On Psychopathy & Power

The way we design systems that elevate psychopaths to positions of leadership have been causing problems throughout history, writes Caitlin Johnstone.

By Caitlin Johnstone

Due to a very painful and disturbing revelation in my personal life I have had the unfortunate occasion to spend the last several days thinking a lot about psychopaths and what makes them tick. I don’t want to get into the hairy details at this time, but I would like to share some of the more general thoughts that have been coming up here on the matter.

It is interesting that psychopathy should have reached a dark tentacle into my life in the way that it did, given that the three years I’ve been at this gig have been spent writing more and more about the way our world is run by calculating manipulators who are devoid of empathy. I often say that we have found ourselves ruled by psychopaths because we have a system wherein (A) those who are willing to do anything to anyone are rewarded with immense wealth, and (B) immense wealth translates directly to immense political power. Add in the fact that studies have shown that wealth itself kills off empathy and compassion, and you’ve got yourself a perfect recipe for a plutocratic dystopia dominated by antisocial personality disorder.

I’m not really interested in getting into the specific clinical diagnoses of psychopathy and sociopathy for the purposes of this discussion. What I’m talking about here is a specific slice of humanity that is neurologically wired in such a way that they experience the world more as a series of puzzles which can be manipulated around to get them whatever they want regardless of who it hurts, rather than experiencing a world full of fellow sentient beings with whom you can have deep, meaningful connections and interactions. Not all people who are diagnosed as psychopaths are high-functioning enough to manipulate people at high levels, and not everyone who manipulates people in this way would necessarily be diagnosed as a psychopath or even a sociopath. Feel free to mentally substitute whatever term you prefer.

Whatever you want to call it, people who have this condition (and are able to avoid prison) tend to do quite well for themselves by our society’s standards. Because they don’t see other people as anything other than tools and resources, they don’t let empathy and compassion stand in their way when viciousness and exploitation will help them achieve their goals. Because they don’t value connections with other people, they don’t see narratives and descriptions as paths toward deeper understanding, but as tools which can be twisted and distorted in order to secure themselves more wealth, status, sex, or whatever else they want. They quickly rise to the top in corporate and financial settings, in media institutions, in government agencies, and in politics. In modern society this ability is a natural advantage that the rest of us simply cannot compete with.

But it’s not just our current iteration of society which elevates psychopaths to the top. A casual glance through recorded history all around the world reveals an essentially unbroken track record of genocide, slavery, torture, exploitation and degradation as far as the eye can see, with the driving characters time and again being depraved dominators, conquerors and mass murderers. Research some of the horrors that were inflicted upon the Aboriginal people of Australia and the indigenous populations of the Americas and you’ll see that the whole thing was driven by a total lack of empathy for those human beings. Throughout history our main problems have been caused by the way we keep designing systems which elevate psychopaths to positions of leadership, who then go on to make psychopathic decisions.

Given the fact that people who are indifferent to truth or human suffering have always been so adept at ascending to power positions, it’s hard to even imagine a society where we don’t find ourselves ruled by psychopaths. George R.R. Martin set out to tell a story about a cast of characters all vying for power in an epic game of thrones, and that story wound up being populated almost entirely by psychopaths and sociopaths. It makes for a compelling tale because it’s very believable based on what we all know deep down about human behavior patterns, but it’s also a relentless assault on the audience’s empathy center.

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So, what can be done, then? How can we ordinary, feeling, caring human beings protect ourselves from this segment of the population which has been driving us into disaster after disaster since the dawn of civilization before they get us all killed?

Psychopathic leaders have never had any trouble figuring out how to get rid of segments of the population who they deem problematic: they round them up and exterminate them. This would obviously be out of the question for many reasons, not the least because in order to implement it we’d need to become psychopaths ourselves. We’d be “curing” the sickness by becoming the sickness. Passing a bunch of laws against manipulation and deception wouldn’t work either. Manipulators actually love rules and laws, because they can figure out how to manipulate them and use them to their advantage. Julian Assange is currently awaiting extradition hearings in Belmarsh Prison because a bunch of psychopathic manipulators decided to pretend that it was very, very important to respect a series of laws and rules ranging from bail protocol to whistleblower source protection to government bureaucracy to embassy cat hygiene, and they were able to engineer a result that just so happens to look exactly the same.

I’ve seen some people advocating mandatory brain scans for anyone seeking a leadership position. It is true that a psychopath’s brain shows up differently from that of the rest of us on a PET scan, and it is possible to envision a future where the collective is so aware of the pernicious dance between psychopathy and power that such a policy might be set and enforced. The problem of course is that manipulators manipulate, and there are many ways to manipulate one’s way around such a system; they’ve been inserting themselves into unofficial leadership positions for ages, for example, for which they’d never need to be tested. Plutocrats, advisers and propagandists are all in unofficial leadership positions.

Maybe you’ve got your own ideas about this, but I personally can’t think of a single solution to the fundamental problem of psychopaths inserting themselves into positions of power which doesn’t involve drastic, unprecedented changes in our civilization and our culture. Even if you completely tore down capitalism, ended plutocracy and replaced the entire system with a government-planned economy, you would still have positions of power and the absolute certainty of psychopaths manipulating their way into those positions sooner or later.

Drastic Changes

The Earth rise from the Moon. (Photo taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders)

I’m talking about changes as drastic as the end of anyone having any power over anybody at all. A society where the idea of having power over anybody became so culturally taboo that even an unequal power dynamic between spouses would be seen as outrageous and ugly, to say nothing of governments or police forces. Such a society is very far from what we’ve got now, but it would surely be a very inhospitable environment for psychopathy. There would be no positions of leverage for one to manipulate their way into in order to force others to give them what they want, and if you started trying to create one everybody would immediately point at you and yell “Hey! What are you doing? Stop that, that’s weird! If you want something from us you need to form consensual collaborative relationships with us, just like we’re all doing.”

