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

The Joy of Evil

One of the great problems with our society, is human nature, as created by this particular society.

To whit: It is enjoyable for most people to force other people to do what they want.

We often pretend this isn’t so, but seeing a human do what you want usually gives rise to pleasant feelings. The forcing can be subtle, using deceit and manipulation. It can be overt, using threats. And it can be through the actual use of force.

It can also be legal or illegal. We all know, I trust, that many police enjoy forcing people to do what they tell them to. Politicians enjoy their power. Bosses enjoy making employees jump, they get off on it.

And people who are forced to do things resent it. When I was growing up, it was assumed that it was high-level, type “A” executives who had the most likelihood of heart attacks. Then the British civil service decided to find out if this was true and commissioned a massive study.

To the contrary, it turned out that those with health problems and heart attacks were lower on the totem pole. The key factor was how much control they had: Those who were ordered around constantly, or were in precarious situations, were the most likely to have health problems.

So the problem is that people don’t want to be forced to do stuff they wouldn’t otherwise do, but that people enjoy forcing other people to do what they don’t want to do, and that our society is caught in this trap.

We take this as being human nature, but it isn’t. Or, not exactly. It is human nature as expressed in our sort of society. In band-level societies, you don’t see this. Even in tribal “big man” societies there is little of it, because even the big men have limited power (and can’t pass it to their children).

How much of it there is also varies even between our own societies, and over time in our societies. I remember a time, in the 80s, when bosses had a lot less ability to force their will on low-level employees. I recall being reamed out once by a boss, and I laughed at him. “Fire me if you want. I’ll have a new job in two weeks.”

In capitalist societies, tight job markets mitigate against a lot of boss-abuse. In societies where people have the ability to provide their own livelihood, a lot of that type of abuse is not present. (There are other types of abuse, however, if the societies are stratified.)

But the bottom line is that power feels enjoyable, and not having power feels awful, so the majority of the population is scrambling to be shitting down more than they are being shat on.

Unfortunately, in a relatively hierarchical, stratified society, which ours still is (there aren’t that many chairs for senior executives), this means a majority of the population is being shoved around quite a lot.

And what is done to people they tend to do to other people.

This is an endemic problem in our form of society, especially boss-abuse (and for the chronic poor, social worker and cop abuse, which are very real). It is baked into our sort of society: There may be more or less in various societies, and at various times, but it’s always somewhat with us.

If we want genuinely good societies, which produce genuinely healthy people (both physically and psychologically), we need to figure out a way to run our society which involves much less coercion and precarity. The whip of hunger, the fear of losing one’s job and with it any life worth having, are the ruling fears of our time, and they produce real and genuine illnesses.

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  1. Ed

    The thing is, a lot of people already know this. Management books are full of how being a true leader (respecting and listening to your staff, helping them to excel and chase their own goals, etc.) achieves far more than the managers who use forceful tactics. There are plenty of examples of true leaders in real life as well, particularly if you look in athletics at programs that don’t have a “win at all costs” mentality.

    But knowing this doesn’t help when the short term matters far more than the long term. What does it matter if I treat my staff well, if I miss next quarter’s projections and get fired for it? Or if the coach who’s helping my son grow into a decent man gets fired because he had a losing season?

    Yes, there are going to be people who pick the pleasurable high of being abusive over being decent human beings. There are a lot of other people who are going to be evil because our current short-term focused, “the shareholder profits are the reason the corporation exists” cultural mentality makes evil a necessity for personal survival.

