Capitalism and Insanity

(Photo by Liz Henry / Flickr)

One person in every hundred is a psychopath. With a global population approaching 7 billion, this puts the global total of psychos at roughly 70 million.

Seventy million psychopaths! Think of it: roughly twice the population of Canada. That’s a lot of psychos to deal with. And, as we all know from American Psycho, the problem with the upper echelons of business and finance is that fucking loons can so easily rise to the top.

This is, essentially, the claim of an article run earlier this summer on Truthout. In “How Will the 99% Deal With 70 Million Psychopaths?,” Joe Brewer asks that we consider the pernicious effects of a business culture in which avarice and ruthlessness are encouraged and thereby provide a stomping ground for psychopaths to flourish.

But this gloss overlooks much more serious problems posed by the structural composition of capitalism. Indeed, it reiterates a species of argument endemic to the liberal-left: that “unfettered” capitalism is the problem of the modern world. The solution, of course, is that it just needs some fettering — or perhaps mass expulsions of psychopaths.

And here’s where the left-liberal critique of capitalism falls apart.

Capitalism relies on endless competitive accumulation. This process is as relentless as it is remorseless. Human flourishing is not its aim.

Capital accumulated is used to accumulate more capital. Its expansion is exponential; it does not slow down when psychopaths at the helm are censured. Indeed, it is fair to say that, despite the ostensible widespread presence of psychopaths in positions of policy control, there must be many times more non-psychopaths than psychopaths acting as willing functionaries of the oligarchic class.

Brewer claims that there is a preponderance of psychopathic captains of industry and office bearers resulting from their ability to insinuate themselves “into positions of power as stock traders, corporate executives, and corruptible politicians.” I’m no mathematician, but if only one person in every hundred is psychopathic, what happens to the other 99? In spite of the alleged psychopath prevalence, there is surely a shit ton of non-psychopaths in corridors of power.

And if the narrative being flogged here is the frightening prospect of having a bunch of psychos inflicting noxious social and economic policies on the rest of us, isn’t the collusion of countless “sane” accomplices far more chilling?

Statistics that quantify inequality are often shocking and seem to demand a common-sense explanation that finds solace in ascription of blame to “psychopathic” intentionality. Thus liability is passed to the chicanery of corporations, Wall Street fat cats, and/or psychopaths, while the more mundane reality is consistently avoided. Ubiquitous and extreme inequality is inextricably linked to the logic of capitalism, that is, its fundamental commitment to the generation of privately accumulated capital.

Rationales that seek to overlook this fact repeat a naked emperor wish fulfillment.

This is not to deny the cultural, political and social factors which help determine the rate of exploitation at a given time in a given place. Theories of regulatory capture, for instance, are not fictions.

But it is telling that even those who might fairly be accused of bearing sympathy for wealth disparity in the name of productivity — apologists for our “psychopathic overlords” — imagine that things are not so bad as they actually are and, further, would prefer far greater equality in spite of their class and political persuasion.

A study published in the Atlantic reveals that while the poorest 20% of the population of the US in reality only possesses 0.3% of the wealth (with the top 20% commanding 84% of the wealth), a representative set of Americans believes that the bottom quintile receives 9% while the top quintile enjoys 59%. This misapprehension, which paints only a slightly rosier picture of actually existing inequality levels, is not particularly startling.

What is unexpected, however, is that 92% of the sample set interviewed preferred a model of wealth distribution closer to Sweden’s than America’s. The preferred model granted the top quintile 18% of the wealth while ensuring the bottom quintile receipt of 11%. The preference for this model is especially surprising given the pervasive narrative that claimssome measure of inequality is necessary to motivate high levels of productivity (i.e., the conviction on which fables of upward mobility are built).

In the study, the more equitable model was called “Equalden” rather than Sweden while the American model was not named. Who knows what the results might have been if the Scandinavian country’s name had been invoked? Nevertheless, the results indicate that there is very little appreciable difference in the preference for the Equalden model regardless of political affiliation, gender and income.

This points less to the existence of a cabal of psychos running roughshod over good citizens’ dreams of egalitarian wealth distribution than it does the existence of systematic operational problems.

The good folks advocating for the wealth distribution of Equalden are not being stymied by a coterie of madmen, but by adherence to fundamentally liberal critiques that go no further than opposition to “trickle-down economics” or the dreaded “crony capitalism.”

Think of it in these terms: The commission of any genocide is likely aided and abetted by the cooperation and/or initial mobilization of psychopaths. However, there are no studies that I know of that enumerate the number of psychopaths engaged in any given genocide. I don’t think anyone has bothered to attempt such a feat for the good reason that it wouldn’t really matter.

I don’t believe that a case can be made that psychopathy is ever the motive force for genocide or ethnic cleansing. Indeed, the horror with which we consider such incidents in our history stems from precisely the fact that the number of participants puts the lie to explanations that rely on psychopathology for monocausal elucidation.

A genocide is not simply orchestrated by a top-down cabal of lunatics. Rather, it is conditions on the ground and the active participation of countless non-psychopaths which ensure the execution of such dreadful activities. To put it simply: Genocides, like the “externalities” of capitalism, are in and of themselves instantiations of “psychopathy,” regardless of the number of psychopathic agents engineering their implementation. The problem is systemic, not a result of “bad apples.” A system which rewards avarice is problematic because it is a system which rewards avarice, not because it allows canny crazies to ride slipstream.

The recent panic of “psychos” at the helm reflects a need to assign blame to knowing agents behaving in a deliberate fashion. But it becomes a strange carriage-before-the-horse/chicken-and-egg scenario: Capitalism foments the rise of a “psychopathic class.” And a “psychopathic class” foments the grim successes of capitalism.

Moreover, it denudes class politics of class politics, leaving an intoxicating Manichaean social divide in its wake: Psychopathic Class vs. the class of Everyone Else. Toss out the psychos, and capitalism would be a-okay!

It reads like the bare-bones plot of a bad sci fi movie: In the egalitarian world of Tomorrow, harried and stubbled Blade Runners will hunt down and administer retina scans and Voight-Kampff tests to potential psychos, dismantling the remnants of their terrible cabal.

It’s pure liberal utopianism. Capitalism will thereby be fettered: the cancer cut from its bosom and its further headway bolstered by its naturally occurring salubrious juices.