of normal people. The pathological minority habitually perpetrates evil deeds on its people and/or other people. In other words, the pathological minority rules society with an iron fist, in their interests alone – and to hell with everyone else: Wars for profit, with massive casualties; millions of refugees; massive destruction of infrastructure; torture; you name it… No price is too high to pay to attain and maintain their own wealth and power. Some people refer to such as system as tyranny. But I think that pathocracy is a more descriptive term.
Altemeyer’s explanation – The psychopathology of authoritarian leaders
In contemplating the success of the dark forces who create and rule over pathocracies, it behooves us to understand their nature. Altemeyer refers to them alternately as “authoritarian leaders” or “social dominators”. He describes them like this:
High scorers (on the test that measures the traits of authoritarian leaders) are inclined to be intimidating, ruthless, and vengeful. They scorn such noble acts as helping others, and being kind, charitable, and forgiving. Instead they would rather be feared than loved, and be viewed as mean, pitiless, and vengeful. They love power, including the power to hurt in their drive to the top…. Social dominators thus admit, anonymously, to striving to manipulate others, and to being dishonest, two-faced, treacherous, and amoral. It’s as if someone took the Scout Law (“A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, ...”) and turned it completely upside down…
Altemeyer gives an example from U.S. politics of how these authoritarian leaders relate to the rest of the world:
A stunning, and widely overlooked example of the arrogance that followed (9/11/01) streaked across the sky in 2002 when the (Bush) administration refused to sign onto the International Criminal Court. This court was established by over a hundred nations, including virtually all of the United States’ allies, to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, and so on when the country for whom they acted would not or could not do the prosecuting itself. It is a “court of last resort” in the human race’s defense against brutality. Why on earth would the United States, as one of the conveners of the Nuremberg Trials and conceivers of the charge, “crimes against humanity,” want nothing to do with this agreement? The motivation did not become clear until later. But not only did America refuse to ratify the treaty, in 2002 Congress passed an act that allowed the United States to punish nations that did join in the international effort to prosecute the worst crimes anyone could commit! Talk about throwing your weight around, and in a way that insulted almost every friend you had on the planet.
In the preface to Lobaczewski’s book, Laura Knight-Jadczyk explains why we find so many psychopaths in our political system:
In the past several years, there are many more psychologists and psychiatrists and other mental health workers beginning to look at these issues in new ways in response to the questions about the state of our world and the possibility that there is some essential difference between such individuals as George W. Bush and many so-called Neocons, and the rest of us…
We also began to realize that the profiles that emerged also describe rather accurately many individuals who seek positions of power in fields of authority, most particularly politics and commerce. That’s really not so surprising an idea, but it honestly hadn’t occurred to us until we saw the patterns and recognized them in the behaviors of numerous historical figures and, lately, including George W. Bush and members of his administration… Politics, by its very nature, would tend to attract more of the pathological “dominator types” than other fields. That is only logical, and we began to realize that it was not only logical, it was horrifyingly accurate; horrifying because pathology among people in power can have disastrous effects on all of the people under the control of such pathological individuals.
Lobaczewski notes that most psychopaths don’t have much general intelligence or even any particular skills of a productive nature. But the ones who pose great danger to society are quite good at manipulating people and political infighting. Lobaczewski explains:
Once the process of poneric (evil) transformation (to a pathocracy) … has begun and advanced sufficiently, they perceive this fact with almost infallible sensitivity: a circle has been created wherein they can hide their failings and psychological differentness, find a world where they are in power and all those other, “normal people”, are forced into servitude.
A description by Barry Lynn from an economic perspective
Barry Lynn doesn’t talk about psychology or use any psychological terminology. His book, “Cornered – The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction”, is all about economics. It describes how people whom Altemeyer would refer to as Authoritarian Leaders, Lobaczewski would describe as evil, and others would merely call psychopaths or sociopaths have convinced most Americans into accepting an economic system that benefits only the rich, at the expense of everyone else. They call this system the “Free Market”, and its detractors often refer to it as “Free Market Fundamentalism”. But far from being free, it is a system based on “freedom” of corporations to form monopolies, and it is a system created mainly to benefit those who created it. Lynn explains:
In the last generation, we have been taught to believe in a philosophy of what is sometimes called “free-market fundamentalism”… This philosophy is designed not to illuminate real-world phenomena but to hide the real-world use by the rich of such man-made institutions as the corporation and the marketplace – and sometimes even our own government – to seize our properties and our liberties… My goal is to reconnect us with our traditional understanding of how markets operate and what purposes they serve, to thereby restore our ability to use markets to help protect our most important interests.
