The Special Patrol Group: posters go up on the Tube (picture credit: Strike! Magazine)
EARNING ONE’S KEEP
“- to be worth one’s keep, or salt . Work well enough to deserve what one is paid, as in Get a job – it’s time you earned your keep. The keep in this phrase refers to “room and board,” which in former times sometimes constituted the only reward for working (on a farm, in a home, etc.). The salt stands for “salary” and alludes to the ancient Roman practice of paying soldiers an allowance to buy salt. [First half of 1800s]”
NOW GET BACK to WORK
Interview by Charlotte England / January 5, 2015
This morning, many sleepy, grumpy, bloated people across the country returned to their jobs for the first time since before Christmas. Some of those people in London – the country’s largest hub of early morning misery – were made to stop and consider the numb feeling inside of them by 200 posters that someone had plastered up in ad spaces on the tube, with depressing quotes such as: “How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?”
The quotes were taken from LSE anthropology Professor and activist David Graeber‘s article ” On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs“, which explained that much modern employment is pretty much pointless, and the toll having to do them takes on everyone’s mentality. The article went viral in 2013 and hasn’t lost its relevance since. The poster campaign seemed to be a re-run of the anti-police posters that went up before Christmas. Just like back then, the Bullshit Job posters were designed by STRIKE! magazine, which ran the original article. Nobody knows who put them up though, least of all Graeber, so I decided to call him up and chat about why everything I do is a meaningless waste of time.
Hi David. Apparently 200 “counter-propaganda” posters have been put up on the tube today quoting an article you wrote on ” bullshit jobs. How do you feel about that?
David Graeber: You know to be perfectly honest, I didn’t even know in advance about the action. I was thinking of going in to work today myself. Oddly, I was going to bring a picture with me – the one from the Bullshit Jobs piece – that someone gave me as a birthday present, to my office, to use as a “Do Not Disturb” sign. It was a very pleasant way to wake up: to check Twitter and see pictures of phrases that I had said. I guess the idea is that today’s the first day people are going back to work, so I’m assuming whoever did it wants people, after having spent time with their families and doing things that they truly care about, to reflect on whether the job they’re going to is meaningful – what they actually think about it, and also the value of what they’re doing.
Can you explain what you mean by “bullshit jobs”?
When I came up with the phrase, I was particularly interested in what the subjective value of one’s work is. There are millions of people who go to work everyday, and feel that maybe one hour of their work is actually contributing something to the world, and maybe not even that – maybe they’re actually subtracting from the world by what they do. I was interested in the effect this has on people.
So do you think someone is just making up pointless jobs to keep us working? One of the phrases on the posters suggested that.
Obviously it’s not like people are sitting around in a room saying, you know, “Let’s think up pointless jobs!” but it is true that people who talk about economic policy talk about creating employment but never talk about whether that employment is meaningful or not. This completely contradicts what should happen in a capitalist system. You know, we’re used to thinking of the Soviet Union as an economy where they had an ideology of full employment and they had to make up jobs for people that were completely unnecessary and pointless; you’d go to a cashier and one gives you a ticket and another does something else and another something else – they were constantly making up these pointless jobs. It’s understandable that this would happen in an economy that is based on the principle of work as a value unto itself and full employment and so forth and so on. But in a capitalist society, paying somebody to do nothing is the very last thing you’d expect a firm to do, but in fact they do and often you can observe it. In a lot of the responses I got on blogs, people would talk about how they had figured out a way to automate 90 percent of their job or whatever, and they’d say, “I showed it to my supervisor and they said, ‘Don’t do that! If you do that, I’ll need three workers instead of eight workers and I’ll be much less significant within the corporation.'” The corporate bureaucracy is not that different to what happened in the old Soviet system.
Why do you think many people are unemployed and actually wish they had any job – even a bullshit job – to do?
I think one thing that’s really significant is an ideological shift, away from the idea that work is valuable in that it produces stuff. It’s kind of self-evident that, n the 19th century, work was important to produce the world around us. But over the course of the 20th century there’s been a huge effort to re-imagine the world; it’s the imagination of these great entrepreneurial geniuses that create all these things – workers are just robots, working in the factories, doing what they’re told, extensions of the minds of these quite great people. It seems there has been an increased emphasis on work as of pure value unto itself.