  2. anon y'mouse

    and this is why i support a theoretical UBI. we need to break the “obey or starve” imperatives in this society.

    as the product of an unusual upbringing, i can say that i actually spent a few years experiencing what real slavery was like under a psychopathic abuser who held the power of life and death over me, but was generally content with humiliation and forcing me to be his maid. all of the other slaveries that came afterward (most especially including bosses, but also teachers–you neglected them in your Power to Demand list, and they really do get off on that and it is not good for them or for their students) felt like just a change in degree and not in kind.

    if people are doing what they are already motivated to do, you have the added bonus that they are more productive (if that’s what you are aiming for. we give it a lot of lip service in this society, but it depends on what you’re being productive in, too) and you don’t have to constantly watch over them and make sure they’ve done it correctly. they have inbuilt motivation to try to do things correctly because THAT is the payoff. you also don’t have to worry too much about fraud, theft, etc. unless you end up with the sociopath or the psychopath. those people are a much smaller percentage of the population in a society that does not force everyone to behave as if they were a socio/psychopath.

    and that is the crux of what made me comment today. our society forces everyone to behave like a socio- or a psychopath. eventually you end up with people who are more that than they are “good, kind, moral and upstanding”, but because they obviously know that they should be good and kind, we overemphasize what little we are doing in that area–donating to a charity, going to church, “supporting our troops!”.

    the Milgram experiment and the Stanford Jail study come to mind. human beings in our society believe that there is some kind of character, and that we have a national character and that your character determines what you will do. most psych studies say we are almost totally malleable towards our surrounding context, and will do unspeakable things if provided the proper rationale for doing them, including claim blue is green, shock people to death, and deliberately give them Hepatitis, Syphilis just to see what will happen. most people when they hear about the latter are absolutely horrified by the idea, but they have no problem at all saying that their restaurant tips “force the waitstaff to treat me right!” or basically assuming that anyone who waits on them in a service position is basically barely above an idiot, and their job at Wal-world or McDos is some form of charity towards them. and yes, i see all of this on a continuum.

  3. ponderer

    Compassion requires our basic needs to be met. Fear and anger on the other hand don’t. Domination, the illusion of control over ones destiny, is as intoxicating as those short endorphin bursts one gets from their cell phone or social media. It’s no wonder there are so many trolls.

  4. Tom

    Well, looking at France and nowBelgium, we are seeing what years of austerity and screwing the poor is doing. The Yellow Jackets have taken to the streets and have 2/3rds support of the public.

    Don’t know if Macron can survive this, but it seems Frenchmen have had enough of the system and our moving towards overthrowing the system. Belgium seems to be heading that way as well.

    Only time will tell if this leads to Far Right Extremists who double down on Islamophobia under the guise of defending France, or Far Left Extremists who do the same thing under the guise of liberating women, all while neither side actually addresses the core problems France actually faces.

    Well given we hit the point of no return on climate change, we know it will be 5 to 40 years before most nations collapse catastrophically. So this just might be the first sign of the EU cracking apart.

  5. Willy

    Libertarians are good at claiming to protect liberty. But Rule of Law, not so much. It’s a good ruse for the powers that enjoy being the powers that be.

  6. Ian Welsh

    Eh, there are quite a lot of examples of compassion in times of great crisis. An entire book was written on how people are wonderful to each other during great catastrophes.

  7. bruce wilder

    The flip side of the pleasure one takes in a dominant role — and people do it in “innocent” settings all the time; consider the dynamics of being waited on by a charming sexually attractive waiter/waitress and tipping — is the longing for a reliable dependency, to be taken care by a “good” parent, relieved of the existential dread of figuring things out and judging risks in business or life, inventing one’s self creatively. Armies are the epitome of hierarchical organization and in a well-functioning army, the common soldier knows his place but is taken care of: clothed, fed, trained, pensioned.

    Ian has a romantic attraction to rebellious non-compliance, at least in theory. I do not. So, though, I see the problem he draws attention to here, I see the solution space somewhat differently.

    For one thing, I think we ought to get militant about talking about political economy in terms that are realistic, that acknowledge that hierarchy is how we organize the economy. We should not say, “markets” when what we mean is money finance. What Willy says about the ruse that is libertarianism applies. We want people to obey the rules and the rules to make sense; we want the rules to serve the greater good.