It’s also possible to imagine a culture in which manipulation is seen as an unacceptable taboo which immediately draws public backlash in the same way. In such a culture, children would learn from the youngest age what honest and sincere interaction looks like, with examples of deceit and manipulation clearly illustrated for them in all forms as something gravely disordered. Advertising would cease to exist in such a society, as would propaganda in all its forms. And psychopaths would be like fish out of water, because manipulation only works when it isn’t recognized as such.

One can also imagine a culture which values empathy, compassion and helping others instead of valuing wealth, accomplishment and conquest. In such a culture we’d see the ability to connect with people and work for the good of the whole elevated, rather than seeing the ability to do whatever it takes to claw your way to the top of the heap elevated. In such a society psychopathy would actually be an immense disadvantage, rather than an immense advantage.

And that, in my opinion, would be the marker of a healthy society: one in which psychopathy and sociopathy become grave mental handicaps that the afflicted need to actively seek help for. A society that is so empathic and collaborative that having a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder isn’t such a big deal because your neighbors work with you and help you with what you need rather than pushing you to conform and achieve, while having psychopathy or sociopathy is a debilitating disorder which will turn you into a pariah sleeping on park benches if you don’t get help. Right now we have the opposite: people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other serious mental illnesses are treated like worthless hindrances to a society which values achievement over empathy, while psychopaths and sociopaths almost never seek help unless it’s court-ordered.

A healthy society would flip this. It would reward the things psychopaths are unable to do, and it would reject the things that psychopaths excel at. We can actually look at what psychopaths are and are not good at, and from there kind of reverse-engineer an idea of what a wholesome society would look like.

Is such a society possible? I don’t know. I recently put together some evidence which seems to suggest that our species may be on the verge of a drastic shift in consciousness, which would be the only facilitating agent I can think of that would make such massive cultural changes feasible. We seem to be headed for either huge changes or extinction relatively soon, so if there’s a future humanity on the other side of what’s coming, it likely exists because it made extraordinary changes in both its behavior and in its relationship with the phenomenon of psychopathy. We’ll either make the jump or we won’t.

Caitlin Johnstone is a rogue journalist, poet, and utopia prepper who publishes regularly at Medium. Follow her work on FacebookTwitter, or her website. She has a podcast and a new book Woke: A Field Guide for Utopia Preppers.” 

This article was re-published with permission.

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65 comments for “On Psychopathy & Power

  1. Alfred (Cairns)
    October 22, 2019 at 14:02

    Direct Democracy and internet voting would put an end to the manipulation of political parties. Term limits of one term would make these professional politicians find a proper job.

  2. Nelson
    October 22, 2019 at 13:55

    Great article. The idea of a society structured such that no one can have power over anybody else is a great idea.

    Such a state of affairs could not be achieved via some sort of sudden revolution but would need to evolve over time. Think of the concept of “intelligent design”. Instead of god using evolution as a tool, humans would deliberately guide society towards this end (no one having power over anyone else). Of course it would be a like “perfect equilibrium” – a goal which can never be exactly reached but you can come close.

    The great thing about this is that there are “1000 ways” to start to move into this direction.

    – Cooperatives.
    – High taxes on extreme wealth.
    – Overturn citizens united.
    – Invest and travel to nations like Costa Rica and Switzerland who have low military budgets and what the do have is for homeland defense only.
    – Patronize cooperatives.
    – Patronize small business

    I could go on and on. There are lots of things that people can do in their everyday lives that would in little ways move things towards this end.

    Thanks Caitlin!

  3. Me my self
    October 21, 2019 at 11:46

    Articulate, eloquent, fluent, and well-spoken.

    Now to draw up a blueprint to make it happen.

    Any ideas? Anew political party perhaps (sociable party) or maybe (wishful thinking party).

    Keep it up.

  4. jared
    October 20, 2019 at 21:40

    Caitlin ignores the role of religion.
    As far as I know, religion is the only source of morality in our society –
    * Do unto others…
    * Thou shalt not kill.

    There is certainly a point to be made that religion is sometimes employed for evil, but that does not (I think) make religion bad.
    And of course there are sociopaths who pretend to follow a religion but do not.
    And there are religions which advocate killing and torture and punishment.
    Not all things are equal.

    I think that ultimately religion is our only hope, but the religion needs to be spiritual and positive.

    • Sherwood Forrest
      October 21, 2019 at 09:17

      If the basis of religions is make believe (and veiled authoritarianism) how does that shake down?
      It kind of poisons the entire concept of morality, doesn’t it?
      Right and wrong still exist for non-believers.
      The golden rule makes sense even without a deity.
      Why invest hope in an empty proposition?

  5. jmg
    October 20, 2019 at 20:05

    Caitlin Johnstone wrote: “Julian Assange is currently awaiting extradition hearings in Belmarsh Prison”

    Yes, and a hidden news is that outstanding investigative journalist and publisher Julian Assange has been ordered to court for extradition hearing tomorrow Monday, October 21. This time not by video link but in person, at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London. After this, the final extradition hearing is scheduled for February 25 to 29. As we all know, there is a general concern that this international, historic case — charged and extradited for uncovering war crimes and corruption — is going to define the future not only of investigative journalism and publishing but of free press around the world.

    John Pilger (Oct 17): “I saw Julian #Assange today in Belmarsh prison. Denied the tools to prepare his defence against extradition to America, his resilience endures. On Monday he appears at Westminster Magistrates Court where his epic fight begins. It’s the fight of democracy. Join us.”

  6. john dennis
    October 20, 2019 at 18:44

    I’ve come round to much of the thinking that presents psychopathy/sociopathy as causing many perennial horrors OR what I was always told: it’s human nature. I’ll buy the human nature part but just that won’t explain altruism or the perennial existence of Saints in one society to the next. The psychopath our author discusses is incipient in us all. We all exist under the Bell Curve: Saints on one end psychopaths on the other. The rest of us live beneath the apex of the curve or a standard deviation or two on one side or the other. How else to explain those otherwise good friends and neighbors who vote for Trump? Or our own frequent failings? An entire society swept away to complete Fascism? What’s really interesting (to me at least) is that we as a species are a social species. Altruism is carried along throughout our history. But, as our author rightly implies, so is psychopathy.

