CORPORATE PSYCHOPATHY

Montague Ullman, M, D.

 

 

In psychiatry there is a diagnostic entity variously known as psychopath, sociopath and antisocial personality disorder. The central feature of this disorder is the failure to develop any ethical standards of social behavior, The concept of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is foreign to the psychopath. That remarkable advice is replaced by "do unto others as it pleases you regardless of consequences." We do not know for sure the cause of such behavior, whether it is genetic in origin, the result of early developmental trauma, or a combination of the two. The outstanding feature is that the psychopath has a natural talent for using and exploiting others and does so with such skill that true motives remain concealed by ingratiating ways and apparent normality. At some point the bubble bursts and the victim awakens to the reality that they have been taken.

 

In a democratic society government is supposed to serve the needs of every member of that society. There are two models for such societies, Both involve capitalism. The social democratic societies, such as in Scandinavia, temper the profit motive so as to restrict the massive inequities and ensure that health, education, security and opportunity is available to all. They do this by a system of taxation that succeeds in narrowing the gap between the haves and the have-nots so that a significant proportion of the population is not in trouble.

 

In the United States where capitalism is given a much freer rein there is the possibility of the profit motive getting so out of hand that those on top are enriched at the expense of those left behind, That is "wild capitalism". The recent run of failures of formerly very profitable corporations are a prime example of that, and how painful it is for those who are ultimately victimized by it. Victimhood is the characteristic feature of psychopathy.

 

A corporation has been endowed with personhood by the Supreme Court. It is not a person but it is run by persons. If the ethical standards of those at the top fail to maintain a certain level of social responsibility, the result is the insidious onset of corporate psychopathic behavior. A few get very rich and the others wake up one day to find themselves abandoned by the institution they trusted. We now have to take into account the corporation as a psychopathic entity outfitting all prior attempts on the part of governmental regulating agencies to control its behavior. A reactionary government succumbing to corporate power colludes in this happening by weakening regulatory controls, In his book "The Corporation", Joel Bakan offers a thorough account of corporate psychopathy,

 

The damage in human terms resulting from psychopathic behavior, individual or corporate, leaves a destructive trail behind. The individual psychopath contaminates whatever circle he moves in. Corporate psychopathy contaminates the government which is responsible for setting certain ethical limits to corporate behavior. Excessive lobbying and financial largesse influences those who make the laws and those who have the responsibility for executing the laws.

 

The title of Hervey Cleckley's classic volume, "The Mask of Sanity," says it all. The psychopath is someone who seems comfortable with himself and his surroundings, often of superior intelligence, capable of turning on the charm said generally creating a positive impression. The problem is it's all fake. There is no genuine empathy, no sense of responsibility or concern for anyone but himself. We are no witnessing large scale corporate and political corruption being unmasked. Money churned out by corporate psychopathy has influenced legislative and executive functions to the point where the former has surrendered its unique power to declare war and the latter to begin a war based on falsehoods fed to the American public.

 

The analogy between the individual psychopath and the corporation behaving as a psychopathic entity is limited but frighteningly meaningful. I will discuss the analogy to the extent to which it conforms to the current diagnostic criteria of the American Psychiatric Association as noted in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV, 1994). The term psychopathy has been replaced by Antisocial Personality Disorder. The criteria will be noted in their relevance to the notion of corporate psychopathy.

 

The listing of the criteria is preceded by the following statement.

 

There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since the age of 15 years as indicated by three or more of the following: (criteria)

 

Comment: This, of course, does not literally apply to a corporation. Corporations do have a beginning with the incorporation followed by a growth period which then leads to a successful or unsuccessful maturity. The temptation to skirt the law may occur at any time. Early indications involve looking for loopholes in the law, setting up phoney offshore subsidiaries and courting political power to ease regulatory restrictions.

 

 

The Diagnostic Criteria

 

1.         failure to conform to social norms with regard to lawful behavior as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.

 

Comment: This is true for some psychopaths but not all. Many of them manage to live a long and parasitic life, never see a day in prison and die quietly of old age. Corrupt corporations reach positions of great power and they do this by going beyond social norms. They seek out loopholes in the law, incorporate offshore, curry favor with politicians, manipulate stock shares and engage in illegal accounting practices. In their drive for power and profit they pursue a path where when caught, those at the top still walk away with fabulous sums while the workers and the shareholders are left holding a very empty bag.

