Sunday, 22 May 2011

Interlude: All of them Witches, psychopaths in high places

Proof, if it were needed, that the lessons of Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment have not been heeded comes from an article in the UK Guardian on Saturday – an excerpt from a new book by Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test.

In the article, Ronson talks to Robert Hare, FBI consultant on psychopaths and author of the 20 item psychopath checklist:

“Serial killers ruin families,” shrugged Hare. “Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.”

Ronson then goes off to interview an American corporate CEO, wondering if he is a psychopath.

Now Hare also featured in the book and movie, The Corporation.  He applied the psychopath checklist to the behaviour of corporations and found a remarkable match-up – superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, lack of empathy, irresponsibility, short-term goals – etc

But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t blame individual psychopaths in high places for “ruining the economy” (presumably he means the financial crisis) and simultaneously say that entities like corporations behave psychopathically. And thus ruin economies.

It may well be that there are an unusual number of psychopaths at the top of corporations. There might be lots of executives who get a kick out of firing workers or destroying rival companies. But it also doesn’t matter. Because there are also lots of non-psychopathic individuals at the top of corporations who don’t enjoy firing workers, but end up doing it anyway.

As The Corporation says, most corporate executives lead morally compartmentalized lives. “The people who run corporations are, for the most part, good people, moral people. They are mothers and fathers, lovers and friends, and upstanding citizens in their communities, and they often have good and sometimes even idealistic intentions.” They don’t, however, change “the corporation’s fundamental institutional nature: its unblinking commitment to its own self-interest”.

There is a parallel in Milgram’s experiment (see previous article). A few people who took part were clearly sadists. They enjoyed giving what they thought were electric shocks and gleefully went on to the end of the board. But most people who gave 450 volt electric shocks were not sadists and took no pleasure in what they did. But they did it just the same. In this context, and those of corporations, feelings don’t matter, actions do. As Milgram said: “Subjective feelings are largely irrelevant to the moral issue at hand so long as they are not transformed into action”.

If we concluded that the top levels of corporations and governments were honeycombed with psychopaths we could, in theory, try to hunt them all down and replace them with better, well-balanced people. But it would be futile. The well-balanced people would either not last five minutes, or else would do what the institutions required them to do.

 In the words of economist Richard Wolffe, "Capitalism systematically organises its key institutions of production - the corporations - in such a way that their boards of directors, in properly performing their assigned tasks, produces crises, then undermine anti-crisis reforms, and thereby reproduce those crises."
"Hence," he says, "attention is slowly shifting to questioning the one aspect of capitalism that was never effectively challenged, let alone changed, across the last century and more: the internal organization of corporations."

Psychopaths are not required for economies to be ruined.

The debate over whether the psychopath maketh the corporation or the corporation maketh the psychopath might appear an enjoyable down the pub, chicken and egg question. But it’s more than that. Depending on the answer, we could take a significant step to understanding the state we’re in, or retreat further into the comforting delusions of mind-numbing conservatism.

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