    • Sherwood Forrest
      October 21, 2019 at 09:25

      Humans are flashing and arcing up and down the Bell Curve like St. Elmo’s Fire.
      How could it be otherwise under precarity, austerity, universal surveillance, totalitarianism, misinformation and biome collapse?
      When there is no nature there is no human nature.
      We can’t measure or verify anything except by consensus.

  7. October 20, 2019 at 15:00

    It is well known that psychopaths and narcissists, that next degree down on the scale of bent human minds, are perfectly able to convincingly lie. It’s just part of the equipment that such high predators use on victims.

    They are known equally for their ability to exude great personal charm, personal magnetism, again part of the equipment nature has endowed them with as predators luring victims.

    The trouble is that politics, at least at its higher levels, not so much at its workaday levels, is indescribably attractive to such people.

    They are literally drawn by the possibility obtaining power over others, using the gift of superficial charm and convincing lying to do so, and then being able to hurt them in various secret ways that are delightful and amusing to them in private.

    The average member of the public simply has no grasp that such realities exist.

    It is just part of the human condition that a certain small percentage of the population is born this way, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

    I think it is possible to learn the warning signs, but it takes effort and skill. It can’t be reduced to a few lines everyone could be taught.

    • Sherwood Forrest
      October 21, 2019 at 09:31

      Our society is a factory manufacturing the type of personalities needed to maximize profit and power concentration.
      The dopes at a Trump rally weren’t born that way. There was demand !
      My discussion circle has come to the realization that the institutions and practices of American culture are designed to degrade and discourage us. One prime example is how most employments are predatory upon the general population. Helping professions have been eradicated.

  8. Robin Dea
    October 20, 2019 at 11:11

    This is an insightful article for a non-mental health person. You obviously did your homework, and your questions for how to deal with the vast infiltration of our political system with sociopaths are valid. Your comments, as in other articles, do indicate a misconception which is common about capitalism. Cronyism is not capitalism, and, in fact, historically pervades all political systems. We are essentially no longer a capitalist system, but one of economic fascism. Everything from the military/industrial complex to farm policy betrays the most basic principals of capitalism. To work well, capitalism requires free markets, low corruption (cronyism) and the rule of law. Intentionally harming others has nothing to do with capitalism, and again, is tolerated and promoted by the political system to enrich politicians and their cronies. Capitalism is an economic system. Cronyism is political. Let’s understand that they aren’t the same.

    • Sherwood Forrest
      October 21, 2019 at 09:33

      When has Capitalism ever worked well?

  9. October 20, 2019 at 09:39

    Well done.

    I have been thinking all of this myself as a political activist for the Green Party. I Dem exited in 1972 and have since been trying to find ways for a new direction. Without donations from large corporate interests, dark money and special interest PAC funding – Greens still manage to get elected. BUT I can’t hardly begin to tell you all the constant push back and hostility we get from the 2 party system. Expecting a bunch of blame replies to this – about how Greens have been so “influential” and “powerful” in our politics – even though only rarely ever allowed in debates or on the corporate media.

    Whether you have any empathy for those who think like I do, or not, my point here is to say that I do not think the Green Party is holier than thou (should you be differently persuaded politically) just that it is a good thing to have more voices and choices.

    Also, money in elections IS the root of all evil and until we get it OUT of our elections… it will stay this way and even get worse. Pretending otherwise is just choosing to not see. Sure maybe not all evil can be taken out, but it would get rid of the huge majority of the quid pro quo we are experiencing now. Finally, do we have the time to let the world become more un-liveable by continuing this exclusive 2 party system in the most powerful country allowing for profit war, injustice and degradation of the earth to continue? No – we don’t.

  10. October 20, 2019 at 03:11

    Well written and thought provoking, Caitlin. Thank you. Reminds me of a true story Derrick Jensen related. He told of a tribe (wish I remembered the name) wherein there was no rape. The reason was that if such an infraction should ever occur, the criminal was shunned, blamed and rejected by the tribe. In other words, the victim was not blamed. This is the pattern to follow to reject the actions of psychopaths and sociopaths, in other words, reject the majority of our leaders whether they be in government, the military, corporations, etc. What is curious to me is that often there will actually be a candidate for say, president, who is not a psychopath or sociopath, such as Jill Stein or Rocky Anderson but when there is, the entire force of bad leaders turn on such a person to totally destroy her/him with vicious lies. Those rare people scare the rest to death. The curious part is the majority of citizens believe and repeat the lies.
    It also makes me think of Israel and the lines of Auden…
    “I and the public know
    What all schoolchildren learn:
    Those to whom evil is done
    Do evil in return.”

    • October 20, 2019 at 03:12

      P.S. Power does not corrupt, the corrupt seek power.

  11. Peter Harris
    October 19, 2019 at 07:46

    This sounds like the difference between violent and non-violent communication as taught by Marshall Rosenberg. Over the years I have had a few supervisors who’s behaviour I would categorize as sociopathic and/or narcissistic, both of which presented severe challenges to myself and those around me in the workplace. It was only later in life, when I sought training in non-violent communication (NVC), that I made any inroads in taking care of my own feelings and needs when faced with such distorted and aggressive behaviour. My past trying experiences, as I imagine that of others, is what drew me to reading this article.

