Our Disordered World

A brief journey around the world shows just how much damage people with dangerous personality disorders continue to inflict upon us, and highlights the extent to which the cultures of violence and greed imposed by this dangerous minority are accepted by the rest of us as ‘normal’.

Russia

Stalin and the brutal legacy of the Soviet Communists have left Russia today suffering from a deep crisis of hope. According to UNICEF, 20% of young Russians suffer from depression, compared with an average of 5% in western countries. A staggering 45% of girls and 27% of boys consider suicide[1].

Russia’s spiritual crisis is reflected in its demographic decline. Beginning in the 1960s, life expectancy in Russia began to fall and the birth rate dropped below the level needed to sustain the population. As a result, the Russian population is forecast to fall from 143 million today to just 109 million by 2050. This means that by mid-century the former superpower will have a population smaller than that of Uganda[2].

Many Russians turn to alcohol to escape their plight. Around one million Russians die every year from diseases related to alcohol and smoking. According to scholars Grigory Ioffe, Tatyana Nefedova and Ilya Zaslavsky, “The situation is apparently past the point when diagnoses like … ‘alcoholism’ reflect the true meaning of the problem. What is going on today is more aptly described as ‘pervasive human degradation’.”

China

In recent decades, China’s economic reforms have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of severe poverty, the greatest reduction in poverty ever. However China still has a small proportion of its population who can count themselves as well off, alongside a huge majority of poor. If China’s rise is to continue, this social structure needs to continue to change. There is a real danger, however, that China’s current skewed social structure will become locked in, leaving the country divided between a rich elite and a very poor, very large majority. The legacy of the Chinese Communist Party could yet be to leave China one of the most unequal societies on earth.

Endemic corruption, unrestrained by the checks and balances of democracy, is threatening China’s growth. A recent report from the Central Bank of China estimated that since 1990 corrupt Chinese officials have transferred $120 billion overseas. This is equivalent to China’s entire spending on education in the 1980s and 1990s[4].

The arrest of Bo Xilai, a former member of the Politburo, whose wife confessed to murder, and who led a campaign of torture and imprisonment against his opponents, shows that China’s one party state has not distanced itself from the brutal tyranny of Mao as much as many would like to believe.

North Korea

A deeply pathological regime, North Korea possesses nuclear weapons and has threatened a nuclear attack on the United States.

Inside North Korea, hundreds of thousands of people—including children—are held in prison camps, where they are subject to forced labour and torture. Many of the camps’ prisoners have not committed any crime, but are simply related to those deemed unfriendly to the regime. Under North Korea’s official system of guilt by association, people are sent to prison camps if they are within three generations of a family member accused of offending the regime.

Author Blaine Harden, who has written on North Korea’s gulag, points out that Auschwitz existed for only three years. North Korea’s death camps are over 50 years old.

India

Indian general elections today, with over 700 million voters – larger than all the eligible voters in North America, Europe and Australia combined –constitute the largest political events in human history. But the world’s largest democracy is failing.

In the public imagination the image of a starving child is most frequently associated with Africa. In reality however it is India which is host to the worst undernourishment in the world. Around half of all children in India are undernourished, almost twice the level in sub-Saharan Africa. India’s large northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have standards of living comparable to those in Kenya, Eritrea, Benin and Sudan respectively[5].

Poverty breeds corruption. In India that corruption reaches to the very highest levels of power. Of the 543 MPs elected to India’s Parliament in the 2004 elections, 128 faced criminal charges, including eighty-four counts of murder.[6],[7] The 2009 election was even worse. Following that election, the number of MPs with criminal records increased to 150. With the assent of its population, India’s democracy is being taken over by criminals.

Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa today is home to 70 per cent of the world’s one billion poorest people. Underdevelopment creates conditions that allow rival warlords to mercilessly terrorise civilians and exploit the continent’s riches, creating the most impoverished continent on earth.

In the 1990s, thirty-one countries, three out of four nations on the continent, suffered war, ethnically based violence or genocide, giving Africa the dubious distinction of being the most war-ravaged region on earth.

Even if Africa’s wars were to end tomorrow, the challenges facing the continent are huge. The challenges include Africa’s geography, the political fragmentation of the continent into dozens of separate nations, and weak systems of governance right across the continent.

Middle East and North Africa

In 2001 a wave of uprising swept across North Africa and the Middle East. Two years on, Tunisia has emerged as the greatest success story of the Arab Spring. In Egypt and Libya however the new democratically elected governments are struggling to maintain order. In Algeria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, autocrats have stifled dissent. And Syria is suffering the consequences of a brutal civil war as Bashar al Assad stops at nothing to hold onto power.

