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Evil Only Comes Where It's Invited
Tracking ponerogenesis in history and Israel-Palestine
When you act like a psychopath, you clear the way for actual psychopaths.
Too many people believe in a cookie-cutter account of human nature, that everyone is basically the same, basically good underneath it all, and that we all have an equal capacity for evil. While this is untrue, there is a decent percentage of the population that has the capacity to act like a psychopath, if only for brief moments, or in certain contexts. Unlike a psychopath, however, they may come to feel some degree of remorse about it.
If you open your newsfeed tomorrow to read some story about a murder in which the victim was found mutilated, castrated, his skin flayed and limbs dissected, your first thought might be that some new Jeffrey Dahmer or Richard Ramirez is on the loose. But it’s also possible the murder victim is the new Dahmer/Ramirez, responsible for a string of child kidnappings, rapes, and mutilations, and a local posse of vengeful locals finally caught up with him. Cruel and unusual punishments are not always out of the norm when we think the person really deserved it. An eye for an eye, and all that.
But that’s an extreme example. There are subtler ones. Public relations, for example, is an exercise in functional psychopathy. The goal of PR is literally to create a publicly acceptable persona or cover story, a mask of sanity for public consumption. The bigger the discrepancy between image and reality, the bigger the lie, and the closer one comes to psychopathic levels of manipulation and impression management.
Don’t say anything that’ll make you/us look bad. Never admit fault. Deny everything. Repeat a list of your carefully curated good deeds. Spin everything in the most decent-sounding way possible. Simply ignore whatever you can get away with not answering. And if the fault is minor enough and not technically criminal, draft a canned apology according to the socially accepted script. There, now you look like the type of person or organization that takes responsibility for its mistakes.
Political campaigning and operating is another exercise in functional psychopathy. You tell people what they want to hear with no real intention of following through on it. You publicly decry corruption and immorality while doing those very things behind the scenes, and hiring PR agencies to maintain the illusory image of yourself as a decent person.
Practically every corporation, politician, government and military spokesman follows the above script, and everyone knows it (but might forget when it’s convenient to do so). Some might not have to lie as much as others, because they have less to lie about, but lie they do, and with aplomb.
Relatively normal people can and do engage in this type of conning. It’s simply a part of political and corporate culture. The problem is that this type of culture creates an opening for the type of person for whom this type of thing comes naturally. If your posse continues hunting down violent pedophiles and murdering them in a fashion not dissimilar to that employed by sadistic serial killers, you might just start attracting some actual sadistic serial killers. If your PR firm or department is working overtime on slathering the figurative lipstick on some pig of a client, you might just attract more and more psychopaths with long and intimate experience doing just that. And if your political culture is founded on blatant deception of the voting public, well, you get what you asked for.
Ponerization is the process by which any given group becomes more and more pathological, both in its membership (sick individuals join, and healthy ones leave, get kicked out, or are refused entry), its mode of operation, and its ideological content.
And the only reason ponerization occurs is because the moral failings of ordinary people open the door.
Modes of Pathocracy
Reading Political Ponerology may give the impression that Lobaczewski made a hard distinction between what he called pathocracy and “systems of normal man.” It’s clear from the context that he is describing the communist nations as pathocracies and Western democracies as normal systems. However, as I pointed out in my article “The Varieties of Pathocratic Experience”:
Lobaczewski describes some variations based on their mode of genesis (PP, pp. 218-219): 1) prototypic (i.e. the result of a relatively homegrown, revolutionary circulation of elites, e.g. the USSR), 2) imposed by force (i.e. overtly imposed by an existing foreign pathocracy, e.g. the Eastern Bloc), and 3) artificially infected (i.e. covertly imposed through revolutionary and political warfare, e.g. various socialist/communist revolutions in Asia, Africa, and the Americas—today these would be called “color revolutions”). … All other governments he classifies as “systems of normal man,” which he defines as “social systems wherein the links, structure, and customs of normal people dominate in any way” (p. 196).
However, in an interview with Henry See for Sott.net, he points out that no country can be considered truly healthy, because all contain psychopaths. … I take from this an implicit acknowledgment that there must be degrees of pathocracy even within countries considered “normal” by Lobaczewski—both those recovering from pathocracy, and those either keeping it in check or undergoing a ponerization process that could lead to its emergence. I imagine a scale from an imaginary and impractical “zero psychopaths in leadership positions” to a full-blown pathocracy where 100% of psychopaths integrate into the leadership hierarchy.