  12. Jeff G.
    October 18, 2019 at 21:26

    Maybe this is being a little too soft on psychopaths. It’s worse than that. It’s not just that they don’t care, as the psych said. They do care and the like it — a lot. They get enjoyment from seeking out the best and destroying it, because they feel it mocks them and rebukes them. They get a thrill from it. And they are unmatched pros at moral disengagement.
    Like doctrinaire Satanists, good is bad and bad is good. Especially when society rewards them for succeeding. They thrive on the feeling of “outwitting” or “outfoxing” everyone else, especially those with intellectual achievements. To them, the goal of proving to themselves or others they are better in their inverted morality world is paramount. It’s their way of “getting even” for what they perceive as past injustices.
    They look down on everyone else and they get a kick out of proving their assumed superiority. The smarter the person they are tricking is perceived by others, the better. It’s a struggle for hierarchy. Anyone that plays by the rules is a chump, so playing by the rules shows you are of lower intelligence and deserve to be tricked, plus it did you good to learn not to be so stupid. The trickster really did you a favor, in their thinking. They need to feel that way.
    This has a perverse eugenic nature to it, if you examine it closely. People with intellectual disabilities are inferior so they are discriminated against. “The strong should never be burdened by the weak,” is their Nazi mantra. Naïve people have fewer rights than savvy people, so they succeed more. Moral people guided by love of humanity think the opposite way.
    If we don’t understand their warped way if thinking we will never solve it or learn how to punish it. They don’t think like you or me — it is essential to understand that.
    I’m reminded of many of David Mamet’s great films, such as “House of Games” or “The Spanish Prisoner.” Go watch sometime. It’s instructive. At the end of House of Games, the psych, “Margaret Ford,” that goes on a wild research adventure with a psychopathic con man (played by Joe Mantegna) ends up becoming one herself by shooting him and getting away with it. That is the only way she has to deal with it. Mamet is a genius at understanding human pathology.

    • ML
      October 21, 2019 at 18:47

      I agree Jeff G, you have this down pat! I have a family member who is a psychopath (or a “socialized sociopath” if one prefers to use this term instead- most psychiatrists see these terms as interchangeable for all practical purposes) and every statement you said about them was spot on. I have even heard almost the exact language used in your descriptions by the one in my family to describe her various reasonings for her many bad deeds. It’s absolutely chilling once you figure it out. I didn’t have it figured out for a long time. But they do not at their core, think like we do; you are dead-on correct. And to finally figure it out is extraordinarily liberating indeed. The best thing to do is to get as many miles away and as much space between you and them as you possibly can and stay that way- forever. It is a big mistake to trust them or to think that “maybe this time, things will be different.” They won’t be. Dr. Robert Hare, who studied psychopathy extensively, said that they really need to be sequestered away from society where they can no longer do harm. I agree. But how to do that is the big question. And I haven’t ever come up with a satisfactory answer. Thanks for your post.

  13. JRGJRG
    October 18, 2019 at 19:42

    Maybe this is being a little too soft on psychopaths. It’s worse than that. It’s not just that they don’t care, as the psych said. They do care and they like it — a lot. They get enjoyment from seeking out the best and destroying it, because they feel it mocks them and rebukes them. They get a thrill from it. And they are unmatched pros at moral disengagement.
    Like doctrinaire Satanists, good is bad and bad is good. Especially when society rewards them for succeeding. They thrive on the feeling of “outwitting” or “outfoxing” everyone else, especially those with intellectual achievements. To them, the goal of proving to themselves or others they are better in their inverted morality world is paramount. It’s their way of “getting even” for what they perceive as past injustices. They look down on everyone else and they get a kick out of proving it. The smarter the person they are tricking the better.
    If we don’t understand their warped way of thinking we will never solve it or learn how to punish it. They don’t think like you or me — it is essential to understand that.
    I’m reminded of many of David Mamet’s great films, such as “House of Games” or “The Spanish Prisoner.” Go watch sometime. It’s instructive. At the end of House of Games, the psych, “Margaret Ford,” that goes on a wild research adventure with a psychopathic con man (played by Joe Mantegna) ends up becoming one herself by shooting him and getting away with it. That is the only way she has to deal with it. Mamet is a genius at understanding human pathology.

  14. Ruth
    October 18, 2019 at 15:56

    I think we need to look at why someone is a psychopath. Is it because of how they were raised? As an educator, I’ve seen quite a bit of research suggesting that children who are given unconditional love by their parent(s) develop empathy. According to some research, the very wealthy seem to have less empathy. How do their child rearing practices differ from the rest of us? Sending young children off to boarding school, lots of pressure to achieve. I feel that isolation from parents and the pressure to achieve sends the message that there are conditions to their parents love for them, and puts those children at greater risk of not developing empathy. Child development and childrearing practices should be taught in high school. I disagree with Adam- religion is not necessary. You can not teach someone to be empathetic. You can not use the promise of heaven or the threat of eternal damnation to scare someone into having empathy. A person who fears going to hell may be an obedient person who follows the rules, but rules can be manipulated. Empathy is something that develops in a person when they get what they need as a small child. Even apes develop empathy. They do not have religion.

    • ML
      October 21, 2019 at 18:56

      Ruth, your words contradict each other. At first you say that children who are given unconditional love develop empathy, then you say later that “you cannot teach someone to be empathetic.” My family member who is a psychopath, attempted to drown her tiny kitten when she was only a four year old child. When my mother heard mewling screams of terror coming from the bathroom, she found my sibling attempting to flush the kitten down the toilet. When asked why in the world she would do such a terrible thing, she apparently dispassionately looked up at my mother and replied without a speck of emotion, “I wanted to see if it would fit down the little hole.” Empathy can be encouraged, but it cannot be “taught” to a brain that biologically, is incapable of really feeling it. You can intellectualize it and teach that to a child perhaps with lessons like, “we don’t do those things because then others will not want to be around us” etc, but empathy is inborn in most humans. But not those types of humans! I became a nurse and spent my life caring for my fellow human beings – my sibling, became a lawyer and it suited her to chilling perfection.

  15. Jill
    October 18, 2019 at 14:29

    This is a good essay. I notice that the value system of the most powerful people permeates the entire society. This is something we can stop. I’m not saying we can stop it easily but I believe, it really can be stopped. One thing it’s going to take is bringing questioning ideas up as much as possible. I will try to explain what I mean.