Human gullibility and sycophancy – The authoritarian followers
Altemeyer’s explanation – The gullibility of authoritarian followers
Gullibility is one of the trademarks of the authoritarian followers, who provide crucial support for their authoritarian leaders. Altemeyer defines authoritarian followers as having three core characteristics: 1) high degree of submission to authority; 2) willingness to attack other people in the name of the authority; and 3) highly conventional attitudes
Altemeyer discusses the submission to authority, lack of independent thinking and need for approval that characterizes the authoritarian followers:
Authoritarian followers seem to have a “Daddy and mommy know best” attitude toward the government. They do not see laws as social standards that apply to all. Instead, they appear to think that authorities are above the law, and can decide which laws apply to them and which do not – just as parents can when one is young…
If you ask subjects to rank the importance of various values in life, authoritarian followers place “being normal” substantially higher than most people do. It’s almost as though they want to disappear as individuals into the vast vat of Ordinaries.
Though they habitually use the rhetoric of righteousness, they tend to be full of hatred, and their behavior quickly turns ugly when they are under stress. Altemeyer explains:
They get off smiting the sinner; they relish being “the arm of the Lord.”… which suggests authoritarian followers have a little volcano of hostility bubbling away inside them looking for a (safe, approved) way to erupt….
They usually avoid anything approaching a fair fight. Instead they aggress when they believe right and might are on their side. “Right” for them means, more than anything else, that their hostility is (in their minds) endorsed by established authority, or supports such authority. “Might” means they have a huge physical advantage over their target, in weaponry say, or in numbers, as in a lynch mob. It’s striking how often authoritarian aggression happens in dark and cowardly ways, in the dark, by cowards who later will do everything they possibly can to avoid responsibility for what they did. Women, children, and others unable to defend themselves are typical victims. Even more striking, the attackers typically feel morally superior to the people they are assaulting in an unfair fight…
Our world and our country are full of these kinds of people. They are the kinds of people who followed, admired and supported Hitler. They are very gullible and easily manipulated by authoritarian leaders. They form the hard core base of support for people like George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and all of FOX News.
Lobaczewki’s explanation – the role of sycophancy
It is more than just gullibility that explains the phenomenon of the authoritarian follower. Can you imagine John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales, or David Petraeus going against the will of George W. Bush on any matter when he was in power? That would be highly unlikely because their positions of high power depended entirely on putting all their energy into anticipating the needs of and pleasing their “leader”. George Bush started out the same way. As governor of Texas, all his efforts went into pleasing his corporate cronies. In return, they rewarded him handsomely by ensuring his material wealth and serving as a power base for his climb to the presidency. Lobaczewski describes the process as one of sycophancy:
They initially perform subordinate functions in such a movement and execute the leaders’ orders, especially whenever something needs to be done which inspires revulsion in others. Their evident zealotry and cynicism gives rise to criticism on the part of the more reasonable members, but it also earns the respect of some its more extreme revolutionaries. They thus find protection among those people who earlier played a role in the movement’s ponerization, and repay the favor with compliments or by making things easier for them. Thus they climb up the organizational ladder, gain influence, and almost involuntarily bend the contents of the entire group to their own way of experiencing reality and to the goals derived from their deviant nature.
Carl Boggs’ perspective – The myth of American Exceptionalism
Carl Boggs discusses in his book, “The Crimes of Empire – Rogue Superpower and World Domination”, how American elites have so inculcated the doctrine of American Exceptionalism in the minds of the good majority of Americans that few have the intellectual or moral capacity to resist it:
Whatever occurs under the aegis of Washington decision-making is, by definition, noble, beyond the reach of ethical or legal condemnation. Mistakes are made, but the ends themselves simply cannot be questioned. Some opinion-makers insist that the U.S. represents an entirely new kind of empire, more benign and less exploitative than previous empires. It follows that the actions of a benevolent empire demand more flexible criteria for judgment… Those standing in the way of U.S. power often find themselves depicted as impediments to human progress, as enemies of democracy and Western civilization, perhaps even as the reincarnation of Hitler and the Nazis.
It is symptomatic of this state of mind that Barack Obama, in touting his opposition to the Iraq War while trying to secure the Democratic presidential nomination, repeatedly emphasized that he was not opposed to all wars, but only to stupid wars. He never once claimed opposition to immoral wars – presumably on the assumption that it was unimaginable that his country would ever engage in an immoral war. My point here is that some degree of the authoritarian follower mindset occupies the minds of the good majority of Americans – and probably the good majority of all people.