The struggle against pathological elites continues. Even after the Arab Spring, the region remains the least free in the world. According to Freedom House, 72% of the countries and 85% of the people still lack basic rights and civil liberties[8].

Europe

In Europe growth is stagnant, the Euro is in crisis, and there is still a danger that the European Union itself could break up. Since the Financial Crisis began in 2007, Europe has lurched from one crisis to another.

Young people have been worst hit. Unemployment among those under 25 in the Eurozone currently stands at 24%. In some countries it is much worse. In Greece, almost 60% of young people are unemployed; in Spain youth unemployment is 55%; and in Italy the figure is close to 40%.

Europe’s debt crisis, rise in unemployment, and fall in living standards have been accompanied by a loss of faith in political elites in many European countries. In the words of Irish President Michael D. Higgins, ‘Today, citizens in Europe are threatened with an unconscious drift to disharmony, a loss of social cohesion, a recurrence of racism and a deficit of democratic accountability.’ The European ideal that previous generations fought hard to establish – and which represents the most advanced system of defence against those with dangerous personality disorders – is under threat as never before.

United States

The world’s most successful economy is in long-term decline. Real GDP growth in the United States peaked in the early 1960s at above 4%. This growth rate dropped below 3% by the late 1970s, and is now around 2%. Median incomes remained almost stagnant over the last 40 years[9].

America’s political system too is in crisis. The percentage of Americans who agree with the statement ‘You can trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time’, fell from 76% in 1964 to just 19% in 2010[10].

Mickey Edwards, a former Republican Congressman, has described the political system in Washington as one ‘that makes cooperation almost impossible and incivility nearly inevitable[11].’ Fareed Zakaria has characterised the political divisions in the United States as worse than at any time since the American Civil War[12].

America’s political culture is now such that pathological narcissism and a constitutional inability to compromise can increase your chances of getting elected – and may even propel you to the highest office in the land.


[1] Quoted in Russians once lived here, Oliver Bullough, Prospect Magazine, April 2013

[2] Russians once lived here, Oliver Bullough, Prospect Magazine, April 2013

[3] Russians once lived here, Oliver Bullough, Prospect Magazine, April 2013

[4] Democratise or Die, Yasheng Huang, Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2013, p52

[5] Comparing Indian states and territories with countries, An Indian Summary, The Economist website, available at http://www.economist.com/content/indian-summary

[6] ‘Engaging India: Murder most foul’, Financial Times, 6/12/2006

[7] ‘The House of Ill Repute’, Newsweek, 7/3/2009

[8] Quoted in The Mirage of the Arab Spring, Seth G. Jones, Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2013, p56

[9] Can America be Fixed? Fareed Zakaria, Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2013, p25

[10] Quoted in Can America be Fixed? Fareed Zakaria, Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2013, p23

[11] Mickey Edwards, ‘How to turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans’, The Atlantic, July/August 2011

[12] Can America be Fixed? Fareed Zakaria, Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2013, p22

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3 thoughts on “Our Disordered World

  1. Dear Dr. Hughes,

    Your summaries of the world’s predicament and aspects of our history are broad and broadly accurate. However, your theoretical framework in terms of a 5% minority of humans with “personality disorders” of psychopathy, paranoia and narcissism is unsatisfying either as explanation or as guidance to therapeutic global action. It is not clear whether these “disorders” are pre-existing conditions which enable or predispose their bearers to achieve power, or whether they are general correlates of power which is achieved through years of competition and gradual rise in status and privilege, as well as pressures and situations that seem to demand hard hearted responses. Nor do we have a magic camera that we could point like a thermal imager at human faces to distinguish the “disordered” from “normal” humans and prevent the former from rising to power.

    You might say that their behavior is what reveals their true character, but people disagree in their assessments; there are still those who despise FDR and those who revere Stalin, and I believe that in reality, the record of most political and business leaders is mixed. Richard Nixon caused the deaths of millions, but also capped the nuclear arms race and implemented the EPA and other progressive measures that were demanded by his times. Saint Jimmy Carter supported the military coup in Turkey, initiated the destabilization of Afghanistan and authorized intervention in El Salvador, even as blood flowed in the streets from massacres carried out with US bullets.

