PATHOLOGIZING POLITICS, PART 2
THE BIOPOLITICS UNDERPINNING OF THE ITALIAN REALIST SCHOOL
In my last post, I addressed the dangers around succumbing to self-serving – what we could fairly characterize as motivated – reasoning in the pathologizing of those to whose values we object. I want to follow up today with a post that both provides an illustration of that danger at work, while also pointing to the shortcomings of Andrew Lobaczewski’s analysis. In my next post, I’ll focus in on more salient problems with his arguments at the level of prognosis or prescription. While this substack has, I trust, emphasized how important I consider his work as a diagnosis of the conditions and dangers of pathocracy, sound diagnosis does not guarantee sound prognosis or prescription. And as will become apparent in both this and the next post, Lobaczewski is much weaker on the latter counts than he is on the former.
The problem is well illustrated by his characterization of “schizoidal” personalities in this quotation:
We frequently find expressions of their characteristic attitudes in their statements and writings: “Human nature is so bad that order in human society can only be maintained by a strong power created by exceptionally rational minds in the name of some higher idea.” Let us call this typical expression the “schizoidal declaration.”
I don’t think it would be unfair to offer as examples of what Lobaczewski is describing here as being Machiavelli or Carl Schmitt, as indeed the editor of the forthcoming new edition of Political Ponerology does. I’m appreciative of that editor, Harrison Koehli, providing me an early peak at this new edition, with his editorial changes and much expanded footnotes. And the new footnotes, by the way are excellent; they really open up the text, providing the reader a wide range of directions to take the study of pathocracy. And, again, his citing of Machiavelli and Schmitt as illustrations of Lobaczewski’s statement here seems perfectly justified. However, since one of the theoretical pillars underpinning the analyses in the posts of this substack is the Italian realist school, and that Machiavelli is often identified as the founder of that school, and that Carl Schmitt is frequently cited as one of the school’s most influential heirs, perhaps the reader won’t be terribly shocked that I take some exception to Lobaczewski’s claims, here. A similar type of statement comes a bit later, in speaking of Marx:
Karl Marx’s works easily reveals all the above-mentioned types of apperception and social reactions which engendered animosity between large groups of people. A typical lack of confidence in the positive aspects of human nature is noticeable in his entire body of work.
All of this strikes me as ill-conceived. It’s a misconception of the theoretical positions entailed, as well as the human nature underpinning such theory. And of course, in the process, he succumbs to the risk of pathologizing those he either disapproves of or doesn’t understand. Certainly, issues of human nature are at the crux of the matter, but it isn’t a question of human nature being bad, but of being evolved to meet certain needs. And human nature being what it is, predictions about social order can be made. When those predictions turn out to be consistent with human history, we probably have grounds for proposing social and political laws. No moral judgment of human nature is required or entailed: good, bad, or otherwise.
I’ve explored all this in much greater depth in my book Biological Realism1 (with specific reference to both Marx and Schmitt), so I’ll only provide a brief overview, here. Those interested in the fully fleshed out arguments should see them there. The core point is the selfish gene2 point: we are evolved to think and act in ways that contribute to an increased likelihood that we perpetuate our genes into future generations. That is why the genes (or, more accurately, genetic effects) that give rise to such thinking and acting traits are present in our genome. These fitness enhancing traits include a disposition to pursue the optimization of what economists might call the “goods” that best enable our success in perpetuating our genes into future generations. (Obviously we need not be, nor usually are, conscious of the ultimate evolutionary point of such dispositions.) The prime baseline goods in questions, listed in order of ultimate priority, are 1) access to the best quality mates; 2) control over economic resources; and 3) achievement of the social status that increases the likelihood of gaining the prior two mentioned goods. Social status – which includes either or both social dominance and social prestige – is the foundation for political life.
However, the confused interpretation of these facts, as meaning that we’re therefore going to be just self-centered individuals, reflects a failure to understand human nature or evolutionary dynamics. We are in fact one of the most social species on the planet.3 However, as Richard Alexander4 long ago observed, this remarkable sociality, and evolved capacity for even cross-genetic cooperation, is not the manifestation of some insipient ethos of love, peace and understanding. On the contrary, the evolution of the traits that allow humans to be effective coalition builders were selected for as a means of improving our capacity for competition with other such coalitions. At the very heart of heart of human cooperation is the fitness enhancing imperative for effective competition. And, as the multilevel-selectionist5 school of evolutionary theory observes, having the effective traits for maintaining the most successfully competitive coalition is itself a fitness enhancing advantage, for the individual. So, while the selection ultimately takes place at the genetic level, the selection pressures come at multiple levels: cellular, multi-cellular and social.
The coalitions best able to gain access, through whatever kind of competition, to the mates and resources of other coalitions, and can best defend their own against the same, are going to be most successful at perpetuating into future generations those genetics which allow them to maintain such effectively competitive coalitions. And, while the markers of coalitional identity may change, this competition between coalitions persist as much within societies as they do between societies. Between societies the coalitional emphasis perhaps will tend to be ethnic6, while within societies it will be based on class7, but the same evolutionary imperative and resulting traits manifest and perform.
It is for this reason that conviction in the inevitability of the animosity between large groups, or a conviction that human social order will always involve disparity in group social power8, is not the product of some pathology, but the logic of evolved human nature. Lobaczewski’s analysis drifting astray here is a good reminder of the risks in pathologizing others. Though, at the same time, the dangers of today’s expanding psychorium, and the resulting prospect of a descent into pathocracy, means we cannot be relieved by the awareness of such a danger from the need to seek out and face such pathology. There are risks in getting our analysis wrong. History indicates, though, that there are far too many lives are at stake to allow ourselves to be cowed by those very real risks.
Michael McConkey, Biological Realism: Foundations and Applications (Vancouver, B.C.: Biological Realist Publications, 2020). Some, in the Italian school, such as Mosca, sought to distance their analysis from evolutionary theory. In the same book, I show how Mosca’s argument was based on his insufficient understanding of evolutionary biology and psychology.
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition, 3rd edition (OUP Oxford, 2006).
I have claimed in the past, including in Biological Realism, that we were THE MOST social species on the planet. Particularly in contrast to the Hymenoptera usually cited as the alternative. Most beehives and ant colonies are not only extended families, but due to the males being haploids, are more closely related kin than humans are. However, recently, I have since been convinced that there are other species that must be considered as comparable in their sociality to humans. See Hertler et al, Multilevel Selection: Theoretical Foundations, Historical Examples, and Empirical Evidence, 1st ed. 2020 edition (London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
Richard D. Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems (Hawthorne, N.Y: Aldine Transaction, 1987).
Steven C. Hertler, Aurelio José Figueredo, and Mateo Peñaherrera-Aguirre, Multilevel Selection, cited below.
Peter Turchin, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, Reprint edition (New York, N.Y: Plume, 2007).
Michael McConkey, The Managerial Class on Trial (Vancouver, B.C.: Biological Realist Publications, 2021).
Lobaczewski, though, is correct to cast doubt upon the presumption that those who rule do so due to their superiorly rational minds. That of course is just more of Mosca’s political formulas at work. A dynamic with which both Marx and Schmitt were familiar.