The big question I was left with after reading Ponerology was: well, what role, if any, do psychopaths play in these “systems of normal man”? Reading Logocracy cleared this point up for me. It turns out he did address it. Here’s what he had to say:
Since the introduction of universal political rights, American democracy, like everywhere else, has become a façade system, behind which other forces hide in order to exercise power.
Democracy impedes the formation of a healthy and active socio-psychological structure of societies. Instead, it encourages the organization of elites that have an internal oligarchic structure and are led by individuals with less than ideal aptitudes and character traits. This fosters a degeneration of the psychological worldview of citizens, which results in the already known negative moral consequences in individual and social life.
In every country, there are individuals who wish to achieve importance and prosperity through their awareness of the existence of those less critical people, whom they secretly despise. What societies and sociologists do not realize is that these leaders often possess the specific psychological knowledge that we find in psychopathic individuals. Democracy too easily allows activities that pose a permanent threat to itself and to the future of the country.
Democracy is often little more than pathocracy-by-proxy, a political system led by a clique of pathocratic individuals while retaining a mostly normal social structure. (Pathocracy, by contrast, is a macrosocial phenomenon in which the entire political and social structure is pathocratic, replicating itself on every level like a social fractal.)
Lobaczewski’s criticisms of democracy are similar to some of his fellow countrymen, and pope, John Paul II. Summarizing the encyclical Centesimus annus, Thomas Storck writes:
After discussing the flaws of Communist and other dictatorial states, the pope next turns his attention to democratic regimes. He … speaks of a “crisis within democracies themselves, which seem at times to have lost the ability to make decisions aimed at the common good” … He is referring to the tendency of democratic governments to be captives to special interest groups of democratic politicians to support policies only to help themselves get reelected. “With time, such distortions of political conduct create distrust and apathy, with a subsequent decline in the political participation and civic spirt of the general population, which feels abused and disillusioned” … (An Economics of Charity and Justice, p. 78)
If pathocracies imposed by force more resemble criminal gangs, and prototypical pathocracies resemble one-party totalitarian “dictatorships” or “people’s democracies,” democratic pathocracy-by-proxy is the snake-in-suit with a carefully crafted PR image. We all know the type: reasonable-sounding, well-manicured, “presidential,” and totally fake.
The Paranoid Slave Revolt
In his recent interview in Mikhaila Peterson’s podcast, Norman Finkelstein brings up Nat Turner’s slave revolt of 1831. As Finkelstein relates, Turner was a religious fanatic. Fellow slaves deemed him “The Prophet,” and a series of visions throughout the 1820s convinced him that “a great day of judgment was at hand” and that God sanctioned his revolt. He enjoined his fellow rebelling slaves to kill all the white people they could find. They did so, killing around 60, using “knives, hatchets, and blunt instruments.”
The rebellion did not discriminate by age or sex and the rebels killed White men, women, and children. Nat Turner confessed to killing only one person, Margaret Whitehead, whom he killed with a blow from a fence post.
As Finkelstein points out, the leading abolitionists of the time did not condemn the rebellion. Their response was more along the lines of, “What did you expect? We warned you this would happen.” Whites were naturally horrified; militias and mobs formed in response, killing around 120 blacks, most of whom were not involved in the rebellion. In the end, Turner’s rebellion was put down, Turner himself sentenced to death, hanged, and his body dissected and flayed—some of his skin reportedly used to make purses.
With the distance of time, it’s easy enough to see the motivations of both the slaves and the militias. The slaves, reacting to the injustice of their station and under the influence of a charismatic leader, went on an indiscriminate spree of vengeance. The whites, shocked by the terroristic brutality of this revolt, banded together to avenge the deaths, just as indiscriminately.
