Essay

If Capitalism is Sociopathic, How Should We Make a Living?

By Duff McDuffee on December 19th, 2012

[As background to this long post, I highly recommend that you read another set of long posts from Venkatesh Rao entitled The Gervais principle. I will be using terminology from his first article but summarizing a bit at the beginning of this post, so reading Rao's isn't strictly required.]

Let’s start with a hypothesis. I won’t present arguments for it, which itself could take many long posts or books, just what follows if we posit it.

“Capitalism is Sociopathic” Hypothesis: Capitalism is structured in such a way that rewards sociopathic behavior, i.e. maximizing personal gain and corporate profits for a minority, inevitably leading to things like inequality of wealth amongst the population, etc.

If the Capitalism is Sociopathic hypothesis is true, then everyone not at the top is effectively enabling sociopathic behavior (by being a Loser laborer not paid a rational wage or a Clueless middle manager who’s main job is to hide the class struggle) and/or participating in it (e.g. with investments in publicly traded corporations, entrepreneurs, etc.).

One option for a Loser at the bottom of the economic pyramid is to do just enough work to skate by. This is one rational (cost-benefit calculating) choice known as being a slacker.

Those who overperform end up becoming members of the Clueless, aka middle management, and their reward is dedication to a firm that is not dedicated to them. This requires a certain kind of constant inauthenticity.

Some Losers are groomed to become Sociopaths. They do this by taking big risks (e.g. entrepreneurial endeavors inside or outside the firm).

I find inauthenticity intolerable and I make rational calculations about how to spend my time and energy. Thus I have wavered between being a Slacker and trying to become a Sociopath. But I also have a strong moral conscience–in fact my ethical views are less evil than more than 99% of the population according to a test on “dark triad” personality traits. I find economic inequality completely unethical as a system and I’m not willing to cause more of it.

The Clueless are increasingly irrational because firms are being restructured, joined, and destroyed at ever increasing rates by Sociopaths. So it is becoming more and more popular for business advice to follow the lines of “don’t be a sucker, you too can be the oppressor!” We are all encouraged to be our own boss, i.e. to become a Sociopath running our own mini empire with 1000 “true fans.” We are even encouraged to personalize capitalist structures by exploiting global currency differentials between rich and poor countries by making U.S. dollars while living in a developing nation, or hiring “virtual assistants” to do our busy work freeing us up to do high-leverage activities which really bring in the money, thus asserting our status on the top of the pyramid with our own cadre of Losers serving our amassing of capital.

Some Sociopaths who left the firm because they found it irrational to be paid unequal wages created courses on how to make it on your own outside corporate life. But the only people who succeeded at such were those who did as they did, not as they said, and started their own scams teaching how to make money on your own, doing what you love. The product is the hope of no longer being a Loser or Clueless but joining the powerful as a Sociopath, but few are willing to so fully give in to the dark side.

I did that for a while, unknowingly being a Sociopath, branding myself as a life coach who could help people to find their dream job. I had gone to the dark side by imitating the Sociopath Tony Robbins. It worked–both financially and sexually–which scared me, so I stopped. I didn’t want to keep going down that well-worn road to “success” aka Sociopathy.

I also tried taking the Sociopath route of becoming an entrepreneur. I didn’t realize it was a Sociopath thing though until I encountered the harsh reality of startup culture, which is populated primarily by Sociopaths and Losers aspiring to be Sociopaths (who are largely destroyed by the more practiced and natural Sociopaths).

So what other options exist? That is what I am contemplating now.

I think perhaps why I have been negatively fascinated with Sociopaths is because I am to become the opposite. There is no word that I like for the opposite. “Saint” is too otherworldly, and stories of real saints show that these human beings we ascribe saintly qualities to are all-too-human. I think just as we call others evil to deny our own evil deeds and participation in evil deeds, we call others saintly to deny our moral duties to be and do good things. Perhaps anti-sociopath is a good start, or ordinary heroism, as in Philip Zimbardo’s expression “the banality of heroism” borrowed from Hannah Erendt’s “the banality of evil.”

Anti-sociopaths and sociopaths actually have a lot in common, which is probably why I have had so many tremendously evil people in my life and on my radar. We both seek to do something based on our own principles which defy conventional morality. Sociopaths seek to do what benefits them regardless of what is right, whereas anti-sociopaths seek to do what is good, regardless of what benefits them. But it is not quite so simple, for successful sociopaths must hide their true motives by seemingly going along with what appears to be right. The best sociopaths seem to follow the rules all the while bending and twisting them so that they get what they want while appearing to be moral and legal. (Tim Ferriss is a particularly good example because he is so explicit and forthright about it, yet still is quoted for being a “kickboxing champion” and “setting a Tango world record” in the media despite these achievements being completely fraudulent yet technically accurate.)

