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Marxcissism Is Real
New paper links left-wing extremism, psychopathy, and narcissism
Lobaczewski called it in 1984. I’ve been writing on it here for just over a year now. John Carter gave it a snazzy name: Marxcissism. Now the research psychologists are catching up: “Antagonistic narcissism and psychopathic tendencies predict left-wing antihierarchical aggression, study finds.”
Here’s what the authors, Ann Krispenz and Alex Bertrams, write in the abstract to their new paper, “Understanding left-wing authoritarianism: Relations to the dark personality traits, altruism, and social justice commitment”:
… as individuals with leftist political attitudes can be assumed to be striving for social equality, we expected left-wing authoritarianism to also be positively related to prosocial traits, but narcissism to remain a significant predictor of left-wing authoritarianism above and beyond those prosocial dispositions. … The results of multiple regression analyses showed that a strong ideological view, according to which a violent revolution against existing societal structures is legitimate (i.e., anti-hierarchical aggression), was associated with antagonistic narcissism (Study 1) and psychopathy (Study 2). However, neither dispositional altruism nor social justice commitment was related to left-wing anti-hierarchical aggression. Considering these results, we assume that some leftist political activists do not actually strive for social justice and equality but rather use political activism to endorse or exercise violence against others to satisfy their own ego-focused needs. …
I began this Substack with another vindication of Lobaczewski’s work: Hare et al.’s article on political psychopathy and human rights atrocities. It’s nice to have another, thirteen months later. So let’s dive in.
First, the authors summarize the recent research on leftwing authoritarianism (LWA), specifically that of Tom Costello (whom I interviewed here) and his colleagues. Costello et al. categorize LWA as a “tripartite construct” comprised of anti-conventionialism, top-down censorship, and anti-hierarchical aggression. Interestingly, “after controlling for political ideology, LWA anti-conventionalism was also associated with lower openness and higher dogmatism.”
Now, all my favorite people are anti-conventional to some degree. But it seems that this can approach a limit whereby it achieves a similar level of rigidity as the hardcore conventionalists.LWAs also “desire to impose” their progressive moral values on others—an element of coercion found in the other two main features. They have that in common with the rightwing authoritarians.
In Political Ponerology, Lobaczewski gives the reason for this anti-conventionalism and disdain for the existing social order. He points out that every society has a minority of “hyperactive individuals driven by an inner angst caused by a feeling of being different.” These are the narcissists (“pathological egotism,” he calls it), and psychopaths. Such people, by their nature, “dream of imposing their power and their different experiential manner upon their environment and their society” (p. 13). There’s your top-down censorship and anti-hierarchical aggression.
To individuals with various psychological deviations, such a social structure dominated by normal people and their conceptual world appears to be a “system of force and oppression.” Psychopaths reach such a conclusion as a rule. (p. 127)
On LWA aggression, Krispenz and Bertrams write:
… individuals might express their antihierarchical aggression by the endorsement of political violence to fight for social justice. Individuals with high levels of LWA are thus assumed to be hostile towards the present social and moral authorities while feeling morally superior and endorsing the use of violence to reach one’s own political goals.
And here’s Lobaczewski:
The ideology of [pathological social movements] has certain constant factors regardless of their quality, quantity, or scope of action, namely, the motivations of an aggrieved group [“hostile towards the present social and moral authorities”], radical redress of the grievance [“endorsing the use of violence”], and the higher value of the individuals who have joined the organization [“while feeling morally superior”]. These motivations facilitate sublimation of the feeling of being wronged and different, caused by one’s own psychological deficiencies, and appear to liberate their carriers from the need to abide by the insufficiently understood moral demands of “that other” world of normal people. (p. 159)
Next Krispenz and Bertrams discuss the work of Zeigler-Hill et al., which studied the relationship between LWA and narcissism, specifically, using Miller et al.’s three-dimensional conception of it: antagonistic, extraverted, or neurotic. This schema characterizes subclinical narcissistic individuals as
(1) demonstrating manipulative and exploitative behaviors, indulging in self-perceived entitlement, arrogance, reactive anger, distrust, lack of empathy, and thrill-seeking (so called antagonistic narcissism); (2) acclaim seeking, authoritative, indulging in grandiose fantasies, and demonstrating exhibitionism (so called extraverted narcissism); and (3) experiencing shame, low indifference, and a need for admiration (so called neurotic narcissism).
