The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Power, Pleasure, and Evil

I am human, and nothing human is alien to my consideration

– Publius Terentius Afer

Perhaps the most fundamental human experience is that of weakness. We are born completely helpless and our childhoods leave us at the mercy of other humans who are stronger and outnumber us. Everything we need, we must get from them, and there is little to nothing we can do to stop them if they choose to hurt us.

The physicist and physical therapist Feldenkrais wrote of being a child a seeing two men grab, kill, and butcher a small pig; almost exactly the same size as him. He realized he was defenseless, and spent decades trying to overcome that experience. He wrote a self-defense manual, figured out from first principles, and later he became the first western Judo black belt, before WWII, and when it was still a powerful combat art.

Even as adults, we know that there are many who are stronger than us, and society decides what we can and can’t do. This is more obvious to women, but even the strongest man knows he isn’t invincible. Most of us have to work for others, doing what they say, often on a minute-to-minute basis, and even those who escape close supervision still must please others for their daily bread. Few, indeed, are the genuine hermits.

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing and want more of it, please consider donating.)

And then there is the body, which so often betrays us with injury, illness, and pain. There is the mind, over which we have so little control: we have thoughts and emotions we’d rather not experience all the time, and often feel like our own minds and bodies are tyrants.

So, humans are weak, and we feel weak. We often deny this to ourselves, because feeling weak is awful, frightening. A full admission of how much is beyond our control means admitting we can die or be in horrible pain at any moment, and the most we can do is influence the odds of it happening. We can never rule something awful happening out entirely.

The feeling of power is thus one of the strongest feelings available to humans. I remember reading a review of a book by a torturer in the Lebanese civil war. He wrote that torturing people was the most intense experience he ever had; so intense, in fact, that it ruined everything else for him. Food was tasteless, even sex was meaningless. After the rush of power from torture, the ultimate violation of social norms and one of the ultimate expressions of control over another person, nothing else ever came close.

This may horrify you. Perhaps you think you would be different (though it is best to never find out, by never torturing), but I think that most people would find the same.

Now, torture is an obvious extreme, but it’s done all the time. It’s routine in prisons in most countries, police even in “civilized” countries regularly inflict beatings severe enough to qualify, and when the US officially tortured in the 2000s there was no punishment for it beyond rapping on the knuckles of a few low-level grunts. The most severe penalty anyone received was given to the CIA whistleblower who revealed the details of the CIA torture — not the people who perpetrated it or ordered it.

Power comes in gradations. There’s the simple bully, which we’ve all experienced, I think, as children. “Do what I say, or I’ll hurt you.” Most authority is ultimately based on this, including routine authority of parents, teachers, and bosses. If you think otherwise, do the thought experiments of what happens if you just refuse to do what people with power want you to.

When a bully pushes you around, they feel powerful. It’s a good feeling, it’s pleasant. If you say otherwise, you’re lying to yourself. You must understand how the world actually is, even if you personally don’t enjoy forcing other people to your will.

But schoolyard bullies or screaming bosses — or even muggers and serial killers — are the Deltas of the world of power. They’re nothing, insects.

Real power is what top-level politicians, generals, executives, and ritual leaders have. There was an Indian guru who told some of his male followers to castrate themselves. They did.

Then there’s political power. Bill Clinton cut welfare, passed a terrible prison bill, and did many other horrible things, and he was beloved by so many of those he hurt. Obama, the first Black president, was terrible for African Americans, but they love him anyway. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s selfishness on staying on the Supreme Court when she was old and sick with cancer helped pave the way for the loss of abortion rights, but many women who support abortion rights consider her a hero.

George W. Bush sent the children of poor whites off to Iraq and Afghanistan to die, get PTSD, or get maimed, and the parents of those he sent and many of those he sent love him. Politicians, for generations, have pursued policies which impoverished 90 percent or so of Americans, and each of them was loved by millions.

