In a fascinating article in Psychology Today on The problem of pathocracy, Steve Taylor reflects on the concept of pathocracy – which was defined by Andrzej Lobaczewski after observing Stalin’s government in Russia.
“pathocracy is a system of government ‘wherein a small pathological minority takes control over a society of normal people’… the transition to pathocracy begins when a disordered individual emerges as a leader figure. While some members of the ruling class are appalled by the brutality and irresponsibility of the leader and his acolytes, his disordered personality appeals to some psychologically normal individuals. They find him charismatic. His impulsiveness is mistaken for decisiveness; his narcissism for confidence; his recklessness for fearlessness.
Soon other people with psychopathic traits emerge and attach themselves to the pathocracy, sensing the opportunity to gain power and influence. At the same time, responsible and moral people gradually leave the government, either resigning or being ruthlessly ejected. In an inevitable process, soon the entire government is filled with people with a pathological lack of empathy and conscience. It has been infiltrated by members of the minority of people with personality disorders, who assume power over the majority of psychologically normal people… Soon the pathology of the government spreads amongst the general population… an epidemic of psychopathology in people who are not, essentially, psychopathic.”
Look at countries around the world and we see many plausible examples. Steve goes on
“there is a good deal of evidence that people with psychopathic and narcissistic traits (or people who are just ruthless and lacking in empathy and conscience)… are attracted to high status positions… ‘like moths to a flame’.”
Steve quotes evidence that suggests around 1% of the population have these traits, whereas 12% of corporate senior managers have them. My own personal observations during a period working in a large company would seem to confirm this. Interestingly, Machiavellian has been observed by psychologists as the third of a ‘dark triad’ of traits which are closely associated.
The real question Steve raises is how do societies and organisations protect themselves against these people, indeed how do democracies prevent themselves from being undermined by them. Lacking empathy, these people do not see the point of democracy; life is seen as a power struggle. This is of course reflected in the current dominant trends of thought in modern right wing Republicanism in US and Conservatism in UK.
There are no easy answers, and psychological vetting of candidates for power is unlikely to become ubiquitous. But, if we observe and ask the questions, that is progress in itself. The majority must protect itself against these pathologies. The quote attributed to Edmund Burke comes to mind:
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”
Picture of Mao, Bulganin, Stalin, Ulbricht etc Moscow 1949, via Wikimedia Commons.