    I moved to a right to work state from a union state. When I first moved here I could see that businesses were in constant chaos. People were being fired for no apparent reason. Employers always need people. Customer service is pretty much non-existent. Basic rights such as workplace safety and abiding by the ADA (to name just two) are ignored. These things really shocked me (and they still do).

    For a time I couldn’t understand why things were like this. Then I realized that there is nothing standing in the way of employees and wrongdoing against them. It really should be called a right to be harmed without redress state!

    As time went on I saw many people suffering under illegal and unethical conditions of employment. There is no legal mechanism to deal with this problem. What is left then, is people themselves, and here lies a real problem as well. People here do not understand that things do not have to be this way. They have not experienced things being different so this appears “normal”.

    It is the “normalcy of evil” that needs to be challenged. I think this is true, not just of the situation I just wrote about, but of our society as a whole. We have some very evil ideas regarding parenting, schooling, what it means to live a good life, spirituality, etc. Each of these areas reflects the values of those who most benefit from them. We need mass questioning.

    We do need to question these norms our selves and we must try to bring questions up with others. I also recommend laughter, “before whom, even the Bishops quake”! So when Clinton runs around saying Putin is controlling Stein, Gabbard and Trump, start laughing. It is hilarious. Yes, it’s sick, but dang, it is funny!!! We can make up dossiers for her and everything. Can you bottom pee-gate??? Yes you can! Nothing like having some fun with some “idea” thrown out to cause harm! I say, let’s get cracking and show the IC what a real dossier looks like!

    • Adam Halverson
      October 19, 2019 at 13:41

      I never knew that about right-to-work states. I’ve always suspected that there would be issues with the R2W idea. Thank you for adding your voice to the detriments of R2W.

      It’s true that many choose not to challenge the “normalcy of evil,” and I have a few explanations as to why: we’re conditioned to that which seems normal as you mentioned in the R2W case (I guess you could call that the societal Overton Window), there’s a learned helplessness to countering that which is popular, and the so-called “Democratic Socialists” and the like are espousing actual bad ideas that distract away from actual good ideas. Many activist contingents are leading those who want to see actual positive changes astray.

      Indeed, laughter is the best medicine sometimes, and I should probably do that more often. I think the biggest fear of those who know that these stories are fake news, is that they will be widely adopted by others in ways that could significantly alter events in the future.

    • Sherwood Forrest
      October 19, 2019 at 16:15

      Jill, I make myself a nuisance at Charlotte Talks- WFAE where I’m pretty well acquainted with the host. Charlotte and environs are about exactly as you described your right to work state so it’s easy to debunk the insincere progressivism at a public radio station and stay just at the crest of the “being censored” wave.

      But what I’ve noticed is that comments have dried up, mostly because people fear the real repercussions that result when they criticize the powerful. We exist in an authoritarian surveillance state where people who dissent might really be rounded up in a real or false-flagged emergency. Caitlin agrees that is the case in Australia too. It’s harder to organize when people are so anxious.

      An Armenian lady from Turkey living in England advised me that it’s no use to be afraid since they know all already. If you are harassed, stalked, or lose your job and opportunities that was probably gonna happen anyway even if you quit writing and demonstrating, she insisted. She had escaped after being shot by police and now teaches as a profession. The fad issue here now is “affordable housing” which is a shill issue for astro-turfers, developers and realtors. That is true all around the USA.

      Since no serious solution can happen under depressed wages,austerity and capitalism the effort is spurtive and not serious. Even “good deeds” can be a “normalcy of evil.” It is encouraging to read someone of your sophistication.

    • Ian Rutherford
      October 21, 2019 at 02:13


  16. Bill Mack
    October 18, 2019 at 14:24

    Sociopaths lack empathy and can be highly functioning in a society .
    Psychopaths attract the attention of a society and almost always end up institutionalized in one form or another .
    But I understand her point…

    • October 22, 2019 at 01:08

      Bill Mack – you say – “Psychopaths attract the attention of a society and almost always end up institutionalized in one form or another.” If by “institutionalized in one form or another” you mean “working for the CIA” then I’d say you’re on the right track. But I understand your point . . . :)

  17. October 18, 2019 at 13:21

    There have been cooperative societies that lived and thrived in this world. Most indigenous people pretty much lived that way. Unfortunately they were conquered by the psychopaths. That is the weakness of such societies. You would have to have the whole world shun the psychopathic behavior types to live in a communal world, otherwise even a tiny band of those types on the loose would probably infiltrate and destroy all others. Call me a doom and gloom but I think they got us.

    • Adam Halverson
      October 18, 2019 at 15:24

      Well-articulated, and it fits well with another one of my comments:

      A world without power structures would indeed end up worse… structured trade would cease to exist, the security of the resulting cooperatives would likely be at perpetual risk, and advancements in the sciences and philosophy would be impossible… the consequences would be dire

  18. Cliff Turner
    October 18, 2019 at 11:35

    Another great article Caitlin!
    I have had similar experiences and lessons, except:

    sociopaths would not be so successful without the support of psychopaths; sucking up is the root of much evil,

    I recall the worst of the sycophants in school became the most successful in their careers,

    in my career with GOs and NGOs I learned that what may seem like organized corruption is really the evolution of self-interest,

    any of our estates (legal, media, academia, financial etc.) could clean up our society with a good sense of ethics, and

    to the advocates of PC discrimination solving any problems I say “ME TOO”!

  19. October 18, 2019 at 11:35

    Choose officials for offices that are currently elective by random selection. It doesn’t guarantee that a psychopath will never slip through, but it would dramatically reduce the number of them that do. And as any statistician can tell you, we’d have a much more representative set of leaders than elections produce. But how to ensure that the selection is actually random (or as random as computer science can produce).

    Not that the public could ever be persuaded to do this. But I’ve thought for many years about the problem Caitlan poses and this is the only solution I’ve ever come up with.