In their study, LWA was most associated with antagonistic narcissism. After controlling for various things like age and gender, Krispenz and Bertrams only found a correlation between the LWA subfacet anti-hierarchical aggression, specifically, and antagonistic narcissism:
Antihierarchical aggression represents the drive to use force to overthrow those in power and who endorse conservative values. The results of Study 1 suggest that this motivation can be more likely found in individuals who exploit others for their own interests, lack empathy, have a sense of entitlement, are arrogant and manipulative, demonstrate reactive anger and distrust others while at the same time seeking thrill.
Note Zeigler-Hill et al.’s conclusions:
… individuals with high levels of antagonistic narcissism may be ruthlessly motivated to endorse either right- or left-wing ideological attitudes depending on which of these attitudes seems to be more advantageous to them in a specific situation.
For example, an individual with a high level of antagonistic narcissism may engage in social justice (i.e., left-wing) protesting as long as they are not in a privileged position themselves.
What was that Lobaczewski wrote?
If, at the same time, a good deal of injustice does in fact exist in a given society, pathological feelings of unfairness and suggestive statements inspired by them can resonate among those who have truly been treated unfairly. Revolutionary doctrines may then be easily propagated among both groups, although each group has completely different reasons for favoring such ideas. The former see them as a means to realize their dreams; the latter unfortunately believe they will bring an improvement in their fate. (p. 127)
Their use of social justice as an ideology isn’t simply instrumental—though it is definitely that. Psychopaths actually have contempt for those who believe in it.
Pathocrats are conscious of their secret ideology, which derives from their deviant natures, and therefore they treat the official ideology with barely concealed contempt. (p. 207)
Psychopaths’ interest in such movements is not merely the result of their egoism and lack of moral scruples. These people have in fact been wronged by nature and repelled by society. An ideology liberating a social class or nation from injustice may thus seem to them to be friendly; unfortunately it also gives rise to unrealistic hopes that they themselves will be liberated as well. … They … insinuate themselves into such a movement preaching revolution and war against that “unfair” world so foreign to them and find their own roles within it. (p. 193)
And this is the ultimate danger of their “activism”:
The seizure of power in any country by pathological individuals can lead to the development of a brutal pathocracy … This happens regardless of what ideology this state of madness hides under. (p. 310)
On the expectation for leftwing authoritarianism (LWA) to be associated with prosocial traits, interestingly, Krispenz and Bertrams found no positive connection between LWA and altruism. They were actually negatively correlated. This supports the above split between two fundamentally different motivations for supporting a movement allegedly fighting for “social justice.”
In the Lobaczewski’s terms, a concern with social justice will be more associated with people concerned with actual unfairness or injustice (or at least the appearance of it). When actual injustice exists, altruistic people will be motivated to protest it in the hopes of bringing it to wider attention and ultimately rectifying it. However, as people with a normal emotional-instinctive substrate, they will not necessarily be particularly concerned with tearing down the entire social order, and they won’t be radically anti-conventional.
However, narcissistic and psychopathic revolutionaries ride this wave of discontent for their own reasons. They are more concerned with removing existing power structures, in which they are reviled as criminals and do not get what they want, and replacing them with one in which they hold the power and can impose their will on everyone else. After George Floyd, which the paper’s authors discuss in the context of LWA, many believed (and still do) that there is an epidemic of police killing unarmed blacks. In a country where racial disparities do exist, this creates the conditions for the narcissistic/psychopathic “capture” of any movement that springs up around these issues, like BLM.
On the subject of wider social movements with a focus on social justice, Lobaczewski writes:
Spiced by deviance, [narcissistic and psychopathic] 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)
In order to have a chance to develop into a macrosocial ponerogenic association, it suffices that some human organization, characterized by social or political goals and an ideology with some creative value, be accepted by a larger number of normal people before it succumbs to a process of ponerogenic malignancy. The primary traditional and ideological values may then, for a long time, protect an association which has succumbed to the ponerization process from the awareness of society, especially its less critical components, providing it with a peculiar “mask of sanity.” When the ponerogenic process touches such a human organization which originally emerged and acted in the name of political or social goals, and whose causes were conditioned by history and the social situation, the primary ideology changes its function to become an instrument of propaganda. (pp. 153-154)
Krispenz and Bertrams then looked for any connection between anti-hierarchical aggression and social justice commitment, using the Dark Triad (Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy) as personality variable instead of narcissism. They define social justice as a focus on issues like poverty, racism, and discrimination, with the outcome of “changing or transforming inequality among underprivileged subgroups within society to be more equitable.” After controlling for all other variables (e.g. age, gender, virtue signaling), psychopathy was the only correlation with LWA anti-hierarchical aggression—not narcissism or social justice commitment.
