The great battle of our times – politics and psychopaths

It’s hard at the moment not to conceive of the wider political context in terms of Lord of the Rings quotes. This probably explains why I enjoyed the otherwise devastating Game of Thrones finale last night as a bit of light relief.

The big game in town now is stopping the rise of the fascist far right, whether that means Farage or (and don’t rule this out over a five year period) someone worse. Everything else is detail. Everything. I mean, I have actual sympathy for the two main parties at the moment and I see how their internal struggles are unavoidable, but their activists must not lose sight of the fact that it is all detail, it is not the main event, and nor must the rest of us.

[UPDATED, and this will be a recurring feature of this post: Jeremy Corbyn’s unresignation, the forthcoming split of the Labour party – detail.] Boris Johnson with his terrifying ability to lie and delude himself and apparently not know it – detail. Theresa May and her desire to withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights – unbelievably, that is detail. Cameron and Osborne have, with the unerring personal survival instincts we have come to know them for, voluntarily made themselves detail in this picture, and actually they did that on Friday and it feels like weeks ago.

I swing between frustration and understanding about Labour. On the face of it, it looks like the most ridiculous act of self-destruction at the country’s greatest time of need and I understand why a lot of their supporters and fellow travellers are upset about it. You people have waited years for the Tories to self-destruct over Europe and now they’re finally doing it, you’re not capitalising because you’re too busy self-destructing yourselves. But I have some faith that some of the main players at least know what the big game in town I mentioned above is, and reckon they won’t win it in their present condition. I just hope they do whatever they have to do quickly. Jeremy Corbyn may now split from the Labour party, taking a couple of other MPs (Diane Abbott perhaps making a late but always predictable exit from reality) and his mostly young and recently arrived following with him. That will be detail too, and whatever the Labour party have got left after that point, they should carry on with. The fortunes of the Liberal Democrats are, at this moment, detail, and that’s both because the FPTP system is stacked against them, and because Tim Farron has chosen a positive, liberal, forward-looking message of reintegration into Europe as his election strategy. Bold, and it may yet pay off and put him in a vanguard position in the conflict to come, but currently detail, because like all the rest of the above it doesn’t get near pitting itself squarely against the real enemy.

So let me tell you briefly about psychopathy. In recent years people including the father of clinical psychopathy studies, Robert Hare, have written about the characteristics of psychopathy as applied to organisations and movements. Now, on a level of individuals, psychopathy as a diagnosis sits uncomfortably alongside the standard clinical reference framework, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, rather than within it. Psychopathy is neither one thing nor another. It overlaps most frequently with the disorders described in Cluster B of the framework, in particular Anti-Social Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. But if you are ever unlucky enough to encounter someone who embodies any of these disorders in their brain organisation (for these are thought to be a matter of basic neural arrangements rather than illnesses as such, and are hence largely untreatable, unlikely, say, schizophrenia) you will realise that Hare’s psychopathic checklist is a useful tool to have around to parse what is going on. So for shorthand I am going to use psychopath to indicate what might be a far wider and murkier range of disorders and behaviour clusters. Labels are just a way of describing and categorising complex realities rather than the reality itself, and as long as we keep that disclaimer in mind we can proceed.

So let’s take a few items from the checklist as it might be applied to political movements and organisations (I have omitted a large number of items such as “glib, superficial charm” and “versatile criminality” which apply more clearly to individuals, although you may well ask… etc. The full list can be found here).

  • pathological lying
  • cunning and manipulativeness
  • lack of remorse or guilt
  • shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
  • callousness and lack of empathy
  • lack of realistic long-term goals
  • irresponsibility
  • failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Now, all this is bad enough on an individual level, but in a culture embodying these traits it doesn’t even have to be the case that the individuals involved are psychopathic. Humans – where they are not psychopaths – are social creatures and will seek common behaviours and standards with each other, such that it is possible for a few bad or nearly-bad apples in a febrile atmosphere to draw a number of otherwise moral human beings into their game.

