The Rise and Fall of Urizen: Psychopathy and Rationality
Introduction: The Triumph of the Left Hemisphere
In his startling conclusion to his illuminated prophecy Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, Blake depicts Urizen (“your Reason”) in his final, contemporary form: completely dissociated or divided: no longer the originally luminous and enlightening power within the human brain, that he had once been, but now a totally unempathic, ruthless, manipulative drive, obsessed only with power and control. Blake refers to this “debased” or “insane” and dysfunctional form of the former “Holy Reasoning Power” as the “Red Dragon”, “the Dragon Urizen”.
Its “Dragon” form conveys and signifies its consuming and ravenous, compulsive nature, and also its relentless drive for power: the perpetual want and the profound sense of inner devitalisation and “void” that lies behind the apparently cold and calculating processes of modern rationality, and which compels it towards so many destructive and inhuman practices.
For Bacon & Newton sheathd in dismal steel, their terrors hang
Like iron scourges over Albion, Reasonings like vast Serpents
Infold around my limbs
– Jerusalem, 15: 11-13
This view of insanity and mental disturbance as being not a deviation from rationality but instead a derivation of it, a peculiar form of hyper-rationality, has found some surprising corroboration in recent neuropsychological work, such as that done by Baron-Cohen, Cleckley, McGilchrist, Hare, Babiak, and others.
These psychiatrists, psychologists and philosophers have explored a number of contemporary mental dysfunctions and conditions and their connection with extreme forms of rationalisation – that is to say, not with an absence of rationality but with an excess of it. These states range from what Baron-Cohen terms ‘positive zero empathy’ conditions such as autism and Asperger’s Syndrome (marked by a significant lack of empathy and emotional/social awareness and engagement, and often associated with a compulsive interest in numbers, rules, calculations, patterns, and ratios), to much more disturbed and pathological forms of human behaviour (‘zero negative’ states) normally diagnosed in terms of sociopathy, schizophrenia, or psychopathy (see Baron-Cohen, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty, 2011).
Whilst all of these conditions are distinct, and whilst each individual person is also distinct, many of the traits, behaviours and values associated with these conditions seem to be strongly linked to under-active or absent right hemisphere function and simultaneous over-active, even “free-wheeling” and obsessive, left hemisphere function.
As psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist notes, there are “remarkable similarities between individuals with schizophrenia and those whose right hemisphere is not functioning normally. This is hardly surprising since there is a range of evidence suggesting that just such an imbalance in favour of the left hemisphere occurs in schizophrenia … schizophrenic subjects, whose psychopathology depends on a reflexive hyperconsciousness … show a relative hypofunction of the right hemisphere in relation to the left” (The Master and his Emissary, p. 393, p. 335). He similarly observes that psychopaths “have severe right hemisphere dysfunction”, and that “psychopathy is associated with a hemisphere imbalance steeply skewed towards the left hemisphere”:
Understanding the intentions of others is severely impaired in right hemisphere damage, as it often is also in autism and schizophrenia. The right ventromedial prefrontal cortex is dysfunctional in psychopaths, who do not have the usual feelings for others. (McGilchrist, The Matter with Things, p. 1126, p. 1346, p. 200).
Linking all these conditions and disorders seems to be a profound lack of imagination: both an absence of the sympathetic imagination (empathy), and the imaginative ability to read or understand other people’s minds and intentions (mentalization).
As Blake argued, more than two hundred years ago, the more severed and “divided” the Rational Power becomes from its grounding and integrative, humanizing source (which he termed “the imaginative body”, and which seems to correlate strongly, as McGilchrist has himself suggested, with “right hemisphere” values and contexts), the more monstrous, inhuman, mechanical, moralizing, and ultimately ‘insane’ the rational mind itself becomes.
“Thou knowest that the Spectre is in Every Man insane brutish/Deformd that I [the Spectre] am thus a ravening devouring lust continually/Craving & devouring” (FZ 84:36–38). And again:
The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man; & when separated
From Imagination, and closing itself as in steel, in a Ratio
Of the Things of Memory. It thence frames Laws & Moralities
To destroy Imagination! the Divine Body
– Jerusalem 74:10–14
Blake uses a historical, as well as mythological, framework within which to trace this development of Urizenic power. He locates the emergence of the “Holy Reasoning Power” (Jerusalem 10:15) as the newly dominant power or self-proclaimed ‘God’ and central function within the psyche of man, in historical terms around six thousand years ago, with the dramatic development of new kinds of cultures and religions centralised around interests in war, power, social stratification, sacrifice, and striking new forms of calculating ‘moralistic’ and legalistic codes, as well as of course being driven by and characterised by astonishing new technical developments, including the wheel, the plough, the calendar, writing, engineering, and geometry. As Baring and Cashford remark, “a tremendous explosion of knowledge took place as writing, mathematics and astronomy were discovered. It was as if the human mind had suddenly revealed a new dimension of itself” (Baring & Cashford, 1991, p. 56).
These are usually considered to be the basis and origins of what is often called “civilization”, Urizen’s central project, and Blake employs the usual topography to place these developments within both history and within the brain of man in history: in Babylon and Mesopotamia, as well as in the new rationalizing cults and “Abstract philosophy” of Asia: from the “Abstract Philosophy” of “Brama in the East”, as he says, to the worship of Hermes Trismegistus and the Logos of “Pythagoras Socrates & Plato” in the West (The Song of Los, 3 11–19)
Blake is unusual, and acute, in noticing that far from these diverse attributes of “civilization” being seemingly contradictory (the development of immensely sophisticated abstract codes and systems, and the simultaneous development of remarkably brutal and barbaric – unempathic – social, political, military, and religious systems), they actually derive from the same root within the brain and body of man: the sudden development of peculiarly “egoic” and rationalizing processes and powers, which modern neuroscience often identifies with specifically ‘left hemisphere’ functions and activities (see The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation, 2013).
The forms (and names) of Urizenic power and hegemony have changed many times over the centuries, but the central drive and impulse has endured and indeed strengthened, as McGilchrist observes of the contemporary “triumph”, as he terms it, of the left hemisphere in human culture (see ‘The Triumph of the Left Hemisphere’, chapter six of The Master and his Emissary).
Blake, additionally, sees a form of ‘providence’ in the fall or progress of this rationalising angel, suggesting that the divided Urizenic power, whilst inherently destructive of humanity might potentially form part of the eventual liberation and actualization of the imaginative human psyche.
Like many a myopic sky-god, Urizen is so preoccupied with its own agenda and pursuit of power that it cannot clearly see or sense the future that it is involved in bringing into being, which is also its own downfall (for this dynamic, see also the figure of Jupiter in Shelley’s magnificent psychological drama Prometheus Unbound, which similarly revolves around this blindness or “unconsciousness” within the dominant construct, Jupiter; Odin or Wotan, in the Norse myths, are equally unable to foresee the conditions of Ragnarök, the battle at the end of time; and in modern times Agent Smith, blind to the outcome of his domination and apparent “triumph” of his mechanised, rationalised, world in The Matrix).
Blake similarly believed that the revolutions in France and America in his own day were significant steps in this curious and paradoxical process: simultaneously destructive and awakening. And in the prime ministers and military heroes of his own contemporary period he discerned both the apotheosis of Urizenic agency, and the threshold of the potentiality for their self-realization (which is also their self-annihilation) and uncovery. He famously depicted prime minister William Pitt and naval hero Lord Nelson, for example, standing gloriously, serenely, aloof over the apocalyptic forces they themselves have unleashed, and amid the historical processes they themselves have set alight.
And these figures are also, Blake suggests, types within every human brain: they draw on the urge to power and stability, the immense wants and needs of the egoic rational mind, the compulsive hunger to consume and conquer, and the obsession with purity and morality (“Self Righteousness”) as the clothes and conditions in which to dress these campaigns and conquests. To annihilate these forces ‘without’ one must correspondingly address and recognize them within: at that moment revelation, as well as revolution, occurs. And is occurring. This is because, as both Blake and Shelley understood, there is then nothing left within upon which the external forms of control and inhumanity can feed, or to which they can appeal. Their reign is over.
Blake and Blair: The New Red Dragon
Political and military leaders, such as Pitt and Nelson, have always been subject both to satire and to analysis, and in recent times Tony Blair has been perhaps more subject than most.
What is interesting about many of the examinations of such figures, in the twenty-first century, is the application of psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic ideas and thinking to try and understand their public function and persona. Psychoanalytic psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt, in The Selfish Society for example, examines both Tony Blair and George W. Bush in the light of recent understandings of attachment theory, and in particular of narcissistic personality disorder.
In her section on ‘The rise of narcissistic politics’, she argues that the era of Bush and Blair “represented the new narcissism in politics which remains the predominant trend today. Psychologically, both had a strong drive for recognition, which they played out on the world stage. This drive is common in individuals who have missed out on attention or emotional validation in their early lives” (Gerhardt, p. 231) and she draws attention to the self-perpetuating ways in which the policies and legislation of such narcissistic leadership often cultivates a society even more preoccupied with image, presentation, self-attention, sound-bites, and self-marketing, as well as with values and practices in both financial and political organizations totally at odds with healthy “emotional validation” and indeed proper welfare procedures to raise children who will not simply repeat these destructive drives for recognition.