  20. Rahiom Petsch
    October 18, 2019 at 11:09

    This, our BEING since millennia, as described in the article from times memorial until today was and is due to the fact that mankind does not know who he / she really is. In my published book (Pilgrims) “Who are we Really?”, I talk about this and point to achievable ways for every awake and willing person to change, and by this change the world in time to come.

    • Adam Halverson
      October 18, 2019 at 15:12

      This is a very good segway into a salient point – we, as sentient intelligent beings, must all live a life of purpose for the greater good. Part of this is the foundation for religion, where we discover the purpose of our existence, and vehemently reject nihilism as an approach (by which one could theoretically justify murder, just because).

      We as a society have lost sight of this mode of thinking (living a life of purpose for the greater good, that is), and have devolved into fixating way too much on our emotions. (e.g. “If it feels good, then just do it!”) And as articulated several times in the comments section here, once we perceive ourselves and others as vicious, animalistic beings, all sense of purpose for a greater good is lost, because such an idea seemingly becomes pointless. We ultimately become demoralized. I’m sure you know exactly where this is going (and because you published a book about it, probably understand it somewhat better than I do)

  21. Peet Pearson
    October 18, 2019 at 10:53

    I found this article most interesting and resonate with its content and most of the comments so far. What I am not clear about is why Rod Serling’s picture headed up the article. Is this a TWILIGHT ZONE kind of story analysis? Surely it isn’t suggesting Serling was a sociopath. I think this is a very confusing matching of story line and unnamed but dated personality picture recognized by those of us old enough to be aware of THE TWILIGHT ZONE TV show. Why the unidentified and unexplained connection?

    • Adam Halverson
      October 18, 2019 at 15:01

      I think the point of the Rod Serling picture was either (a) to reference an episode where a world run by psychopaths was the main premise (perhaps more explicitly than usually expressed), or (b) perhaps this article serves as a metaphorical journey into the what-ifs of such a premise, and then ties some of them to the actual reality. (I don’t know… it’s a bit difficult to articulate)

    • NoOneYouKnow
      October 18, 2019 at 16:53

      Because Serling’s Twilight Zone stories were thought experiments about horrifying alternate realities, and a great Twilight Zone horror story would be an alternate universe in which humans were ruled by psycho- and sociopaths and narcissists. Except that’s our horrifying reality.

  22. Adam Halverson
    October 18, 2019 at 10:44

    Well-written article by Caitlin Johnstone – it reminds me somewhat of the article where she details dealing with a narcissist. (One takeaway from that – don’t try to beat them at their own little game, because it probably won’t work.)

    The key issue with the idea of rooting out psychopaths and sociopaths is this – who leads this process? If one isn’t careful, it could be another psychopath or sociopath! At the very least, we definitely need a cultural change away from radical liberalism. (Generally speaking, anything “radical” is bad and ought to be rejected.) The movement must be free of any ASTROTURFING – no fake, self-enriching movements designed to look like something, which turns out to be more of the same at its core. We’ve seen hundreds of these in the past several years, and the funding behind these movements typically can be traced to the wealthiest financiers. Of course, it’s usually easier said than done.

    The media has led the way in cultural changes in this country – without going into too much detail, it’s all going exactly according to the plan created by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which included some adherents of the malignant Frankfurt School (the purveyors of “Cultural Marxism”). Social media, in particular, is a highly pernicious influence. Helping to implement these systems are factions within the Deep State (largely the intelligence) and oligarchs within the media as well as moneyed interests. Tied into all of this in very intricate ways is rampant stock market speculation, and the incredibly dangerous derivatives bubble, which would create chaos if it were to ever burst.

    Now, just to be clear, I do support the idea behind hard work, and that people who do so should be rewarded. We do need a capitalist system with the necessary regulations (yes) that promote healthy competition and free enterprise, but with an adequate social safety net. I don’t accept the ” Democratic Socialist” idea of forced asset forfeiture or taxation of latent assets, but the necessary regulations can help move much of that money in the right direction, in a way that all (or at least most) could benefit. Our biggest challenges include ending stock buybacks, reining in offshore tax havens, and curbing speculation that leaves taxpayers exposed to all kinds of unnecessary risk.

    Lastly, I’ll just say this – the cultural pessimism by surrogates of radical liberalist factions (which includes the Democratic Party) doesn’t do anything to make the whole situation better. If you want to destroy a society, pollute the minds of the youth, insert all sorts of nonsensical sophist ideas into the minds of people, and convince everyone that we’re all somehow inherently evil or selfish. Words like “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” and the like are being abused to advance exactly the agenda set forth by the Congress for Cultural Freedom. When we’re conditioned to distrust others and think others are bad people, we become selfish, divided, and are less willing to help. Selfishness and self-enrichment somehow becomes a good thing. Ultimately, though, a house divided cannot stand, and everyone suffers.

    I think I’ve got the ball rolling even further here – I’d like to hear some thoughts and ideas!

    • NoOneYouKnow
      October 18, 2019 at 16:59

      If you think the Democratic Party is a “radical liberalist faction,” and that more regulations can “help move money in the right direction,” and that our biggest challenges include ending stock buybacks, perhaps you need to marinate your thoughts more.

    • caseyf5
      October 19, 2019 at 07:46

      Hello Adam Halverson,
      Thank you for your comment. I find it interesting that you believe that the Democratic Party is a radical liberalist group when they really are currently right wing to very right wing. In their heyday they were just a small distance to the left of center while the Republican Party was center to left-center with the left-center being a minority of the party. Sociopaths make up a large group. Radical right wingers made up of Republicans and Conservatives are also a large group. Psychopaths are a smaller group. The smallest group are the radical liberalists.

    • Sherwood Forrest
      October 19, 2019 at 16:21

      That’s a mighty convoluted way of saying you’re a conservative Republican with Libertarian tendencies.