You say bullshit jobs do moral and spiritual damage. How come?
There’s this idea that work is discipline – you can’t become a mature, responsible, self-contained, proper person without basically working more than you want to at things you don’t really like. The more unpleasant work is, the more moralising it is. And that logic has become stronger and stronger and stronger, so anybody who doesn’t work you can revile as a parasite. But we have this weird thing now where even people who enjoy their work are viewed a bit suspiciously. We have this weird situation where the more obviously your work contributes to the world, the less they pay you, with a few exceptions like surgeons, airline pilots, things like that. But for the most part the people who get paid the most are people who it is entirely unclear what they contribute to the world at all. Meanwhile people like say, a nurse – the people who, if they disappeared, the world would immediately be in trouble – those guys get the least. How does that happen? I think one of the reasons is passive morality – that, like, work is valuable because you don’t wanna be doing it and there’s no meaning or value in it at all. It’s really hard to get a company to pay people to do something when they have any reason to do so other than the money. So even if it’s like transformation work or artistic work – anything that’s in any way fun – they say, “Is there some way we can get people to do this for free?”
So for society, what’s the alternative to creating bullshit jobs – how should we organise so that people have to do fewer hours of work in a job that has a point to it?
I think there are any number of different ways. One interesting programme would be a basic minimum income system – they’re playing around with that in Switzerland. Instead of your wage being dependent on your work, you just give everybody a flat rate and have them decide for themselves how they want to contribute to society. And people do want to contribute in some way. We have this idea that people left to their own devices will just be parasites – they’ll lounge about and not do work – but that’s clearly not the case. The example I go to is prisons, even here [in the UK], they actually use work to reward people. Here are people who are not particularly altruistic – they’re criminals, after all – and they’re in a situation where they get food and shelter and they could just sit around all day but actually they’re so eager to do something rather than just sit around that they’d rather work. I think people really do want to do something. I remember being very struck by Dostoyevsky, who was in a Russian prison camp, and he said if you really want to destroy someone psychologically, much worse than through physical torture, just make up a completely meaningless form of work. You know, have them take water from some giant vat and then move it back to the first vat again. Have them do that all day and before long even the most hardened criminal will be utterly despairing of life, because there’s nothing more horrible than devoting one’s life to something completely meaningless. I mean, you know, sure, there will be some freeloaders, but we’ve got more freeloaders right now.
What would you suggest to people reading this, or who saw excerpts of your article on the tube today, and are wondering if their jobs are bullshit?
I’m not really there to tell people what to do with their lives. But if you can find something that actually helps other people and you can still afford to feed your family, you might want to consider that. I think that’s most people’s dilemma: I remember this very clearly from Occupy Wall Street – people would tell the story of their lives on little post-it notes, and the vast majority complained about their lives a lot. [They’d say] “I want to have a job where I actually contribute something to society, I want to be in education, I want to be a nurse, I want to help society.”
What is a non-bullshit job?
A job that isn’t bullshit should have concrete benefits to other people. But we can’t do jobs that aren’t bullshit because of debt. That’s a great dilemma from which [the Occupy] movement actually started I think. I would say to unions and organisers, think about that, redefine what is valuable about work – work is valuable if it makes other people’s lives better. It would be nice if we were rewarded for making people’s lives better, not punished. From an individual point of view, think about the way that you can navigate that with your own conscience.
on the PHENOMENON of BULLSHIT JOBS
by David Graeber / August 17, 2013
“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by century’s end that countries like Great Britain or the United States would achieve a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it. Why did Keynes’ promised utopia – still being eagerly awaited in the ‘60s – never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true.
Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ‘20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers. So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be). But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones. These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”
It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is exactly what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the very sort of problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens. While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organising or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.
The TMI spokeswoman said whomever did this would have had to physically break into the trailer-based sign. But she did acknowledge the possibility that it’s wi-fi enabled.
The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them. Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done – at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does. I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.
Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate objections: “who are you to say what jobs are really ‘necessary’? What’s necessary anyway? You’re an anthropology professor, what’s the ‘need’ for that?” (And indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure.) And on one level, this is obviously true. There can be no objective measure of social value. I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, “taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.” Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.
There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely. Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is. This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.
Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?” If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the – universally reviled – unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.”
or HOW to LOOK BUSY
Slacking Workers of the World Unite – We’ve made an art of wasting time at work. But to what end?
by Lindsay Beyerstein / Jan 1, 2015
It turns out that slacking requires ‘planning, collaboration, risk calculation and ethical consideration.’ Seventy percent of porn viewing and 60 percent of online shopping take place during business hours. Studies indicate that worldwide, the average employee spends about 1 to 3 hours a day goofing off at work. In Empty Labor: Idleness and Workplace Resistance, Roland Paulsen, a scholar of business administration at Lund University in Sweden, sets out to understand what he calls empty labor, which includes anything a worker does on the clock that isn’t work—be it surfing the web, sleeping, organizing the office football pool, or writing a doctoral dissertation on the sly. Paulsen focused on the most extreme shirkers. He interviewed 43 Swedish workers who claimed to spend less than half of their work hours actually working. He tracked down these hardcore non-performers through friends of friends, web ads and the Swedish website maska.nu, where people share slacking stories and tips. Most were white-collar workers, but a construction worker, a security guard and several house cleaners also participated. Paulsen’s interviews were designed to answer two basic questions: How do you get away with this? and Why do you do it? It turns out that slacking off is serious business: “ ‘Doing nothing’ while at work can be a very demanding activity requiring planning, collaboration, risk calculation, and ethical consideration,” Paulsen observes. Some subjects turned shirking into a game they found more meaningful than their actual jobs.
Even when productivity is difficult to measure, presence is easily quantified. In order to get ahead, workers have to be seen to show up early and leave late. Many of Paulsen’s informants said they put a lot of effort into punctuality and attendance (as well as personal grooming), which made managers less likely to question their low performance. Paulsen concludes that the most successful slackers have jobs with high “opacity,” which means that other people have a hard time grokking what they actually do or how long it’s supposed to take. Uber-slackers are taking advantage of a feature of the modern economy: It is unusually conducive to empty labor. We are often told that people are working longer and harder than ever, and that may well be true, on average. But in many jobs, work has become decoupled from tangible production, making productivity difficult to measure. A web developer told Paulsen that her team gave inflated time estimates for projects they didn’t want to do, and nobody could contradict them, because only the web team knew how long it should take to build a website. When a client wanted to put flying sanitary napkins on a company website, the team claimed it would take weeks, instead of the short time it would actually require. On the question of why people spend so much time goofing off, Paulsen distills some common themes. Some said their jobs were so miserable, or so meaningless, that they felt compelled to goof off in order to endure them. Others said they wasted time at work to get back at an abusive boss, annoying coworkers or a firm that stole their wages. Paulsen was surprised to discover how much empty labor was involuntary. Subjects often told him they were simply trying to occupy themselves because there wasn’t enough work for them to do, either because their workload waxed and waned or because their managers were too incompetent to make sure they had enough to do. A few said they wasted time in order to rebel against the system generally. “It’s like killing two birds with one stone,” a security officer told Paulsen, “You both avoid selling yourself entirely, and still get paid for watching movies.” The officer said slacking was his preferred method of “being a thorn in the side of capitalism.” Unlike union activities, which never seemed to him to produce results, slacking paid off right away.