Power is hurting someone, and having them love you anyway. Power is “believe me, not your lying eyes.” The sheer rush of being Clinton, Obama, or Bush and crushing your supporters — hurting them terribly, and having them worship you; this is pleasure.

Don’t think that they don’t get off on it. Don’t think they don’t enjoy it. Bush had brain damage by the time he was President (listen to him talk in ’92, then in ’02), but all three men were smart, and Clinton and Obama were borderline geniuses. They knew what they were doing; they knew who they were hurting.

And those people loved them for it.

That’s power. And for some people, that’s pleasure. They do it because they enjoy doing it.

Then there’s the executives. The ones who raise insulin prices so high that thousands die. They know. They know they’re killing you. They like it. They have that power, and even as you’re dying, begging for insulin money (or cancer money, or whatever) online, they’re laughing, because they know you’re powerless and will do nothing to hurt them, even while they kill  you.

Power. Pleasure. The groveling of the weak before the strong.

If someone does something and doesn’t actually need to do it to survive, they do it because they want to. When a very rich person decides to kill thousands to millions of people to get more money, they’re doing it because they like it. When Jeff Bezos treats Amazon workers like animals, having ambulances parked outside to take the fallen away, he does it because he wants to.

We humans are weak. The feeling of power is one of the ultimate experiences, and power over other humans, animals, and the world (destroying the world for money, knowingly) is pleasurable for a lot of people. It isn’t just that they don’t care, it’s that they like it.

Now, despite everything, power isn’t innately evil. It can be used for good, and there are cases and times when it has been. It’s been hard to do so for most of human history since the advent of agriculture, because we set up systems that incentivized cruelty, in which more cruelty led to more power. Capitalism is almost explicitly such a system, and certainly agrarian civilizations were almost uniformly evil, with few exceptions.

But power can be used for good, and you can get as much pleasure from using your power to help others as you can from using it to hurt people. I suspect there is even more pleasure, honestly. I think Obama, who had the opportunity to be the next FDR (who did some evil, but much more good), was a fool to choose the pleasures of elite regard and cruelty over what would have been a vast tide of love and loyalty from the majority of Ameircans.

We’ll talk about that in a followup piece.

But for now,  you’re ruled by evil people who hurt you because they like how it feels.



Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – December 5, 2021


Fred Hiatt and the Terrible Quandry of Elite Journalism


  1. Chicago Clubs

    I don’t know that I *necessarily* agree that because someone does something they don’t need to do to survive that means they *want* to do it in the sense that people normally mean they word. It’s possible and in my view probable that Bezos (and the other aliens wearing human skin) doesn’t have a positive desire to inflict pain, he just doesn’t care at all one way or the other about the suffering of people, but he *does* care about making the abstract power of his bank account go up, so he just does whatever accomplishes that. Other than that minor quibble I agree entirely, but it is an impossible uphill battle to get people generally to understand this. There is a kind of “narcissism of the little people” at work where they just can’t believe the rich aren’t just like them.

  2. Feral Finster

    For most people most of the time, the fastest and surest way to wind up dead or seriously disadvantaged has been at the hands of our fellow humans. At the same time, “our group”, whether by faith, family, tribe, regiment, whatever, are the people we can trust to have our back.

    Therefore, whatever else happens, whatever we have to do, believe absurdities, blindly follow barking insane leaders, parrot obvious lies to our detriment, do or suffer terrible things, but please whatever you do, please don’t kick us out of the group!

    Those who have lived in the Third World and in developed countries should have a light come on about now.

    What this also means is that when we are presented with incontrovertible proof that the group narrative is wrong or that the group leaders are mad or charlatans or worse, rather than change leaders or change beliefs or change groups, most people, most of the time will instead double down. Witness the behavior of cultists.

    The process is called “cognitive dissonance” and it is abundantly documented. As alluded to earlier, there are entire religions organized around the principle.

