Discover more from Political Ponerology
The Six Degrees of Evil Kevin Bacon
The Spectrum of Psychological Evil
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to understanding the nature of human evil is the tendency to think everyone is the same: like you. Reading some of the socialist philosophers of past centuries, one can’t help but smile at their quaint oversimplifications of human nature and naive utopianism.1 If only we could eliminate all private property, break the parent-child bond, and (in many socialist utopias) just share each other’s wives (or better, get rid of “oppressive” marriage and just make women communal sexual property),2 well, then everything would be golden. All the world’s evils would disappear (or at least be easily dealt with). Everyone would live in harmony, thinking the right thoughts (because parents and priests would have no influence on the children) and sharing all in a brotherhood of man (well, there might be a few holdovers who refuse to give up the old ways, but there’s always slavery or death for them). Treat everyone the same, and everyone will turn out the same—the way we want them to.
It’s kind of difficult to grok how men so seemingly intelligent could have been so profoundly stupid. It’s like the story of Aristotle (probably apocryphal, but who knows), apparently convinced until the time of his death that men had more teeth than women. As Bertrand Russell once quipped, he could have cleared up this misconception very easily by simply asking his wife to open her mouth. You don’t need to have had children to see it, but for those who have it’s obvious that even from a young age, the same tricks don’t work on everyone. There’s a very simple reason: people are different. Some are so rebellious that even a heavy hand won’t dissuade them from causing trouble; others so compliant that even the hint of a criticism is enough to change their behavior and inspire a lifetime of neurosis.
These geniuses seriously thought it would be heaven on earth to have every aspect of your life regulated: everyone would wear the same drab clothes, work would be universal and obligatory, professions predetermined, food would be strictly rationed, “families” (to the extent they are allowed to exist) modular and interchangeable. “Oh, George 42729, glad I caught you. Just wanted to let you know we’re transferring you over to Agro District Five. We had to exile Jerry for failing to meet his grain quota two seasons in a row, but that means we won’t be able to meet our conjugal relations quota this quarter, and the bosses are breathing down my neck about it. Since your appointed birthing person recently developed a viable post-coital embryo, your new quarters will be in dormitory 5-M73 with Jerry 41946’s ex-birthing person, AEG-0119, soon to be pregnant person AEG0119, am I right, George? <obnoxious laughter> Let’s go out for a bug burger sometime.”
But it really shouldn’t be so surprising. Some of these guys were truly f***ed in the head, clinically speaking. Like Meslier, who wanted “all the mighty of the world” strung up by the priests’ bowels. Or Deschamps, whose philosophy required the destruction of everything beautiful (poetry, painting, architecture, science)—because all forms of excellence are also products and expressions of inequality. And of course there’s Plato, the world’s greatest political pederast whose Laws seemingly served as the blueprint for all these deranged socialist fantasies. But the most stunning self-contradiction in their works is the worship of equality (to the point that everyone is quite literally the same in their collective mediocrity) and crass denigration of all inequality, right alongside the presence of obvious inequality in the form of the philosopher-king rulers of the socialist utopia (exempt from obligatory labor, standard dress codes, public housing, etc.) and rigid caste systems.
It’s not difficult to see what these kindhearted, “humanitarian” socialists’ true motivations probably were. They couldn’t stand the fact that other people had more property and power than they did, they had a pathological revulsion to family life with its attendant monogamy and authority, and perhaps above all, they wanted “liberation” from conventional morality. In sum, they were social/psychological misfits who simply couldn’t cope with real life’s complexities and the facts of human nature. Actual examples of injustice only reinforced and solidified what was already there: a profoundly anti-human substrate. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Despite the implicit acknowledgment of the necessity of inequality, the utopian socialists still viewed everyone as essentially the same. Society, religion, property, inequality had simply formed them in ways resulting in all the various evils of the world, such as crime. If the slate could be wiped clean, humanity could get a fresh start, and by treating everyone equally, they would become equal. Any differences would not be the result of any inherent inequality built into human nature, but simply that of social accidents—some infection by foreign or presocialist ideas, perhaps.
On the other hand, whether it’s the four humors or the modern Big Five (or any other personality schema), there have always been those who could see the obvious, and who developed a more or less accurate perception of psychological realities. Put very simply, people vary independently on all sorts of features, most notably talent. There are smart people who don’t get along well with others, unintelligent people who do. There are obsessive autists and lazy gluttons, creative geniuses and efficient bureaucrats, kindhearted neurotics and fearless sadists—creative gluttons, obsessive sadists, fearless bureaucrats, and any other combination you can think of. People with great memories, or people skills, or passion for the arts, or obsession with numbers. But with one’s head so far up one’s posterior, it’s quite easy to deny the obvious in exchange for a simple idea that takes all the bad stuff away. The comfort of certainty.