Amongst leaders, this might be linked, Gerhardt notes, to an incapacity or reluctance to recognize and value other people’s minds: in psychoanalysis this capacity is called mentalization, and she points out that “power is likely to be particularly attractive to people who have not learned to mentalise well” (p. 238).
Indeed, many of the attributes and characteristics that she sees as examples of this form of narcissistic personality disorder – “infantile grandiosity”, “need for control”, “polarized black-and-white thinking” – and so on, are familiar from the earlier discussion of certain forms of pathology, such as those characterized as “zero empathy”conditions by Baron-Cohen.
Gerhardt herself frequently makes the association between these forms of psychology and peculiarly hyper left hemisphere function (or correspondingly hypoactive – inactive or under-active – right brain function). Noting that ”brains are shaped by experience, and the quality of care and attention we receive as babies affects the neurobiology of our brains”, she argues that it is the development of the imaginative right hemisphere that is crucial in many early learning processes, especially those to do with emotional and social contexts, and with wellbeing (specifically, the right frontal insula and the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex).
Through the slow and careful process of mentalization, the child learns both empathy for others and identity of self. “To the brain, self and other are part of the same process. In fact, it’s the same area of the brain – the right frontal insula, in particular – which lights up whether we are being aware of our own body states or other people’s” (p. 171). A society that values selfishness and consumption, with leaders who preside over this and who actually develop it in the name of “rationalizing” and maintaining the economy, she argues, fracture the child’s capacity to empathise and to understand his or her own brain process and identity. This occurs through “splitting, projecting and compartmentalizing” (p. 181). And, she adds, “at the furthest extreme of this spectrum are the sociopaths” (pp. 181-182).
Other critics have argued that the psychology characteristic of leaders such as Blair go beyond even narcissistic disorders. Dr. Allan Beveridge, in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (2003), examined the charges that were being then made in the media, such as by Matthew Parris in The Times, that Blair might be considered in some senses ‘mad’. Parris’s article, ‘Are we witnessing the madness of Tony Blair?’ (The Times, 29 March 2003) was written in the build-up to the war against Iraq, and outlined the former Tory MP’s concerns over the Prime Minister’s mental health. In Beveridge’s summary:
Blair had developed a ‘fierce, quiet intensity’—a quality that Parris associated with the ‘mad’ constituents he had encountered when he was an MP (Tory). He felt that the Prime Minister was using illogical arguments in his case for attacking Iraq and that he had a ‘demented capacity to convince himself that it is the other guy who is cheating’.
According to Parris, Blair’s remark that he would ignore Security Council vetoes which were unreasonable was ‘stark, staring bonkers’. Blair was retreating ‘into a hopeless, desperate optimism’. Parris also thought that Blair’s belief that he could reconcile the irreconcilable—i.e. unite America and Europe over Iraq— was ‘a familiar delusion among people who are not right in the head’. (Beveridge, J R Soc Med. 2003 December; 96(12): 602–604)
Beveridge is surely right to question the motivations of many of these charges, and the relevance or appropriateness of journalistic diagnoses. His own interpretive diagnosis though, as a “skeptical psychiatrist,” notes the frequent historical links between power and madness, from Nebuchadnezzar to George III. “History”, he observes, “is replete with rulers driven insane as a result of overreaching themselves”.
Beveridge’s caution with regards to “lay” commentators daring to apply supposedly clinical diagnoses to individuals they have never met or treated, met with a fairly robust defence from Parris a few months later. “Dr Beveridge concludes that the answer to his first question — ‘Is Tony Blair going mad?’ — is that no clinician could pronounce on Mr Blair’s mental state without seeing and talking to him: a high-minded approach which he undermines by proceeding to diagnose George III, Ramsay Macdonald, Winston Churchill and Nebuchadnezzar: individuals with whom consultations would be hard to arrange” (Parris, The Times, December 2003).
Parris counters that it is not lay people “who have stolen words from the professionals; they have stolen words from us, and tried to imprison them in a medical dictionary”:
The error into which psychiatry has fallen besets every professional priesthood ambitious to don the armour of expertise. It is to discount evidence that disorders are problems to which many are prone to a greater or lesser extent; and to force things into boxes, insisting that you have a “condition” or you don’t. It is as though (say) paranoia were like measles, instead of an inclination to which all human beings are to some extent prone. Psychiatrists trouble-shoot for “conditions”, “syndromes”, “pathologies” and “disorders” because it sounds, not least to themselves, impressive, dignifying them and — in some degree — their patients. (Parris, The Times, December 2003)
Parris rather delightfully refers to this propensity amongst the modern psychiatric community to diagnose and “trouble-shoot” for a bewildering and accelerating number of apparently new disorders and conditions as “columbocavophilia”, signifying “a love of pigeonholing”.
And, as psychotherapist Susie Orbach has noted in a different context, Beveridge’s cautionary point concerning the efficacy of remote analysis would also seem to invalidate the sort of psychological profiling routinely used by the police to identify motivation and track down perpetrators in serious crimes.
Another journalist, Peter Dunn from the New Statesman, likewise questioned Blair’s sanity. After interviewing several psychiatrists and psychologists, he wrote that Blair displayed “self-delusion on a heroic scale”, and added that “he is one of the few politicians who has never told a lie because his belief in whatever he says … is total” (Dunn, New Statesman, 21 July 2003). The problem, Dunn suggests, was that Blair was “a man who doesn’t really know who or what he is”: he was like an actor, assuming different roles to suit different situations.
In support of this diagnosis he cites Dr Sidney Crown, a former consultant psychotherapist at the Royal London Hospital. “One of the biggest things about him [Blair] is that he doesn’t exist,” says Crown. “I know this sounds an odd thing to say but I mean it seriously. Right from the beginning, he’s always trying to establish some sort of existence which would make sense to him. I get this with actors who come to see me. They’ll say, ‘I don’t know who I am until I’m on stage.’ He loves being photographed because he knows he’s good-looking whatever the cartoonists say about his ears. And yet … the vanity and fear are all part of a devious personality and he’s extraordinarily clever about it. Right from the beginning, with anything difficult or unpleasant, he’s deputised someone else to handle it – like Alastair Campbell … Campbell is very much represented in Blair’s dark side, which is why they like each other. It’s amazing how he’s got away with it until now, but then, the psychopathic personality is very quick to pick things up and shift and move about” (Dunn, New Statesman, 21 July 2003).
This relationship of the “actor-like” qualities of political leadership, the notable preoccupation with appearance and ‘spin’, and the narcissistic vanity and deviousness, to a particular sort of “psychopathic personality”, as Dr Crown puts it, is striking. And this link has been developed by the neuropsychologist Paul Broks, who refers to Blair as a “plausible psychopath”. Broks’s argument, written in 2003, appeared to hinge on whether or not weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq. If they are not, he suggests, Blair could be seen as a “plausible psychopath”, who is “charming, intelligent, emotionally manipulative, ruthlessly ambitious and self-serving” (Broks, ‘Out of Mind’, in Prospect 2003: 88: 8).
Broks’s piece is both personal and professional, opening with his response to the news that an eighteen-year old boy, a soldier (onto whom he had spontaneously “projected” the features of his own teenage son) had been shot dead in Iraq. “I could not countenance sending my own children into battle. The decision to send them would have to be for someone else to take. I wouldn’t have the moral courage. I am not a pacifist. I understand that there may be justifications for going to war. But whoever were to take that brave decision on my behalf should have the capacity for empathy. I’d want it to hurt. It is not moral courage otherwise.”
It is interesting that Brok focuses here on the question of empathy, as this seems to run through the present analysis like a river, or an absence of a river. As Baron-Cohen, in his study of empathy, notes: “Our politicians almost never mention it, despite the fact that they need it more than anyone” (Baron-Cohen, p. 125).
Brok observes that Blair is notable precisely for his apparent and ostensible show of empathy: “If his public image is to be believed, empathy is Tony Blair’s forte. He is a political device constructed almost entirely from the fibres of trust and integrity – emotionally intelligent and insatiably empathic” (ibid). But, he asks, how far is this show of empathy just a show, a “political device”? As a neuropsychologist, Brok knows that it is precisely this ability to mimic and manipulate shows of emotion that is so characteristic of individuals with psychopathology.