Turner strikes me as a kind of 19th-century Thomas Müntzer, of 16th-century peasant-rebellion fame. Müntzer, too, was an apocalyptic fanatic whose followers engaged in wanton acts of brutality. Lobaczewski discusses such paranoid preachers in Chapter 8 of Ponerology. And as he discusses in the context of ponerogenic associations in general, there is always a reason behind them. It’s understandable that the peasants would revolt, just as it’s understandable that the slaves would two hundred years later and on another continent. The just needed a suitably energetic figure to rally behind. Ponerology fills in the picture by describing the dynamics and features—why events occur in the manner they do. See the excerpts included in my recent article, “Oppression, Ponerization and Rabid Dogs”, for example:
Revolutionary and radical ideas find fertile soil among … people in downward socio-occupational adjustments [e.g. many peasants and slaves]. (Political Ponerology, p. 43)
Spiced by deviance, [pathological] visions and doctrines may influence naive rebels and people who have suffered actual injustice. Existing social injustice may then look like a justification for a radicalized worldview and becomes a vehicle for the assimilation of such visions. (p. 119)
The ideology of associations affected by such [pathological] degeneration has certain constant factors regardless of their quality, quantity, or scope of action, namely, the motivations of an aggrieved group, radical redress of the grievance, and the higher value of the individuals who have joined the organization. (p. 159)
According to Lobaczewski, the early stages of ponerogenesis and pathocracy are characterized primarily by the activities of people on the more normal end of the pathology spectrum, which he calls characteropaths (i.e. not psychopaths). It might seem somewhat paradoxical, but that usually includes the most violent periods, like the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Mass violence usually requires strong emotion as a motivating force, something psychopaths lack, and a reasonably large number of activists.
The reason such movements come to be dominated by psychopaths is that the violent frenzy whipped up by the paranoiacs, borderlines, and sociopaths creates perfect conditions for psychopathic operators. They may lack strong motivating emotions, but they are aren’t squeamish, and they’re perfectly at home in environments of chaos and destruction. In such situations they have no qualms about killing, torture, terror, civilian casualties, etc. They earn their reputations and gain influence in the group, until they end up running it. As Lobaczewski says, one type of evil opens the door to another.
It has been interesting to watch the dynamics of pro-Palestine and pro-Israel partisans online these past weeks with all this in mind. Not finding myself on either “team” (as Joe Biden apparently thinks of them), I can’t help but find some justification in the moral intuitions on both sides, similar to the slave and peasant rebellions mentioned above. Where each go wrong, however, is the lack of balance that would be provided from a more detached, ponerological perspective.
From the Israeli perspective, two obvious motivations for the current assault on the Gaza Strip are revenge and prevention (not to mention longstanding geopolitical considerations and aims—such as the reclaiming of what is seen as land that should be Israel’s, and which was part of the Jewish state in antiquity). “For every one of us killed, we will kill ten or a hundred.” (Some would prefer it go further than that.) Witnessing the terroristic elements of Hamas’s breakout into Israel naturally leads to feelings of incomprehension at the seeming inhumanity of the enemy, and the strong desire to see them removed permanently from the equation, thus preventing future attacks of this nature. Lobaczewski calls this the “moralizing interpretation,” and you can read his thoughts on it in pages 137-138 of his book.
From the Palestinian perspective, two obvious motivations for October 7 were revenge and escalation (not to mention longstanding geopolitical considerations and aims—such as the reclaiming of what is seen as occupied Palestinian land that was theirs 75 years ago, and which has progressively dwindled since then). A history of conflict that has seen something like 20 Palestinians killed for every 1 Israeli over the past 15 years, many of them children, naturally leads to feelings of incomprehension at the seeming inhumanity of the enemy, and the strong desire to “even the score.”1 “If you terrorize us with bombs and snipers, we will terrorize you.” Hamas will have known that Israeli would respond disproportionately, and are probably banking on the sympathy this response will continue to provide and the potential sparking of a wider war that they hope will see Israel suffer even greater losses.
One might say that it is unrealistic to expect detachment in such circumstances. Vengeance and the righteous execution of justice are some of the most basic human impulses. Another person’s barbarism justifies one’s own. (Though, of course, it’s not barbarism when we do it.) And when one’s group has just been attacked, or has been attacked and degraded repeatedly over the decades, there will always be a strong segment of the population clamoring for blood.
Detachment is a skill, and it’s in short supply. That’s why in a bar altercation, we rely on our friends to hold us back before doing something stupid, or to restrain us from taking the fight too far if violence was judged appropriate. Either way, there are limits, and we have trouble seeing them when our emotions have hijacked our ability for self-control.