  23. Jeff Harrison
    October 18, 2019 at 10:36

    Let me give you the short form. You don’t want to elect people to office who actually want the office.

  24. October 18, 2019 at 10:21

    In our collective past, our tribal small group ancestors had powerful ways to deal with psychopaths, with those who simply refused to abide by the values and mores of the larger group. Psychopaths could be banished and thus expelled from the group, or even “accidentally” fall of a cliff on a hunting expedition in more extreme cases. The communal, “group welfare first” focus of tribal societies didn’t offer much refuge for the psychopaths who inevitably were born into them but endangered the group with their behavior.

    No so with our current societal myth system of individualist greed based “me first” capitalism, where it would seem the only “shared value” is “anything for a buck.” Capitalism, having associated ANY notion of “communal good” as a human and humane “value” with the dreaded and demonized communism, has created a myth system that rewards greed and criminal behavior and the possession of power over masses of one’s fellow humans. It is a system made for and by the psychopathic personality. The Western notion of “human nature” as selfish, brutish and violent is in truth the perfect “projection” of the psychopathic personality as well as the perfect “justification” for psychopaths to act the way they do. It creates a world in which bringing about the deaths of a half-a-million Iraqi children can be publicly claimed to be “worth it” without protest, without an outcry and without any “banishment” from our society. We will “collectively” reclaim the communal values needed for a humane “shared future,” or we humans will find no future worth living.

    • Adam Halverson
      October 18, 2019 at 14:51

      The Western notion of “human nature” as selfish, brutish and violent is in truth the perfect “projection” of the psychopathic personality as well as the perfect “justification” for psychopaths to act the way they do.

      This is EXACTLY the kind of sentiment I expressed in my post! Thank you for elaborating on this particular point in more detail. It’s always interesting to hear different perspectives and dimensions, especially when they supplement others very well.

      Basically, just to summarize, the radical liberalist institutions are trying to convince us that we’re all racists, sexists, homophobes, etc… to subtextually convey that we are inherently selfish, somewhat malevolent animals who must always be on our guard, must not trust others, and must be wary of caring for others. “If we’re so irredeemable and doomed to hell, then what’s the point of trying to do good?,” one may ask. This is the kind of thinking that leads to moral and ethical decay. Ironically, the ultimate goal behind this runs contrary to what many these institutions try to preach, about being accepting of other people.

      P.S. I just want to add that we do need capitalism, but it must exist with the necessary regulations, encourage free enterprise and innovation, and come included with a social safety net. Everything in moderation!

    • Sherwood Forrest
      October 19, 2019 at 16:26

      Ostracism! As for the hunting accident, that is how golf started in Scotland, and why it is played with clubs: the snipe hunt.
      I am of the persuasion that mental disturbance can be mitigated so that snipe hunts should be few.

    • Sean Grady
      October 20, 2019 at 07:29

      The former president of Guatemala, with the blessing and support of the US, said that Native Indians were “natural communists” and must be wiped out. Which he tried very hard to do.

  25. john wilson
    October 18, 2019 at 05:07

    Throughout history, Caitlin ? History is a long time and is not until relatively recent times that we have had any choice in who ruled over us. Indeed, I would suggest that we don;t really have much choice even today as the Democrats and the Republicans seem to be one and the same as far as war and psychopathy is concerned. Had Hillary Clinton won last time round I think we would be up to our necks in war.

    • Adam Halverson
      October 18, 2019 at 09:23

      I think Caitlin means recorded history, which began around the time of the Sumerians. The accumulation of power and wealth requires a structure or vehicle for achieving it. An ordered civilization is usually a hospitable environment for such things. Though the arc of history seems to “bend towards justice,” there are punctuated disruptions in that arc. In spite of all the horrors of the last few hundred years, our quality of life as a whole has generally increased (though maybe not quite so much in about the last 30 years). Just as much as technology can improve lives, it can likewise be used for malicious purposes to destroy them as well – nuclear power is a good example for demonstrating this concept.

    • Sherwood Forrest
      October 18, 2019 at 10:08

      Knowing that our institutions victimize the weaker…
      is what I intended, not
      Knowing theater institutions…
      Sometimes automated spellcheck help is sabotage.

    • Sherwood Forrest
      October 18, 2019 at 10:09

      Not until recent times have we had history!

    • Lucy
      October 18, 2019 at 11:14

      So your bottom line is “why try”?

    • journey80
      October 18, 2019 at 14:25

      It occurs to me that it would also be useful to be able to spot someone who is all three: narcissist, psychopath, and sociopath – e.g. Hillary Clinton.

  26. Tim Jones
    October 17, 2019 at 23:50

    Those in power have broken down the walls separating the checks and balances by changing laws over time. Whatever name you want to give to them politically or psychlogically, the powerful all have undone the laws that once protected our freedoms.

  27. Antiwar7
    October 17, 2019 at 23:28

    Democracy: rule by glib sociopaths.

    • Sherwood Forrest
      October 18, 2019 at 10:12

      We are experiencing plutocracy under oligarchy.
      The USA never achieved democracy or even consensus.

    • Adam Halverson
      October 19, 2019 at 13:20

      The biggest issue with a (pure) Democracy is that consent can be manufactured so that people can be conditioned to agree to things that look good on the surface – but actually aren’t – in such a way that they ultimately give up their liberties more readily. The mechanisms of a Republic help to keep such sweeping changes in check (though it has its imperfections, as well), and ensure that minority factions aren’t without power. Generally, the laws ultimately benefit those who write and/or pass them, and can be worded with such tortured and esoteric language that most wouldn’t be able to understand the text, or the implications within. Though elected representatives do frequently abuse their power, they are generally in a better position to understand and interpret laws than the people in general.