“So what’s Blair’s pathology?” he concludes. “Some of my colleagues (and some of his) diagnose narcissism. Others see delusions of grandeur. But there are other possibilities. Early days, but suppose it turns out that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Suppose that the prime minister was, indeed, party to the ramping-up of what flimsy evidence there might have been for such weapons in order to keep us on a pre-set course for war”:
Imagine, in other words, that he has been lying through his smiling teeth. Set this against his affiliative personal style and the profile that begins to emerge is that of the plausible psychopath – charming, intelligent, emotionally manipulative, ruthlessly ambitious and self-serving. Plausible psychopaths are skilled in the tricks of cognitive empathy (the cool, calculating mind-reading sort) but deficient in the affective variety – owing, one theory has it, to underactive emotional centres in the temporal lobes. (Broks, ‘Out of Mind’, in Prospect 2003: 88: 8)
Broks himself is sceptical of what he terms “neurobabble”; but he also believes that “Blair is an honourable man” (which is “part of the reason I voted for him”) and that “I don’t expect to be betrayed. It would feel like a personal let-down. For the sake of that faceless dead boy, I hope they find those weapons”.
Of course, despite Brok’s not wanting to be betrayed by “an honourable man”, they didn’t.
Signs of The Times
In order both to bring Blake’s critique of Urizenic dominance within contemporary political, religious, and economic life up to date and to draw together some of the aspects of the pathological or divided form of the “Red Dragon” that this post has been considering, this section provides an illustration of how certain forms of psychopathy might be recognizable within the power elites of the modern establishment.
I choose the figure of Blair in order to draw comparisons with Blake’s own critique and presentation of the ‘spiritual form’ of prime minister William Pitt in his own day (who in many ways remarkably resembles Blair), and because Blair is a well-known public figure and therefore useful for illustrative purposes. My point is not to categorize or diagnose Blair as being “a” psychopath. I am not interested in any such identification, which would also be completely counter to the argument of this approach: the judgmental, labeling and literalist drive of the left hemisphere is, as I hope to have suggested, part of the problem in the first place.
In addition, personally I do not believe anyone is “a” psychopath: psychopathy is rather a state, or perhaps a useful model for certain purposes, and covers a wide spectrum of features and functions. We are all on that spectrum, as Richard Bentall has eloquently argued in Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature (2003). The fundamental principle of that book is that “we should abandon psychiatric diagnoses altogether and instead try to explain and understand the actual experiences and behaviours of psychotic people” (Bentall, p. 141, italics in original). All we are left with are what he terms the symptoms or “complaints”: just as all that we are left with in science are the “phenomena” or appearances. Models or hypotheses, such as “heliocentrism” (or in this case, “psychopathy”), are only at best “useful fictions” or helpful simplifying models with which to organize and help humanize the world, and our understanding of each other.
In this section, for example, I have tried to refer to “individuals with psychopathy” rather than to “psychopaths” for exactly this reason, although without being too rigid and left-brain about this: certain contexts sometimes require and benefit from the latter term, to drive home a point. It also helps to humanize the subject, that is to say, to reveal the humanity of what is being considered. As Professor Antony Maden, the chief clinician at Broadmoor’s Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder (DSPD) unit told journalist and researcher Jon Ronson, “personally I don’t like the way Bob Hare talks about psychopaths almost as if they are a different species … you can never reduce any person to a diagnostic label” (cited in Ronson, p. 279). Good advice, surely. And as Bentall notes, “an advantage of this approach is that it does not require us to draw a clear dividing line between madness and sanity” (p. 141).
This I think is also radical, since it is the accusation and imputation of “madness” that has historically been one of the greatest weapons in the Urizenic armoury: the divided or dissociated Reason’s attempt to malign and marginalize anyone who does not share, or even dares to challenge, the narrow and pathological forms of “pragmatism”, “prudence” or “rationality” that constitute today’s barbaric twitter. “Prudence,” as Blake once said, countering the received financial and moral wisdom of his own day, “is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
Bentall’s book is a treat of examples showing the disastrous and toxic history of Reason’s attempts to classify eccentric or just non-comformist behavior as being “mad” or irrational. Thus, according to the Director of the former Soviet Union’s Institute of Psychiatry, Andrei Snezebryakova, “dissatisfaction with the Soviet political and economic system, or with communism in general, was itself evidence of mental instability” (p. 52).
Things were not much better closer to home: in America the American Psychological Association was finally forced (in the 1970s) to remove homosexuality from its list of “disorders” in its highly influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Bentall argues that such examples (and the list is long, and apparently growing) is clear evidence that ”the boundaries of madness are culturally determined”, and to underline this he refers to the recommendation in 1851 by Dr Samuel Cartwright that “dreapetomania” should be regarded as a medical disorder: this referred to what he saw was the unfortunate and “uncontrollable urge to run away observed in American Negro slaves” (Bentall, p. 136). Diagnoses, like history, are often it seems written by the winners, or at least the chief benefactors of the diagnosis.
Perhaps this questioning of what constitutes ‘madness’ and what ‘rationality’ will help to liberate our own thinking from the straightjackets of apparent “normality”. Whether or not we vote for, or intellectually justify, a system of fierce and grotesque economic stratification is not then so much a question of what sort of “rationality” are we investing our energy in, as a more objective sense that certain sorts of structures and ideologies simply produce certain sorts of effects, behaviours, and consequences. In terms of psychopathy, however, the symptoms or “complaints” are often highly distressing for those individuals with them, and also very destructive for those around them.
The Mask of Sanity: Checking for Psychopathy
In his influential and pioneering study of psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity (1941), American psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley introduces his chapter on ‘The Psychopath as Business Man’ with the following useful caveat: “The material to follow is offered not primarily for the purpose of making a diagnosis of pyschopathic personality but in illustration of features which specifically characterize the psychopath and which may, against a background of better general adjustment, emerge in sharper clarity” (Cleckley, 1955, p. 215). This is very much my own hope in the present section.
In his discussion of Cleckley’s ground-breaking work, Baron-Cohen makes the useful point that “Cleckley’s definition of a psychopath makes no mention of physical aggression or of breaking the law, which hints at how psychopaths may not come to the attention of the criminal justice system and may be at large in society”:
They may be the ‘snakes in suits’ in any workplace. While this phrase has become somewhat cliched, I know of no better way to convey the idea of how Type P [psychopath] might be camouflaged. Clearly, some psychopaths hurt others through physical aggression, but the breakthrough in Clerkley’s formulation was to extend this concept to those who are aggressive in more subtle, invisible ways. A milder form of Type P might be what is sometimes called the ‘Machiavellian’ personality type, or people who are what Richard Christie called ‘high Machs’: individuals who use others for their own self-promotion. They will lie to get what they want. (Baron-Cohen, Zero Degrees of Empathy, p. 47)
To expect or associate psychopathy with straightjackets and obvious violence, rather than with suits and charisma, is to fundamentally misread and therefore be blind to its wider prevalence within society “at large”.
As Cleckley observed, what distinguishes psychopathy from many other disorders is precisely the semblance of continued sanity: “One is confronted with a convincing mask of sanity” (Cleckley p. 423). It is really only this ‘mask-ness’ of sanity, the feeling that the person is somehow two-dimensional, saying things for the sake of it without a real sense of an interior life, that gives it away in the first instance. “Only very slowly … does the conviction come upon us that, despite these intact rational processes and their consistent application in all directions, we are dealing here not with a complete man at all but with something that suggests a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly”:
One finds not merely an ordinary two-dimensional mask but what seems to be a solid and substantial structural image of the sane and rational personality. (Cleckley, p. 424, p. 423)
The difficulty here of telling psychopathy and madness from rationality (“intact rational processes”) is itself of course notable.
The standard test for assessing psychopathy is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (or PCL-R), which lists twenty characteristics that are held generally to indicate the presence of psychopathy within any individual (or, as Babiak extends it, to any corporation considered as an individual).
Few or no individuals, it may be a relief to hear, have all twenty characteristics: a grading system is used by the evaluator or psychiatrist to denote the relative presence or absence within the individual. As Babiak and Hare observe, “most people in the general population would score less than 5 on the PCL-R, whereas the average score for male and female criminals is about 22 and 19, respectively. A cut score of 30 typically is used to identify psychopaths” (Babiak & Hare, p. 27). The maximum possible score would be 40. Reference to this list may perhaps be useful not only as a way of familiarizing oneself with the symptoms of modern psychopathy, but also therefore of being able to recognize it more clearly in the culture of corporate and political self-aggrandizement and manipulation within which we are all immersed.
In the following section I draw on two significant books on Blair, Anthony Seldon’s 2004 biography, Blair, and Jonathan Powell’s 2010 work on Blair, The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World. Powell was Blair’s Chief of Staff from 1994 to 2007 so is particularly familiar with this aspect of ‘high Mach’ politics. I provide the relevant Item from the Hare Checklist, and then examples taken from these two recent studies of Blair. Again, I would like to emphasize that this illustration could have been drawn from a number of high profile figures: the point is to note the difficulty of distinguishing ruthless, manipulative, self-aggrandizing behaviours and policies in “normal” media, business, and political elites, and ruthless, manipulative, self-aggrandizing behaviours and values in “psychopathic” contexts. In this, as in so much else, Blair is unremarkable.