The role of ideology and human susceptibility to its promises
Lobaczewski writes a lot about the role of ideology for individuals or groups in the ponerogenic process that leads to pathocracies. The ideology itself is usually not inherently evil (although it may be, as in the case of Nazism), and the ideology does not generally characterize the movement or group. Rather, the ideology serves as a mask, to hide the actual intentions of the group. Lobaczewski explains it like this:
It is a common phenomenon for a ponerogenic association or group to contain a particular ideology which always justifies its activities and furnishes motivational propaganda…. Human nature demands that vile matters be haloed by an over-compensatory mystique in order to silence one’s conscience and to deceive consciousness and critical faculties, whether one’s own or those of others.
If such a ponerogenic union could be stripped of its ideology, nothing would remain except psychological and moral pathology, naked and unattractive. Such stripping would of course provoke “moral outrage”, and not only among the members of the union.
The fact is, even normal people, who condemn this kind of union along with its ideologies, feel hurt and deprived of something constituting part of their own romanticism, their way of perceiving reality, when a widely idealized group is exposed as little more than a gang of criminals.
A perfect example of this explanation, in my opinion, is the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. If George Bush and Dick Cheney had told the American public, in their run-up to war, that it was necessary to invade and occupy Iraq in order to open up tens of billions of dollars worth of economic opportunity for their corporate cronies and to gain access to Iraqi oil, the American people and even their corporate news media would have been hard pressed to drum up much enthusiasm for war. Instead, we were provided with (especially after the “weapons of mass destruction” excuse was proven to be a lie) the ideology of democracy (We’re doing it to bring democracy to the Iraqi people) and anti-terrorism (We have to fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.)
The last paragraph of Lobaczewski’s that I cite above explains why so many normal Americans are willing to accept the lame excuses of psychopaths hiding behind a wall of ideology. Acknowledging that our leaders are no more than criminal thugs and psychopaths is just too painful for most Americans. It is much more comfortable for them to believe that their country goes to war for idealistic and generous purposes.
Let’s now consider how four different ideologies, none of which are inherently evil, have been corrupted for political purposes:
One could make a good argument that the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which after all provided the full justification for our country becoming a sovereign nation, contains the true, uncorrupted version of Americanism. There are two salient ideas expressed in that document, which also happen to be the epitome of liberal/progressive values: 1) That everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and 2) Whenever a government becomes destructive of those rights, the people have the right overthrow that government.
For right wing ideologues, “Americanism” has become the ideology that says that the United States of America is so superior to all other nations that any action it takes with respect to other nations should automatically and unquestionably be considered morally right. For an American citizen to think or act otherwise is to border on treason.
“Americanism” in that form has been used to declare wars against nations that pose no threat to us and to overthrow numerous democratically elected governments that likewise posed no threat to us.
Consider this speech:
As long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny – prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder – violence will gather… and raise a mortal threat.
There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends upon the survival of liberty in other lands. The best hope for freedom in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
That speech invokes the best of the American dream and ideals. There was just one problem with it. It was spoken by George W. Bush as a means of justifying an action (the invasion and occupation of Iraq) that had nothing whatsoever to do with the wonderful sentiments expressed in his speech. He was merely using a great ideology as a mask to hide his true motives.
Christianity contains some core values that any liberal/progressive could be proud to live by. Jesus Christ preached that we should love our neighbors, treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, and be charitable towards the poor. In short, he embodied the best of liberal values. Accordingly, Christian groups have done some great things over the centuries, including playing a leading role in the abolition of slavery in the United States.
But Christianity has also often been used to justify evil actions, including wars of aggression and torture of “non-believers” with the aim of getting them to convert to Christianity. Some, even today, still use Christianity to justify slavery, as Patrick Buchanan did in his attempt to put his criticisms of Barack Obama in the best light:
The Silent Majority needs to have its convictions, grievances and demands heard. And among them are these: First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.
Capitalism carries the potential, by means of providing incentives for productivity, to act as an engine of economic growth that provides tremendous benefits to a society. Forget for a moment that there is no such thing as pure capitalism, or that society works best economically when it uses some combination of capitalism and socialism. My only point here is that (I believe) capitalism has the capacity to provide benefits to people when used as one component of an economic system, with sufficient controls.
Yet, capitalism is used as justification for all manner of policies that hurt people, such as George W. Bush’s veto of health insurance for children. Bush (as well as the whole U.S. Republican Party) liked to characterize his view of capitalism as “free market”, and as such he uses that ideology to push for international agreements that primarily benefit his corporate friends.