    Cognitive dissonance is not limited to stupid people. In fact, the intelligent are at least as prone, perhaps because they are better at rationalizing. In fact, much so-called “knowledge work” is basically learning symbol manipulation in order to rationalize something.

  3. HomoSapiensWannaBe

    I think Nobel Peace Prize “winning” Obomber had neither the intention nor actual opportunity to be anything like FDR, given the vast constraints of the ‘Merkan system. Obama’s saved socialist capitalism for the rich with the huge bailout package, bragging that he was keeping them away from the masses and their pitchforks, while at the same time doling out message of false hope as his head bobbed from side to side while reading from the teleprompter with his smooth, smoker’s voice. As for his true sociopathic background and character, and how he was groomed to be president by elements of the deep state, there’s plenty of credible research at Covert Action and other places.

    Otherwise, thanks for a thought provoking look at the pathology of power as most keenly wielded by high IQ Sociopaths, though you didn’t use the term.

  4. Ian Welsh

    I don’t like to use the word sociopath in articles like this, because sociopaths have actual brain abnormalities. I was friends for years with one; he didn’t feel other people’s emotions, at all, but he also didn’t get off on cruelty.

    A lot of the worst people aren’t sociopaths, in terms of brain function. They just like hurting people and using power to bend people.

  5. Willy

    when we are presented with incontrovertible proof that the group narrative is wrong or that the group leaders are mad or charlatans or worse, rather than change leaders or change beliefs or change groups, most people, most of the time will instead double down

    I’m intrigued about this “doubling down”, seemingly impervious to logic and even that person’s own belief systems. Everybody from Dale Carnegie to Cenk Uygur have said that this is basic human nature, for I presume, most adult children.

    As a Christian kid I told racist jokes even though two of my best friends at church were black. And most of my baseball heroes were minorities. And I was the supposed to be the nice kid. Maybe now I realizing why.

    Sure, part of it was that the Overton window of joke telling was framed that way back then. But I suspect the real reason was an unconscious human drive for power. My 4th grade class bully, near the top in terms of size, athletic ability, verbal and social skills, once told a racist joke in front of the whole class, minority students included, and got away with it. He even got laughs and white betas trying to supplicate him with racist jokes of their own.

    I knew better. I knew he was an asshole and that I wanted to be nothing like that. Yet I reveled in the power I felt from others carefully listening to my own racist jokes waiting for the punch line.

    I did grow up, mostly after experiencing some serious prejudice directed at me purely for the sake of another’s power jollies. I’ve noticed that whenever I try to explain those experiences, that many do listen carefully maybe waiting for the punch line. But there are some, adult children I presume, who don’t seem to get my experiences at all. They could only possibly be part of some failing on my part. Maybe it’s because they’ve never had similar experiences of their own to overcome. Emotional plasticity, I guess.

  6. Willy

    I partly disagree with the sociopath assessment. All sociopaths have powerful control drives, unrestricted by normal emotions. Those of extreme lack of agreeableness (Big 5) frequently confess to enjoying the “ruining of others”.

    Whether it’s “the quiet ones” like Ethan Crumbley, or my trusted friend who I knew for 10 years as a generous ethical before I actually worked with her to be horrified by highly irrational and unethical power mad behaviors seen behind the scenes, I believe that all of them will reveal a remorseless need to control eventually. It’s just a matter of your own particular observational viewpoint and the quality of their “don’t-get-caught” skillset.

  7. Ian Welsh

    Oh, all sociopaths may be bad (not sure, but that particular person is no longer my friend, not because they were bad to me (they were one of the best friends I’ve ever had) but because they were bad to others beyond the level I could overlook.

    But I think most people who do evil aren’t sociopaths or psychopaths. Surveys in corporations find that sociopaths are common, but they still aren’t the majority. But my experience in megacorp is that being an executive basically requires you to do evil regularly, sociopath or not, and execs wind up doing it and liking it.