Paulsen isn’t the first to make the connection between slacking and resistance. The Industrial Workers of the World, which flourished in the early 20th century, endorsed various work-thwarting-tactics, ranging from “soldiering” (going through the motions, as slowly as possible) to shirking to sabotage. Unlike their sworn enemies at the American Federation of Labor, who championed the intrinsic dignity of labor and envisioned a future of well-paid jobs for all, the IWW Wobblies saw waged work as a coercive system that should be resisted overtly and covertly: If you couldn’t strike, you should shirk. In their view, shirking was a kind of redistribution of wealth because you got the same pay for less effort. Paulsen raises an important question: If slacking is an effective form of resistance, why don’t employers do more to combat it? If the average worker really spends a quarter of her eight-hour day slacking off, that’s a huge inefficiency. Slacking is by definition covert, but management must also be somewhat complicit, turning a blind eye to infractions. The Internet is a major time-waster, and most employers say they monitor employees’ web use. It seems like bosses could easily crack down harder, if they wanted to. Some of Paulsen’s white-collar subjects told him that being allowed to slack off made them feel important. In this view, permitting some slacking can be a very cheap perk. Ignoring the occasional extended lunch hour is a bargain if it makes workers feel like valued professionals who are paid for their output rather than harried wage-earners who must account for every minute of their time. Who knows? Some employees might even be willing to compromise on salary or benefits in exchange for a “fun” or “laid back” workplace. Perhaps this explains why Google and some other “new economy” companies have proudly institutionalized empty labor, with workplace amenities like video game consoles, nap pods and beer nights. Some of these are offered in the name of reducing stress or enhancing creativity. Cynics, however, say that corporate “cultures of fun” are really cultures of cut-rate bribery, where companies induce workers to put in more hours with cheap incentives, instead of paying them better wages. Paulsen also suggests that the celebration of empty labor by tech companies is a form of corporate conspicuous consumption. He thinks Google is showing off what a rich company it is by flaunting the amount of paid idleness it supports.
Unlike Paulsen’s subjects, the Wobblies weren’t content to eke out an illicit nap here, or a few “unearned” dollars there. For the IWW, soldiering and shirking were means to a larger end. They saw soldiering and shirking as components of organized resistance within rapidly modernizing factories where workers’ control over their output was being usurped by assembly-line production and “scientific management.” The Wobblies’ ultimate goal was to unite all working people into One Big Union that would seize the means of production and abolish work for wages. Paulsen’s slackers have no such grand ambitions. Even the most politically minded see slacking as a way to extract as much as they can for themselves from the existing system. Empty labor can make stifling jobs feel more meaningful, but it’s hard to see how this constitutes resistance, if it enables people to keep doing the same bad jobs. Paulsen concludes that rampant slacking isn’t hurting capitalism all that much. Nor is he convinced that slacking off at work is an effective form of psychological resistance, given that many subjects saw their idleness as involuntary or unenjoyable. In the end, the most Paulsen can say about empty labor is that it underscores the absurdities of an economy where people are paid for their time rather than their output. Huge numbers of people are working significantly fewer hours than they’re getting paid for, and the system grinds on just the same. This is the shoddy reward that workers get for dramatically increased productivity: The work of an 8-hour day now fits comfortably into a 6-hour day. Corporate profits are skyrocketing, but the average worker is still obliged to sit around for 8 hours, on call for the boss. So, who’s stealing time from whom?
YOUR BOSS is PSYCHO (cont.)
The Battle of Our Time : Breaking the Spell of the Corporate State
by Nozomi Hayase / January 05, 2015
In late 2010, political activist John Perry Barlow tweeted: “The first serious info-war is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops.” In the last four years, new insurgencies have arisen from cyberspace to participate in the battle against government corruption and secrecy. From Snowden’s disclosure of NSA mass surveillance to the release of the CIA torture report evidencing war crimes and murder of innocent people, a crisis of legitimacy and moral depravity of authority are becoming increasingly undeniable. All of this reveals an invisible force of governance working to control the thought and perceptions of the greater population for nefarious ends. In his 2006 seminal writing “Conspiracy as Governance,” WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange noted how the secrecy regime works as “a system of interacting organs, a beast with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls…” As was seen in the recent secret economic treaties like TPP and TISA exposed by WikiLeaks, systems of national governance have evolved into a global network that undermines the sovereignty of countries and the rights of people and puts corporate profit above all else. What is this beast-like being that conspires behind a veil of secrecy? Thomas Sheridan, author of “Puzzling People: The Labyrinth of the Psychopath” (2011) pointed to the existence of a small minority in present society who are in positions of power and manifest what he characterizes as a predatory consciousness. He identified them as exhibiting a particular psychological condition categorized as the pathology of psychopathy.
