Confronting Institutional Evil

Z Magazine, September 2014

Look at U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who insists that health care coverage not be expanded in such a way that some people could stop working and still be insured. Boehner and his fellow Republican “sociopaths” want to make sure that millions stay trapped in work they want to escape with the understanding that they can’t survive otherwise—a form of “health care slavery.”

How about those “sociopath” corporate CEOs who take jobs out of the U.S. and send them to cheap labor sites in Mexico and China and who overheat and otherwise pollute the planet?

Don’t forget those Wall Street psychos atop financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase. Those “sociopaths” crashed the national and global economy with wildly reckless practices and financial products. They made sure to get their own firms rescued and returned to obscene hyper-profitability by the taxpayers. The rest of us were left holding the bill and wondering “where’s our bailout?” And then there’s that “sociopath” Barack Obama, with his corporate-neoliberal sell-out of the poor and working people in whose name he campaigned and his arch-criminal Kill List.

I do not doubt that some, perhaps many, of today’s wealth and power elites could be diagnosed as sociopaths. According to reliable research, roughly 4 percent of the population—1 in 25 people—are fundamentally without conscience (Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door, 2007). At the same time, it seems likely that psychopathy is more prevalent among the nation’s ruling class than in the general population. Part of what makes and keeps the rich, well, rich is their willingness to put aside moral qualms about such harsh realities. “Modern capitalism,” the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz notes, “has become a complex game and those who win have to have more than a little smarts. But those who win at it often possess less admirable characteristics as well—the ability to skirt the law or to shape the law in their own favor; the willingness to take advantage of others, even the poor; and to play unfair when necessary.” Stiglitz quotes a leading capitalist who says that “the old adage ‘Win or lose, what matters is how you play the game’ is rubbish. All that matters is whether you win or lose.” More importantly, Stiglitz cites a recent experimental study showing that people of higher income are more likely than others to be driven by self-interest, far more likely to cheat, less likely to have misgivings about breaking the rules, and generally more prone to behave in ways that are widely viewed as unethical (Joseph E. Stiglitz, Price of Inequality, 2012).

The nation’s sociopathic 4 percent would appear to be overrepresented among the nation’s economic one percent—as might be expected.

Institutions as Psychopaths

Still, I resist the “sociopath” meme for three reasons. First, even at the elite level, real sociopaths are a small minority. They are hardly numerous enough to account for the multiple and interrelated forms of injustice and oppression imposed on billions by the American System at home and abroad. Second, the problem of socio-pathology is more usefully understood at the institutional level than at the level of individuals—something that helps us understand how a society could come to seem sociopathic even when the preponderant majority of its members are not sociopaths.

The real and most significant problem is how masses of generally decent and caring human beings are induced to behave in outwardly sociopathic ways to adopt sociopathic opinions. How is it that millions of courteous, empathetic folks who would never send a starving child away from their doorstep or kick a dog or curse at a neighbor or steal a candy bar can be induced to oppose the extension of health care coverage to the poor and to support the mass incarceration of casual drug users, bloody assaults on countries whose people never did anything to them, the denial of food and shelter to child refugees from Central America, the election of office-holders who promise to reduce the incomes and benefits of public sector workers, and the like?

The paradox isn’t just about personal values and behavior. When you look at public opinion data, you find that the societal values and policy attitudes of Americans, including many who identify as Republicans, are “more or less social-democratic.” As Noam Chomsky observed in an interview with Rob Kall (a progressive online journalist and commentator concerned about the prevalence of “right wing psychopaths” across the U.S.) earlier this year, “it turns out that among the right wing, the sectors of the population that say ‘get government off our backs’ [also say that]…‘we need more funding for education, more funding for healthcare…more help for…women with dependent children’…When you talk about the population being psychopaths,” Chomsky told Kall, “I don’t think that’s quite true.”

