This is an edited collection of excerpts from my book/pamphlet The Hegemony of Psychopathy.
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The Holocaust has received surprisingly little attention from social and political philosophers. This is surprising because the scale and extent of the atrocities involved in the Holocaust should be impossible to ignore. If we humans can do that, then that makes a difference — or should make a difference — for our beliefs about the ideal society, for example. At the very least, we should want to organize society to avoid any recurrence.
Among the very few philosophical texts that explicitly deal with the Holocaust, three stand out as especially important — at least, in my opinion. These three are Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, Norman Geras’s The Contract of Mutual Indifference, and Robert Nozick’s “The Holocaust”.1
The last — at a mere 7 pages — is by far the shortest of the three, but by no means the least important. Nozick argues that after the Holocaust, “mankind has fallen” and “humanity has lost its claim to continue”.2 Of course, he doesn’t deny or even play down the many other horrendous atrocities committed by men, but he maintains that the scale and extent of the Holocaust is such that it “alone would have been enough”, and that “the Holocaust sealed the situation and made it patently clear.”3 Nozick imagines alien observers, visitors from another galaxy, looking at human history:
It would not seem unfitting to them, I think, if that story came to an end, if the species they see with that history ended, destroying itself in nuclear warfare or otherwise failing to be able to continue. These observers would see the individual tragedies involved, but they would not see . . . any further tragedy in the ending of the species. That species, the one that has committed that, has lost its worthy status.4
Nozick goes on to ask himself whether there is anything we can do to “redeem ourselves.” He suggests that perhaps,
we need to change our own nature, transforming ourselves into beings who are unhappy and who suffer when others do, or at least into beings who suffer when we inflict suffering on others or cause them to suffer, or when we stand by and allow the infliction of suffering.5
The English noun “compassion” comes from Latin “com-patī” (through Old French), which literally means “to suffer with.” Hence, etymologically, to have compassion for someone is to suffer with that someone, to share their suffering. This is the kind of compassion that Nozick points at in the above quote. A compassionate being — in this sense — is a being that suffers when others do, and therefore, if Nozick’s call for “redemption” makes sense, we should be(come) compassionate beings.
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Even if Nozick’s call for redemption sounds just a tad too religious for your preferences, his (implicitly) suggested link between compassion (or empathic concern) and atrocity is not that far-fetched. Perhaps we do not need compassion (and other kinds of empathy) to redeem ourselves, but we certainly need it to avoid recurrence of the Holocaust and to end the history of (in-)human atrocity. Unfortunately, we are moving in the opposite direction: rather than compassion, cultural psychopathy is spreading. And the consequences thereof do not just include atrocities, but also the ongoing destruction of environments, communities, countries, and almost everything else most of us care about.
Of course, I’m not claiming that “psychopathy” explains everything that is wrong in the world. Nor am I dismissing or even devaluing the many acts of compassion that occur and have occurred in any age. What I will be arguing in this essay is that psychopathy as a cultural phenomenon is one of the most destructive forces in the history of mankind, and that this cultural psychopathy has become “hegemonic,” which has important implications for any attempt at a remedy.
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Psychopaths lack empathic concern, lack the ability or willingness to engage in perspective taking and projection, lack remorse or guilt, are egocentric and manipulative, and so forth.
A distinction needs to be made between individual psychopathy and cultural psychopathy or “psychopathy as cultural phenomenon.” Psychopathy in the latter sense is a disorder of cultures or societies rather than individuals, although the two disorders are closely related. Cultural psychopathy is the acceptance or even approval by some culture or social group of individual psychopathy as normal rather than deviant; it is the normalization of individual psychopathy.
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It is easy to discern the devaluation of goodness, of empathy, and of care everywhere in society. Child-care, nursing, care for the elderly, and so forth are underrated and underpaid, for example, and a ruthless banker, lawyer, or CEO enjoys much more prestige than someone who gives care. So much more, in fact, that if prestige would be quantified, the prestige of care-giving professions would be measured in negative numbers. Non-professional forms of care are similarly devalued and belittled (and usually left to women). Cultural psychopathy turns caring/empathy from a virtue into a weakness, but also into an act of subversion. Empathy/care must be devalued, because the very existence of empathy denies the belief in the “naturalness” of egocentricity that the hegemony of psychopathy relies on.
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As mentioned above, cultural psychopathy is the acceptance or even approval by some culture or social group of psychopathy as normal rather than deviant — that is, as the normalization of psychopathy. And (individual, rather than cultural) psychopathy was characterized by a lack of empathic concern, a lack of remorse, egocentricity, and a number of other deficiencies with regards to the willingness and/or ability to take others into account.
My main claim in The Hegemony of Psychopathy is that cultural psychopathy is hegemonic, and thereby has become a pervasive aspect of modern culture. The notion of hegemony in this sense was developed by Gramsci on the basis of ideas by Machiavelli and others. The core of Gramsci’s theory is that political control can have only two bases: hegemony and force. There are only two ways to make someone do what you want him to do: either he accepts your command, or you force him (by means of violence or the threat of violence, or otherwise). The first is hegemony. Hence, hegemony is the acceptance of and consent to the socio-political status quo. Hegemony works through the spontaneous, uncritical acceptance of the values and beliefs that support that status quo.