Interestingly, in this second study, neither Machiavellianism nor narcissism correlated with LWA aggression. The authors commented on this:
it is worth noting that psychopathy is – besides narcissism and Machiavellianism – also one of the three personality traits of the dark triad (Jones & Paulhus, 2014). Individuals with dark triad traits share several attributes – they are self-promoting, emotionally callous, and have a tendency to manipulate others to take advantage of them (Paulhus & Williams, 2002). Hence, all three dark triad traits are overlapping personality traits (Furnham et al., 2013). Nevertheless, each of these traits also has unique aspects: For psychopaths, the callousness is accompanied by a general disregard for social norms and the element of impulsivity (Jones & Paulhus, 2014). In contrast, Machiavellians are rather obsessed with gaining power, while narcissists display self-grandiosity and self-enhancement (Ok et al., 2021; Paulhus & Williams, 2002). Accordingly, the results of Study 2 showed not only significant correlations between the dark triad traits, but also revealed that each of these traits have unique aspects as only psychopathy was significantly predicting antihierarchical aggression.
In a ponerological context, perhaps we could say that Machiavellians are the ones who want to be in power (whether through conventional or revolutionary means). It may be worth thinking of such individuals as subclinical psychopaths (who score high on Factor 1 features of psychopathy and lower on Factor 2). Psychopaths, driven by their pathological emotional nature, are more inclined to impulsively violate social norms, without necessarily having the conscious intention of taking power politically.
Krispenz and Bertrams conclude this second study with the following:
… antagonistic narcissism … seems to represent a blend of narcissistic and psychopathic attributes … Taking all this into account, the results of Study 2 replicate the results of Study 1, showing that individuals who strongly endorse antihierarchical aggression to overthrow those in power are narcissistic individuals with psychopathic attributes and thus driven by ego-focused motives.
The Dark-ego-vehicle Principle
In their final remarks, the authors propose this as a principle underlying their findings:
According to this principle, individuals with dark personalities – such as high narcissistic and psychopathic traits – are attracted to certain ideologies and forms of political activism. We assume that such individuals use ideologies and political activism as a vehicle to satisfy their own ego-focused needs instead of actually aiming at social justice and equality. For example, a highly narcissistic/psychopathic person may participate in a pro-BLM protest pretending to fight against racism while actually using such protesting activities to meet their own aggressive motives and thrills (e.g., via violent escalations during pro-BLM protests). Further, such individuals might be attracted to pro-BLM activism, because this form of activism can provide them with opportunities for positive self-presentation (e.g., virtue signaling).
As they point out, this can apply to protests and movements on either end of the political spectrum. Along this line, I will share one final thought also inspired by Costello’s writing on LWA. The concepts of LWA and RWA (specifically, the trait of SDO, or social dominance orientation) are relativistic or context-specific. The personality features underlying both are the same: antagonistic narcissism or psychopathy. When such an individual is not in the existing power structure, he will adopt an LWA position. If he is operating from within it, he will adopt RWA. Simply put, a psychopath in power wants to stay there.
Once LWAs gain power, they become SDO-RWAs (i.e. authoritarian leaders, not followers). Alternately, if RWAs fall out of political favor, they can adopt an LWA strategy to regain it. The bottom line is that the essential feature is not ideological, but psychological, or rather, psychopathological.
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In Dabrowski’s terms, healthy anti-conventionialism can be called positive maladjustment. Rigid, all-encompassing anti-conventionalism is negative maladjustment. By the same logic, rigid conventionialism is negative adjustment, and reasonable conventionalism is positive adjustment.
Note that Lobaczewski also discusses ideologies that are created from the outset for just this purpose, crafted for the specific conditions of a target population.