  8. Feral Finster

    Contemplate the way organizations can exhibit behaviors indistinguishable from those of a sociopath, and, perhaps worse, can drive otherwise decent, ethical people to do unspeakably evil things for the benefit of the organization.

    Every empire must behave as such a sociopathic organization bound by no law other than expediency and power, because otherwise, it will not stay an empire for long. And that means that an empire needs organization people, people who may never do a cruel or dishonest thing for their own account (and who are honest in their own dealing with the organization), but who will commit terrible crimes on behalf of the organization. when called upon to do so.

    Some Victorian gent working as a mid-level functionary in the Foreign Office comes to mind here.

  9. Mark Pontin

    Jeez, I know I’ve quibbled about this before. Even though laypeople use the terms interchangeably and some of the behavior looks similar, and both are classed as antisocial personality disorder, psychopaths and sociopaths ARE NOT THE SAME THING.

    What people here are describing as sociopaths are actually psychopaths.

    Sociopaths have poor impulse control; they’re the types who fill the prison cells. They’re usually produced by environmental circumstances.

    Psychopaths have zero empathy but can have fine impulse control if they want it; they just don’t care. They’re the types in the c-suites.

    In about 20-35 percent of cases, psychopathy is congenital — they’re people simply born with dysfunction in certain brain areas, which results in low-to-zero emotional response in particular respects. One can see how such types might sometimes tend to become sadists, since as forex Ian points out inflicting torture can be a peak emotional experience — something intense enough that they can actually feel.

    On the other hand, people exist who are clinically psychopaths — with brains that physically aren’t like most of ours, resulting in reduced fear of risk and consequences — but nevertheless they function fine socially, including being married with children. Because they have impulse control and care to exercise it. See forex —

    ‘One afternoon in October 2005, neuroscientist James Fallon was looking at brain scans of serial killers. As part of a research project at UC Irvine, he was sifting through thousands of PET scans to find anatomical patterns in the brain that correlated with psychopathic tendencies in the real world.

    ‘“I was looking at many scans, scans of murderers mixed in with schizophrenics, depressives and other, normal brains,” he says. “Out of serendipity, I was also doing a study on Alzheimer’s and as part of that, had brain scans from me and everyone in my family right on my desk.”

    ‘“I got to the bottom of the stack, and saw this scan that was obviously pathological,” he says, noting that it showed low activity in certain areas of the frontal and temporal lobes linked to empathy, morality and self-control. Knowing that it belonged to a member of his family, Fallon checked his lab’s PET machine for an error … When he looked up the code, he was greeted by an unsettling revelation: the psychopathic brain pictured in the scan was his own.’

  10. Trinity

    I agree that the labels can be confusing, and there’s the added problem that labels are sometimes misused deliberately. That last part of the sentence is true for a lot of labels, not just those applied to human psychology. The definition of words are also redefined continually (especially by Big Tach), and at a faster rate than in the past, I think.

    But it’s important to note that humans are complex, and human psychology can’t be put in discrete little boxes. It’s a continuum, and not linear, based on the latest research.

    For me the best model (so far) is the Dark Triad. From wikipedia:

    In psychology, the dark triad comprises the personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. They are called dark because of their malevolent qualities.

    People scoring high on these traits … tend to be less compassionate, agreeable, empathetic, satisfied with their lives, and less likely to believe they and others are good.

    All three dark triad traits are conceptually distinct although empirical evidence shows them to be overlapping. They are associated with a callous-manipulative interpersonal style.

    Narcissism is characterized by grandiosity, pride, egotism, and a lack of empathy.

    Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulation and exploitation of others, an absence of morality, unemotional callousness, and a higher level of self interest.

    Psychopathy is characterized by continuous antisocial behavior, impulsivity, selfishness, callous and unemotional traits (CU), and remorselessness.

    Using this as a guide, my mother exhibited some of all three of these, especially grandiosity, lack of empathy, impulsivity, selfishness, callousness, and remorselessness. She had absolutely no problem telling me (in multiple ways, including by just telling me) that I ruined her life by being born a girl. She insisted I deserved everything terrible she ever did to me (and there were many instances).