Strangers Among Us
In recent years, interest in psychopathy and its manifestation in society seems to have grown rapidly. Hollywood movies are filled with aggressive criminal characters. From Hannibal Lecter in the movie Silence of the Lambs to serial killers like Ted Bundy, most people associate this pathology with popular culture’s sensationalized image of violent individuals who are locked up in prison. Yet many who exhibit marked traits of psychopathy (estimated to be about 1 % of adults in the general population) are not outright criminals and they don’t end up in jail. In Psychopathy of Everyday Life, Martin Kantor (2006) debunks the stereotypical image that overly associates psychopaths with violence and argues how a majority of them walk among us, blending in with our friends and families. Behind these pervasive portrayals of psychopaths as violent murderers, the real danger of pathology infiltrating society and its very structures goes unnoticed. Psychopathy expert Robert Hare offered a profile of those psychopaths as people without conscience. Hare created a checklist of symptoms including the absence of remorse, pathological egocentricity, lying, callousness and superficial charm. He pointed to the primary characteristic as a lack of empathy. This absence of empathy is also manifested physically. New studies using brain imaging technology show how this is reflected in the hardwiring of their brains. Kent A. Kiehl and Joshwa W. Buckholtz share the conclusion of neuroscientists, that contrary to the general view that psychopaths are simply selfish, their emotional development is impaired due to the way their brains process information differently from others. Humans as social beings generally develop identity in relationship with others. In what many consider healthy development, individuals cultivate a sense of self that grows organically out of a communal ground. Individual thoughts are informed by social emotions that precede them. Upon such empathic foundations, one naturally develops a capacity for self regulation; the ability to restrain impulses and primal urges and make decisions for their actions in a manner that considers the rights and needs of others. On the other hand, those among us who quietly harbor psychopathic tendencies follow a different line of development. Whether it is by nature or nurture or other factors within, early in life these people fail to secure the attachment to a caregiver that is needed to develop a cohesive sense of self rooted in concrete reality. Through this delinking from interconnected existence, they develop extreme egocentricity and experience the world in isolation, perceiving themselves as intrinsically independent from others.
Reid Meloy, a clinical psychology professor researching psychopathy articulated how the house of the psychopath is built upon a grandiose self-structure. They live in a presocialized emotional world. Psychopaths do not experience the full range of emotions that spring from an empathic ground. They might experience intense emotions, but these are short lived. They have shallow affects often manifested as anger, contempt and self pity, while viewing emotions such as sympathy, compassion and love that are expressions of human bonding as signs of weakness or negative attributes that one must dissociate from. Psychiatrist Liane Leedom noted how scientists describe this condition as “emotional callousness” and claimed that this contributes to “their inability to love.” She pointed to how they “would experience fleeting feelings of affection, but the joy they get from these feelings is far less than the joy they get from having power and control over others.” This emotional poverty creates a kind of systemic moral blindness. Psychopaths can understand basic differences between right and wrong and except for a small population, most do not break laws or even engage in criminal acts. Yet, this seemingly lawful behavior is not motivated by an inner sense of morality that concerns the wellbeing of others, rather it arises to simply escape punishment. They are free from emotional strings and stay aloof; unaffected by the anxiety, guilt or pain that most people feel when they see someone in distress or being hurt. They can act careless and stress-free regarding destruction of other’s life in their midst. With this emotional deficit, psychopaths also lack insight. They can cognitively understand when someone is hurt. Yet, as they are not personally bound within an empathic foundation, they cannot understand other’s pain emotionally through putting themselves in the other’s shoes. Without this emotional intelligence, not only do they have difficulty entering into the realty of others, but they also cannot step outside of themselves to see their actions objectively from another point of view and the larger social context they are a part of. They cannot see how one’s mood and affect carries on in a chain of emotional reaction in others. All they can see is ripples of negativity without examining how these effects are caused by their own actions. When victims react negatively to their carelessness, psychopaths externalize this and see these others as inflicting pain or distress upon themselves. By not being able to acknowledge our interdependent existence, they cannot recognize how their actions contribute to the suffering of others. With this cognitive disconnect from emotional reality, they fail to take responsibility and more often shift blame onto others.