But in fact, there is nothing “free market” about the Bush administration brand of capitalism, if indeed it can be categorized as capitalism at all. Rather, their favored economic system was one in which their corporate cronies were given billions of dollars in no-bid contracts to perform functions for which they had little expertise, with little or no oversight from government. The result was billions of dollars of missing money, with no investigations to determine where the money went. That’s a mighty strange brand of capitalism.
James Petras, in “Rulers and Ruled”, describes how so-called “capitalism” has worked out in recent years in so many countries:
Given the enormous class and income disparities in Russia, Latin America and China, it is more accurate to describe these countries as “surging billionaires” rather than “emerging markets” because it is not the “free market” but the political power of the billionaires that dictates policy
Countries of “surging billionaires” produce burgeoning poverty, submerging living standards. The making of billionaires means the unmaking of civil society – the weakening of social solidarity, protective social legislation, pensions, vacations, public health programs and education…
The growth of billionaires is hardly a sign of “general prosperity” resulting from the “free market”… In fact it is the product of the illicit seizure of lucrative public resources, built up by the work and struggle of millions of workers… It has little to do with entrepreneurial skills.
Communism has been defined as “a socioeconomic structure that promotes the establishment of a classless, stateless society based on common ownership of the means of production.” Its initial popularity can be attributed to its promise to greatly reduce economic inequality in societies that were previously characterized by huge levels of economic inequality. That is a worthwhile goal IMO.
My own view is that the best economic system is one that uses a combination of free market incentives to increase productivity, combined with government provision of essential goods and services that don’t respond to free market incentives (such as the running of our elections), progressive taxation, and regulation to ensure such things as worker and environmental protection and the prevention of monopolistic practices. Whether or not pure Communism is capable of providing a viable and productive economic system is a question I can’t answer and is not highly relevant to this discussion.
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 brought Communism to Russia, which it maintained for more than 70 years. However, soon after its introduction it began to be seriously corrupted, to the point where by some time in the 1920s it is probably accurate to say that it wasn’t Communism at all. By that time an empire had evolved (called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) into a solidified Totalitarian system, and a small elite ruled over everyone else with an iron fist and had control over all of the country’s resources. Under the iron rule of Joseph Stalin, economic plans were put in place that resulted in the deaths by starvation of about seven million people. This was not a classless society, nor was it stateless, nor was it based on common ownership of the means of production. Yet the myth of a Communist state prevailed in the USSR until it broke up in 1991.
Pathocracies in perspective – what Americans need to understand
Lobaczewski makes the point that pathocracies cannot be permanent because they contain so many internal contradictions. But we should not take much satisfaction in the inevitable fall of pathocracies, since they so frequently do such tremendous harm before they fall. It would be far better if we could learn to prevent their rise or to counteract them before they do too much harm.
One of the many great insights of the founders of our country is that they anticipated the rise of pathocracy in the nation that they founded. They therefore wrote into its Constitution numerous plans for the balancing of power and for the peaceful removal from office of chief executives or others who proved to put their own needs and desires above those of our nation. It was a great idea. But it can only work to the extent that the American people have the courage to at least open their eyes to the dangers of unscrupulous rulers.
There are many today who would say that the United States of America is fast becoming a pathocracy, or has already become one. It exhibits many of the signs:
It has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, and that rate is largely racially determined; its annual military expenditures are more than eight times greater than any other nation in the world, and almost as much as the rest of the world combined; it is the world’s greatest contributor to the climate change that threatens to destroy human civilization; it has committed myriad war crimes, including torture and aggressive war, and then refused to investigate them; it refuses to participate in the International Criminal Court – the international community’s tool for preventing and punishing crimes against humanity; and income inequality has increased in recent decades to such unprecedented levels that the U.S. is now the most unequal country of all the “rich” nations of the world.
This would be a much better country if most of us were to adopt the following attitudes:
Be skeptical about what our politicians and other elites say and why they say it. Don’t be fooled into thinking that their professed ideology necessarily has much to do with their true motivations. I’m not saying that they’re all liars. I’m just saying that we need to keep an open, skeptical mind on the subject. So instead of taking their rhetoric at face value, weigh their actions more than their rhetoric. (For example, if we invaded Iraq to bring democracy to them, why did we kill over a million of their civilians, and why didn’t we leave for many years after it became apparent that they wanted us to leave?)
Don’t for a minute believe that the possession of wealth or success in life makes it less likely that a person is a psychopath. Wealthy successful psychopaths are far more dangerous than the ones who end up in jail for drug-related or other charges. And the most dangerous of all are national leaders with psychopathic tendencies.
And for God sake, don’t EVER think that just because the only people who are being abused, tortured, and killed by your government are of some other race, ethnic group, or religion – Muslim, for example – that that means that they (your government) aren’t likely to turn on you next.