Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Kochs may very well be sociopaths

It's always worth bearing in mind, as Isquith argues in a new piece for Salon, that even political villains have complex motivations. As far as it goes, this is a useful corrective against the tendency to caricature the rich and reactionary as monsters who simply want to destroy the world. Presumably there are Sanders followers who think about politics in this way, since it's how most people probably think about politics, and certainly this sort of simplistic politics can keep us from developing a more sophisticated and accurate understanding of the world.

That said, since we clearly find the most sophisticated and accurate politics in comic book movies, we would do well to remember that some men just want to watch the world burn. This is not great as a sole basis for political analysis, but in the end we have to account for it. Sociopathy is a clinical fact. A good four percent of the population have brains that work differently from everyone else's, for reasons that are increasingly well-understood. They are not immoral, but amoral. They are absolutely-self interested, and can enjoy hurting others. And they experience neither guilt nor shame.

Moreover, sociopaths are significantly over-represented among the rich and powerful. They are typically ambitious, obsessive, competitive, and enjoy risky behavior - all features that capitalism often rewards. In fact, some firms actually deliberately recruit sociopaths.

Since sociopaths are not merely a possibility but a relative probability among the ruling class, we're faced with precisely the problem that Isquith's article tries to dismiss: how do we defend democracy against people who are greedy and powerful? It is entirely possible for the mentally ill to accumulate power and influence and to try to use both to manipulate the public towards destructive and entirely selfish ends. This may not be the central challenge facing the left, since capitalism is more of a systemic and structural problem than one governed by individual personalities - but it it nevertheless a challenge, and one that we should definitely take seriously.

Isquith is right on another point: if the Kochs disappeared tomorrow, "some other coalition of plutocrats from above and reactionaries from below would step in." But does it follow that their successors would be just as fanatical, just as ruthless, and just as aggressive as the Kochs? Four percent is a small number. Even as America is afflicted by capitalism, we may also be afflicted with some serious bad luck: the unlikely consolidation of power in the hands of the literally insane. We can't rule it out!