The Hare Checklist
ITEM 1: Glibness/Superficial charm
“Perhaps one of the most effective skills psychopaths use to get the trust of other people,” note Babiak and Hare, “is the ability to charm them” (Babiak & Hare, p. 48). Cleckley had earlier observed that this presence of charm and charisma in those with psychopathy “contrasts sharply with the schizoid personality or the patient with masked or latent schizophrenia” (Cleckley, p. 382). Similarly, the individual with psychopathy “does not hear voices” and moreover “excellent logical reasoning is maintained … he also appears to react with normal emotions. His ambitions are discussed with what appears to be healthy enthusiasm. Hs convictions impress one as firm and binding. He seems to respond with adequate feelings to another’s interest in him and, as he discusses his wife, his children, or his parents, he is likely to be judged a man of warm human responses, capable of full devotion and loyalty” (ibid., p. 383). As a result, as Babiak and Hare again observe, “they often have an engaging manner and make great first impressions on people” (p. 48).
This apparent charm or “charisma” is not only presented in the looks of the psychopath and their behaviour, but also in their use of language. When asked a question most psychopaths do not provide a straight answer and even start up another topic (Hare, 2003). While speaking, psychopaths also make more use of “beats” (hand gestures, normally displayed to strengthen the message) than normal individuals. In this respect “psychopaths do naturally what some politicians, salesmen, and promoters have to work had to achieve: impress listeners with how they say something” (Babiak & Hare, p. 50).
Powell notes that Blair’s school from 1966-1971, Fettes College, “had developed his acting and debating interests, and had overseen his development from an eager if naïve thirteen-year old to a self-assured and rebellious eighteen-year-old, with his personality largely formed. He had already developed a particular charisma which was to be one of his defining characteristics” (Powell, p. 12).
Sheldon suggests that perhaps he may also have inherited this charisma from his father Leo, whom he describes as “charming, motivated, relentlessly ambitious and hardworking” (p. 5). In 1983, Blair promptly put this charm and charisma to effect in order to secure a nomination to stand for the Sedgefield constituency. As the old Labour activists in Trimdon recalled, “there he was, charismatic, good-looking, easy to get on with, articulate, about our age. How on earth could we not gravitate to someone like that?” (pp. 78-79). Others were later to experience the full power of the Blair effect: “Clinton was cleared charmed by the eager young Labour leader, and the pleasure in their discussion was mutual” (p. 367). “He also captivated European leaders with his style and charm” (p. 320).
As Powell concludes in his examination of the Machiavellian nature of Blair’s political agenda, Blair’s “desire to be on stage and the centre of attention were essential to his charisma. He used to light up when the spotlight fell on him” (Powell, p. 52). The psychology of “charisma” is itself interesting in this respect: as psychoanalyst Walter C. Langer noted of another supposedly “charismatic” leader, “his power and fascination in speaking lay almost wholly in his ability to sense what a given audience wanted to hear and then to manipulate his theme in such a way that he would arouse the emotions of the crowd” (Langor, The Mind of Adolf Hitler: The Secret Wartime Report, 1972).
Charisma, like power, only seems to work on those prepared to fall for it, or who have a prior investment in the idea of power itself (Lunbeck, ‘Freud and charisma’, 2020). And as Welsh and Lenzenweger note, an important factor for psychopathic people to achieve success is possessing or developing charismatic traits – the psychopathic equivalent, it seems, of fluttering your eyelashes (‘Psychopathy, charisma, and success: A moderation modeling approach to successful psychopathy’, in Journal of Research in Personality 95).
ITEM 2: Grandiose sense of self-worth
“The psychopath is always distinguished by egocentricity”, observed Cleckley (p. 395). Blair’s sense of his own self-worth and importance seems to have been established early on. At Fettes College, one teacher recalled “he was a manipulator operating in the background, creating trouble”, to which Sheldon adds that he also “loved being the centre of attention, having a following” (p. 13).
“The most significant effect of 9/11 on Blair personally”, notes Sheldon, “was to build confidence in his own judgment, and his unique place on earth” (p. 512). A similar observation regarding his preoccupation with his own legacy and status is provided by Clare Short, Blair’s Secretary of State for International Development from 1997 to 2003: “He hadn’t taken a blind bit of notice in Africa in his first term. But then he made this very powerful speech. He was questing for a legacy. My intuition is that he sits in Chequers, and there’s all these books, and there’s Gladstone and Disraeli and Churchill, and he thinks, ‘Oh, what about me? What am I going to be known for?’” (p. 529).
Blair’s interest in God seems to part of this identification of himself with having a “unique place on earth”, on “questing for a legacy” and above all for providing him with a suitable Urizenic platform from which to moralise about the world. As Blair himself stated, in his familiar child-like cadences, his Christianity “is judgemental. There is right and wrong. There is good and bad … we should not hesitate to make such judgments” (p. 517).
Sheldon notes the unease which this generated amongst some of his colleagues, after Private Eye began to mock Blair’s religiosity in its “Vicar of St Albion” column, and television comedians started to mimic his ‘preachy’ manner. The fear, Sheldon notes, was media-based: that he might appear to be “a sanctimonious, calculating hypocrite” (p. 518). This preoccupation with image and style over substance though, as we shall see, is simply another item on the Hare Checklist.
But his grandiose sense of self-worth, and how this related to his use of Christianity, is perhaps nowhere better seen than in his role in the Iraq War. Blair had to be persuaded by his advisers not to end the television address in the build-up to the war with the words “God bless you” (p. 520). His utter conviction of his own self-worth and moral purity was repeatedly on display, perhaps most notably in the audience he had with the Pope prior to the commencement of war. The Pope, as Sheldon notes, had in fact strongly opposed the first Gulf War in 1991, and seems to have urged caution. But Blair “was totally convinced of his rightness, he shrugged off even the Pope’s total opposition” (p. 522).
Thus we have the bizarre spectacle of this lawyer from Sedgefield thinking that he is more papal than the Pope. But then Blair, like Bush, was a moral crusader: “Blair’s and Bush’s shared Christian outlook fortified them in their belief that they were engaged in a moral crusade, in which justice had to prevail, and in which there were good people and evil” (p. 616). The “God” here again seems to be Urizen, the power interested in One World, One Law, One God, and in formulating rigid binary moral frameworks in order to control and maintain a sense of superiority and conviction.
As Sir Peter Stothard has perhaps more accurately surmised about the Bush-Blair relationship during the immediate build-up to war, they were “like two CEOs who were clinching a major deal together” (cited in Sheldon, p. 617). At his “irreducible core”, Blair told delegates in 2000, was his compulsion to do what was “morally right”, and unfortunately this seems to have been true (p. 531). For, as Blake drily noted, “In Hell All is Self Righteousness”.
ITEM 3: Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
Compensating for a profound inner sense of devitalization (the absence of an interior life that is usually derived from the emotional and imaginative three-dimensionality delivered and accessed by the right hemisphere), individuals with psychopathy are often characterized by relentless ambition and an equally relentless drive for diversion, risk, and thrills. They frequently gravitate therefore to the City, to financial sectors, big business, corporations, drugs, politics, and other arenas that seem to provide stimulation and an escape from their acute sense of inner void. As Babiak and Hare note, “the fact is that many organizations are prime feeding grounds for psychopaths with an entrepreneurial bent and the requisite personal attributes and social skills to fool many people. Like all predators, psychopaths go where the action is” (Babiak & Hare, p. 97).
“An empty vessel who would say anything to get votes” seems to have been Margaret Thatcher’s early verdict on Tony Blair (cited in Sheldon, p. 449). Blair’s ability, or need, to be the centre of attention, to be all things to all people and to use charm to get what he wants, seems equally matched by an inability to know what to do with the attention and power once he has obtained it.
This sense of an inner policy or identity void often seems married in the case of Blair to his ability to tell people what he thinks they want to hear. On the issue over joining the Euro, for example, it seems almost impossible to know what Blair actually believed. He held lengthy meetings with two advisers on it, Roger Liddle (pro) and Derek Scott (against). However, “when Liddle and Scott compared notes on their discussions with Blair, on one thing they agreed. Neither of them could be sure whose side he was really on” (Andrew Rawnsley, cited in Sheldon p. 318).
This sense of inner vacancy recurred when it came to winning elections. As Sheldon observes, Blair was “fixated on winning elections” (as was Philip Gould, his political marketing man: “His focus was solely on the big picture, and the big picture is always winning the next election”, ibid. p. 137). According to Sheldon, Labour’s 1992 Election defeat “made him realise how much he craved power himself”, and how this deepened his belief “that only profound modernisation would lead to electoral success” (p. 146).
However, this craving for power was matched by having no idea of what to do with power once he got it. This resulted in the dreadful hollowness of New Labour as a project, and Blair in particular as a figure. As Sheldon comments, “the principal answer to why Blair’s personal achievements appear so hollow is that he was so tardy in deciding what he wanted to do with power” (p. 693). The need to win elections seems to have driven the nature of the policies presented in the manifestos: thus, Sheldon notes, “Labour’s policy on Northern Ireland, as on every other policy area from 1994 to 1997, was also subordinate to the governing imperative of winning the General Election” (p. 351). Even Clinton’s team noticed “that it was talk about elections and campaigning rather than detailed policy that principally captivated him” (p. 368). Having won the Election of course, they were then “obsessed from day one about winning a second term” (Jonathan Haslam, cited in Sheldon, p. 439).