    It seems that in placing all emphasis on individual personalities as an explanation for social outcomes, you neglect the importance of systemic processes that shape individual and institutional behavior. Why is the United States today suffering from the misrule of financial elites? Is it that the elites have become more selfish, or does the increasingly top-heavy distribution of income and wealth have some explanatory power itself (even if it is, also, a symptom of less easily measurable processes). What about ideology? Is it always just a tool of deception by the evil few, or does it move people on its own, as a mass process?

    Of course, we can agree that democracy is still the only solution, and is an unfinished project with its own problems. However, it is not clear that saying the answer is to boot out the psychos gets us very far, since most people would agree that psychos should not run things, yet, as we agree, they often do.

    best regards,
    Mark Gubrud

  2. Dear Dr. Hughes,

    Your summaries of the world’s predicament and aspects of our history are broad and broadly accurate. However, your theoretical framework in terms of a 5% minority of humans with “personality disorders” of psychopathy, paranoia and narcissism is unsatisfying either as explanation or as guidance to therapeutic global action. It is not clear whether these “disorders” are pre-existing conditions which enable or predispose their bearers to achieve power, or whether they are general correlates of power which is achieved through years of competition and gradual rise in status and privilege, as well as pressures and situations that seem to demand hard hearted responses. Nor do we have a magic camera that we could point like a thermal imager at human faces to distinguish the “disordered” from “normal” humans and prevent the former from rising to power.

    You might say that their behavior is what reveals their true character, but people disagree in their assessments; there are still those who despise FDR and those who revere Stalin, and I believe that in reality, the record of most political and business leaders is mixed. Richard Nixon caused the deaths of millions, but also capped the nuclear arms race and implemented the EPA and other progressive measures that were demanded by his times. Saint Jimmy Carter supported the military coup in Turkey, initiated the destabilization of Afghanistan and authorized intervention in El Salvador, even as blood flowed in the streets from massacres carried out with US bullets.

    It seems that in placing all emphasis on individual personalities as an explanation for social outcomes, you neglect the importance of systemic processes that shape individual and institutional behavior. Why is the United States today suffering from the misrule of financial elites? Is it that the elites have become more selfish, or does the increasingly top-heavy distribution of income and wealth have some explanatory power itself (even if it is, also, a symptom of less easily measurable processes). What about ideology? Is it always just a tool of deception by the evil few, or does it move people on its own, as a mass process?

    Of course, we can agree that democracy is still the only solution, and is an unfinished project with its own problems. However, it is not clear that saying the answer is to boot out the psychos gets us very far, since most people would agree that psychos should not run things, yet, as we agree, they often do.

    best regards,
    Mark Gubrud

  3. Dear Mark

    Thank you for your comment which raises a number of important questions. My starting point is the fact that a significant proportion of the population suffer from clinically recognised disorders of personality. As you say, there is still considerable debate as to the cause of these disorders, with disagreement on whether they are hereditary or caused by experiences during upbringing. Of course these possibilities are not mutually exclusive as environment can play a crucial role in determining whether or not genetic dispositions become manifest. Nevertheless there is a general acceptance that the dangerous personality disorders are real and that they affect around 5 percent of the population.

    The second point you make is that it is often difficult to determine whether a given individual is a psychopath, or suffers from narcissistic personality disorder or paranoid personality disorder, or is simply acting in a way that anyone would act of placed in the same circumstances. You are right in saying that it is sometimes difficult, but it is also often quite clear. The personalities of Hitler, Stalin and Mao for example are quite clearly outside the norm in terms of their lack of empathy, love of violence, and fantasies of grandeur, as well as in their murderous actions.

    With U.S. presidents I agree it is more difficult because they operate in a more constrained context than the dictators I mentioned, but I believe it is possible to recognise abnormal personalities here too.

    I also totally agree with you that the explanation is not simply about individuals. To understand how the minority of people with dangerous personality disorders can exert so much destructive influence, we need to understand how their abnormal psychology interacts with the psychology of the normal majority. We also need to understand the role of ideology and religion in providing a basis for those with these disorders to achieve positions of power.

    There are many questions still unanswered in this field, but I believe we have made a start. The recognition that such people do exist is a major step forward. Recent generations have made huge strides in putting in place some defences against them, including the rule of law, democracy, human rights, racial and gender equality and equality on the basis of sexual orientation. They did this without the diagnosis that a significant minority among them had personality structures that made them incapable of perceiving the idea of equality and who had a love of war and violence. With that knowledge, however partial it still is today, I think we can go much further in reducing their destructive influence.

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