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Working With the Corporate Psychopath

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The word psychopath carries connotations to Hannibal Lector, the psychopathic and cannibalistic serial killer in Silence of the Lambs. Yet, next to Anthony Hopkins playing the criminally insane rather brilliantly, there might be a more mundane version of the psychopath, the one who goes to work diligently to torment workers. The world of the real psychopath might just be your workplace where a skilful lying manipulator even avoids detection. Corporate psychopaths are different from sociopaths. ‘Sociopathy is a malady of being social, of falling short of expected behaviours or external interaction, whereas psychopathy is a malady of the internal psyche, or the internal psychology one supposes another one to have’, writes Tristam Adams in his recent book The Psychopath Factory. In short, some people might be psychopaths but they are not sociopaths as they meet many expected social behaviours.

Psychopaths are very capable of behaving in the correct or socially acceptable manner  whether as US president, workmate, manager, or boss. What really separates the sociopath from the psychopath is the latter’s lack of empathy while sociopaths, by contrast, may have degrees of empathy – and yes, the psychopath is more likely to be a “he” rather than a “she”. Empathy is the ability or capacity to experience emotions from the position of the other.

Adams emphasises that a diminished or complete lack of empathy is a key psychopathic trait linking psychopathy to capitalism when saying that ‘late capitalism nurtures variegated degrees of empathy and super-social, charming and polite psycho-pathic performances of empathy’. As many economies move from manufacturing to the service industry, servicing others becomes ever more important to capitalism. This is found not just in the robot-like call centre employee, the nurse, the doctor, or the teacher but also in the accountant, the sales person, the financial consultant, the business school lecturer, the journalist, the flight attendant, etc. Under today’s service oriented capitalism with ever more sophisticated management regimes, managerially guided human-to-human interfaces are framed in terms like patient, carer and the more revealing customer and service respectively.

Somewhat reminiscent of the older “control-vs.-cooperation” contradiction, today’s management expects emotions to be shown or switched off whenever it demands and commands it. Present day empathy is expected, encouraged, and rewarded in some contexts, but ignored, discouraged or jettisoned in others. The nurse must be sensitive to the discomfort and needs of the patient, but s/he must also be able to work methodically, efficiently, and fairly; he or she must be able to leave the ward at the end of the day, return home and switch off. This is the pathology of the capitalist system requiring just a little bit of socio-psychological pathology.

This, of course, also applies to managers who are increasingly tasked with inspiring and managing people: keeping people happy but working. In short, today’s service oriented capitalism depends on empathy to an ever increasing amount as service, knowledge, and information economy increase in importance – whether in real or “Bullshit Jobs”. Emotions and empathy have become system imperatives because a total lack of perceived or real empathy would destroy the social exchanges and emotional forces that late capitalism is reliant upon even though capitalism is often assumed to be cold and inhuman – which it still is. Perhaps this is one of the many unsolvable contradictions of capitalism.

Inside organisations, contradictions between, for example, managerial demands and workers’ strive for autonomy may lead to system enforced “off/on” switching between emotions, empathy or non-emotions and non-empathy which has, of course, bitter consequences for the individual as the use of drugs at work shows when productive medication which are drugs to keep psychic-social beings at work and working are used to keep the show running. Today’s anti-depressants or euphorics and mood regulators and psychopharmaceuticals are known as Ritalin, Rozac, and Zoloft.

They are used, misused, and abused to deal with the psychological pathologies of capitalism as capitalism requires not too much and not too little empathy even though switching empathy on and off at will when the role [or management] demands it is difficult for the individual. An individual cannot consciously decide where and when to emphathise. Of course, it is management that determines being switched on and off. On for customers, on for teamwork; off for competition, off for efficiency savings or disciplinary measures. This represents the contradiction of to be at once keeping a professional distance from work whilst being passionate and enthusiastic about it. As a consequence, as empathy is organised by the conditions of capitalism, the psyche is cauterised and scarred.

These are Eva Illouz’s “Cold Intimacies” (2007) of capitalism in which a boss tells you “don’t call me boss” seeking to camouflage the hierarchical command structure of management. These ideas date back to Elton Mayo who was perhaps the first to import therapeutic categories into the workplace. This has, however, never stopped the psychopath as psychological lying is now a social and vocational necessity. Work bleeds into sociality granting the charming and super-social psychopath success.

In such a system, management requires a manipulative actor that runs very close to pop-culture examples of psychopathy. The only difference is that the manager uses such skills and strategies to increase productivity, whereas the popular fictional psychopath uses these skills and strategies for their own selfish, often anti-social, ends with highlights such as Hannibal Lector. This is highly relevant for what Adams calls semiocapitalism – a version of capitalism founded on immaterial labour and characterised by an excess of speed a need for the psyche [and] mobilised psychic energies.

Still, psychopathy can be understood as a sickness: a curse of capitalism but the psychopath is not suffering and it is not curable. Instead, everyday psychopathy is a marker of sanity, politeness and sociability. It is behaving in just the right way, being professional whilst also maintaining the impression of being passionate and enthusiastic…in the context of a capitalist world, psychopathy is productive conformity and it is a normality under capitalism. All of this leads to the inevitable conclusion that work environments require the worker to become increasingly philosophic just to get through the demands, requirements, stimuli and exposures to every day. Psychopathy is the result of surviving under the triangulated forces of requirement, stimuli, and competition.

Beyond that, psychopathy is not a malformation or error of capitalism’s inscription upon the body and the psyche, but an example par excellence of capitalist code. Perhaps capitalism’s psychopathy can be summed up as “say sorry like you mean it”.

Despite these rather pessimistic if not dystopian descriptions, Adams still manages to finish his book with an –albeit surprising– note when concluding, a psychopathic subversion of operations holds the potential for using the organisation of capitalism against itself advocating the setting of psychopaths against a psychopathic organisation. It holds the potential for escape. Empathy does not. Empathy can only be exploited or formatted into productive desensitisation…psychopathy –a lack of empathy– cannot be exploited or formatted because it is the mark of capitalism, the inscription. As a consequence, empathy is not the means of escape, but the means of control empathy is not the means of political change. It is, instead, part of the active and ever-insidious reinforcement of current impasse.

While today it might truly be easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism, psychopathy may hold the potential for eroding capitalism’s organisational control regimes: its inscriptions. Essentially, he sets the emotionally manipulated individual necessary for capitalism, who is so asphyxiated inside capitalism that he is incapable of changing capitalism, against the non-empathic and non-manipulate-able psychopath. Since the emotional individual is thoroughly corrupted, the money is on the psychopath because a world of psychopaths would not maintain capitalism as we know it. Will this may well be the post-capitalist world of Dante’s inferno run by Hannibal Lector.

Thomas Klikauer teaches MBAs at Western Sydney University.

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