Modern politics appears, in this respect, increasingly ‘psychopathic’: opportunistic, the preoccupation of style over substance, constantly geared simply to winning and gaining “power”, often conducted through ruthless and highly manipulative practices, hollow, self-obsessed, and with little or no social imagination or empathy. Baron-Cohen categorises these traits, in individuals, as “Type P”. “When we meet the psychopath we see a person who shares that same total preoccupation with oneself as we saw in Type B [Borderline]. But in this case, there is a willingness to do whatever it takes to satisfy their desires”, one that is often driven by “the need to dominate, to get what one wants, a complete detachment from another person’s feelings, and possibly even some pleasure at seeing someone else suffer” (Baron-Cohen, p. 43).
This, of course, is also the mantra of the markets, the “rational” orthodoxy of today, and the ideology presided over by New Labour and every other mainstream political party. And indeed of much contemporary TV programming, as Grossman has suggested in his review of similar media practices in America, and its apparent delight in watching people lose, suffer, or simply be shot dead (Grossman, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie & Video Game Violence, 2014. As Ronson observes, “TV is just troubled people being booed these days” (Ronson, p. 221).
“We are best when we are at our boldest”: it is typical of Blair to make the psychopathic trait into a sound-bite (Sheldon, p. 684). Blair’s trajectory was one of often dazzling risk and ambition: from dramatically seizing the seat in Sedgefield against all reasonable odds, to his “most daring domestic initiative” in taking on the unions and ditching Clause IV, to his military adventures in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
As Sheldon notes of Blair’s victory on Clause IV in out-manoeuvring the traditional Labour Party, “he chose to fight the party to see if it would be led: it would and he was now its master – he would find the annual conference, and to a lesser extent the NEC, easy to dominate”, a phrase which again uneasily echoes Baron-Cohen’s designation of Type P (Sheldon p. 228). “The core difference between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton,” veteran US election pollster Stan Greenberg declared, “is that when Clinton beats someone, he wants to hug them and take them along. Tony Blair wants to stand on their neck and then move on to the next battle” (cited in Sheldon, p. 213).
The battles were often literal with Blair: whether they came from a need for stimulation, to compensate and disguise the dreadful vacancy at the heart of his ministry, to secure economic and geo-political dominance, or simply as part of his Urizenic crusading zeal, no other British Prime Minister in recent times has conducted more foreign wars and engagements than Blair. As Jonathan Powell, who as Chief of Staff presided over most of them, somewhat nonchalantly noted, Blair “ended up fighting five wars, more than any other modern British prime minister” (Powell, p. 262). Or maybe it is pride rather than nonchalence? This risk-taking, or recklessness (as Clare Short called it) seems key to both his character and to his success within New Labour: Sheldon observes that, unlike his main contender for party leader, Gordon Brown, Blair not only had superficial charm but also “appeared adventurous and a risk-taker” (p. 595, p. 187).
Foreign wars have historically been a useful and relatively successful strategy for deflecting attention from problems at home, as the current administration is finding out, and when the vacancy and absence of vision at the heart of modern politics is so profound as it was under Blair, risk-taking on the international stage perhaps becomes even more inviting. For as Sheldon notices, “Blair had taken the most quite extraordinary risks over Iraq” (p. 598), and with the subsequent torching of Baghdad, “reports circulated that Blair now felt ‘more on top of the job’ and more ready to take risks than ever before” (p. 598).
ITEM 4: Pathological lying
“‘Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth’, was how one teacher described the young Blair in his first year at Fettes College” (p. 7). The problem of lying is complicated in the case of individuals with pathology because often the “lies” are not considered to be lies, but more as confabulations that are part of the general rhetoric of the pathology. This is part of the “mask” that Cleckley describes: it is detected less in what is said, or the accompanying professions of sincerity and authenticity, than in the mis-match between rhetoric and practice, and the sense (usually picked up by the right rather then left hemisphere) that something is either missing or manipulative about the “lies”.
“What contributes significantly to their success in engendering trust in their victims is their almost pathological ability to lie with impunity”:
The reason why most observers do not see through the lies is that many psychopathic lies serve both to allay the doubts or concerns of the victim and to bolster the psychopathic fiction. Their often theatrical, yet convincing stories and entertaining explanations reinforce an environment of trust, acceptance, and genuine delight … Well-practiced oral communication skills make this endless stream of disinformation seem believable, sensible, and logical. Some psychopaths are so good at this that they can create a veritable Shangri-la view of their world in the minds of others; a view that they almost seem to believe themselves. (Babiak & Hare, pp. 50-51)
Hence their denials of having lied, or been economical with the truth, or having manufactured an endless stream of “disinformation”, can be told quite brazenly and convincingly. Lacking both empathy and feelings of remorse or guilt, such individuals can often do this shamelessly: “If challenged or caught in a lie psychopaths are not embarrassed” (Babiak & Hare, p. 50). This quality is often described or perceived as “acting”, and an interest in acting and pretence, or roles that demand or require this, is therefore frequently found amongst individuals with psychopathy.
Gordon Brown is reported as having once told Blair: “there is nothing now that you can say to me that I can ever believe”, a sentiment which also seems to be familiar to much of the electorate (cited in Sheldon, p. 655).
It is perhaps appropriate that Blair first came to the notice of political commentators when fighting for a seat (“deep in the heartlands of Tory Buckinghamshire”) in which he argued passionately in favour of nuclear disarmament, “unilaterally if necessary” (Sheldon, p. 57). As Sheldon comments, “inevitably he has been criticized for cynically articulating positions in which he did not believe” (p. 57).
This aspect of his personality resurfaced again in a similar address he made as part of his bid for the Sedgefield candidacy in which he advocated nationalization, scrapping Britain’s nuclear weapons, and withdrawal from the EEC. This led again to charges of hypocrisy: as Roy Hattersley explained: “I don’t buy this ‘need to conform’ business. It never occurred to me as an aspiring candidate to pretend to believe things I didn’t believe in. It’s the only way to behave if you want to have any self-respect” (cited in Sheldon, p. 82). This latter didn’t seem to bother Blair in 1985 when he decided to join the centre-left group Tribune.
But this was in part a guise. ‘He played the part of someone on the left mainstream of the party. But he was never ideologically of the left. He was never properly committed to our camp,’ recalled a senior Tribune member. (p. 95)
Of course, Blair’s tactics can equally well be seen as pragmatic and clever: the way to get ahead. But this again raises questions about what sort of rationality the “ahead” entails, and therefore the sanity of the “pragmatism” required to get there. Exactly what is the point of spending all of that time and energy and rhetoric on a platform of words you have no interest or particular belief in? Surely there is something a little crazy or fundamentally incoherent about such a system. At best it produces a profound sense of inauthenticity, one clearly sensed in the electorate, that politicians will say anything to get elected. As Peter Dunn observed at the time, writing in The New Statesman in 2003:
For several weeks, I have been talking to psychologists and psychiatrists about what drives the Prime Minister. One view emerged strongly: there appears to be something worryingly adrift in the mind of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, a man who doesn’t really know who or what he is. More technically, he is diagnosed as a psychopath capable of reinventing himself with remarkable dexterity, like an actor. What most people call “spin”, the routine lubricant of all political gearboxes, is, in Blair’s case, eloquent self-delusion on a heroic scale. He is one of the few politicians who has never told a lie because his belief in whatever he says – about public transport, hospitals, schools, weapons of mass destruction – is total. (New Statesman, 21 July 2003)
I think this might be a helpful way out of the problematic and perhaps unknowable (least of all in the mind of Blair himself) question of whether he was telling the truth about the WMD. This capacity to believe in one’s own fictions, which Dunn alludes to, is surely linked to the left brain’s powers for rigid self-justification and confabulation: “where the brain, not being able to recall something, rather than admit to a gap in its understanding, makes up something plausible, that appears consistent, to fill it”:
‘[W]ithout batting an eye’ the left hemisphere draws mistaken conclusions from the information available to it and lays down the law about what only the right hemisphere can know … Thus, for example, in the presence of a right-sided lesion, the brain loses the contextual information that would help it make sense of experience; the left hemisphere, nothing loath, makes up a story, and, lacking insight, appears completely convinced by it. (The Master and his Emissary, p. 81)
This seems to be what Blair is doing, on an heroic scale. The processes and mechanisms of confabulation, where they occur, are largely compulsive and unconscious drives designed to filter and select information about the world: information or disinformation which supports its own internal values, functions, and agenda, and thence to bolster its own mental and moralizing dossier on reality. This often gets associated with the equally powerful left brain tendency to moralize and judge, to be certain of its own ignorance. What is perhaps most worrying about Blair’s decision to go to war, as many people have sensed and remarked upon, is not the doubts he had about this massive undertaking, but his apparent total certainty.