There’s a second stumbling block in addition to denying normal human variation, and that’s a blindness to certain forms of psychopathology. (I covered this in my first post on the first criterion of ponerogenesis.) Even those with an understanding of personality variations can balk when it comes to the idea of human evil, again falling back on social causation to explain why some people rape babies, some rob grandmas, others commit multiple murders, and still others do not remove their shoes before hopping onto their beds. If only society were different, then these clearly deranged people would surely grow up to be law-abiding, sociable citizens.3
A similar problem occurs when turning one’s gaze to political evil. You can see a bit of this in Desmet’s Psychology of Totalitarianism (see my 6-part series on it starting here). Desmet doesn’t dismiss the existence of psychopathy, for example. But he denies it plays any meaningful role in the genesis of political evil. The most he highlights is a rough, three-part division to humanity: those who resist mass formation (subdivided into those to privately resist and those who publicly resist), and those who succumb to mass formation to various degrees (leaders being the most extreme case).
I think part of the reason for blindness to the nature of human evil ultimately comes back to the tendency to assume the fundamental similarity of people (despite some “surface” variations). Some might not be socialized as well as others, some might have some exaggerated traits here and there, but fundamentally, we’re all human, right? Well, kinda. The easiest forms of psychopathology to see are the ones whose nature is most similar to psychological normality. The further away from the norm, the more difficult to see and not project normality where it isn’t.
Which leads me to my “Six Degrees of Evil Kevin Bacon” theory. Some typical forms of evil-generating psychopathology are more relatable than others, and their political prevalence (and relevance) tends to progress from the more relatable forms to the least relatable forms over time. Like the proverbial boiling frog, we don’t see what’s happening at first, because it’s so close to normal, and by the time we’re being ruled by what to many seem little different than freakish alien overlords or otherworldly demons it’s too late and we’re wondering how we got here.
Degree 1: Footloose narcissism. The universal pathology. A full-bell-curve type of trait. Everyone has a little, some have a lot. Some are better at hiding it than others. Some just don’t care. Some are “spiritual” narcissists, “living in the moment,” chasing the next high, checking themselves out in their yoga pants while quoting some Indian guru and sympathizing with some downtrodden minority. It feels good to be good. And it feels good to partake in all the good things in life. Because you deserve it. Rights, not responsibilities. Shallow social bonds. Superficial relationships. People like me, good; people not like me, bad. Really: who’s going to notice a pathological narcissist among such a crowd?
Narcissism, and all the moral weakness it brings—from namby-pamby cowardice to blowhard arrogance—is the ground in which all other pathologies grow. Which brings us to the spice of the bad life: the three emotionally “hot” seasonings of pathology. After all, we all go a little crazy sometimes.
Degree 2: Tremors of hysteria. Like Desmet suggests, this one is more of a “1 standard deviation or more”-type trait. Only the particularly emotionally suggestible need apply for entry. Most of us have probably experienced this in small doses—maybe falling for some fad or fashion, or engaged in an overly theatrical participation in the drama of our own lives. And we all know a hypochondriac or two. Or have an aunt who would have succumbed to a fit of the vapors on more than one occasion had she lived a hundred+ years ago. Anxiety attacks, psychogenic illness, a generalized hystericized state in which emotional thinking reigns, common sense declines, and social contagion spreads: eating disorders, suicide clusters, copycat attacks, late-onset gender dysphoria, furries.
Even if we may not all be susceptible, we recognize it is more or less normal. Who hasn’t had to engage in a little percussive maintenance, after all? “Get ahold of yourself, man!” We’re all familiar with outbreaks of hysteria, even if we can’t always realize when we ourselves are caught up in one. And through a strange form of mass-psychological asexual reproduction, hysteria gives birth to its own fraternal twin: paranoia.
