Saturday, February 16, 2013

Power, Ponerology, and Party Politics

Via Fabius Maximus, here's a good blog entry that sums up our predicament pretty well, Political failure modes and the beige dictatorship by Charlie Stross. It has the courage to state what many people are afraid to admit - representative democracy has failed:
For a while I've had the unwelcome feeling that we're living under occupation by Martian invaders. (Not just here in the UK, but everyone, everywhere on the planet.) Something has gone wrong with our political processes, on a global scale. But what? It's obviously subtle — we haven't been on the receiving end of a bunch of jack-booted fascists or their communist equivalents organizing putsches. But we've somehow slid into a developed-world global-scale quasi-police state, with drone strikes and extraordinary rendition and unquestioned but insane austerity policies being rammed down our throats, government services being outsourced, peaceful protesters being pepper-sprayed, tased, or even killed, police spying on political dissidents becoming normal, and so on. What's happening?
Here's a hypothesis: Representative democracy is what's happening. Unfortunately, democracy is broken. There's a hidden failure mode, we've landed in it, and we probably won't be able to vote ourselves out of it.
He then points out several salient facts:
Our representative systems almost all run on a party system; even pure PR systems like that of Israel rely on a party list...Parties are bureaucratic institutions with the usual power dynamic of self-preservation, as per Michels's iron law of oligarchy: the purpose of the organization is to (a) continue to exist, and (b) to gain and hold power.

Per Michels, political parties have an unspoken survival drive. And they act as filters on the pool of available candidates. You can't easily run for election — especially at national level — unless you get a party's support, with the activists and election agents and assistance and funding that goes with it...Existing incumbent representatives have an incentive to weed out potential candidates who are loose cannons and might jeopardize their ability to win re-election and maintain a career.

A secondary issue is that professionals will cream amateurs in any competition held on a level playing field. And this is true of politics as much as any other field of human competition...The emergence of a class of political apparatchik in our democracies is almost inevitable.
His conclusion:
Overall, the nature of the problem seems to be that our representative democratic institutions have been captured by meta-institutions that implement the iron law of oligarchy by systematically reducing the risk of change. They have done so by converging on a common set of policies that do not serve the public interest, but minimize the risk of the parties losing the corporate funding they require in order to achieve re-election. And in so doing, they have broken the "peaceful succession when enough people get pissed off" mechanism that prevents revolutions. If we're lucky, emergent radical parties will break the gridlock (here in the UK that would be the SNP in Scotland, possibly UKIP in England: in the USA it might be the new party that emerges if the rupture between the Republican realists like Karl Rove and the Tea Party radicals finally goes nuclear), but within a political generation (two election terms) it'll be back to oligarchy as usual.
So the future isn't a boot stamping on a human face, forever. It's a person in a beige business outfit advocating beige policies that nobody wants (but nobody can quite articulate a coherent alternative to) with a false mandate obtained by performing rituals of representative democracy that offer as much actual choice as a Stalinist one-party state. And resistance is futile, because if you succeed in overthrowing the beige dictatorship, you will become that which you opposed.
This is interesting, in that historically, every time it's been tried, representative democracy tends to break down over time (Athens, Rome, etc.). Is oligarchy/feudalism the "natural state" of large-scale human societies? We've had a good run here in America, but it looks like we're nearing the end. Many have pointed out the similarities between the modern-day U.S. and the fall of the Roman Republic, for example, see this: Is the American Republic dying, as in the last days of the Roman Republic? (Fabius Maximus). From the article cited in the post:
The endemic corruption in the Roman state was another source of instability.  Corruption was illegal, but Rome lacked a former criminal justice system with state prosecutors.  Instead, any Roman citizen could bring a case against any other in a relevant court.  Corruption prosecutions became a tool for settling political feuds or for winning over supporters. The famed Roman orator and politician, Cicero, first established himself as a major player due to his successful prosecution of Gaius Verres for his corruption as governor of Sicily. The threat of private prosecution for official corruption became a tool for political competition, and yet it was almost impossible not to be corrupt because the cost of running for office increased so dramatically during the 1st Century BC so that even wealthy men and families needed some way to recoup the costs.
As mentioned already, these problems were widely understood.  And yet the Roman state was unable to act.  Three dynamics combined with poorly designed state institutions to lead to paralysis.  The first dynamic was that within the Roman body politic, there was a small, but solid group of aristocrats who were ideologically opposed to reform.  Their argument, in short, was that it was a mistake to mess with success.  Roman institutions and values had lead to greatness, and so the answer to any and all problems simply required a “return” to traditional roman values.  This lead to occasional anti-sumptuary laws and various efforts to outlaw corruption, but also to a determined resistance to any sort of structural reform such as land reform or multi-year terms for provincial governors.  The second dynamic was that even among reformers there was a great deal of concern about letting anyone get the “credit” for solving problem.  Whomever managed to pass land reform, for instance, would instantly gain a wide following among those new small farmer given land to work.  Third, there was a relatively small number of wealthy aristocrats, some of whom has managed to effectively privatize public lands and were unwilling to allow distribution of those lands, even if as a matter of law they didn’t actually have title to them anyway.
Perhaps you recognize these opponents to reform.  In Rome, they were called the Optimates (“Best Men”), today we call them Republicans.  Same coalition of ideologues, political hacks, and the wealthy.  Same recognition of the existence of problems, and same empty solution: a call for a return to traditional values that made the nation great.  They were opposed by a loose coalition of Populares (“favoring the people”) made up of a combination of radicals and pragmatists, and often prone to turning on each other or making deals with the Optimates.  Many, though not all, of them favored “comprehensive” reforms aimed at addressing structural problems.  And indeed, some were probably little more than political opportunists.  Anyway, we call them Democrats today.  And like the Democrats of today, the Populares were largely ineffective. Aristocrats (“Patricians”) were mostly counted among the Optimates, but not exclusively, while commoners (“Plebians or Plebs”) were often among the Populares, but also not exclusively.  Gaius Julius Caesar, a member of one of the oldest Patrician families was a Populari, whereas Cicero, a Plebian and a “new man” became an Optimata.
But it's worse than that. As the Polish psychiatrist Andrzej Łobaczewski pointed out in his work on Ponerology, the most sociopathic people are the ones attracted to positions of power. I'm sure we can all personally vouch for this. Here's a good summary from a commenter at Naked Capitalism:
In Political Ponerology: Science of the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes Andrew M. Lobaczewski postulates a process which he calls “ponerization” by which ideological movements become corrupted. As he explains:

