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"Capitalists and Other Psychopaths": An Opinion Piece at The New York Times

By Dennis Loo (5/12/12)

Update #2: The NYT opinion piece that I write about below has been revised at the paper in the following way:

"A 2010 study found that 4 percent of a sample of corporate managers met a clinical threshold for being labeled psychopaths, compared with 1 percent for the population at large. (However, the sample was not representative, as the study’s authors have noted.) Another study concluded that the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and break the law."

Update #1: I have just been told that the 10% figure given in The NYT opinion piece that I refer to in my article in now in dispute [now revised to 4%, see Update #2 above} . What percentage of those who work on Wall Street are "clinical psychopaths" isn't really important in any case. What is important, and is the main point of my book excerpts as cited in my article below, is that individuals overall exemplify the attributes of the systems that they occupy - precisely because systems are governed by systems logic and not mainly by the personalities and values of the individuals who occupy those systems. Whether or not a higher proportion of Wall Street traders are psychopaths than the general US population is not, therefore, the point and it is not why Wall Street fleeces the people. Wall Street fleeces the people and plunders the planet because it operates according to the logic of capital, which operates by the code of "expand or die." In the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, for example, Stanford undergraduates readily adopted the roles of prisoners and prison guards, re-enacting the social dynamics of a real prison, even though the participants had all been pre-screened to exclude anyone with underlying psychological pathologies. A better title for The NYT piece, then, would have been "Capitalism and Other Psychopathological Systems." - DL

I read in The New York Times today their second most emailed article, originally published on May 12, 2012, “Capitalists and Other Psychopaths.”

When I glanced at their most emailed articles list on the right-hand column of their online edition, I was first of all surprised to see the title of the Opinion piece.

Is this an essay in irony in the Times, I wondered?

Then I read on. In the opening paragraph I found:

A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are “clinical psychopaths,” exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.” (The proportion at large is 1 percent.) Another study concluded that the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and break the law.

The only thing that puzzles me about these claims is that anyone would find them surprising. Wall Street is capitalism in its purest form, and capitalism is predicated on bad behavior.

The article continues in this same vein throughout.

It’s not ironic. It’s serious. An opinion piece in The New York Times that calls out capitalists as psychopaths. A sign of the times that the Times runs such a piece and that it ranks as the second-most article emailed to friends, family, and others.

There’s this too from the Opinion piece:

I always found the notion of a business school amusing. What kinds of courses do they offer? Robbing Widows and Orphans? Grinding the Faces of the Poor? Having It Both Ways? Feeding at the Public Trough? There was a documentary several years ago called “The Corporation” that accepted the premise that corporations are persons and then asked what kind of people they are. The answer was, precisely, psychopaths: indifferent to others, incapable of guilt, exclusively devoted to their own interests.

There are ethical corporations, yes, and ethical businesspeople, but ethics in capitalism is purely optional, purely extrinsic. To expect morality in the market is to commit a category error.

The category error that author William Deresciewicz refers to is what Social Psychologists call “The Fundamental Attribution Error:” improperly attributing the processes and outcomes of systems to the values and choices of the individuals within them.

Systems, as I point out in Globalization and the Demolition of Society, are the way that they are because of system logic.

What shapes the mores of an era are not primarily the actions and values of the mainstream. There is in fact never any truly undifferentiated mass of people. There are leaders at all levels and in all settings. The temper of the times is set by the actions of those who establish the norms from which others take their cues. When greed, material riches, and selfishness are the norm and when the law becomes whatever the leaders say it is, then the whole society suffers. When a society’s system endangers the lives of its people and the viability of the planet, and when that system’s leaders refuse to take the steps that must be taken to avoid disaster, then new leaders, representative of a different system, must step forward and create a new norm. They must set the standard and call on other people to adopt and adhere to that new standard.

It is not a question of having to get everyone to stop being selfish or expecting everyone to become heroes; it is not a question of advising everyone to “do their own thing”; it is a question of what standard is being set by the society’s opinion-makers. It is the standard-setters and the system’s logic that determine what most people will do and which end of the behavioral spectrum is favored. If the standard setters are adhering to an altruistic position, this does not eliminate the presence of greedy or otherwise antisocial and pathological individuals; it just makes them outré for the majority of the society. What we have now is the opposite situation, with most of the leading individuals in the political and economic arena moved by greed and personal advancement and with a system in place that is based upon promoting these antisocial behaviors and attitudes.

Sociology’s central premise is that social structures—that is, social systems—are overall more important and powerful than the individuals who occupy them. (Boldfacing added, pp. 344-345)

To get different outcomes, we need, then, both a new system and people who step forward as leaders who mobilize others to carry out a revolutionary reconstitution of the existing system by replacing it with a new system.

The persistence of the idea that the systems that we live in are simply the product of the personalities and choices of the individuals within them represents an obstacle in the path of effective social action aimed at social change. If we recognize that people are part of structures and forces larger than themselves at all times, then the question of bringing about social change means that we need to understand how group dynamics operate and how the most important systems function. The postmodern idea that we are only what we imagine and that nothing exists outside of that social construction leads people away from directly confronting the very real objective realities of the present and future worlds and the dominant systems of that current reality.

The foremost system that sets the political and economic context for all that I have discussed and analyzed in this book is the system of capitalism/imperialism. This system has certain particular and outstanding features that shape the way it operates and the processes that it sets in motion. Everything in capitalist/imperialist systems are subordinated to the pursuit of profit, including people’s lives, welfare, and the planet’s very viability. Public officials say otherwise, and in some instances some of them mean otherwise, but any one who attempts to put other concerns above the pursuit of profit and the continued viability of a system that rests upon profit is fighting an uphill battle in which victories are few, temporary, and trumped by the nature of the system itself. It is rather like trying to use a fork to transport water. It does not matter how frantically you keep trying, the thing just will not do what you need it to do.

Capitalism and its highest stage, imperialism, are in turn part of a larger dynamic of the progressive development of different modes of production (forms of organizing the economy) over the course of human history. What most people were never told, or do not believe, is that the particular manner in which humanity organizes itself to secure the means to survive at any point in time is not everlasting in nature; nor is the division of labor tied to those means of production, or the corresponding social relations, ideas, values, beliefs, or institutions that rest upon that mode of production everlasting in nature. Up until the last five percent of the duration of human existence, humanity lived in pre-class and pre-state formations, with the degree of social inequality scant and the notion of private property and individualism (in the sense of the individual bearing no responsibility for the group) non-existent. (Pp. 347-348)

You need to have a sense of the broad sweep of history if you’re going to keep your head in pursuing the heroic task of revolutionizing society in ways that go fundamentally against the interests of those currently in charge. The perspective of those in charge suffuses the whole society and infects even those who would like to see something different. Coming to grips with what is, why it is, and why it remains the status quo, are absolutely indispensable if you want to change the world. Change must happen, but doing so requires determination, understanding, and sacrifice. It cannot possibly be accomplished through easy shortcuts, a kind of big red EASY button like Staples advertises or as the major – or minor – political parties claim: Just Vote for Me and I’ll Set You Free!

Change can be made. Change cries out to be done. But we have to do what actually promises to work, not take ersatz paths that promise nothing but the ephemera of change. What the people of Spain (the indignados) and the Occupy Movement are doing, what came together on May 1st this year and the demonstrations against NATO in Chicago, for example, are the paths I’m talking about. As revolutionaries in China put it during the Cultural Revolution: "Cast Away Illusions! Prepare for Struggle!" 


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