 

2.         deceitfulness as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.

 

Comment : Conning others speaks to the heart of psychopathy. Lying consciously or unconsciously is the instrument by means of which a psychopath establishes a beachhead with his prey. It comes packaged in various ways - charm, wit, good looks and cunning. His individual goal is money, love or power. Corrupt corporations are out for money and power and maneuver the agencies of government in pursuit of their goals. Love is an irrelevant emotion as this plays out.

 

3.         impulsivity or failure to plan ahead

 

Comment: The Iraq War is a case in point when corporate psychopathy influences the political structure.

 

4.         irritability and aggressiveness as indicated in repeated physical fights or assaults

 

Comment: This is characteristic of psychopaths who pursue a career in crime. There is aggression and fighting in the world of corporate psychopathy but this is acted out in the court to save or expand one's own turf.

 

5.         reckless disregard for safety of self or others

 

Comment: Again the relevance of corporate psychopathy to the political structure has played a role in the Iraq war, a war that has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives.

 

6.         reckless disregard for safety of self or others consistent with irresponsibility as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations

 

Comment: When the word safety is used here in a more general sense, e.g. financial security, it is relevant to corporate psychopathy. Once greed takes over honesty goes out the window. Accounting becomes cover-up. Stock maneuvering enriches the executives at the expense of the workers and shareholders. When corrupt companies fail, workers lose.

 

7.         lack of remorse as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated or stolen from another

 

Comment: The lack of genuine remorse is another basic feature of psychopathy. The corporation as an entity cannot feel remorse but the people who run it can, at least to some extent, in their personal lives and on rare occasions when the law catches up with them and confronts them with the tragic consequences of their actions. The fact that a corporation may have taken a psychopathic course does not mean that the individuals responsible are psychopaths, although there may be an occasional one among them. They are, however, in an emotionally compromising and awkward place. On the one hand, they have participated in the creation of a psychopathic entity that wreaks havoc on people and the environment. On the other hand, at home in their private lives they are no different than the rest of us except for their high lifestyle. The only residue of psychopathy in their personal lives is their enjoyment of ill-gotten gains. A more stark example of this is the emotional compartmentalization of the concentration camp guard who is very much the psychopath at his job and the family man at his home.

 

I have briefly sketched the extent to which the concept of corporate psychopathy fits into the current diagnostic criteria of anti-social personality. The diagnosis rests on meeting at least three of the criteria. I have developed the correspondence based on meeting six of the seven (1,2,3,5,6,7). The concept of corporate psychopathy fits snugly into these six.

 

The criteria as noted in the manual do not go far enough in capturing the essence of psychopathy, As R.D. Hare and others have pointed out, they are attuned to a certain segment of the criminal population and do not sufficiently emphasize the personality traits of the psychopath, traits which enable them to pursue a psychopathic way of` life quite well within the accepted bounds of society.

 

It is often the case that psychopaths are gifted with a natural talent for ingratiating themselves. They walk among us wearing "the Mask of Sanity". Impervious to genuine feeling, lacking in empathy they manage to get what they want from others and tragically on occasion manipulate an entire nation.

 

They are to be found at every level of the social strata including the professions, the business world and most unfortunately the political world as well, Corporate psychopathy is a plague that wreaks havoc on people, on the environment and on the moral status of the nation that tolerates it. Unlike genuine infectious disorders, a chronic phase precedes the acute one. It extends over the period when the corporation reaps extravagantly large profits. The acute phase is ushered in when the financial maneuverings can no longer keep the corporation afloat. It ends up in a trip to the morgue leaving precious little to salvage.

 

Corrupt corporations feed on money and power, The former comes in part from the U.S. Treasury and ultimately from the general public. To maintain this flow they seek power. The government is where the power is. Individual psychopaths rely on their personality and manipulativeness to get what they need from another person. Psychopathic corporations face a more complex task. They have to influence all three branches of our government, the legislative, the judiciary and the executive, to go along with survival tactics motivated by greed rather than the welfare of the public. Corporations have been in business a long time and have succeeded admirably. We have created a new generation of robber barons but this time they are playing for much higher stakes. The pathological fallout is no longer limited to our own borders. Their reach extends globally, involving us politically, environmentally and militarily with countries rich and poor. Illness knows no geographical limits.