ITEM 5: Cunning/manipulative
“Be lethal”, is apparently the advice given by Mandelson to Blair in 1988, a comment that suggests that what we are dealing with here is more of a culture, and less an individual. As Cook later recalled of the early shadow Cabinet meetings with Brown, Blair, and Mandelson, “they plotted and briefed endlessly” (cited in Sheldon, p. 663).
This Machiavellian aspect to contemporary politics has been elaborated on by Jonathan Powell in The New Machiavelli. “Guile”, as he puts it, is “necessary” in these ideological environments, and he illustrates this Machiavellian virtue with a particularly striking example:
I had noticed during Tony’s delivery of the immigration speech [in April 2005] that the teleprompter appeared to have stopped working at certain points and that he stumbled over his words. When he came back I asked what had gone wrong. He said the teleprompter was fine, but that there were parts of the speech that he did not want the media to focus on and he had read out the words looking down at his typed text instead of using the teleprompter, so that the news bulletins would not report them. (Powell, p. 34)
This is a remarkable insight into how the minds of politicians work, and the mutual manipulations between media and ministers. It shows high levels of manipulative ability in Blair. “Afterwards he said to me that it was crucial never to lose your temper, except on purpose” (Powell, p. 55). This presumably is either fox-like craftiness and Machivellian cunning, or pathological subterfuge, depending on one’s view of emotional dishonesty.
Indeed, perhaps this rather utilitarian aspect of his character is most fully revealed in his use of media, and spin. In another rather jaw-dropping comment, Powell gives Blair’s speech on the death of Diana as an example of Machiavellian “perfect pitch” (p. 38). The whole business of sound-bites and spin touches on several nerves in the psychopathic brain: its obsession with presentation and style over substance; its use of rhetoric and body language to mimic real, three-dimensional emotional responses; its manipulation of charm and charisma to get what it wants; its hollowness and emptiness represented as commitment and moral righteousness; and its ability to tell people what they want them to hear in order to control them better. As Babiak and Hare note, psychopaths “make use of the fact that for many people the content of the message is less important than the way it is delivered. A confident, aggressive delivery style – often larded with jargon, clichés, and flowery phrases – makes up for the lack of substance and sincerity in their interactions with others” (Babiak, p. 38). They refer to this as “impression management”.
Psychopathic skills are especially effective in organizations where the ability to manipulate others often leads to dramatic personal self-advancement. Ruthless and ambitious individuals, often enabled with charm and charisma, quickly learn how to utilize the available networks within these organizations and structures for their own purposes. Thus, “Blair became adept at drawing on individuals for as long as they were useful to him, and then parting with them in often difficult circumstances” (Sheldon p. 692).
Similar strategies of use and then dismissal have been carefully analysed by Babiak and Hare in their discussion of ‘Pawns, Patrons, and Patsies’ as inevitably recurring roles within the psychopathic drama and ascent to power. With the psychopath of course in the starring role, ‘pawns’ are those that can be used and manipulated to get where he or she wishes to go, ‘patrons’ are those high-level individuals and “influential executives who take talented employees ‘under the wing’ and help them progress through the organization”, and ‘patsies’ are those unfortunates (often past patrons) who have been useful but are not anymore and are quickly dropped. Babiak and Hare note that “with a patron on their side, psychopaths could do almost no wrong” (Babiak & Hare, p. 126, p. 141).
In the case of Blair, examples of such influential mentors whom Blair both targeted and used for his own advancement might include John Burton, Derry Irvine, Peter Thomson, Gordon Brown, Roy Hattersley, and Neil Kinnock. The role and function of Irvine is perhaps typical of how this process works. As Sheldon observes, “Blair’s debt to Irvine in this first phase of their relationship, 1975-83, is prodigious”:
Irvine alone picked him for a far more prestigious set than his academic track record might have warranted; he then groomed him intellectually, teaching him how to think and develop the gravitas his law tutors at Oxford had conspicuously failed to bring on … he introduced him to key figures in the Labour Party and trade unions; he encouraged him to look for a seat and advised him against fighting Beaconsfield again when asked to stand for the 1983 General Election. (Sheldon, p. 203)
Patrons like this are invaluable to the so-called “rising stars” within any high-powered environment, and their role is easily traced in the commonly-observed phenomenon of an apparently “meteoric rise” to positions of relatively sudden power and success. For every [such] meteor there seems to be a corresponding patron, and a subsequent patsy.
The fate of Derry Irvine is instructive. In 1997 he was appointed Lord Chancellor by Blair, a sign both of the latter’s gratitude to the former, and also a pointed reminder of the new relationship between the two: as Sheldon comments, “it is not easy to accept a reversal of a master-pupil relationship, especially if one is proud, and Irvine is pride personified” (Sheldon, p. 206). However, Irvine was increasingly seen to be something of a liability within the Blair camp after a series of ‘gaffes’ soon after the 1997 election, and the relationship deteriorated. From patron to patsy is often a quick move: by June 2003 Blair had come to see Irvine as “an institutional and philosophical block to what he now wanted to do as Prime Minster” and in the summer reshuffle “he dropped him, and the post, in a media storm that utterly eclipsed any of the squalls caused by Irvine’s gaffes” (p. 210). Apparently the abolition of the Lord Chancellor’s post was so sudden that neither the Leader of the House of Lords, nor even the Queen, knew about it until the day of the announcement.
Others outmaneuvered by Blair’s apparent ruthlessness and “guile”, apart from the Queen, were the Liberal Party, who had been led to believe a coalition with Labour might be possible (and with it the promise of proportional representation), after a series of meetings in 1997 between Blair, Roy Jenkins and Paddy Ashdown. “Tony took Paddy Ashdown for all he was worth”, said one close Blair aide: “he used him mercilessly and then dumped him after the election when he realized he was no longer needed” (cited in Sheldon, p. 275).
Blair’s skill at using and dropping, at learning how to “carve the joint” as Margaret Thatcher memorably put it, has been singled out by Jonathan Powell, his Chief of Staff, for particular attention: “Tony had a ruthless streak, which made him a good leader, and he even sacked his old mentor David Irvine in 2003.” And Powell notes that those around him were always urging him to be even a better and more proficient ‘leader’: “Sally Morgan, the political secretary, was always urging Tony to be more ruthless”, whilst William Hague even suggested “that Tony had not been sufficiently ruthless” (Powell, p.150). This latter remark perhaps says much about Hague’s own empathy quotas, and points again to a wider toxicity within government.
Will Hutton was similarly “unceremoniously dumped”, John Kay “summarily dropped” (p. 241); indeed “sweeping away old faces from the party was as important to Blair as changing habits, structures and buildings” (p. 249). This “sweeping away” is characteristic not only of New Labour but of much of modernity itself, perhaps part of what McGilchrist discerns as the “free wheeling” nature of the left hemisphere in the post-industrial world: indeed, these processes of sweeping away, dropping, stream-lining, or “ratuonalisation”, are usually simply called “modernization.”
Psychopaths are particularly good at it and tend to be both drawn to such environments, and hired, because of their apparent skills in this area: they can, as Babiak and Hare say, “make a big killing” (Babiak, p. 93). Similarly, Joel Bakan has argued that corporations themselves can be considered as serial-modernisers in this respect:
As institutional psychopaths, corporations are wont to remove obstacles that get in their way. Regulations that limit their freedom to exploit people and the natural environment are such obstacles, and corporations have fought, with considerable success over the last twenty years, to remove them. (Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, p. 85)
De-regulation, ‘externalization’ (off-loading corporate costs onto third parties, often onto workers or the environment), modernization, privatization, compartmentalization, and globalization became key concepts in the 1980s under a frenzy of economic re-structuring and Urizenic “rationalization”. Bakan spells out the pathological nature and consequences of this new economic rationale amongst the governments and corporations: “A resulting ‘battle to the bottom’ would see them ratchet down regulatory regimes – particularly those that protected workers and the environment – reduce taxes, and roll back social programs, often with reckless disregard for the consequences” (Bakan, p. 22).
What is unusual about Bakan is simply that he calls this into question. So endemic has been the “modernization”, that few if any mainstream media or political organizations notice the psychopathic nature of their own workplaces and processes. Babiak and Hare note that “traditional business organizations do not offer an easy means to hide” for the psychopath. This is in sharp contrast, they observe, to “corporate psychopaths” for whom modernizing, regulated, privatized organizations “are prime feeding grounds” (p. 97).
In the 1980s these feeding grounds were deregulated and privatized by Thatcher and Reagan, and in the 1990s even more so under Clinton and Blair. In the absence of any coherent critique, vision, or contemporary political relevance, this need to be “new” became an obsession for the Labour modernizers. As Sheldon observes, “Gould’s insistence on re-branding the party begat New Labour, and the need for ‘shock therapy’ affirmed Blair’s instinctive desire to re-write Clause IV” (Sheldon, p. 134). Such an insistence on ‘shock therapy,’ as well its instinctive compulsion to present a new mask or appearance to the world, would certainly have attracted individuals with psychopathy to their midst.