    The problem, as I see it, is that the rules are often manipulated and shaped to serve predators. The state and the economy are being consumed by control frauds. And, American society seems to lack institutions to reform. The channels for altruistic punishment of the predators and parasites are absent.

  8. S Brennan

    “In capitalist societies tight job markets mitigate against a lot of boss-abuse.”

    Indeed; people in power know this well, liberals used to know this, however today’s “liberals” do not. Nor do “liberals” of today understand the factors that went into labor gaining a small voice in the workplace.

  9. ponderer

    Crisis are different. That’s great emotional stress, maybe hunger, maybe pain but not basic needs. I guess I explained that poorly. From studies on taxes for instance we know that some people will always try to cheat, some will never cheat, and the majority will change depending on the circumstances. If that middle group think that there are a number of people cheating and suffering no consequence, they will cheat. There a certain amount of fairness ingrained in our psyche. If you make it impossible to survive without cheating, that middle group will cheat up to the last survivor. As the stakes (severity of outcomes) are increased, fewer and fewer people will listen to their conscious. They’ll start looking inside their tribes and coming up with sub tribes. They’ll start coming up with all sorts of excuses for their behavior, generating loads of stress. So even the survivors will just barely survive. That’s the behavior described by Ian.
    The point wasn’t that there isn’t a resilience inherent to humanity by most likely a biological (race) survival mechanism. It was that if you want to control people with fear and anger you have to take away some of their basic needs. That is, the PTB, oligarchy, or what-have-you requires “capitalism” to work the way it does so that small group of always cheaters are masked out by the group of people teetering on survival. Just because someone shares bread with another person in their town who faces the same catastrophe, doesn’t mean that they will use that same compassion for people suffering in Yemen even if they are more responsible than say for a natural disaster. I guess that is another way of saying that domestic policy and foreign policy are intertwined in ways that don’t always seem intuitive. “Fixing” one without the other isn’t so easy, at least in my view.

  10. Ian Welsh

    Eh, Bruce, I grew up in a (relatively good) boarding school. In fact, what I was trained in was noblesse oblige. However, when the lords do not live up to their responsibility, the vassals’ duty is to rebel.

  11. bruce wilder

    Ian: However, when the lords do not live up to their responsibility, the vassals’ duty is to rebel.


    I used the term, “altruistic punishment”, but there are other terms and forms that apply. Still, that’s a good one, because it is realistic about the “costs” and “benefits”. Punishing the bosses is always going to seem to cost more than it is worth in the short-term and to the individual; the bosses like it that way and have the power to make it so. Another way to say it, is that you have to get mad to get even. (In a parallel context, payback’s a bitch.)

    The deal between the bosses and the workers or citizens and the state is, or ought to be, a bargain, negotiable, mutually beneficial and contingent on good behavior from the bosses as well as the workers: dependency is mutual. But, it is in the interest of the bosses to create a slippery slope to a worse future for us and a better future for them. (cf Reaganism)

    I hate the bloodless hand-wringing about “growing economic inequality”. I hate proposals for a UBI. I loathe the left’s attachment to the politics of protest and cultural critique. I am deeply suspicious of utopian idealism that denies the messy and problematic.

    I think it is the Vassal’s duty to demand and enforce responsibility to govern. Show the parasite and the drone the door. Or the guillotine.

  12. nihil obstet

    I want a UBI for all kinds of reasons. I will expound if anyone wants (and I’ll probably expound if no one wants, given any opening to do so.)

    There are two aspects to hierarchy: differentials in status and differentials in amount of control (power). There’s usually a heavy overlap, but they aren’t identical. I noticed in the 1980s that management was ceasing to be a function and becoming a status. That process was virtually complete by 2000. Boss abuse is basically about maintaining status over others, not about actually fulfilling the function of managing production. Reducing the differentials in status — that is, giving bosses and employees similar amounts of money, similar perks, similar amounts of control over job aspects that do not impact production, requiring similar responsibilities — can reduce the slavery aspects of employment.