 

The Legislative Branch

 

The members of the Congress are prime targets for corporate bribery. Lobbying is one thing. Lobbying backed by generous financial contributions is another. Recent legislation, for example, designed to lower the cost of drugs does more to insure the continuing huge profits of the drug companies. To restrain corporate greed it would have been better to control drug prices than to leave many with the choice between feeding a family or buying needed drugs. Pharmaceutical companies do not only bribe legislators, they also find ways that amount to bribery to influence the physician's choice of drugs.

 

Legislators are also pressured to favor corporate power over the protection of the environment. We have failed to come to terms with global warming under pressure from the coal and oil industry. Our public lands, long a treasured heritage, are under siege by oil and gas interests, as are our forests by the lumber industry. Added to this is the need for more effective monitoring of the industrial pollution of air and water.

 

The Judiciary

 

Individual psychopaths are small-time pickpockets compared to the huge sums of money that corrupt corporations manage to remove from the pockets of each of us. The ultimate victim is the public at large. We buy what they are selling. The individual psychopath when he is caught in a criminal act goes to jail. The criminal corporation goes to court, and until recently most often civil court rather than criminal court. In the case of the former, fines are levied which may or may not have the desired effect (there are recidivists). Criminal offenders receive sentences not commensurate with the damage they have done. The complex nature of corporate crime makes it more difficult to litigate. Lower level officials are often the ones that are scapegoats. Finally, there are insufficient prosecutory resources to thoroughly handle every referral.

 

Individual psychopaths are untreatable. Nor do we know much about the prevention. The prognosis is not quite as bad in the case or corporate psychopathy. Some are so mortally wounded that sudden death occurs. For some a radical overhaul may be a successful treatment. Jail is simply an isolation word to temporarily prevent the illness from spreading. Prevention is the only approach to a cure. We know the causative virus is greed. An effective serum awaits the day when we succeed (if ever) in separating money from politics. We face the choice of closing our eyes to the very infectious nature of the virus and the plague it has produced, or radically rooting it out by seriously investing our resources in manufacturing that serum.

 

The government as it is now functioning is not in a position to prepare the services necessary to immunize the public. Each of us is faced with the task of creating our own antibodies by getting closer to an awareness of the extent to which we have been infected and do what is necessary to usher in wiser leaders,

 

The Executive Branch

 

We are profoundly ignorant of the etiology and prevention of psychopathy in the individual. This is not so in the case of corporate psychopathy. Deregulation, the money trail to power, and our materialistic concentration all pave the way to unmitigated greed. Legal penalties retard or stop the illness in individual cases of corporate psychopathy but do not get at the root of the problem. In the light of the legislative failure at prevention, our only hope resides in an executive branch that has insight into the scope and nature of the illness and the way both government and our lifestyle has contributed to its existence, Of the three branches of government, the executive can be the most important in initiating a program of prevention. The world knows the price that society has paid for leaders that are poseurs or "strong men". Finding the proper leader who could initiate a genuine effort at prevention is a daunting one. We need a leader who has the courage to look into a magic mirror that reveals all the ways these malignant organisms have worked their way into the avenues of government and into the lives of the citizenry it is there to protect. He or she would have to have the foresight and vision of our Founding Fathers, the honesty of Abe Lincoln and the capacity of a war president like F.D.F in keeping the country united instead of splitting it into two hostile factions.

 

Although the virus responsible for corporate psychopathy has been endemic at least since Theodore Roosevelt's time, it has now risen to epidemic proportions. We are dealing with a virus that ravages people and the environment and has caused a palpable degree of moral fallout. Robert Hare, in his book, Without Conscience, refers to this latter change as resulting in a "camouflage society." He cites the role of corporate power as fostering a cultural atmosphere "where egocentricity, lack of concern for others, superficiality, style over substance, being cool, manipulativeness and so forth are tolerated and even valued. Even more important is the reality that the ullman* linkage of corporate psychopathy to political power is a recipe for totalitarianism.

 

Our country is more divided along party lines than it has been in a long time. If we, the people, can come together in the recognition of this deepening illness in our midst, we can more effectively strive to eliminate it. Instead of a politically divided Supreme Court, we are in need of a Mayo Clinic of last resort. After all, doctors don't work along party lines in their efforts at healing.