In the ponerogenic process of the pathocratic phenomenon, characteropathic individuals adopt ideologies,… recast them into an active propaganda form, and disseminate it with their characteristic pathological egotism and paranoid intolerance for any philosophies which may differ from their own.

“Characteropathic individuals” Lobaczewski defines as “individuals who are insufficiently critical, frequently frustrated as a result of downward social adjustment, culturally neglected, or characterized by some psychological deficiencies of their own.”

As the ponerization process proceeds, those who have been “injured by social injustice” get purged by the “essential psychopaths.” “From this time on,” Lobasczewski warns, “using the ideological name of the movement in order to understand its essence becomes a keystone of mistakes.” Eventually the essential psychopaths, which he dubs “pathocrats,” achieve absolute domination of the movement, and if the movement is successful in taking control of the government, this results in a state he calls “pathocracy.”

Since Lobaczewski lived in Communist Poland, he uses the vitiation of Marxism as his example. But he says that all types of ideological movements—-social, political, and religious—-have fallen victim to ponerization.
And here are some key quotes (emphasis mine):
The actions of this phenomenon affect an entire society, starting with the leaders and infiltrating every village, small town, factory, business, or farm. The pathological social structure gradually covers the entire country, creating a “new class” within that nation. This privileged class of deviants feels permanently threatened by the “others”, i.e. by the majority of normal people. Neither do the pathocrats entertain any illusions about their personal fate should there be a return to the system of normal man.

A normal person deprived of privilege or high position will go about finding and performing some work which will earn him a living; but pathocrats never possessed any solid practical talent, and the time frame of their rule eliminates any residual possibilities of adapting to the demands of normal work. If the laws of normal man were reinstated, they and theirs could be subjected to judgment, including a moralizing interpretation of their psychological deviations; they would be threatened by a loss of freedom and life, not merely a loss of position and privilege. Since they are incapable of this kind of sacrifice, the survival of a system which is the best for them becomes a moral imperative. Such a threat must be battled by means of any and all psychological and political cunning implemented with a lack of scruples with regard to those other “inferior-quality” people that can be shocking in its depravity.