    As for “it is the Vassal’s duty to demand and enforce responsibility to govern”, I learned the hard lesson that the employee cannot make the manager do his job.

  13. Herman

    Great story about laughing at your boss in the 1980s. This is something a lot of people don’t understand. There used to be a time when many people could do this, even in America. I get accused of wearing nostalgia goggles all of the time but it is true, workers had way more power at work in the post-war period before neoliberalism really came to dominate the society.

    If your read books about Soviet society you will find out that workers actually had a lot of power in the workplace, at least in the post-Stalinist period. Even if they had little political power Soviet workers weren’t easy to push around at work. Soviet workers would often tell their boss off to their face. Because of Soviet full employment policy the stick of unemployment wasn’t very strong. There was always work for you. This is why I think a robust full employment policy is better than UBI which has numerous problems that I won’t get into here to keep this post from being too long.

    As you point out, the problem is that in an extremely hierarchical, unequal society people start to behave miserably toward each other. That is why we see so much punching down today. I often meet working-class Americans who object to increasing the minimum wage or doing anything for workers poorer than they are. When you live in a dog-eat-dog society people become very worried about their relative position in society because falling down the totem pole can be disastrous.

    As for crises, I am afraid that it might take a gigantic crisis to rebuild any type of solidarity culture in this society. It is not a coincidence that so many social movements bloomed after the Great Depression and World War II. Would the civil rights movement or the counterculture have been possible without a strong economy that allowed people to experiment with different lifestyles and forms of political activism? I don’t think so.

    Right now people are too individualistic to really make much of a dent in the system. Even many of the supposed leftists I meet are sharp-elbow types who would gladly sell out their principles if it meant getting ahead. This is why I think most radical movements of the past would fail today. It would be easy for the bosses or the government to get modern people to rat on each other and throw their “comrades” under the bus for money or a promotion.

  14. anon y'mouse

    being “for” a UBI does not necessitate being “against” a job guarantee. but i personally have seen how some of that plays out. ever see a corporation make money off of a disabled citizen, and pay them pennies on the hour for doing hard, grunt labor and then break their arm off publicizing how they “give them a chance to be normal”? and that’s with the government making up the difference in pay through aid and transfers. it’s demeaning, and it very easily could become a straight up dystopia along the lines of “take this crappy job, or we cut your food stamps”. heck, that’s already happening. and it would be well in keeping with the mentality decried here: the “make other people suffer so i can be joyful and idle” merges with the “they should be grateful we offer them anything at all, since we are the only true Producers of anything valuable” to result in mere crumbs from the table. if a Job Guarantee could prevent that, give people meaningful work and empower them doing something actually worthwhile, rather than designing/marketing/transporting garbage products for them to consume, i would sign up the first day and probably never leave for a Corp. Employer again. but if our society makes such a program, it will not be so and i can’t see the idea of a Job Guarantee the way it is being bruited about as any LESS utopian at this point than a UBI is.

    a UBI in this society would be pointless. We would have to have publicly owned provisions, utilities, housing, medical care, education etc. for near at-cost pricing. if not, the Ownership Class will just hoover up the benefit of it, and we will all still be stuck working to pay the increasing costs of everything, justified by our “well, now you have more money this year and WE thankfully did not have to pay it to your ourselves”. heck, they already do it now. rent and everything else that matters goes up every year by a certain percentage, but if you are lucky, your wage goes up by one to a few orders of magnitude less than that. if they can justify it now, how much more will they justify it when the government or whomever is cutting us checks? yeah, we would end up just like that village that tried to do it in England in the 18th Century, with similar results and for similar reasons. so, UBI at this point is utopian as well as a Job Guarantee is. but no booster of the latter will admit that to be true: that EVERYthing in our society that is done for “the poor, needy” becomes and is made deliberately to be a torment to them, because the sadistic society teaches everyone to hate them and make them the scapegoat for all of society’s ills. it’s a never ending charge of “you didn’t make the right life decisions, therefore be happy with what we allow you to have”.