Predatory Capitalism and Survival of the Fittest
What does the illusory world of psychopaths look like from the inside? Within this state devoid of empathy, individuality comes to be defined as opposition to the underlying communal self. In this environment, the development of individuality often necessitates pitting one against another. It is a hostile and competitive, dog-eat-dog world. Governed by reptilian impulses like fight or flight, one is driven by interests of simple self-preservation and advancement. In this, relationship becomes a battleground, or in the words of the psychopath, a game—or just doing business. In the eyes of these ruthless and careless sections of humanity, the earth itself is no longer alive, but only a resource to be exploited. Their dry intellect tears apart the web of life, with its intricate threads of interdependence. The existing extreme form of capitalism has become the ultimate social expression of the psychopaths’ internal reality of survival of the fittest. These minorities without conscience attempt to control systems to create desired selfish outcomes and tend to impose their narrative upon others. With confident trickery, they enact magical thinking of getting what they want without real work.
By simply manipulating digital numbers on ledgers, they surreptitiously divert wealth toward themselves. The proclaimed oracle Alan Greenspan advanced this style of treachery through creating money out of thin air to further inflate the grandiose self of this small segment of the population. This former chairman of the Federal Reserve ruled the universe where markets obey orders from on high, subordinating spontaneous forces to the unbridled greed of hidden corporate elites. Wall Street financial giants, in collusion with the government, gutted the Glass Steagall Act that separated commercial and investment banks. With trickle-down Reaganomics as the new law of gravity, bull market’s endless derivatives and speculation add weight to the global debt bandwagons, pulling down entire economies. This turns global finance into a big casino of high stakes gambling, while burdening the public with the true costs and losses. In the last decades, untamed predatory capitalism has risen to a new level in the form of a corporatocracy, creating the world’s first truly global empire. This small segment of society acts with a will to power as if they are superior to the rest of mankind. They have successfully enslaved large parts of the world population to their sense of grandiose entitlement. With plunder and extraction of what has historically belonged to the commons, they have normalized privatization and commercialization of many aspects of everyday life. With military occupation in the Middle East and sweatshops in East Asia, they made war and extractive economies the standard for global society.
The Rise of Corporate Power
How did this pathology become so rampant, skewing the norms of everyday life? Where did this madness of power arise that turns morality upside down? One way to understand this is to look at the inner architecture of the psychopaths and how they live. The house of psychopaths is empty. Uprooted from communal experience, they are phantoms going through life like ghosts. They seemingly have no biography, no consistent memory grounded in a shared emotional reality. In this emotional desert, they are constantly prone to boredom. They live off other’s reactions and without those who believe and engage in their perception of reality, they are nobody. They live in the here and now and chase after transient desires that change moment by moment according to their immediate needs and wants, while always cleverly calculating ways to gain maximum benefit. Psychopathy is the pathology of social hiding. Like chameleons, they change shapes and colors of their exterior and it is difficult to identify the being behind those changing masks. As skilled actors, they pick up different personalities, spontaneously customizing them for each audience. They mirror the perfect image of their target’s deep desires. By mimicking emotions they charm and deceive people to get what they want. Each character has its own life while it serves its purpose and is then eliminated from the script when psychopath decides it is no longer needed. These low conscience individuals use bait and switch and change roles and rules instantly without hesitation or remorse. Once a source is depleted, they move on to another and there is no one really there to take responsibility for what they have said or done, leaving a string of broken hearts, bewilderment and ruined lives behind them. There is no more suitable entity than the modern corporation to house these empty souls. Corporations by design lack avenues and structures for human conscience.