Ronson provides a fascinating study of this correlation between ‘modernization’ and psychopathy in his study of Al Dunlap, the former CEO of Sunbeam Corporation (a huge electronics appliance plant in Mississippi). “Sunbeam was, in the mid-1990s,” he notes, “a mess”:
Profligate CEOs like Robert Buckley had left the company flailing. The board of directors needed a merciless cost-cutter and so they offered the job to someone unique – a man who seemed to actually, unlike most humans, enjoy firing people. His name was Al Dunlap and he’d made his reputation closing down plants on behalf of Scott, America’s oldest toilet-paper manufacturers … He fired people with such apparent glee that the business magazine Fast Company included him in an article about potentially psychopathic CEOs. (Ronson, pp. 151-152)
Whether despite or because of this attribution Dunlap was duly hired. On the day this was announced the share price sky-rocketed from $12.50 to $18.63, “the largest jump in New York Stock Exchange history” apparently. A few months later Dunlap announced that half of Sunbeam’s twelve thousand employees would be fired. “[T]he share price shot up again, to $28” (Ronson, p. 153). He closed down plants in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana: “With each plant closure the Sunbeam share price soared, reaching an incredible $51 by the spring of 1998” (ibid., p. 154).
However, it all ended for Dunlap when he was investigated for a massive accountancy fraud at Sunbeam, of sixty million dollars. “Dunlap denied the charges. He demanded from Sunbeam, and was given, a massive severance pay to add to the $100 million he earned in his twenty months at Scott” (ibid., pp. 154-155). The result of all this modernization? Dunlop ended up a millionaire and the town of Shubuta, Mississippi, where the Sunbeam plant had once employed twelve thousand people, is now “a dying town” (Ronson, p. 146). Ronson later visited Dunlap in his lavish Florida mansion. He noticed the unusually large number of ferocious sculptures of predatory animals filling the beautifully manicured lawns. “‘Lions,’ said Al Dunlap, showing me around”:
‘Lions. Jaguars. Lions. Always predators. Predators. Predators. Predators. I have a great belief in and a great respect for predators. Everything I did I had to go make happen.’
Item 5: Cunning/manipulative I wrote in my reporter’s notepad. ‘His statements may reveal a belief that the world is made up of “predators and prey”, or that it would be foolish not to exploit weaknesses in others.’
‘Gold too,’ I said. ‘There’s a lot of gold here too.’ (Ronson, p. 156).
This interest in predators is something that has already been noted in relation to the left hemisphere. But it is the question of the foolishness of not exploiting others that lies perhaps at the heart of this inversion of rationality. And, according to the received wisdom, economic logic, and ideological rationale of today, it would be foolish not to, wouldn’t it? That is, if one were speaking completely rationally? Or does this merely show that “rationality” is an absurd disguise for the word “egotistically”?
If so, this is surely not simply philosophically confused and empirically false, but potentially insane: it is not actually rational to exploit others in order to achieve happiness for oneself, it is utterly destructive of this. Repeated research into individual well-being has shown that humans require and are dependent upon strong and mutually reinforcing social and emotional contexts for their sense of happiness. As the economist Richard Layard has recently argued, what makes people happy is, above all, “the quality of our relationships with other people” (cited in Gerhardt, p. 36). Contariwise, as McGilchrist has shown, “over recent years, urbanization, globalization and the destruction of local cultures has led to a rise in the prevalence of mental illness in the developing world” (p. 436).
More forcefully, McGilchrist has drawn attention to the absence of any correlation between the agenda of modernization and economic practice, as it is currently constituted, and well-being amongst most of the world’s population – the people who don’t have ferocious stone lions on their manicured lawns presumably. “I am aware that, if one adopts the left hemispheres view, what I am about to say will be difficult to accept, but the fact remains that increases in material well-being have little or nothing to do with human happiness. Obviously poverty is an ill, and everyone needs their basic material needs to be met, and, for most of us, a little more than that. But, if observation and experience of life are not enough to convince is that, beyond that, there is little, if any correlation between material well-being and happiness, objective data demonstrate it” (The Master and his Emissary, p. 434). “The single most common finding from a half century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction”, writes Robert Putman, “is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections” (Putman, p. 333). Not wealth – not even health – but “social connections”, the very thing Al Dunlap’s rationalisation policies effectively destroyed in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana.
To those for whom personal observation and experience of life are not enough, I would recommend reading McGilchrist’s exposition of this data in The Master and His Emissary (pp. 434-438). McGilchrist’s point is formidable: it poses the question of two different sorts of rationality available to the human mind, one that seems to be based on left brain values and mechanisms, and the other on more ‘right brain’ logic and awareness. In the twentieth-century, many modernizers, economists, and politicians believed that self-interest, competition, and a certain manipulative and egoic ruthlessness were “rational”. This seems not to be the case: there are certainly forms of defense available for these values and practices, but they are to be fought and grounded on the principles of ego, want, superiority, vanity, delusion, subjectivity, cruelty, and conquest. People are by all means free to choose these things, and to vote for them, but it would be helpful to drop the “mask of sanity” that has traditionally been placed over them, like the veil over the holy of holies.
“I’ve always believed society to be a fundamentally rational thing,” remarked Ronson, “but what if it isn’t? What if it is built on insanity?” (ibid., p. 32). Ronson’s investigations are interesting in bringing to light, and humanizing, certain aspects of the possible pathology of modern corporate and ideological practice.
ITEM 6: Lack of remorse/guilt
Item 6, the apparent lack of remorse or feelings of guilt in those suffering with psychopathy, seems to be closely linked to Item 8: “Callous/lack of empathy”, as it is also to Item 7 (“Shallow affect”) and Items 15 and 16, dealing with “Failure to accept responsibility for own actions”. In fact, as Baron-Cohen has noticed, “several of the features in the above list also centre on a lack of empathy: a lack of insight into the impact of his or her behavior, and egocentricity” (Baron-Cohen, pp. 46-47, italics in original).
As has already been noted, “intrinsic to poor empathy is lack of self-awareness, which is probably synonymous with a lack of insight,” since the processes which develop mentalization and empathy for others involve the same cognitive and neurological processes that are responsible for the development of one’s own identity and deep interior and imaginative life (Baron-Cohen, p. 47). Those with psychopathy, as also with many left brain dysfunctions and disorders, seem to have these insights and functions switched off, to a greater or lesser extent: “Various parts of the limbic system just don’t light up”, as Hare puts it (cited in Ronson, p. 114).
Blair’s historic inability to express remorse at his decision to bomb Iraq over ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which never existed, has been commented on many times. It is indeed remarkable. As Sheldon reminds us, the original “reason” for going to war, the forty-five minute claim for Iraq’s deployment of WMD, “came from a single, uncorroborated source” (Sheldon, p. 584). To base the bombing of a foreign country on a single uncorroborated source might surely be considered to be something subject to regret or apology.
But then Blair’s “difficulty in admitting that he has ever done anything wrong himself” has been a consistent characteristic of his leadership. When he accepted substantial donations to the Labour Party of over a million pounds, from the Formula 1 entrepreneur Bernie Ecclestone, and then promptly exempted the billionaire donor from his high-minded ban on tobacco advertising, he was forced to make some public apology, which, as many political and media apologies tend to be, was more of a self-justification than an acknowledgment of any genuine wrong-doing. As Seldon notes, “he refused to believe he had done anything wrong” and “worst of all … failed to comprehend how others saw the events, concentrating instead on his own moral rectitude. He refused to apologise for accepting the original donation, which was returned later, or for the protracted confusion surrounding the whole affair” (p. 535). This again suggests an inability to step out of his own shoes.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft has written that Iraq marked the culmination of Blair’s “antinomian tendencies toward self-deception, misrepresentation, and ‘constructive ambiguity’ … all of which drove him to mislead his country for what he believed was the greater good” (cited in Seldon, p. 599). But perhaps this is unfair to Blair, and misreads the specific sort of psychology that is at work here. His apparent inability to comprehend how others view events, and are affected by them, seems directly related to his need to convince himself of his own version of events: in the left brain this becomes a hardening, ‘moral’ position, as well as self-justifying a false reasoning in which the “lies” are sincerely presented. In both instances there is a profound “loss of insight” (which is also Item 11 on the Hare PCL-R).