  28. Annie
    October 17, 2019 at 22:40

    I don’t disagree with Ms. Caitlin that psychopaths are basically in charge. In my book only a psychopath could sit around and discuss where the next drone strike will occur knowing full well innocents will also be slaughtered, not to mention creating false narratives to destroy whole countries. However I would not like to envision a world where no one exerts any type of power over others. That kind of world would perhaps wind up even worse. Nothing wrong with parents exerting power over their children, or teachers exerting power over their students, or the police protecting us from your everyday kind of sociopath, or bosses exerting power over their employees, because power is not in and of itself a bad thing, but an abuse of power is.

    • john wilson
      October 18, 2019 at 05:10

      Annie: I think you will find that the police have more than their fare share of psychopaths.

    • Adam Halverson
      October 18, 2019 at 09:54

      A world without power structures would indeed end up worse. If you think about it, structured trade would cease to exist, the security of the resulting cooperatives would likely be at perpetual risk, and advancements in the sciences and philosophy would be impossible. This, of course, is a simplification… but I can assure you that the consequences would be dire.

    • Adam Halverson
      October 18, 2019 at 09:57

      One of the best ways to root out the “bad cops” is to reprimand those who have a disproportionate number of complaints filed against them. Of course, the leadership hierarchy matters as well. Approximately 5% or so of cops could be considered “bad cops”

  29. Tim Jones
    October 17, 2019 at 22:34

    Quite a succint article. Yes, there are signs that the shift is taking place; we are in the crescendo period, a convergence of many related aspects, a rolling up of the old and a rolling out of the new, before the story comes to an end or continues. To postulate that the pattern of psycopathic and sociopathic thinking and power will continue is like thinking that we are the only life in the universe (e.g., US Navy finally decided to tell us (they lied for 60 years ) that they study UFO’s and they’re routinely hanging out with the pilots) and many more revelations like the Wilson memo, Dr. Hal Puthoff, TTSI study of ‘exotic’ materials, Zero Point Energy, and Michio Kaku’s amazing statements. Many plebians already knew this existed. That, my friends is part of this shift.

  30. Sherwood Forrest
    October 17, 2019 at 20:16

    I’m glad Caitlin got through her ordeal with a psychopath/sociopath. I hope she’ll gain more comprehension from her examination of how people without empathy ruin life for the rest of us. I’m taking a risk commenting on this tragedy and on Caitlin’s theories. My experience does not exactly mesh with hers in that I think I’ve seen individuals who compartmentalize their lives so that they are deviant in some settings and reciprocating in others. Likewise I think I’ve seen people change from cooperative and kind to deviant, and think I’ve even interacted with a few who matured or healed out of their disturbing attitudes and behaviors.

    If these observations were not so then megalomania could not result from the accumulation of power or wealth, the combat soldier could never return to family life, the egomaniac could not learn from trauma or failure, and we could never see human vulnerability in authority figure who live to regret. Much of philosophy and fiction writing would not be possible if it were not for these paradoxes.

    So while Caitlin’s models accurately express the outrage of a younger person experiencing serial disillusionment they may be too simple and reactive as a basis for anticipating a better culture. Victims can find fulfillment in forgiveness. When I’ve forgiven perpetrators of cruelty against me has been my greatest personal growth spurts. Not that I forget, or that I trust those offenders again, but I don’t let their infractions completely shape my perceptions. All of us who survive take inventory of our remaining abilities an do our best to recover.

    Another dimension of the sociopath problem is that we are social beings who need one another. The individual is limited in stamina and strength so that their impact would be small without friends and co-workers. Even the intellectual depends upon the body of work that came before. We find that in small, simple communities the people tend not to allow any individual to rise very high. Contrast that with the idea that we might colonize the cosmos (a bad idea I think) so that a few chosen ones have a disproportionate amount of resources devoted to their coming launch while everyone else is left behind. (Makes me cry about Simone Biles). My fondest memories are of campaigns for the good (lost and won) in which I bonded with other devotees and gave my all. And in the best of these no one stood out, but all shared their doubts and weaknesses, realizing we can all be selfish and irrational at times.

    Knowing that our economy is mostly unfair we should watch to see who is in trouble by no great fault of their own and stealthy attempt to assist in considerate ways. Knowing theater institutions victimize the weaker we should always be prepared to object when we see injustice. And so on and so forth. Everyone must start from their current situation and try to do right. Caitlin fears that any collective could become a lynch mob against bad actors, and she’s correct… but letting the evil actor off no matter how powerful they are can only doom us. Bertolt Brecht was likely one of the most disillusioned persons of the 20th Century, but you always find him advocating to make distributive justice real. Can we aspire to that?

    • Adam Halverson
      October 18, 2019 at 10:04

      Well said, and part of what you said (about the collective) relates to the problems of a Democracy, as I’ve written elsewhere on here. I’ve always felt that the best way to lead is by example, and this applies just as much to people as it does to corporations (though sometimes in different ways).

  31. SteveK9
    October 17, 2019 at 19:15

    You should consider the role of religion in human history (good and bad), and whether it has a future. Also whether the fragmentation of society and the ongoing collapse of the idea of a nation, is making things worse. They love discussing this at ‘The American Conservative’ … you might want to look over at articles there.

    • Sherwood Forrest
      October 18, 2019 at 09:55

      Psychos love endless discussion. It protects them from accountability.
      The idea of nations/countries is negated once the populace is eliminated from the power loop.
      When communities have power they will provide accountability without Facebook and Twitter.
      Descending back to lower forms of consciousness is a bad idea because it gives validity to sociopaths who have reopened settled issues.
      So don’t stand for the national anthem, and don’t read “the American Conservative.”

    • Adam Halverson
      October 18, 2019 at 10:11

      Religion can be good, when it is not corrupted by political influences or the like. Theocracies may have seemed like a good idea at first – in theory – but are ultimately doomed to fail at some point due to the corruption and exploitation of religious dogma for political gain (e.g. Wahhabiism).

      Religion has its place in society, and it is necessary. However, it becomes problematic once it is used as a weapon to infringe upon the rights of others, or is corrupted as a tool of manipulation

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