Law professor and creator of a documentary “The Corporation”, Joal Bakan (2004) described how corporations are created by a legal framework that enforces and “compels executives to prioritize the interests of their companies and shareholders above all others and forbids them from being socially responsible—at least genuinely so” (p. 35). For such rootless people that fit the psychopathic profile, the legal fiction of corporate personhood becomes a very suitable outfit. With its limited liability and operational logic of profit at any cost, the artificial construct incorporates animal-like drives along with clever and machine-like intelligence. Within this artificial personhood, the psychopathic mind crafts perfect masks and bends social reality to their self-serving ends without seeking consent of others. With friendly corporate logos, like the ever changing names of the mercenary company Academi (formerly known as Blackwater) and opaque, faceless executives behind closed doors, they manage images and hide true motives behind corporate anonymity. Through lobbying and the revolving doors with government personnel, the brand of pathology embodied in corporate structures have in many cases merged with the state. These predators have grabbed the levers of control, creating two tiered justice systems that reflect their lack of moral constitution, their hypocrisy and unchallenged superiority. The rise of corporate power in the form of the corporate state is the ultimate expression of this pathological takeover of a society. Transnational corporations move into countries and impose neoliberal economic agendas, dominating or destroying local communities, totally ignoring or denying their richness of culture and ways of life. From China to Mexico, they jump from one country to another for cheap labor, leaving environmental destruction and exploited workers. They commit egregious moral crimes against humanity with little recourse for the victims.
In a universe ruled by psychopaths, the more merciless, callous and heartless one is, the stronger one becomes with the power to control and dominate others. They dictate a plot of manufactured reality with a narcissistic twist and we all become characters in their story, with our role to deliver supplies for their insatiable hunger. Why are so many of us manipulated by a few members of our species who confidently claim superiority? Assange pointed out how conspiracy works as “the agent of deception and information restriction.” Language in the hands of psychopaths is a lethal weapon. Words are used not for the purpose of communication, but to create distortion and confusion. With corporate consolidation of media, the control of airwaves gives the power to dictate narratives and enforce a kind of monotony of thought. Through PR as well as outright propaganda, they manage impressions and hide their true intentions in secrecy and the language of complexity, omission and lies. Pathological lying is at the heart of psychopathic personalities. One could say everyone lies once a while. But psychopaths lie for almost anything, even when there is no reason. This lying is by definition pathological.
The term doublespeak that George Orwell (1949) coined in his novel 1984 illuminates the psychopathic distortion and the power that they derive from this control of language. “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is Strength” (Orwell, 1949, p. 7). Doublespeak is the use of words to mean their opposite. The words are here split in two to fabricate perception of phenomena, deflecting from the actual experience. This term doublespeak relates to the book’s central concept of “doublethink.” Orwell described doublethink as “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them” and explained its mechanism as follows: “The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt. . . . To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies—all this is indispensably necessary” (pp. 176-177). This doublespeak reflects the psychopath’s distinct inner state created as a result of their lack of empathy. If one does not experience events at a deep emotional level, one’s relationship to them remains superficial and reality lacks solidity, even appearing unreal. When people do not abide by the truth found in consensual reality, it is easier for them to distort it and reinvent the narrative to their ends. Doublespeak has become the cornerstone of the political language of our time as it makes “lies sound truthful and murder respectable” (Orwell, 1956, p. 366). Reprehensible human acts such as torture and kidnapping are made acceptable simply by calling them “enhanced interrogation” and “extraordinary rendition.” Senseless killing of civilians is made more palatable when they are called “non-combatants” or become “collateral damage” after they are killed. The term “bulk collection” is used as a euphemism for mass surveillance, making unconstitutional and Stasi like NSA spying seem somehow less severe or immoral. The words of those without conscience are split off to simply reflect individual thought and feeling that do not take others’ internal process into consideration. These thoughts in the head move faster without ever being caught and checked by the feelings in the heart. Because of this, with doublethink, as Orwell (1949) put it, “the lie is always one leap ahead of the truth” (p. 177). By not being able to see the truth concealed behind words, we reel into a vacuous valley of smoke and mirrors created in the gap between their words and actions. We become complicit and entrenched in this distorted version of reality and degraded vision of what it means to be human.
