A footnote on the pathology of imperialism part 2 – from the individual to the political

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by Belfast Plebian

I now want to make a connection between the abnormal personality in private life and the one in public life. If the individual mind can be natured in such a way that an acute episode of stress can make for behaviours psychiatrists associate with abnormal  and often disreputable behaviour, can something similar happen to a whole society or community under intense duress? If a community or society is going through a prolonged period of stress and abnormality will it not generate an increased number of people and events exhibiting similar traits to those associated with a personality disorder? How might that condition present itself in political life?

If we go back to the Lance Armstrong film, early on we don’t find a man who is irrational or obviously out of control.  In fact he is controlling, sophisticated, articulate, convincing in making friends and very rational in setting out his goals and finding the means to realise them. Yet there is something chilling about him in the later section in the way he bullies people, the way he uses and abuses friends, the way he lies in a very systematic way, and of course in the way that he succeeds big time in persuading an entire class of influential people to come over to his side. One gets the feeling at one time he could have ran for President and won.

Disreputable behaviour was present from the start but it was only when his quest for success began to meet with serious obstacles that his bad behaviour began to be noticed by others, just like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The proposition being put forward is that governments or States do something similar and more often than in private life; their policies can look rational to begin with but when they start to meet with serious obstacles states begin taking the twisted logic redolent of the sociopath. The result is a sizeable expansion of lying and maybe acts of violence. They become more like Mr Hyde.

It would be my hunch that success and failure in politics resembles this disreputable state of affairs more frequently than people living largely private lives like to think. In short, the political world contains more than its fair share of sociopaths and maybe even a few successful psychopaths. It is not my contention that the world of politics is a special draw to people with pre-existing personality disorder, rather it is that the normal political condition is, compared to the more clement one prevailing in private life, set out for people who are then conditioned to act out behaviours we might associate with mental abnormality

The typical political condition is one of conflict and stress and of unnerving uncertainty.  This makes an ideal laboratory for the unleashing of a type of abnormal rationality, a rationality more in keeping with one psychiatrists ascribe to abnormal individuals; the objective state of political life is one made for making a rational deviation. This generates an unusual sort of rationality, a perplexing combination of logic, lies and destruction.

A well-known statement concerning the role of the State in relation to the friend/ enemy distinction is one attributed to Lord Palmerston, an aristocratic politician especially detested by Karl Marx, ‘that Britain had no permanent allies and no perpetual enemies, only a perpetual interest.’ This is often quoted in support of the thesis in foreign relations known as political realism. Some of the most influential foreign affairs ministers are devotees of the theory like Zbigniew Brzezinski, the man credited with the first plan to arm and finance the Mujihideen in Afghanistan.

The idea is that a rational State actor participating in international affairs must always focus on the interest to be had without much regard for conventional moral issues, covering things like sticking with old friends and allies and refraining from suddenly switching sides in an international conflict. The interest is often an economic prize but it does not have to be. Yet is this not what a rational sociopath would do?  He goes after the top prize with a single minded dedication and zeal without regard for conventional moral scruple or past promises undertaken, subverting the normal ethics of friendship and decency.

When a private individual breaks promises without a care in the world and betrays friends it feels abnormal but when a politician like Lord Palmerston or Tony Blair does it it feels normal.  It is an unconscious thought that most of us expect serving politicians not to be fully accountable to moral law. It is almost like we are voting for people whom we excuse in advance.

In international relations it is wisdom to be as devious with old political friends as it is to be implacable with your current enemies. So if it means you win the prize – be ready to break with previous promises. In the case of western imperialism it is proper to act as if the rule of law exists only for the less powerful states but not really for the more powerful. A possible substitute maxim for the less powerful would be – always side with the evidently stronger state power, which today happens to be the USA. This maxim is the basis of NATO.

A delicious example occurred with the recent betrayal and ultimate execution of Colonel Gaddafi of Libya by his British and French allies. The Colonel thought he had made up with his old political enemies and was doing good trustworthy business with them again, especially in defeating Islamist groups. After years of enmity, in 2004 he did his famous deal in the desert, with Tony Blair acting on behalf of the western allies to destroy his weapons of mass destruction in return for diplomatic recognition. We know that his regime was sharing intelligence about al-Qaeda and other violent groups.

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You might have thought had he had become an expert on the lies and duplicities of Western politicians but it appears that he did not completely understand international realism, that the only norm in western politics is that there are no ethical norms when it comes to political friendship; he seemed genuinely surprised that his new political friends in the west had moved so energetically to destroy him.  Still, there was a big prize to be had, first call on the country’s oil and gas wealth.

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The western media found no difficulty with his public execution, even though he had moved away from confronting western governments to cooperating with them.  They gloated over his murder with some gusto.  When a scratchy video showing his brutal execution was released, Hilary Clinton was seen laughing and high-fiving.  The western media said Gaddafi was a dictator, they also assumed he was a psychopath, this was probably true at the end of his long political run, but they neglected to mention that he was duped by a gang of cunning political sociopaths and that he was a bit too naïve for international politics western style.

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