Cleckley observed this as a characteristic of psychopathy: the lack of remorse, or perhaps the integrity of the lying, if one likes to put it that way:
Though he deliberately cheats others and is quite conscious of his lies, he appears unable to distinguish adequately between his own pseudo-intentions, pseudo-remorse, pseudo-love, etc., and the genuine responses of a normal person. His monumental lack of insight indicates how little he appreciates the nature of his disorder. When others fail to accept immediately his word of honor as a gentleman, his amazement, I believe, is often genuine. His subjective experience is so bleached of deep emotions that he is invincibly ignorant of what life means to others. (Cleckley, p. 440)
“His subjective experience is so bleached of deep emotions”: this is a striking and acute observation, and one which perhaps explains the appeal of moralizing positions in those with little empathy or imaginative understanding of reality. Moralizing gives both the veneer of certainty and conviction, and the suggestion of inner depth, whilst actually having neither.
In his study of “zero empathy” states and conditions, Baron-Cohen notes a perhaps surprising obsession with codes and laws, and specifically with moral codes. He observes in many autistic people not an absence of morality, but rather the emergence of “super-developed moral codes in people with autism, being intolerant of those who bend the rules” (ibid., p. 84). The “zero empathy” interest in morality is essentially controlling and manipulative: the individuals, having no empathic insight or concern for other living beings, follow moral codes in order to fulfil their compulsion to “obey”, and like many other systems of thought, obedience to the laws equals “good” in such pathologies. Individuals with poor empathy are intolerant of those who “bend the rules” and become increasingly intolerant and obsessed with this issue of “law and order” the more pathological they become. These moral codes are therefore not based on any empathy (as they have none) but on logic: individuals with autism tend to be intolerant of law-breaking and transgression “because it violates the moral system they have constructed through brute logic alone. As such, people who are Zero-Positive (those with Asperger Syndrome) are often among the law-enforcers, not the law-breakers” (ibid., p. 84). They are drawn to binary systems such as “either true or false” or good/bad, law-breaker/law-keeper, not because of any interest in the inner lives of other human beings, but because it is simple: it is a cost-effective, quick way to impose order on an otherwise frightening and seemingly illogical world. Again, “rationality” and logic seem to mask rather compulsive and pathological concerns and obsessions.
As Seldon notes of Blair over Iraq, “his irrepressible self-belief in the rightness of his decision indeed fired him to go before public audiences absolutely sure that he could convince them” (p. 599). The revelation that there were no WMD in Iraq was therefore not a problem for Blair. There was speculation in 2004 that he might use his conference speech to New Labour to apologise for the Iraq war, but as Seldon remarked, “it was not to be”:
‘The problem,’ he told delegates, ‘is I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can’t, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam.’ (Seldon, p. 654)
In a curious distancing technique, once again it is the “information” that has to apologise. This strategy had in fact become a cliché in Whitehall, and indeed the wider media, long before Blair availed himself of it. When on 9/11 Jo Moore, the spin doctor special advisor to Stephen Byers, Blair’s Transport Secretary, sent an email suggesting it was a “good day to bury bad news”, she seemed equally undisturbed at first: as Seldon notes, “her refusal to resign immediately, and the government’s refusal to apologise, re-awoke all the chants of media spin and cynicism that Blair had prayed had been safely buried with the first term” (Seldon, p. 633).
Similar non-apologies appeared in 2011 following the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, where “they deny any wrongdoing” disclaimers reached epic proportions amongst whole swathes of British political, media, and law-enforcement organizations clearly involved and implicated in the illegality. Again the expected apology was not only absent but replaced by a personal statement disclaiming not only responsibility but also using the opportunity to draw attention to their amazement that anyone could consider them guilty of wrongdoing. As Cleckley observed above, to those individuals with psychopathy, their “subjective experience is so bleached of deep emotions” that they are “invincibly ignorant of what life means to others”. Or as Rebekah Brooks told the staff of the News of the World (who would shortly be made redundant), about the result of the paper’s apparent policy of hacking everybody’s phone from victims of the 7/7 London bombings to murdered schoolgirls, “This is not exactly the best time in my life.” (Guardian, 8 July 2011).
“Serial killers ruin families,” notes Hare, “Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies” (cited in Robson, p. 177). Hare’s observation brings to the fore the unsettling question of how far so-called “normal” economic and political institutions and practices – or rather, those institutions we have been brought up to believe and told to accept as “normal” – might actually be deeply disturbed and disturbing patterns of pathological manipulation and control, concealed under an apparently convincing “mask” of psychopathic sanity. This suggestion undercuts not only the normal social and political certainties and rationales, but also draws attention to the two very different sorts of “rationality” available to us: one based on the logic of greed, ego, competition, conquest, and power – which is “rational” only for the isolated, disconnected, and dissociated “ego” – and an alternative empathically-centred reasonableness based on the logic of empathy, context, emotional and social richness, and imagination.
Blake presciently understood that what we today call “Reason” is actually a “divided” or fallen form of Reason: a rationalizing drive and program that has got completely severed and detached from its grounding and contextualizing origins within the imaginative and socializing processes of the human brain and body, the ‘right hemisphere’ of modern neuroscience.
The Spectre is the Reasoning Power in Man; & when separated
From Imagination, and closing itself as in steel, in a Ratio
Of the Things of Memory. It thence frames Laws & Moralities To destroy Imagination! the Divine Body, by Martyrdoms & Wars
– Jerusalem 10:15–16, p. 153; 74:10–14
The result is not just a faulty sort of pocket calculator, or a wonky car with only three wheels that works sometimes and in some situations. The result is a completely destructive, ravenous and compulsive machine that is, in Damon’s words, constantly running out of control. This, he says, is what Blake means by the term ‘Spectre’: “But although the Spectre is the Rational Power, he is anything but reasonable: rather, he is a machine which has lost its controls and is running wild” (Damon, p. 381) This, I suggest, is identifiable with what McGilchrist defines as the ‘free-wheeling’ nature of contemporary left hemispheric processes and values, which he sees as a defining feature of modernity.
Blake believed that the historical and psychological origins of the moment when the Rational Power stopped being a useful, liberating, subservient power within the body (subject to our collective humanity, to the ability to imagine and therefore help to create and to manipulate better worlds for each human individual), was the moment when Urizen took control of the brain, detached itself from imagination and social empathy, and declared itself and its mode of interpreting and rationalizing the world as the sole and defining power, the “God” of the left hemisphere.
Blake locates this moment, within rational time, around six thousand years ago, with the relatively sudden and dramatic emergence of the striking new cultures of early Sumer, Babylon, and Egypt. These were characterized by extraordinary technical, calculating, abstracting advances: writing, mathematics, accountancy, bureaucracy, astronomy – all notably ‘left brain’ skills and activities (or what Blake terms Urzinenic powers and processes). This coincided with the historical emergence of “religion”, a priestly or esoteric elite that drove and shaped the political and economic power-engines of these new dissociated and hyper-rationalising cultures. The opening lines of Blake’s Book of Urizen succinctly capture this moment within the brain, identifying Urizen’s true role, as “Priest”: “Of the primeval Priests assum’d power, When Eternals spurn’d back his religion (Ur 2: 1–2).
Just as these new priestly elites abstracted the sensuous and ‘subjective’ nature of human existence from their calculating processes, so they abstracted awareness and divinity from what they conceptualized as “material” or objective, literal, “things” – away from the body politic (and onto the newly decapitated executive ‘head’). The total sum of the abstracted divinity they called “God” and identified it with the residing deity of the left brain, the “Holy Reasoning Power” itself. They placed this new deity in the sky – “Up” – the natural location for the left hemisphere’s view of itself (see The Master and his Emissary, p. 484: “the functions of the conscious left hemisphere associates with itself … are all expressed by means of the spatial metaphor ‘up'”), and a spatial metaphor blatantly and repeatedly reinforced through the new iconographies of power (the ziggurats and sky-scrapers of their day, the new pyramids and rationalistic temples on top of self-erected mounds or mountains).
With the dominance of left brain rule came the formation of stoney moral codes, not only as expressions of the left hemisphere’s compulsion to divide and judge, to place itself as accuser and authority, but also as the necessary mechanism by which to subdue the social and psychological chaos and anger generated by these new pathological forms of ruthless and authoritarian control.
With a detached and dissociated, zero unempathic and newly egoic Urizenic mind came also the perpetual human sacrifices made to appease this ruthless, power-obsessed “God”. The political and religious, or “economic” dimension to the Urizenic project – the sudden emergence within human evolutionary history of the rulers and the ruled – was rooted within the psychology of a dissociated and disturbed left brain. This sense of disconnect, which becomes the defining feature of these new cultures, was often conceptualized as an executive “head” distinct and separate from its body, and visualized as the top of a pyramid disconnected from its base, a reflexive hyper-consicous detached eye observing without any relation to body or context, and an elite regarding itself not as sociopathic and pitiful expressions of mental dysfunction but as deserving, if constantly anxious, natural born leaders. As incarnations of the divine right of Reason to rule, a celebration of wealth and gold and pomp and their own gloriousness, rather than, say, as sociopathic and rather pitiful examples of human dysfunction and self-delusion.
Rod Tweedy is author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation (Routledge, 2013), a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience; the editor of The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness (Routledge, 2017), and the editor of The Divided Therapist: Hemispheric Difference and Contemporary Psychotherapy (Routledge, 2021).