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Book Review: Political Ponerology
“Present-day philosophers developing metaethics try to go further; as they slip and slide along the elastic space leading to an analysis of the language of ethics, they contribute toward eliminating the imperfections and habits of natural conceptual language. However, penetrating this ever-mysterious nucleus is highly tempting to a scientist.” Andrew M. Lobaczewski, Political Ponerology
In Political Ponerology, despite presenting a sweeping historical scope of the issue he intends to illuminate, Andrew Lobaczewski leaves considerable gaps in the relevant literature review supporting his own clinical observations. Moreover, quantitative estimates of the various psychopathology types he introduces and describes are left unsupported by any empirical research. Perhaps paradoxically, this may make it one of the most important books for The Public to read to gain a solid conceptual understanding of the macrosocial psychopathology, aka the cultural revolution, we are living through. It is more a social-ecological presentation of cultural psychological phenomena than a theoretical academic piece. The footnotes provided in this revised expanded edition edited by Harrison Koehli are culled from contemporary sources and thinking and are a welcome addition, somewhat offsetting Lobaczewski’s own shortcomings noted above.
As someone trained in both forensic psychology developmental psychopathology and who has read extensively on the topic of psychopathy, including Cleckley’s seminal The Mask of Sanity (5th Ed), I found Lobaczewski’s “Political Ponerology” both a promising work, but one that was written without deep expertise or knowledge in these constructs and fields. Indeed, Lobaczewski seems have been unaware that a dedicated field of developmental psychopathology had been formally introduced—with its own flagship journal—at least contemporaneous with the reported completion of the original manuscript in 1984 and well prior to the final official publication in 2006 by Red Pill Press (Lobaczewski died in 2007). Nonetheless, this is an important work. It is written in a style that synthetically blends personal experience and observation with the introduction of descriptive and novel psychological terminology, including conceptual psychopathology taxonomies (described below), without becoming bogged down in excessive and obtuse discourse that often characterizes ‘academically-oriented’ work. For this reason, I think a wider audience may find it more easily digested and ‘connectable’ to contemporary phenomenon impacting them.
As described by Koehli in the editor’s introduction:
An expert on psychopathy, he chose to christen their field of study ‘ponerology’—a synthesis of psychological, psychiatric, sociological, and historical studies on the nature and genesis of evil. Upon his request, two monks of the Benedictine Abbey in the historic Polish village of Tyniec provided the name. Derived from poneros in New Testament Greek, the word suggests an inborn evil with a corrupting influence, a fitting description of psychopathy and its social effects.
For Lobaczewski, the field of ponerology:
utilizes the scientific progress of the last decades and years, especially in the realms of biology, medicine, psychopathology, and clinical psychology. It clarifies unknown causal links and analyzes the processes of the genesis of evil, acknowledging those factors whose role has been previously ignored or underestimated. In initiating this new discipline, the author has also utilized his professional experience in these areas and the results of his own research.
And he defined ‘pathocracy’ thusly:
I shall accept the denomination of pathocracy for a system of government thus created, wherein a small pathological minority takes control over a society of normal people.
After all, psychologically normal people constitute both the great statistical majority and the natural base of social life in each community. According to natural law, they should be the ones to set the pace; moral law as well as the legislation of nations are derived from their nature. Power should be in the hands of normal people.
Lobaczewski describes well the multi-tiered nature of political pathocracies in which a deviant minority—often what he calls primary (i.e., hereditary) psychopaths—are ‘the brains’ behind and which direct the larger pathocratic movement which is comprised of many ‘characteropaths’, or those with a vulnerability to adopting pathocratic ideology and joining such movements due to early environmental influences (e.g., birth complications, malevolent parenting), and otherwise ‘normal people’ or ‘common people’ who fall under the sway of the primary psychopaths and the pathocratic ideology. In a previous essay, I described this framework from the standpoint of modern personality psychology and psychiatric nosology (i.e., the description and empirical operationalization of mental illness symptoms).
I particularly found insightful Lobaczewski’s delineation of the phases of the evolution of a pathocracy, especially so in light of the public health response to the COVID pandemic. Lobaczewski broadly sketched three phases in a pathocracy cycle as:
Hysteroidal phase (cultural hystericization). In this phase, which typically emerges during a relatively contented or peaceful period of time in a society (e.g., following expansion, favorable prevailing economic conditions), a vulnerable society becomes defined by a populus whose social behaviors become dictated by paranoia, irrationality and emotional lability rather than with rationality and disciplined critical thinking often honed during hard times; the capacity for principled moral criticism is lost.
Given an unexpected or novel event or stressor (e.g., plague, civic dysfunction) there is an absence of psychological reason and ethically principles in the response by the polity; this often is reflected and amplified by pathocratic elites who seek power. The reader will have no difficulty seeing the connection between this phase and the dual occurrence of both the COVID pandemic and the racial unrest during the summer of 2020 consequent to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota policeman.