Many otherwise decent Americans have been induced to back plutocratic and regressive agendas by reactionary elites. Right-wing “leaders” have been adept at creating the sense that numerous despicable Others—supposed welfare cheats and other indolent slackers, “illegal” immigrants, “freedom”-hating terrorists, despotic foreign rulers, “Big Labor” bureaucrats, “lazy schoolteachers’” unions, “well-fed” public sector workers, “job-killing” environmentalists, despicable drug addicts, urban “gangbangers,” liberal government bureaucrats, disloyal professors, and (the list goes on)—are threatening and “ruining America.” The right is quite expert at diversion- ary scapegoating.

We can call those elites “sociopaths” and “psychopaths” if we wish. But, as Chomsky rightly told Kall, even that’s not quite right since “it’s the institutions that are psychopaths.” Chomsky was thinking particularly of corporations, whose chief decision-makers operate within a legal and institutional framework that selects, encourages, and even mandates essentially sociopathic behavior like the remorseless ruination of livable ecology and the collapse of the job and housing markets: “Take…a corporate executive. By law, a corporate executive must work to increase the profitability of the corporation, disregarding the effects it has on others. That’s actually a legal principle and that’s psychopathic. That’s one of the reasons…we’re leading the way in destroying the environment, creating a catastrophe…for our own children. Why? Because…the CEOs of corporation are compelled to disregard what the economists call externalities, the effect of a decision on others. The institutional structure is designed to lead to species destruction… And the same thing happens in the financial institutions.

There’s a system in the United States that’s been designed over the past roughly thirty years which underprices risk… The main mechanism…is a government insurance policy…known…‘too-big-to-fail.’ What that means is that if say Goldman Sachs makes a risky transaction…they cover the potential damages [to] themselves but they don’t consider the externality that a failure of their transaction may bring down the whole system…. It doesn’t matter too much to them because…they can run cap in hand to the nanny state who will bail them out…. That underprices risk, guarantee[ing] further crises.… Your taxes go to the big banks to maintain the system. Those institutions are psychopathic. It…is unfair in a way to blame the individuals. They either take part in the institution or they get out. They don’t have any choices within them “Rob Kall, “Chomsky Talks About Psychopaths and Sociopaths,” Op-Ed News, February 15, 2014).

It might seem odd to think of giant institutions as sociopaths. But consider this. In 2003, Canadian law professor Joel Bakan published his widely read volume The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Noting that the U.S. judiciary defined corporations as legal “persons” by the end of the 19th century, Bakan posed an interesting question: what kind of “person” is a modern corporation? His answer: a sociopath, consistent with the corporation’s judicially certified mandate is to pursue relentlessly and without exception its investors’ selfish economic self-interest, regardless of any injury it may cause to others and the common good. Bakan asked the esteemed psychologist Dr. Robert Hare to evaluate the modern corporation against his globally acclaimed diagnostic tool The Psychopathy Checklist. By Bakan’s account, “Hare found there was a close match. The corporation is irresponsible, Dr. Hare said, because ‘in an attempt to satisfy the corporate goal, everybody else is put at risk….

A lack of empathy and asocial tendencies are also key characteristics of the corporation…‘their behavior indicates that they don’t really concern themselves with their victims’; and corporations often refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions and are unable to feel remorse” (Bakan, The Corporation, 2004). “The basis of a corporation,” Chomsky noted years ago, “is limited liability, meaning as a participant in a corporation you’re not personally liable if it, say, murders tens of thousands in Bhopal” (Power Systems, 2003).

Beyond Corporations

Of course, it isn’t just corporations that function as institutional sociopaths and provide amoral institutional protection to elites. Top major party political operatives and officeholders are not held liable for their incessantly deceptive claims and promises or their fealty to big money campaign donors and lobbyists. They are obliged to do and say whatever it takes to win elections. They can forget about staying in the money-soaked business of U.S. politics if they voice serious qualms about the game.