Degree 3: paranoid Stir of Echoes. The heightened emotion of hysteria takes on a darker tone, adding elements of suspicion, hostility, projective thinking, and delusions. Paranoid mass movements are only really successful in a hystericized environment. Otherwise they tend to be limited in scope and fizzle out once they reach a certain level. To regular, non-hysterical people (“normies”), they just seem crazy—because more often than not, they are. But in times of social upheaval, that can change. That’s when a David Koresh might become a Lenin or a Khomeini. (History is riddled with more or less successful paranoid spellbinders: from Thomas Muntzer to Jim Jones, Meir Kahane to Louis Farrakhan.) Covid hysteria has given birth to its own paranoid variant, with the unvaxxed and unmasked feared as much or more than the virus itself.
But those under the grip of Covid hysteria and paranoia still lack those other core features of paranoid mass movements: exaggerated fears of conspiracy and loss of autonomy. Even if they have some basis in fact (e.g. I gave the example of the ubiquity of conspiracies in pre-Revolutionary Russia in a previous article), in the hands of a true paranoiac, conspiracy thinking gets out of control. The best recent example is that special form of mental illness known as QAnon.
All that said, paranoia is still relatable. Who hasn’t engaged in a little projection of hostility and blame every once in a while, harbored an exaggerated suspicion of powerful groups and individuals, felt unfairly victimized, or gone down a conspiracy-theory rabbit hole and entertained some pretty crazy theories along the way? Heck sometimes you’re right to be paranoid—or it’s a job requirement. It’s only when it crosses clear boundaries that it tends to lose its appeal for the average Joe. (The most effective political paranoids are those who pass as normal.)
Degree 4: borderline Wild Things. Our current flavor of the month. Stroll on over to TikTok or Twitter and practically all you’ll see is borderlines gone wild. The emotional dysregulation (violent mood swings, unhinged rants, and total lack of self-control), cognitive-perceptual impairment (also known as total lack of common sense), and impulsivity are off the charts. Combine narcissistic grandiosity and paranoid politics with borderline prefrontal brain dysfunction, and you get a Mao, Stalin, or Idi Amin. (Amin famously couldn’t understand what advisers or diplomats were saying to him, so he’d just say the first thing that came to mind and make that policy. When it created disaster, as it did with Mao and Stalin as well, he had to blame conspiracies and saboteurs rather than just admit he was a buffoonish idiot.)4
And even then, it’s easy enough to see borderline behavior as just exaggerated normal. We all know what it’s like to get emotional, to overreact. Or at least, we can imagine what it might take to throw us into a rage of reactive aggression. We know what it’s like to be irritable, to blow up on someone who just happened to catch us at a bad time. Even better, we all know what it’s like to be three years old.
Plus, guys like Amin and Stalin weren’t just superficially charming, from what I can tell. They were genuinely personable. But they were also the type to have you arrested and executed a day later.
So much for the “hot” flavorings. Now we approach the cold-blooded variety.
Degree 5: Hollow Man schizoidia. The odd man out (literally). Technically, schizoidal political influence begins as far back as before the age of narcissism. But the reason for its placement here is that it really is among the least relatable, and its influence spans the gamut of the spectrum, providing the ideologies made use of by pathocrats. The reason schizoids are able to have any political influence at all is precisely because most people don’t realize what they’re dealing with: political schizoids tend to hide behind the written word. They’re smart and they tend to be right about a lot of things—hyper-rationalistic, in fact, so their theories tend to have a type of internal logic. But they’re marred by the fact that schizoids have very little understanding or respect for human nature, emotional as it is. Ted Kaczynski is a typical example: brilliant, prolific, and not quite right in the head.
Interpersonally, however, it’s a different picture. In person, schizoids may be strange and difficult to get along with. They’re unpopular, not very sociable, emotionally detached, and can be off-putting. In its most malignant forms, this is school shooter territory. Add in pedophile apologists (Adam Lanza was that too), incels, miserable misanthropes, and theorists of all sorts (transhumanist, feminist, socialist, Islamist, Zionist, take your pick).
At least with the first four degrees of Evil Kevin Bacon, one can make the argument that “society” did contribute to the problem, roughly speaking. Babies can be dropped on their heads, parents can trigger major personality disturbances through neglect or abuse. Borderlines can create more borderlines through their parenting styles. But starting with schizoidia, this argument tends to break down. No, “bullying” doesn’t create the psychopathology underlying school shootings (though a case can be made for school shootings being at least in part a reaction to bullying, the latter being a reaction to the unfortunate features of the schizoid). The problem runs deeper. As Lobaczewski argues, here we are dealing with problems at the very root of what makes us human: our psychobiological emotional substratum. Schizoidia is like emotional anemia. Something important is lacking, and the cause seems primarily biological.
