Are We Governed by Secondary Psychopaths

You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people to arrive at extreme capitalist positions.

— Frans de Waal, “An Interview with Frans de Waal,” The Believer, September 1, 2007

My question is prompted by the recent Senate vote (unanimous as far as I can determine) for a $38-billion, ten year military aid package to Israel, the single largest in U.S. history, but it’s something I’ve pondered and written about for decades.

In the Israeli case, the best defense apologists can muster is that our spineless mollusks in Congress would do the right thing but for fear of AIPAC’s swift retaliation. While there is an element of truth here it’s unfair to our invertebrate friends. It conveniently overlooks the fact that in other situations — absent any AIPAC pressure — Congress assiduously avoids “doing the right thing.” Instead, it directly or indirectly funds brutal and barbarous overt and structural violence across the globe, a veritable galaxy of moral blind spots.

Hence my question: Are we, almost across the board, governed by psychopaths? Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not suggesting our rulers lack a conscience or any vestige of empathy. The situation is both more nuanced and more dangerous. We’re not talking about primary psychopaths like Jeffrey Daumer and Ted Bundy or fictitious murderers like “Dexter” or Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs. We need to set aside those individuals who are empathy-impaired as a result of damage to the brain’s prefrontal cortex and those born with abnormal brain chemistry.

Our focus should be on the powerful people who’ve allowed their biologically inherited empathy trait to atrophy, to be self-anesthetized in order to pursue their ambitions within the rules of the game. This “bracketing” is required by the capitalist system’s priority on accumulation, the milieu within which its “logic” dictates being highly selective about whom compassion is to be directed. Jon Ronson, an expert on psychopaths, is convinced that “the way capitalism is structured really is a physical manifestation of the brain anomaly known as psychopathy.” In his research, Ronson discovered that many traits found on the psychopath checklist are, in fact, positives for non-murderous psychopaths. Why? Because these traits render distinct advantages in achieving success in the highest ranks of politics, business and the military.

For example, on a given morning a member of Congress might present a public face of compassion as she sincerely scolds public officials who kidnap refugee children from their parents. Then, in the afternoon, she votes for U.S. military policies that terminally (as in dead) separate other children from their parents in Palestine, Afghanistan or Yemen. That evening, she embraces her partner, plays fetch with the family dog, reads bedtime stories to the kids and sleeps soundly, feelings of rectitude intact. This compartmentalization of morals classifies her, for lack of a better term, as a “secondary psychopath.”1

This behavior is determined by a culture which the same powerful people have helped to shape and, in turn, rely on to legitimate their actions. Little wonder these individuals not only don’t feel remorse for the victims, especially those far from our borders, but don’t even see them as victims. If seen at all, they are the necessary collateral damage required to perpetuate the system.
We have reached the point where, as Erich Fromm once observed, when operating within an insane society, the only healthy members are viewed as “maladjusted.”

If there is some merit to this argument we are far beyond just weeding out a few moral monsters on Election Day. But neither are we without hope or alternatives. Political struggles against empathy-numbing neoliberal ideology and the economic system it serves can create conditions that enhance the flourishing of empathy and love, the foundation for our better selves.

  1. See Martha Stought, The Sociopath Next Door (New York: Broadway Books), 2005. []
Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. He can be reached at: olsong@moravian.edu. Read other articles by Gary.