U.S. military commanders are never considered personally liable when they order and direct terrible events like, say, the “Highway of Death,” when U.S. forces savagely massacred tens of thousands of surrendered Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait in February 1991. No U.S. commanders were held to account for the mass-murderous U.S. assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in the spring and fall of 2004, when U.S. Marines targeted hospitals and ambulances and caused an epidemic of child cancer and leukemia by attacking the city with radioactive ordnance.

At the same time, corporations are the central investment-pooling, risk-diluting, and liability-shielding institutions of a broader historical form of organized socio-pathology called capitalism. Capitalism is a class-based socioeconomic system that is about the concentration of wealth and power. It is dedicated to profit for the owners of capital, period, regardless of negative consequences for others and the Earth we all share (see Paul Street, “Capitalism: The Real Enemy,” Chapter 1 in Frances Goldin et al., Imagine Living in a Socialist U.S.A., NY, HarperCollins, 2014). It certainly isn’t about democracy and the common good. As the liberal economist Lester Thurow noted 18 years ago: “Democracy and capitalism have very different beliefs about the proper distribution of power. One believes in a completely equal distribution of political power, ‘one man [sic] one vote,’ while the other believes that it is the duty of the economically fit to drive the unfit out of business and into extinction. ‘Survival of the fittest’ and inequalities in purchasing power are what capitalist efficiency is all about. Individual profit comes first and firms become efficient to be rich. To put it in its starkest form, capitalism is perfectly compatible with slavery. Democracy is not” (The Future of Capitalism, NY 1996).

Institutions of the Lie

A third reason to shy away from the “sociopaths” narrative is that the term “sociopath” fails to adequately capture the depth and degree of institutional malevolence most people face today. In his haunting and brilliant book People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (1983), the Christian psychotherapist M. Scott Peck observed that the worst people he met over his career were not mere sociopaths, people without conscience. The real problem people he ran across were something worse: “evil” people who were conscious of their own immorality and concerned to cloak their behavior in a self-righteous aura of moral perfection.

They were obsessed with the sins of evil others, whose real and/or alleged terrible deeds provided justification for their own crimes. As Peck explained: “The cause [of evil] is not…an absent conscience. There are people…who seem utterly lacking in conscience. Psychiatrists call them psychopaths or sociopaths. Guiltless, they commit crimes…often…with a kind of reckless abandon. There is little pattern or meaning to their criminality; it is not particularly characterized by scapegoating. Conscienceless, psychopaths appear to be bothered or worried by very little—including their own criminality…. They do attempt to hide their crimes, but their efforts to do so are often feeble and careless and poorly planned. They have sometimes been referred to as ‘moral imbeciles,’ and there is almost a quality of innocence to their lack of worry and concern.”

“This is hardly the case with those I call evil. Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity…they dress well, go to work on time, pay their taxes, and outwardly seem to live lives that are above reproach…. The words ‘image,’ ‘appearance,’ and ‘outwardly’ are crucial to understanding the morality of the evil…they intensely desire to appear good. Their ‘goodness’ is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie. This is why they are the ‘people of the lie’.” “Actually, the lie is designed not so much to deceive others as to deceive themselves. They cannot or will not tolerate the pain of self-reproach. The decorum with which they lead their lives is maintained as a mirror in which they can see themselves reflected righteously. Yet the self-deceit would be unnecessary if the evil had no sense of right and wrong” (People of the Lie).

The institutional and societal oppression and injustice imposed by the United States’ unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire go beyond mere conscienceless socio-pathology. Those dictatorships regularly and ritually tell themselves and the world that’s it’s all being done for a higher good—in opposition to forces of evil.