And “game” is the word. Look at some of the things that have happened this week. You could be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson has lost touch with reality. Yesterday he wrote in the Telegraph – this being essentially the pitch for high office from  one of the great victors of the Leave campaign after a weekend of silence – that the UK would be able to continue to enjoy all the things that normally accompany EU membership, without being a member of the EU. This drew an immediate and rather pitying dismissal from Brussels and caused at least two commenting academics to go full-on Henry Brubaker from the Institute for Studies:

It’s just so extreme, so delusional that you can’t quite believe that you’re seeing it. But you are. (Edit: since I wrote this, he has made it known the column was “sloppy” and he was “tired”. I mean you can’t even write about this stuff without jaw-dropping things happening while you’re doing it). And I suspect the people who have followed Boris’s trajectory all along would tell you, yes, all this is perfectly Normal For Boris (never have I missed @boriswatch’s commentary more). When a lie doesn’t work, tell another. With sufficient chutzpah, you can just make unpalatable realities go away by denying they exist. Whether that will work in Brussels is another matter.

I never had time for all the japey Eton-bashing, I felt it undercut sound argument and made it easy for posh people to hit back with an identity politics of their own, which is not what we need to foster, for god’s sake. But I always knew it was getting at something, and this was it. Humans tend to be very good at sensing things instinctively but then coming up with a “rational” explanation for it. In this instance, everyone has always sensed that Boris was playing a game in his head the whole time; they just thought it was because he had an absurd sense of entitlement and an Etonian background. But, although those things are associated cultural window-dressing, I don’t think it was. I think he is literally playing a game in his head and that is literally all there is to it. Fin. If you try to understand it in terms of normal behaviour, you won’t be able to. It stands on its own terms.

Or look at this post-victory press release from the Leave campaign, which we are assured is genuine.

Nobody has any words for this, though plenty have tried.

Look, lastly, at Farage. He went very quiet after Friday, as his former colleagues in the Leave campaign rowed decisively back on cutting immigration (and he himself rowed immediately back on the £350m for the NHS figure). And today, he’s switched. He isn’t doing what a “normal” politician would do, gritting his teeth in the face of setbacks and seeking to work with what he has won. Normal politicians, when they don’t get quite what they want, opt in and try to make it work as best it can anyway – the Liberal Democrats in coalition are a classic example. It won’t work terribly well and it will get you vilified by the people who perceive you are betraying them. But if you are a normal human being, you may decide to take that on the nose in the interests of making what progress you can make, because you have got a certain distance and you do believe that those things are important. And also, you’re embarrassed about what has gone wrong – that’s a normal person response. And you’re locked in to these people, you have created bonds with them. I’m not saying it’s necessarily the right decision – sunk cost fallacy comes in here, and you may end up losing more than you bargained for; so does the normal human desire to co-operate with other people which kicks in after the more primitive big fight stage is over, and that’s not always wise if the other side aren’t really backing down. Farage is not doing any of that – he is straight back to the serious voice, chin down, opening eyes wide (I mean you can get body language coaches to train you in this stuff): “I am nervous. I am nervous. I am more nervous than I was on Friday morning. I’m beginning to hear noises, I’m beginning to detect there may be some backsliding and I do not find that acceptable.”

He is gearing up for an early election, and this time (so he calculates) he will be appealing to that 52% to support him directly. He won’t succeed in that. But he will get somewhere, further than he has done in the past, and in that sense the referendum was as much a ploy for him as it clearly was for Boris Johnson. Seeing them attempt to outfox each other with the same diabolical characteristics is extraordinary.

And while I’ve been writing this, Farage has been making a speech in the European Parliament. A truly embarrassing one. Here is what a commentator has to say about it:

No. No, he really, really doesn’t. That does not work as a shaming tactic like it would on most people, because it is absolutely 100% true. “Grace” is an apt word – it is the old-fashioned religious word for the quality of being human, and it is not in point here. The sooner we stop being surprised by this, the better. (A sidenote: I don’t think I am the only person to have been struck by the way journalists are responding to events in recent days – in fact since Jo Cox was killed. The sheer horror is so great, they are as angry and outraged and shocked and as likely to rant on social media as the rest of us, and I don’t think that has happened before.)

Let me be clear: the point of all this is not to suggest that any particular individuals are actually psychopathic. That would be illiberal, misconceived, and a foolish armchair diagnosis (and it has tickled me ever since I read it that the bar in Britain is set higher than in America – there you only have to score 25/40 on the Hare scale to be a clinical psychopath, here it’s 30/40, which is a useful reminder of how artificial all these taxonomies are in the first place).