    I can see a Bezos thinking the same thing about his employees, and not needing a made up excuse either, except maybe that he is “not satisfied with his life” either.

  11. Chris

    “Whoever has experienced the power and the unrestrained ability to humiliate another human being automatically loses his own sensations. Tyranny is a habit, it has its own organic life, it develops finally into a disease. The habit can kill and coarsen the very best man or woman to the level of a beast. Blood and power intoxicate … the return of the human dignity, repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.”

    ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

  12. anon y'mouse

    this was my earliest lesson in life.

    my second was this: if you can not remove yourself from the bullypsycho and deny him his ability to have any power over you (which he will use eventually to crush and to hurt you), you have to kill him.**

    yet so often, the bullypsycho is surrounded by protectors and even the laws which prevent this. and our entire society is structured to back up and empower the bullypsychos. we actually raise them above ourselves. perhaps even those who are not bullypsychos, when so raised, become that way because of this very system. and the cycle rolls on.

    one of my most startling revelations as an adult has been that although i have lived my life in pure rejection of the bullypsycho and all his works, he (and the society that empowers him) raised and formed me, and i have quite a bit of the bullypsycho in myself as well. and it’s a very hard energy to harness and use for purposes against itself as well.

    very tight chapter, Ian. the last one you did made me a bit confused and could use much reworking for clarity and purpose, but this one is spot on.

    **as civilized, non bullypsychos (if there are any of us out here), i would accept permanent confinement away from any ability to do others harm, since rehabilitation is something we haven’t really found a way to do properly. i would guess our inability to do that is because our society is based upon that very mental grove to such an extent, that one needs to be a bullypsycho to survive in it.

  13. Jan Wiklund

    There is a difference between power and violence. Violence is abhorred by almost all humans because we are hardwired as social animals, according to Randall Collins: Violence, That is, doing violence to people we se in the face.

    But politicians don’t see the people they hurt or kill. That’s the difference. Neither do soldiers do it nowadays. In the Vietnam war, when most US soldiers were infantry in the field, few of them killed anybody. Most shot in the air or not at all.

    According to Collins people can do violence to other people only under one of three conditions:
    – That there has bean an escalation of a conflict and that suddenly one of the parties break down. In that case the other party is likely to overreact, to be caught by “forward panic” and momentaneously lose control over themselves in a violent rage. Police violence, home violence and massacres are of that kind.
    – That there are people standing in the back of and commanding those who commit the violence. Like soldiers are commanded by officers and officers are commanded by politicians. Those commanding never see the victims, so it is easy for them to command.
    – Finally there are a few who have specialized for years in violence, learning to control their reactions and to build up routines so that the reactions doesn’t appear. For example robbers, hitmen and marines. But even they are likely to panic and shy back if their routines are tampered with.

  14. Ché Pasa

    All I can say, from what little I understand the motivations and behaviors of the high status people I’ve known, is that few of them have any idea or intention that their actions and inactions harm others.

    Declaring them all socio/psychopaths is not a reflection of who they see themselves to be. From what I can tell, they see themselves as “doing what’s necessary” — which sometimes isn’t pleasant (sic) but in the end is a “good thing.” And overall, for most of these people, their intention is to do as much good as they can.

    Seems odd. Seems counterintuitive when we see so much harm being inflicted on individuals, communities, nations, and the world as a whole by so many people in high positions of wealth and power. How can they themselves as agents for good when they do so much harm?

    Well, they don’t see themselves as doing harm. That’s how.

    Think back to the heyday of the British Empire (or substitute your own bete noir). Despite internal criticisms of this or that action or personality, the Empire was not considered evil by those who ran it, and many today think of it fondly, even some of those who were subjected to its depredations and destruction. No, the Empire was always considered a force for Good, and still is by many.