“The United States is Good”

The notion that “we” (the U.S.) are inherently benevolent, well-intentioned, freedom-loving, and democratic in “our” foreign policies has long been doctrine in the U.S. imperial establishment. Less than a year after the U.S. military inflicted their shocking carnage on the “Highway of Death,” U.S. President George H.W. Bush proclaimed that, “A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes one sole and pre-eminent power, the United States of America. And they regard this with no dread. For the world trusts us with power and the world is right. They trust us to be fair and restrained. They trust us to be on the side of decency. They trust us to do what’s right.”

“The United States is good,” Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright explained in 1999. “We try to do our best everywhere.” Three years before, Bill Clinton explained that the U.S. was “the world’s greatest force for peace and freedom, for democracy and security and prosperity.” These were curious reflections on (among other things) the U.S.-led economic sanctions that killed—as Madeline Albright acknowledged on national television in 1996—more than half a million Iraqi children in the 1990s (Albright added that she “felt the price” of those deaths was “worth paying” for the advance of inherently noble U.S. foreign policy goals).

“More than any other nation,” President Obama announced at West Point in December 2009, “the United States of America has underwritten global security for over six decades. Unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We are still heirs to a moral struggle for freedom.” The Progressive’s Matthew Rothschild gave a historically informed response: “Well, let’s see: The United States led the world to the cliffs of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. The United States invaded one Latin American country after another, and subverted other governments there covertly. The United States helped overthrow governments in Ghana and the Congo, and supported racist forces in southern Africa. The United States plunged into the Korean War, and then supported one dictator after another in South Korea. The United States killed between two and three million people in Indochina. And the United States supported Suharto in Indonesia, who killed nearly a million people, some at the behest of the CIA, after taking power in 1965. The U.S. also supported Suharto’s invasion of East Timor ten years later, which took another 200,000 lives…. Obama can call that ‘global security,’ if he wants to, but it’s dripping red…. What does having almost 1,000 military bases in more than 100 countries mean, then? The United States has invaded or overthrown dozens of countries in the last six decades, and it doesn’t need to occupy them if it can install a puppet regime instead” (The Progressive, December 2, 2009).

Scapegoating has always been a critical public relations component of U.S. Empire. During the Cold War, Washington’s interventions against popular movements, democracy, social justice, and national self-determination around the world were justified as part of its noble campaign against the supposed “international Communist conspiracy” headquartered in Moscow. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the so-called War on Drugs, the (terrorist) War on (Islamist) Terror, and a steady stream of officially designated new Hitlers (Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Momar Gadhafi, Osama bin-Laden, Hugo Chavez, Mula Omar, Vladimir Putin) have provided substitute good-versus-evil narratives and bad-guy malefactors to rationalize U.S. imperial criminality.

“Responsible Corporate Citizens”

Big Business commanders are no less committed than U.S. commanders-in-chief to the notion that the institutions under their direction are dedicated to magnificent principles. U.S. and other corporations who poison the Earth, destroy eco-systems, undermine democracy, bribe politicians, manipulate citizens, shred jobs, wreck communities, and generally ruin lives (human and other) at home and abroad routinely claim to be acting in the higher and compassionate interests of the greater and common good.

According to Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, head of the world’s second leading institutional and historical agent of anthropogenic climate change (“90 Companies Caused Two-Thirds of Man-Made Global Warming Emissions,” the Guardian 11/20/2013), a well-known corrupter of governments at home and abroad: “We strive to be responsible corporate citizens, and our success along that path is underpinned by our technological expertise, operational excellence, safety performance and unwavering ethical standards.” The leading war contractor, the Boeing Corporation, wants us to know that its “journey as a global industry leader and corporate citizen parallels its nearly 100-year history of building better communities worldwide.” Boeing “contribute[s] toward sustainable growth and systemic impact for our communities and their peoples” in order “to build the capacity of individuals and communities to succeed in a constantly evolving world.” (Some among the large number of Middle Eastern and Southwest Asian people who have seen their lives, locales, and regions devastated by U.S. forces using Boeing-manufactured war planes, drones and helicopters in recent decades would offer some interesting commentary on that statement.)