    this goes back to the Freedom From/Freedom To debate in ethics, i think. yes, in my “ideal” world, we would still work. there would still be stuff to do, and people would still be paid somehow to do it, perhaps with perks but perhaps with psychological payoffs that are in small evidence today but that Industrial Psych majors are always touting. but the status, and the -Rulers and the ruled- crap needs to go. if rules are to be followed, they would be followed by EVERYone after EVERYone has determined what those rules are and why they are the ones that make the most sense. anything else is a form of slavery, with simply various elaborate justifications.

  15. Herman

    @anon y’mouse,

    Yeah I think there are problems with the Job Guarantee too, but to me a UBI would be worse and probably not workable anyway. When I think of something like the Job Guarantee I think more along the lines of New Deal programs like the WPA and CCC and not English workhouses. How these policies work out depends on the society you live in. They can be made very draconian or not depending on conditions. I had relatives who were employed by the CCC and they liked it a lot. Of course, given our current culture you are probably right that any programs to help the poor will be draconian in nature because of how much we hate the poor.

    This is why I think that we need a cultural change and that will only come about from a massive catastrophe that hurts almost everyone. When the Great Depression hit it was very difficult to scoff at the poor as lazy or stupid losers because so many people were made poor and unemployed including many people who were formerly affluent and obviously “did everything right” according to social ideals at the time. More people adopted a “but for the grace of god there go I” attitude about the poor. As we moved further and further away from the Great Depression that attitude changed.

    I have noticed something similar in recent years. I sometimes go back to message boards from around the time of the Great Recession and notice that posters were a lot more compassionate at the time toward people posting about their job/economic struggles. Now you go online and it is like we are back to the old “let’s dump on losers” culture. In a dog-eat-dog society you need the pain to become so widespread that people are forced to band together to survive. Currently enough people are doing well enough that it is easy to throw the poor under the bus and not feel very bad about it.

  16. Smurf

    What a twisted little derp you are.

    Ian — usually delete this stalker’s stuff. But hey, I’ll let this one stay.

  17. Eric Anderson

    “”The most improper job of any man … is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”

    — JRR Tolkien

  18. Tom

    George H.W. Bush has kicked the bucket. Let us not forget his trumped up charges against Panama justifying an intervention, pardoning the Iran-Contra Conspirators, backing the Contras who were the ISIS of their day, and supporting oppressive regimes.

    Rest in hell, your service in WW2 in bringing down the Genocidal Imperial Japanese Military does not outweigh your own sins in the CIA, as Vice-President, and President of the US.

  19. Chiron

    Maybe OT, but what is your view of the protests in France? For me it looks like the French working class realized that they elected a Neoliberal muppet as President.

  20. steeleweed

    As Ian noted, tribal societies have less overt coercion because leaders have limited power and generally can’t build long-term power structures. But tribal societies have one other difference which is critical, in my view. They are small enough that they fall into the Dunbar’s Number category. Everyone knows everyone. What you do affects everyone and what anyone else does affects you. While there are people who bully their famlies, that is widely condemned rather than being considered socially acceptable. Generally, we treat family and friends better than we treat strangers and causal acquaintances.

    Of course, social groups of that size imply a much reduced population and even then would come in contact from time to time, so there would be a need for norms of intra-group behavior. That’s what I consider the beginning of politics.

  21. Anon

    As long as the current version of capitalism continues to promote the idea that there is no future there will continue to be a collective depression leading to acts of irrationality, mayhem, and murder. The system needs to be stopped and overthrown, immediately, or else.

  22. Z

    The fact that we have a country awash with pharmaceutical amphetamines is also a contributing factor to the phenomenon of people getting joy from getting others to do what they want them to. These ADHD treatment drugs, which are over prescribed and very prevalent in the workplace, make folks focus and what is the baseline beat that they focus on: what is best for me.


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