Predatory consciousness incarnated through those on the top of institutional hierarchies enacts their vision of humanity by directing their script on the world stage. From Monsanto’s genetically modified foods and big Pharma’s happy pills to trivialized journalism that promote entertainment and cheap sensationalism, corporate doublespeak invades the mind and body to numb intrinsic feelings that know what is real, making people adjust to the ever changing scenery controlled by the puppet masters behind the curtain. What is this hypnotic spell of the psychopathic deception? The power of doublespeak lies in its ability to make people believe lies are real and accept fiction as reality. While those equipped with empathy coexist with others to develop perspectives and knowledge through dialogue, psychopaths are solipsists who assume their exclusively egocentric existence as the sole arbiter and narrate life as their monologue. They fail to see the other as who they are with autonomous feeling and thoughts. Needless to say, they cannot allow other’s perspectives to deeply enter consciousness. In this, they cannot see how their claim on reality denies others perspectives and rights to experience life, as the psychopath has no awareness of the original reality they have altered. For them, the reality that they conceive is the only and absolute truth. If one believes one’s own lies, one gains power to persuade others to make this distorted reality seem real. When confronted with such level of certainty and overconfidence, normally those who have a capacity for empathy tend to question and doubt themselves and be persuaded and accept extremely one-sided perspectives at the expense of their own experience. The problem lies in people not recognizing that there are those who don’t have a conscience. Because we don’t know of this radically different existence, combined with our nature to assume the good in people, we cave into their reality and fail to look out for our own best interests. As a result, politeness and trust are exploited and kindness is used as a weapon against us. When lies and cheating become undeniable, those master manipulators deflect issues, project their own problems to those truthtellers who call them out, throwing us off balance to put us on the defense. They make us question our own sanity and give them the benefit of the doubt. When their scheme fails, like bailed out banks, they play the sympathy card and trick people into giving them a second chance. When the story of the mass NSA surveillance first broke out, president Obama swiftly moved to defend this secret program as his officials continued to lie about its extent and justification. With his patronizing attitude of “just trust me”, the American people were asked to blindly accept this authority and not listen to their gut telling them that something has gone terribly wrong.
Lifting the Veil of Illusion
With the 2008 financial crisis followed by the waves of whistleblowing in recent years, global institutional failures are being increasingly exposed and the facade of democracy is being peeled away. In noting the effect of leaks that revealed how much the public had been kept in the dark, Assange said, “We are walking around constantly in this fog where we can’t see the ground. These disclosures are a break in the fog.” A veil of illusion is being lifted and a global awareness of psychopathic control over the levers of power has begun. The 1% elite who put themselves above the law can no longer hide their true agendas. Who are these beings behind the masks of powerful governments and institutions, those who claim to be more capable and superior? Most importantly, why have we forsaken ourselves by distrusting our own judgment? With peak oil, debt ponzi schemes and endless wars spurring energy and financial crises, this self-destructive game is almost up and the house of cards economy is crumbling. The bubble of an inflated self will inevitably burst, and our minds eventually catch up with what our hearts already know. We have been engaged in psychological warfare. This is a battle declared against ourselves. It cannot be fought by trying to appeal or seek for their approval, as without conscience this 1% of society does not care and even if they wanted to could not care. Innocence and lack of self-confidence has long kept us under their control. We have been dragged down by systematized pathology, allowing this unredeemed part of our humanity to devour virtues of creativity, imagination and love. The power of psychopaths is sustained through our compliance with their false words.
They want us to react, whether positive or negative, so as to feed off the emotional response to further engage us in their storyline. By protesting and making demands, we continue to acknowledge illegitimate authority and allow it to maintain control. Civil disobedience against the corporate state demands that we disobey their commands and instead begin listening to our hearts that know what is right and wrong. Our dissent requires a descent into our deeper selves to confront the darkness within; our deepest fears, vanity and desires that have been feeding the beasts. Illegitimate corporate personhood has duped us with false promises and pushed us to the edges, but this pathology has not defeated us and cannot destroy the human spirit. From the depth of the psychopathic abyss that is modern corporate society, we are now being called to act with courage; to reclaim attributes that were judged as weak and disowned by us in our effort to survive these assaults on our intrinsic human bonds. Our collective acts of love can resuscitate the breath behind words, awakening our humanity with conscience that can take responsibility for what we create in the world. The unleashed power of the creative word can free us from this psychopathic spell. We can begin again to create social structures that are an embodiment our empathic nature and inherent obligation to one another.
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