These are standard statements of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). You can read similar boilerplate on the websites of numerous other Fortune 500 firms. They all want us to know that they care deeply about their fellow humans and the Earth—not just the bottom line. They would not make such grandiose claims if they were simple conscienceless institutional sociopaths, childishly unaware of their transgressions. Like the giant military Empire that serves U.S. corporations at numerous levels, they are stained by the false and narcissistic pride of malignantly narcissistic Evil, requiring them to cover their endless, profit-seeking misdeeds with the fiction of moral purity.

“No Individual Salvation”

In her book The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout gives  advice on how to deal with individual sociopaths:

    • Accept that some people literally have no conscience.
    • Suspect flattery. Compliments are lovely, especially when they are sincere. In contrast, flattery is extreme and appeals to our egos in unrealistic ways. It is the material of counterfeit charmand nearly always involves an intent to manipulate.
    • Do not join the game…. Resist the temptation to compete with a seductive sociopath, to outsmart him, psychoanalyze, or even banter with him. In addition to reducing yourself to his level, you would be distracting yourself from what is really important—to protect yourself.
    • The best way to protect yourself from a sociopath is to avoid him, to refuse any kind of contact or communication…The only effective method of dealing with a sociopath is to disallow him or her from your life.
    • Question your tendency to pity too easily.
    • Do not try to redeem the unredeemable.
    • Living well is the best revenge.

If you follow these and other of Stout’s rules, most “sociopaths” will generally disappear from your personal life, like the Wicked Witch of the West after Dorothy doused her with water in The Wizard of Oz. Stout’s counsel applies just as well to those “malignantly narcissistic” individuals Peck calls “evil.” But what about sociopathic/evil institutions? We certainly need to acknowledge their evil and pitiless nature. We should resist any impulse to pity or redeem them. We must distance ourselves from their self-interested efforts to flatter us though advertising and other means. And we should do our best to live well in spite of their endless depredations. But it’s pretty much impossible to avoid all contact with capitalist corporations. They are the ubiquitous, reigning, institutions of our time. They permeate daily life on numerous levels, from the clothes we wear, the food we eat, our modes of transportation, the medicine we take, the news and entertainment we receive, where and how we work, the debt we hold, the prices and interest we pay, the wages and salaries we receive, the air we breathe, and the (plutocratic) nature of “our” (their) political system.

The big corporations and the neoliberal policies and culture they inflict have a richly authoritarian “presence in every aspect of our daily existence… [and have] subsumed our lives” (Oscar Olivera, Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia, South End Press, 2003) to no small degree. “Capital,” Vandana Shiva noted 11 years ago, has undertaken “the neoliberal commodification and privatization of every dimension of life.” Its corporate globalization project seeks “the ultimate enclosure of the commons—our water, our biodiversity, our food, our culture, our health, our education….” (Olivera)

The modern corporation and the so-called free market corporate state have made “living well” impossible for billions. They are institutionally wired to use their far-flung power to put democracy and livable ecology—a decent future—beyond our grasp. We have no choice but to join the game of outsmarting corporations and, more fundamentally, to join the struggles to place them under popular control and (where necessary) to eliminate them—and to create basic societal and institutional arrangements beyond the capitalist framework that gives rise to giant corporations and feeds other and related institutional complexes of hierarchy and oppression. Here, again, the matter goes beyond the level of the individual. Individual sociopaths and narcissists can usually be dealt with at the personal and individual level. But for institutional evil and socio-pathology on the scale of contemporary corporate state capitalism, there is “no individual salvation” (Olivera). The good news according to Shiva is that—as the people of Bolivia reminded us when they defeated the attempted privatization of their water supply in 2000—“there is one power stronger than the power of money—and that is the power of people.” Is she right? It’s not about the crystal ball. We have no choice but to do everything in our power to make it so.



 Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

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By | 2014-08-28T11:45:11+00:00 August 28th, 2014|Articles|