Rather than a bell curve, this is more of a “half-normal” distribution, probably similar to psychopathy, “with the majority having no traits, a significant proportion with non-zero values, and a severe subgroup of persons with multiple associated social and behavioral problems.”
Degree 6: Black Mass psychopathy. The granddaddy of them all. And the least relatable by far. The level of casual manipulation, exploitation, and instrumental violence engaged in by psychopaths is so unbelievable that many refuse to admit that’s what’s going on even after being shown the evidence. “Who could do that?” Psychopaths feel no remorse—it doesn’t matter what the crime is. They are incapable of love—which they think is a silly delusion. And they perceive the world of non-psychopaths as one designed to oppress them and keep them from just being themselves. (Because “just being themselves” is often enough for a life sentence or worse in most countries.)
Like schizoids, they do not understand normal social interactions, with all the emotional hues and shades that make them, well, human. But unlike schizoids, they learn to adopt what Cleckley called a “mask of sanity.” Quite literally, they pretend to be fully human—to have emotions, to show interest, to appear not be a manipulative con man. Like the aliens in They Live, they have to pretend to be something they’re not in order to get what they want and avoid prison or total social ostracism. This story always stuck with me:
Three decades of these studies, by Hare and others, has confirmed that psychopaths’ brains work differently from ours, especially when processing emotion and language. Hare once illustrated this for Nicole Kidman, who had invited him to Hollywood to help her prepare for a role as a psychopath in Malice. How, she wondered, could she show the audience there was something fundamentally wrong with her character?
“I said, ‘Here’s a scene that you can use,’” Hare says. “‘You’re walking down a street and there's an accident. A car has hit a child in the crosswalk. A crowd of people gather round. You walk up, the child’s lying on the ground and there's blood running all over the place. You get a little blood on your shoes and you look down and say, “Oh shit.” You look over at the child, kind of interested, but you’re not repelled or horrified. You're just interested. Then you look at the mother, and you’re really fascinated by the mother, who's emoting, crying out, doing all these different things. After a few minutes you turn away and go back to your house. You go into the bathroom and practice mimicking the facial expressions of the mother.’” He then pauses and says, “That’s the psychopath: somebody who doesn't understand what's going on emotionally, but understands that something important has happened.”
Unsurprisingly, psychopathy is the personality pathology least recognized as having any distinctly political significance. How wrong that is… But that’s all I’ll say about that, for now.
In sum, no, not everyone is the same. Not by a long shot. The cardboard cutouts of humanity presented in the socialist utopias do not exist, and therefore the ridiculous fiction of the socialist utopia will never exist. (Well, it might in a sense, but it’s never pretty and certainly not the paradise imagined by its dreamers.) A small minority are radically different. And as we sleepwalk through the crises of today, we only approach a more psychopathic reality, because we don’t see it coming. Maybe if we did, we could do something about it, but that seems unlikely.
Interestingly, the popular literature on these topics seems to have followed a similar trend (though selection bias on my part may play a role):
1895—Gustav le Bon’s The Crowd (hysteria)
1930—Harold D. Lasswell’s Psychopathology and Politics (hysteria and paranoia)
1997—Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post’s Political Paranoia (paranoia)
2007—Barbara Oakley’s Evil Genes (borderline and psychopathy)
2019—Dean Haycock’s Tyrannical Minds (psychopathy/Dark Triad)
Political Ponerology puts them all together and does a better job delineating the role of political psychopathy, so hopefully its time will come as well.
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The wall of shame (culled from Shafarevich): Plato, Dolcino, Muntzer, Johann of Leyden, More, Campanella, Winstanley, Vairasse, de Foigny, Fenelon, Fontenelle, Bretonne, Meslier, Morelly, Deschamps, Buonarroti, Babeuf—and that’s just up to the late 1700s.
Was utopian socialism the first incel political project? You tell me!
They have a point. If nutrition were better, heavy metal poisoning less prevalent, early childhood brain injury (whether through malnutrition, toxins, oxygen deprivation, or blunt trauma) eliminated, and a way found to correct the worst parenting practices, there probably would be much less crime. (See Adrian Raine’s Anatomy of Violence.) But those evils would not disappear completely.
Paranoids are the best fit for the overcompensation theory of douchebaggery. They really do have “low self-esteem,” or something like that, and project their own negative emotions, inadequacy, and low self-image onto others, who must then be demonized and/or destroyed. This theory, though widely applied, doesn’t work on psychopaths, however. Psychopaths really do think they’re awesome.