Anti-sociopaths also must attend to their needs and appear to be going along with conventional morality and social norms, despite not caring at all about convention for convention’s sake and largely disagreeing with most if not all conventions, often on ethical grounds. For instance, I couldn’t care less about giving gifts at Christmas. I think it is terribly inefficient at people actually getting what they want, plus tremendously wasteful of resources, encourages mindless consumerism, destroys the planet, and the whole event is completely inauthentic and phony (“christmas cheer” is nothing more than fabricated inauthenticity, especially at the darkest time of the year right before it becomes the coldest). Refusing to participate in giving gifts which one is required to give exposes the whole game as not being about charity or generosity at all but social obligation. Anti-sociopaths who refuse to play the game on some moral grounds become alienated as they frustrate the Clueless who encourage such game playing and keep the capitalist wheels spinning (“its good for the economy” aka good for the Sociopaths). The more alienated an anti-sociopath becomes, the less effective at actually making any positive changes to society. So anti-sociopaths must learn to fit in somehow, either playing the game and thus joining the Clueless, or finding some principled way to play the game (e.g. trying to come up with thoughtful presents, making something handmade or recycled, giving cash, or making a donation to charity in lieu of more cheap plastic junk nobody wants anyway but pretends to be so thankful for around the Christmas tree). Luckily after many years time, my family has mostly learned to either tolerate or even welcome my anti-sociopathic stances around Christmas, and for better or worse I have compromised a lot of my hard ethical stances around it as well, which has made the whole thing more enjoyable for all while also less wasteful.

So both sociopaths and anti-sociopaths learn to successfully blend in with the masses, meanwhile neither are very good at it.

Another way sociopaths and anti-sociopaths often interact is through Sociopaths taking advantage of Anti-sociopaths’ ethical commitments and pollyannish views of others. Anti-sociopaths often think others are also motivated by basically good intentions and thus make easy targets for Sociopaths who can easily hide their evil intentions. Naive Anti-sociopaths are also easily manipulated into doing favors and other “good” things for Sociopaths due to their moral and ethical principles.

I think it is more common than people want to admit that Anti-sociopaths can switch sides and become full-blown Sociopaths. I feel I have some personal experience with the matter in fact. I have felt the temptation. When someone is freed up from social conditioning, there is nothing outside of one’s own commitment to one’s principles that can stop it in fact. There is nothing anyone could do to shame me out of doing what I think is right, for instance. I am well-practiced in defending my views against shaming and other attempts at manipulation. But if I was to become corrupted, thus putting my selfish desires over higher ethical principles, then what social pressure could stop me from pursuing my selfish desires over anything else? Autonomy is a double-edged sword. And that is exactly how cynical, corrupted anti-sociopaths become sociopaths. Of course a strong dose of self-deception is also required, which is why I am constantly on the lookout for ways in which I am attempting to rationalize my vices as virtues.

So again, what other options exist? Due to my moral commitments, I am unwilling to be a slacker anymore, just doing enough to get by. I am also unwilling to be a full-blown Sociopath entrepreneur, trying to maximize profit by gathering other Losers to work for me for unfairly low compensation.

Some solve this dilemma by actually believing in the capitalist ideology that “I am rewarded financially to the extent that I help others.” A very, very few seem to be actually doing this–more common is to use this line to justify their wealth accumulation as fair. In other words, most people are not truly considering the inherently unjust structures of labor (Losers) vs. capital (Sociopaths). Those that do take injustice seriously tend to create businesses that are actually employee owned, for instance. Or they create co-ops or non-profits, or super small businesses that barely turn a profit and too small to have any appreciable hierarchy, because putting good over “me” isn’t rational, in terms of maximizing self-interest/profit. Far too many others simply ignore the problem and join the Sociopaths by becoming content with accumulating wealth (i.e. siphoning wealth off of Losers and the Clueless), using the rhetoric of virtue to justify their actions as good.

One option I see is to “be so good they can’t ignore you” as Steve Martin quipped and personal development bloggers often recite, almost as a mantra. Except I interpret “good” not simply as skilled, but also as “virtuous.” Become so ethical, so moral, so virtuous that when your actions and your way of being communicate a purity so bright it blinds the Sociopaths and challenges the would-be anti-sociopaths to become better human beings and to do good. I suppose this could work wherever one is in the economic structure–Loser like me, or Clueless but waking up, or maybe even Sociopath.

I don’t know how that works yet as a practical career path though. At this point it is a matter of faith even that such a thing might work out in anything other than crucifixion (metaphorically, if not literally). But is there really any other choice but to seek to do good? Everything else seems unsatisfyingly lame to me.

Soon the light will come back into the world (literally–that’s what happens at the Winter Solstice, at least in the Northern Hemisphere). As we enter into the coldest and most depressing time of the year, I contemplate how we could live lives that do good and maybe help turn this upside-down world around, while also having enough to eat and staying connected with my fellow human and nonhuman beings.

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