It’s also easier to see the moral faults in another than in ourselves. This is just a fact of the common psychological worldview and the core beliefs that comprise it and underlie our cognitive biases. We tend to ascribe our enemies’ attacks to pure malice and our own to more noble motives. All of which acts as the first opening for ponerogenesis.
At most, moralizing should be reserved for normal people misbehaving, letting their emotions get the better of them, and rationalizing their own descents into functional psychopathy. At best, for those capable, it should probably be reserved for oneself. When our moralizing is applied to situations involving pathological factors, it ceases to be effective or useful. We just end up inspiring new cycles of ponerogenesis (witness Afghanistan and Iraq). Or at least, its usefulness is limited to the most basic level, which is essentially pure Machiavellianism and left-brain war strategy—useful in a rough sense, but only in the short term, and with a large margin of error.
Just assassinated the ruling prince? Then you’d better kill his entire bloodline and all his close supporters, or else you will be next, tomorrow or ten years from now. Besieging a city with an entrenched enemy skilled at guerrilla warfare? Level the town, killing everything in it. There is no threat when everyone is dead. Rebuild the city later if you want to claim it as your own, or just leave it a ruin.
These are perfectly “rational” strategies. They are also widely considered barbaric today—when others do them. Thus, at the very least, they are also impractical. If you engage in them, you will make even more enemies, both among the survivors of your extermination campaigns and the supporters or your enemies, as well as the moralists who see your actions as barbaric and inhuman. Those moralists who besieged and slaughtered the “human animals” then become the new barbarians, and the new moralists will then feel justified in slaughtering the new barbarians.
Additionally, acting like a barbarian is to adopt the mindset and behavioral patterns of functional psychopathy, bringing us back to the beginning. The more you act like a psychopath, the easier it is for an actual psychopath to operate within the conditions you have created. And if you happen not to be a psychopath, you’ll be next on the chopping block.
Summing up the progression of ponerological concepts as they play out in human events: due to our only roughly accurate common psychological worldview, we overstate our own goodness and that of the members of our group, thus blinding ourselves to the pathological members of our group (the first criterion of ponerogenesis).2 This blindness leaves us open to schizoid ideologies (like Marxism, or various strains of Islamism, Zionism, and some Muslim and Jewish sects) and the spellbinding effect of their paranoid preachers and propagandists (like Müntzer or Turner’s apocalypticism, the current strains of Gog-Magog apocalypticism that you mind in all three major monotheisms). The progressive deterioration of values, thinking, and decent behavior opens the door to psychopathy, and the ultimate result is a dissimulative pathocracy.
Applying this to current events, the Middle East (Israel included) is largely one big ponerogenic factory. Gaza is a ponerogenic ghetto controlled internally by a pathological network and externally by a foreign military power and all that comes along with that. Poverty, malnutrition, joblessness, socio-occupational maladaptation, daily violence, and pathocratic ideology designed to exploit conditions of misery and stoke vengeful emotions: all create ponerogenic conditions fostering the creation of multiple mental illnesses and psychopathologies, from PTSD to antisociality.
Israel is a democracy, in Lobaczewski’s sense, i.e. a dissimulative pathocracy-by-proxy lacking an obvious pathocratic macro-structure, but replicating its pathological features at various scales, e.g. in settlements, where pathological ideology runs rampant, or the IDF, where even normies experience some degree of transpersonification. Combine that with a siege mentality and you get similar conditions fostering the creation of multiple mental illnesses and psychopathologies, from PTSD to antisociality.
Hawkish or dovish tendencies both are insufficient to deal with such a problem. But a third option will require cool heads, which are unfortunately lacking.
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In his interview in Mikhaila Peterson’s podcast, Norman Finkelstein relates a conversation with a Hamas leader (who was later assassinated) back during the Second Intifada in which the leader expressed some satisfaction that they had succeeded in bringing the kill ratio from around 20:1 to something like 6:1. As Finkelstein put it, the thinking was strictly “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”—the “equality of corpses.”
Speaking of the first criterion, Netanyahu just provided an example, stating: “We are the people of the light, they are the people of darkness.” Like any good democratic politician, Netanyahu excels at moralizing; nuanced presentations of truth, not so much. You can also see it among the Western protesters who support Hamas.