But I do believe that politics as a whole, and the Leave campaign and the far right in particular, have fostered these characteristics in the collective, and caused individuals to behave at times in ways that reflect those characteristics, and that in turn gives us indicators about where this will go next.

The point about dealing with psychopaths, or whatever you want to call them, isn’t actually mentioned in the Hare traits listed above, but it is in a way the uber-trait that arises from them all, and as it’s late in this post I’m going to put it on a separate line so you don’t skim it:

these people have no boundaries

None. Just, expunge the idea of boundaries from your normal healthy human mind. Take a very modest example, the other day, I signed a very silly petition. You may have signed it too. It called for the referendum to be run again if the winning side achieved a majority of less than 60%. Actually when it was created it wasn’t silly at all, it was just a mistake, created by a Leave campaigner before the referendum, who feared his side would indeed lose by a small margin. The silliness lies in the idea that people signing it now could genuinely trigger a retrospective change, which would be wrong in every important respect.

But I don’t care. You know why? It threw up a good headline for a day. Disruption of the Leave narrative is literally all I cared about at that point. In normal times I would not have signed that, I would have said I fundamentally didn’t agree with it, it went against my principles. People I respect very much did not sign it for that reason. But that’s a reflection of our boundaries, not those of the forces who are now ranged against us. And given the stakes now, some of my boundaries, and some of your boundaries, are luxuries.

This is the problem politicians who are basically moral human beings are facing. They’ve bought into the idea that politics is a game, that you can have PR triumphs, summarise things glibly in a soundbite so that you could be concealing a deep and subtle understanding or then again you could not, you can tell the truth selectively and say things you don’t mean – whole set-up virtually requires it of you. And it’s very hard for us, on the outside, to tell the difference. We tell ourselves, “Oh well, so-and-so’s outrageous, but s/he’s all right really!”. We tell ourselves, “That was incredibly glib and simplistic but s/he must know what s/he’s doing really”. We tell ourselves, “Well, that was an astounding instance of backstabbing such as would ruin us if we encountered it in our personal lives, but then politics is a dirty game!” And on some level, we believe that all these people must be human really. You know, deep down. That there must be a real person behind it all. And sometimes I think we’ll be right, and sometimes I think we’re just not at all.

(One thing to be said for the Westminster village, I bet they know all right. Given how high stakes politics is at that level, it must have exposed a lot of frightening and disordered behaviour to the people within it over a long period of time. There must be lots of normals in parliament who actually know full well how scary a handful of the people in their working lives are.)

But we should take some heart. There are psychopaths in every walk of life and they have not yet managed to blow up the world. They can’t be defeated forever, we will never rid the world of them, but they can be beaten to a draw and neutralised, perhaps every few generations. As a prehistorian I rather like Pieter Hintjen’s evolutionary model – psychopaths (or in social anthropological terms the “cheats”) drive social evolution. By cheating the system, they cause the system to organise against cheating; systems and people get better at spotting and punishing cheats, so the cheats get better at it, and so on. It’s not clear how, in detail, you defeat a psychopathic movement and become once more the system that spots and punishes the cheats effectively. It is only clear that social evolution proceeds such that this happens. It may well be, as James Graham suggests, that things have to get worse – maybe a lot worse – before they get better. But the world turns and we should be in no doubt of prevailing.

We just need to understand, all of us, very, very quickly, the enormity of what we are dealing with. I repeat, this movement, or whatever it is, has no boundaries (ironic, really) and it may well take itself outside the political consensus to get what it wants. We should expect it to have the capacity – which is not the same thing as the ability – to trash everything, and we should act and make alliances accordingly.



  1. A very interesting article and a different type of analysis to most that I have seen. One thing I have wondered about a little is what motivates Farage. While I can understand someone being unhappy with the EU, it isn’t perfect after all, I find it difficult to see what motivates someone to pretty much devote their whole life to destroying Britain’s relationship with it and I suspect to destroying the EU as a whole. I think that his outburst in the European parliament this week goes beyond a dissatisfaction with its functioning or intentions but seems to be an almost visceral hatred of it as an institution. His attitude seems to be more like that which a person would hold towards someone or something which had done them some great personal injury.

  2. As you say, individual human beings (including MPs) are moral, well meaning people. But as Prof. Joseph Tainter says in his YouTube talk on the “Collapse of Civilisations”, organisations “channel behaviour”. Including, I think, psychopathic behaviours.

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