The hegemony of psychopathy is maintained and promoted by means of (at least) four “pillars”: the mass media and “culture industry,” mainstream (neoclassical) economics, “critique,” and (higher) education. The mass media and culture industry promote egocentricity and normalize psychopathy, numb the senses (particularly our sense of empathy) by means of a continuous exposure to violence, and actively spread hegemonic values and beliefs in “news” and infotainment. Mainstream economics promotes a picture of man as psychopath, gives the (false!) hegemonic belief that “there is no alternative” the status of “scientific fact,” and makes people and societies more psychopathic through policy and indoctrination. (And in addition to all that, mainstream economics is also responsible for the lack of development in most of the “developing” world, and the consequent suffering, as well as for environmental degradation, among others.) And hegemony effectively undermined critique — often with the help of the “critics” themselves — and impoverishes (higher) education.
These pillars support the hegemony of psychopathy directly by manufacturing and reinforcing consent through “education,” news and infotainment, and the continuous repetition of the so-called “realist” mantra that there is no alternative. But they also support the hegemony of psychopathy in a more indirect way by spreading and promoting the values and beliefs that support hegemony on the long term. Particularly, the first two of these pillars actively promote egocentricity and erode empathic concern (by devaluing or even dismissing empathy and care), and all four undermine any kind of nonconformity or dissent.
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The Machiavellian core of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is that a state’s socio-political control (i.e. its power) can rest on two and only two bases: “spontaneous” acceptance/consent, and brute force. The term “hegemony” (or “cultural hegemony”) refers to the first of these two: to the spontaneous acceptance of and/or consent to the socio-political status quo.
Gramsci’s theory has some important implications. First and foremost, if in some state hegemony breaks down, the hegemones can only rely on brute force to remain in control, and the weaker hegemony (i.e. the weaker the acceptance of the hegemones’ power/authority), the more force is needed.6 If the hegemones cannot sufficiently compensate the decline of hegemonic control with force (or if a government is toppled, and the new government has insufficient hegemonic support and insufficient access to force), then society may collapse into civil war, especially if there are multiple belief systems competing to take over from the old hegemonic beliefs.
Furthermore, because brute force is costly and most likely to reduce hegemonic support (because people are less willing to spontaneously consent to a regime that is killing them), this implies that if some group of revolutionaries wishes to take control of a state — and keep it — then it needs to assure that it has sufficient hegemonic support before it attempts to take control. This means that before any actual struggle for power can begin, there has to be a struggle against the dominant, hegemonic values and beliefs, and an attempt to replace them — as much as possible — with counter-hegemonic values and beliefs that simultaneously reduce hegemonic support for the current regime and raise support for the new one, waiting to take over. Gramsci called this the “war of position.” Only after that phase in the revolutionary struggle has been passed successfully — that is, when the group’s counter-hegemonic ideology has found sufficient support — the “war of manoeuvre” in which the revolutionairy group actually attempts to gain control can start.
This is one of the most important lessons that any would-be revolutionary or reformer can learn from Gramsci (or Machiavelli): the struggle of ideas must precede the struggle for power. It is not a lesson well-learned, however, as many revolutionaries, reformers, and other kinds of political activists appear to be unaware of the power of hegemony in preserving the status quo. (One cannot say they assume that they have already won the “war of position” — because they don’t know that term and what it means — but many appear to be acting on that assumption.) Any would-be revolutionary or reformer must counter hegemony if the change she wishes to produce conflicts with the hegemones’ interests. A sufficiently persistent activist may be able to get some results — as long as it is more opportune for the hegemones to give in to her demands than to resist them — but never will these lead to significant change. Hegemony resists change (except if it is in the hegemones’ interest), and without a change in hegemony no significant change is possible. Hence, an environmental activist is deluding herself if she beliefs she can save the planet by focusing on specific environmental problems while ignoring the hegemonic beliefs that caused — and will keep causing — them. And a Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, or Hindu wishing to live in a more compassionate society—that is, a society more in line with the teachings of her religion — is similarly deluding herself if she believes that that is possible without fighting — and defeating — the hegemony of psychopathy. To fight hunger, you have to fight hegemony. To fight poverty, you have to fight hegemony. I can easily extend this list, but the point should be clear already: except if you’re rich and/or powerful and without a conscience, the hegemony of psychopathy is your enemy.
- Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking, 1963). Norman Geras, The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy After the Holocaust (London: Verso, 1998). Robert Nozick, “The Holocaust,” in The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations, 236-42 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989).
- Nozick, “The Holocaust,” 238.
- Nozick, “The Holocaust,” 238.
- Nozick, “The Holocaust,” 238-39.
- Nozick, “The Holocaust,” 240.
- Hannah Arendt made a very similar argument in “On Violence,” differing mainly in the substitution of the terms “power” and “violence” for Gramsci’s “hegemony” and “force.” Arendt’s concept of power is related to legitimacy and acceptance. If a state loses power—in Arendt’s sense of that term—it must and will rely on violence to remain in control. See Hannah Arendt, “On Violence,” in Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 101-98.