Any war waged by a pathocratic nation has two fronts, the internal and the external. The internal front is more important for the leaders and the governing elite, and the internal threat is the deciding factor where unleashing war is concerned…

The non-pathological majority of the country’s population will never stop dreaming of the reinstatement of the normal man’s system in any possible form. This majority will never stop watching other countries, waiting for the opportune moment: its attention and power must therefore be distracted from this purpose, and the masses must be “educated” and channeled in the direction of imperialist strivings. This goal must be pursued doggedly so that everyone knows what is being fought for and in whose name harsh discipline and poverty must be endured. The latter factor—-creating conditions of poverty and hardship—-effectively limits the possibility of “subversive” activities on the part of the society of normal people.
Which brings us to this post meditating on the revenge manhunt for Christopher Dorner and the push-button drone assasinations in Afghanistan: Is This Fucking Afghanistan?!?! (Power of Narrative). The conclusion:
Like I said, I'm totally stupid, but I think the lesson goes something like this: If you threaten the State itself or interfere with its plans, and especially if you threaten one of the State's armed, militarized branches, the State will go to war, including here at home. I don't mean "go to war" metaphorically. I mean the State will go to war. So I think we know what the response will be if/when there is widespread domestic unrest, when the economy further falls apart, for example. Entire neighborhoods cordoned off, whole blocks incinerated, checkpoints everywhere, people shot for any reason, or for no reason. Oh, yeah: no more fourth amendment for you, either (via). Well, it's not like you were doing anything with it. If you haven't done anything wrong, you don't have anything to hide, etc., etc., etc. And just to be safe, you don't want to be there. Yeah, where you are right now. Don't be there. And don't move. Haha. Gotcha!

Just as the fish rots from the head, the horrors start with the president. Why should Obama be the only one to have a Murder Program? It's only right that every police department should have its own Murder Program. Especially in war time.

What we're now seeing is further proof of an argument I've made for the last several years. It can be stated very briefly:

In addition to pursuing its goal of global hegemony, the United States government uses foreign countries as a lethal laboratory in which to practice the techniques it intends to use domestically, at home within U.S. borders.

Welcome to Afghanistan.

This is just the beginning.
Representative democracy, intended to safeguard against this, has failed utterly. All the major corporate states, the United States, Russia, China, and much of Europe, are under the control of a business-financed oligarchy that ruthlessly suppresses any dissent, even while holding "elections," while the mass of citizens suffer ever-decreasing standards of living under financialized rentier capitalism with no real alternative. Was this the end of history that was predicted?


  1. Yup, you got it right.

    Now what?

  2. The Fabius Maximus blogger seems to think that the main "fault" lies with us, the voters/citizens who aren't getting sufficiently angry and active.
    He has a point.

    He seems to be a strong believer in political non-determinism and a kind of political "free will," so he doesn't seem to believe that political systems inevitably decay.

    Like Rousseau, I think that Fabius Maximus is wrong: that political systems, polities, and nations go through cycles, or even senescence. It seems incredibly unlikely at this point that the citizens of the current system will be able to shake off their lethargy and reform the increasingly inbred, stable (in a bad way) system of pseudo-representative democracy which is the disguise for what in effect is an oligarchy run by and for the political and connected business elites.

    The likely best solution for those who do not like being pawns, victims, or suckers, is to opt out as much as possible, create alternative, parallel systems of barter, exchange, small markets, and mutual aid societies, and not wait around for "the system" to reform itself. This will both make one's life better in the present, and it will help to delegitimize the reigning paradigm, and hasten its end.

  3. "Professionals will cream amateurs in any competition held on a level playing field."

    Yes. And...

    The unscrupulous will cream the ethical in any competition on a level playing field.

  4. What if ideologies are products of a pathocrat's mind.. Ideas have consequences.. Any rational would look at both idea and ideologue to look for flaws, but then people are lazy and would rather take shortcuts, choosing instead to blame people rather than ideas..


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