    Just so with the United States. We may know better, but so far that knowledge has no particular goal or objective. The British Empire wasn’t brought down by internal dissension, far from it. To the extent it has fallen (not yet financially), the Empire was brought down by an inability to sustain it — not enough wealth and not enough people willing to put their lives on the line to oppress and exploit foreigners for the comfort and pleasure of a rotten aristocracy. Two world wars and a depression had that effect.

    The ruling class is just as psychopathic as ever, maybe more so, but they see themselves as innocents doing their best under such difficult circumstances, and we the rabble just don’t appreciate all they’re doing for us.

  15. HotBlack

    The claim that “certainly agrarian civilizations were almost uniformly evil, with few exceptions”, is really very far what is currently known about early civilizations. You might find the book: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow, an interesting challange to your perspective.

    Here is a longer free excerpt in, the UK propaganda rag, the Guardian:

  16. Willy

    Mark Pontin, yeah, I tend to go with the flow. Psychopaths are born, not made. Sociopaths are talentwise (or aptitude or temperament your pick) , closer to the hump of the human bell curve. The next ten percentile if you will. They need to become “activated” by the presence of a successful psychopath in the group, a horrible childhood environment, cultural restrictions removed, whatever. A psychopath is always on no matter what happens.

    A psychopath (EXTP being the core type) has high extraversion (low harm avoidance), any kind of openness but more is always better for social success, very low agreeableness (the primary factor), and low conscientiousness (not very goal driven). As emotional flatliners they love stuff like leaping before looking and just plain winging it. They don’t necessarily hate their targets, as much as they see an opportunity to alleviate their painful boredom which always haunts them.

    Machiavellians (INTP being the core type) has high harm avoidance, more openness, very low agreeableness and conscientiousness. I worked with a lot of their kind. They tend to never ally with the group psychopath for fear of being misused, preferring to stay in the shadows with motivations hidden.

    Narcissism is a bit harder for me. I’m thinking the difference is higher extraversion and much higher conscientiousness than the psychopath. Their core type is probably ENTJ.

  17. Willy

    Don’t be thrown off by the expert opinion (some expert opinion) that much of Myers-Briggs is pseudoscience. I tend to agree with some of that. Their concept of function order is an incoherent mess, incompatible with my view that all temperamental variables fall on a spectrum.

    But every sociopath (or full blown psychopath) who I saw as being honest with me when describing others, always spoke in terms of the others “cut from a cloth” or their basic natures first, before ever going into speculations about whatever painful past experiences was impacting their habitual behaviors. Successful psychopaths and sociopaths are good psychologists and sociologists. They’re like successful hunters, good at figuring out the idiosyncrasies of their prey. Especially their weaknesses.

    Pop psychology vernacular gives me the chance of a common vocabulary with which to converse with others. My apologies if this is straying from the topic, but the incorrigible ambitions of the Dark Triad part of humanity seems to best explain why all good movements, empires, corporations and organizations eventually crumble.

  18. Ian Welsh

    Yes, there’s about a 2K period during which agricultural civilization is OK: after that the early kings take over, and that’s it. I overstated the case slightly.

  19. Trinity

    HotBlack, the article you posted was really, really good. These are the kinds of examples of alternative social organizations that we need, so the future (and our children) stand a chance of ending the strict hierarchical mindset for organizing society.

    I mean that we need to end the narrative where one person is considered better than another merely by birth and the resultant benefits that accrued to that person from (the psychopathy of) prior familial generations. Given what they describe in the article, and whichever way the observations are interpreted, any Dark Triad type would still be much less likely to seize full power due to seasonally changing the social organization. This echoes what some native north american tribes did, where a “chief” was only a chief when a specific problem needed to be solved. After the problem was resolved, leading then shifted to the next person wise in whatever situation was next in play.

    There are records indicating that the Europeans did not understand this. The Europeans assumed that tribes organized as the Europeans did: one ruler to bind them all.

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