Psychopathic phase. Dissimulation (preceded by prodromal schizoid/characteropathic phases). In a mature phase of a pathocracy, where essential psychopaths have fully harnessed organizational structure and power over those with inherited or environmental vulnerabilities which preclude them from strategic and organized operational command of a pathocracy, Lobaczewski notes a period of dissimulation sets in:
Let us therefore use the term ‘the dissimulative phase of pathocracy’ for the state of affairs wherein a pathocratic system even more skillfully plays the role of a normal sociopolitical system with ‘different’ doctrinal institutions.
In the dissimulative phase, the psychopathic leaders or ‘figureheads’ have managed to functionally instantiate a system of authority in which the normal person is, to varying degrees of penetrance, conned into believing—or at the least ‘going along’ despite internal misgivings—that what is in reality a pathocratic system of political is instead some ‘legitimate’ doctrinal ideology. That is, despite being novel or different, is nonetheless a ‘normal’ doctrinal ideology with internal coherence of precepts and viewpoints. What is actually happening, instead, is that the pathocratic ponerogic process is masqueraded as a normative, yet ‘different’ doctrinal institutional framework.
Depathologization phase. In this phase, the common people have fully comprehended the deviancy of the pathocratic system they have been subjected to and living under. Given their statistical majority, they begin to communicate and align with each other, thus building a common coalition to countervail the pathocratic authority. Shared understanding of the pathocratic deviancy, along with sustained efforts to eliminate its influence within society, begins the ‘progressive depathologization’ process of sanitizing society from pathocratic influence and rule.
A second strength and compelling aspect of Political Ponerology can be found in Lobaczewski’s careful and incisive recommendations for how to counter, disable, and ‘inoculate’ future societies from pathocratic influence. Importantly, he lays out the dangers of reactionary returns to (fundamentalist) religious ideologies. Such neo-reactionary retreat to religious edicts and traditions that are cloaked in archaic moralizations rather than a mature understanding of the science of psychopathology, and how it informs current understanding of the nature of evil, are unhelpful and paradoxically can be leveraged to create or advance a pathocratic system. In short, religion is corrupted and hijacked from within and is used as a Trojan Horse to advance a pathocratic agenda as part of the ponerogenic process.
That is why the best traditions of philosophical and religious thought have counseled subduing the emotions in order to achieve a more accurate view of reality.
Throughout the book, Lobaczewski also weaves in several strands of conceptual thought that have been noted by other great thinkers and public intellectuals who have contributed great insights into societal functioning and cultural psychology. For example, in discussing the utility of ‘creative potential’ in allowing humans to emerge from pathocratic governance, I found echoes of the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott who writings emphasized the need for creative imaginative space to facilitate healthy human psychological and cultural development. Lobaczewski notes:
Thus, during brutal times of confrontation with evil, human capabilities of discriminating phenomena become subtler; apperceptive and moral sensibility develops, although critical faculties sometimes border on cynicism. This gives rise to values which, eventually, having undergone a certain refinement, may turn out to have creative potential.
There also comes through in Lobaczewki’s writing a somewhat awkward yet nonetheless insightful recognition of the vulnerability of women to pathocratic influence. Despite being awkwardly delivered in his prose surrounding the hysteroidal cycle and elsewhere in the book (see below),
The naivety of women due to the serious lack of psychological knowledge is a major cause of the increasing numbers of genetic psychopaths being born in the present day and for the past 50 years or so.
the recognition of this phenomenon is objectively accurate. It has been a ubiquitous feature of mass social contagions observed throughout human history and is, I believe, directly relevant to the emergence of gender identity ideology, which is largely driven by what might be charitably considered as excessive and misguided trait empathy or compassion in females.
Along with colleagues, I have published work highlighting the role of immersive audio-visual social media (e.g., TikTok) as a key driver or ‘spread vector’ of social contagion of mental illness symptoms and diagnoses, especially among adolescent females. Such contagion, and cultural hystericization surrounding the contagion, is no doubt something Lobaczewski would view as a primary contemporary influence on the ponerogenic process of pathocratic movements (e.g., identity Marxism).
In all, this book might be described as a peri-academic introductory text for the casual, yet informed, reader linking academic concepts and psychiatric taxonomies to pseudo-political agendas and regimes that are ponerogenic (psychopathic) in nature. Such regimes, unlike those guided by internally coherent and well-developed ideologies, seek to control and dominate human societies in the totalitarian sense. Perhaps most importantly, Political Ponerology provides general and common sense guidance for individuals and societies to recognize the development of ponerogenic processes and pathocratic systems and to resist or recover from their influence. The book is ultimately hopeful in its message, but time will tell whether contemporary Western societies are able to put a halt to what is undeniably what Lobaczewski would characterize as a macrosocial ponerogenic process seeking to ‘transform’ our democratic foundations and ways of life.
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