Suppose that, riding the tram, you meet an elderly gentleman who claims to have been a psychologist in the old country and wants to tell you about a startling new truth he has discovered about history and world politics. According to his theory, society is an organism that is forever at risk of infection by a certain sinister group of people. These people walk among us every day. They are hard to pick out from the normal population, but – make no mistake, he says – they are a ‘foreign body’ that contaminates and corrupts everything it touches. They have deviant values and a parasitic way of life and are always acting in concert to spread poisonous ideologies, infiltrate the political system and lead nations to ruin.
Your tram-mate sees your uneasy expression and reassures you that, of course, his diatribe isn’t about Jews! He’s referring to a different ‘foreign body’: people with personality disorders. This minority, he claims, is the hidden power behind the most destructive regimes of the twentieth century. Because his psychological research threatens to unmask them, they have relentlessly persecuted him and destroyed his career. Like villains in an Assassin’s Creed game, a secret ‘Order’ of personality-disordered ‘pathocrats’ has embedded its agents in countless institutions, ready to silence anyone who stumbles onto the truth. They can only be stopped if society becomes aware of them, bars them from positions of authority and takes eugenic measures to breed them out of the gene pool.
Upon hearing all this, you might dismiss your companion as a crackpot and wish him good luck in making anyone listen to his genocidal fantasy. Yet the views I’ve just described were those held by the late Polish psychologist Andrew (Andrzej) Łobaczewski, and in recent years they’ve been winning a surprisingly mainstream audience.
In September 2019, The Conversation ran an article by Steve Taylor, a senior psychology lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, presenting Łobaczewski as a seminal mind whose theory of ‘pathocracy’ could help us understand the governments of Trump and Boris Johnson. Cautious to avoid crossing the line from insinuation to formal diagnosis, Taylor nonetheless suggested that ‘the UK is closer to pathocracy than ever before.’ Throughout the world, he warned, personality disordered individuals were seizing power and stacking cabinets with their own kind.
More publicity for Łobaczewski came from The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump (2017), a collection of essays by mental health professionals speculating about Trump’s psychological state, which reached #4 on the New York Times Best Seller List for Non-Fiction. One contributor, Elizabeth Mika – who ‘specializes in the assessment and counselling of gifted children and adults’ – cites Łobaczewski as an expert source on ‘pathocracies’ without telling us much else about him. And his name turns up in another book on the same theme, Ian Hughes’s Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy (2018). This work happens to be released by Zero Books and sports blurbs from Stephen Pinker, Jeffrey Sachs and former Irish president Mary McAleese. It introduces Łobaczewski as ‘a Polish psychologist who lived through Poland’s suffering under both Nazi and Soviet occupation’ and again presents his theories uncritically. Hughes and Mika have gained repeat coverage from Salon, which has echoed them in promoting Łobaczewski’s ‘long-suppressed’ magnum opus, Political Ponerology (2006), and its theory of ‘pathocracy.’
Given that Łobaczewski is increasingly being invoked as a authority for explaining current political events, it should be worthwhile to examine who he was, what he believed and – most importantly – whether pathocracy has anything useful to tell us about Trump.
Information about Łobaczewski’s career as a clinical psychologist in post-war Poland has proven extremely hard to find, and I haven’t tracked down any independent sources beyond his own narratives. He is known only for one book, Political Ponerology. By his account, it was written in the 1980s after his defection to the United States and was repeatedly rejected by publishers, until an outfit called Red Pill Press (specialising, as its name suggests, in conspiracist literature) brought out an English edition in 2006. This is the text that Hughes and Mika draw on in their own writings, though it does not appear to have been peer-reviewed.
In a late-life interview, Łobaczewski claimed that the original drafts of Political Ponerology were produced in collaboration with a group of clinicians from across Poland and Hungary who had decided to make a secret study of personality disorders, away from the eyes of Eastern Bloc officialdom. Conveniently enough, he also claimed to be the lone survivor of this secret network, leaving no opportunity for anyone to corroborate (or refute) his story. We have to take his word that a couple of renowned Polish psychologists were involved, namely Stefan Blachowski and Kazimierz Dabrowski, neither of whom are alive to contradict him. With equal convenience, Łobaczewski stated that the original research papers had been destroyed to evade authorities and that Political Ponerology was rewritten entirely from his memory. We can’t tell if Łobaczewski was really part of a clandestine research network – dating from the end of the Second World War to his defection to the West in the late 1970s – or if this is a complete fabrication.
The story Łobaczewski offers his interviewer gets stranger and stranger. After incinerating the first set of research papers to throw off secret police, he claims to have written another copy and entrusted it to a tourist to be given to the Vatican – only to be ‘betrayed’ by the ‘Roman Correspondent for Radio Free Europe.’ Even after finding sanctuary in the United States, he imagined himself under repeated ‘persecution’ by shadowy agents determined to suppress his book. To quote Political Ponerology itself: ‘All the Red nodes and networks were mobilized to organize a counteraction against the information contained in this book being made publicly and widely available.’
The would-be persecutors he lists in the interview include not only the Polish State Security Service – operating abroad ‘with the help of Jews’ – but that avowedly anti-communist stalwart of US foreign policy, Zbiginiew Brzezinski. Łobaczewski apparently tried to interest him in his work. Brzezinski, we’re told, ‘strangled the matter, treacherously.’ Łobaczewski blames this on Brzezinski’s membership in the Trilateral Commission, a supposed tentacle of the pathocratic ‘Order.’ (Given that this was the Reagan era, when the US establishment had a very favourable view of Polish émigrés, we have to wonder just how fishy Łobaczewski must’ve been to blow his chances with Brzezinski!)
In another part of the interview, Łobaczewski states that he was fired from one job in New York because a Polish book he owned ‘about the history of the Jews, which was not anti-Semitic at all’ caused him to be mistaken for a bigot. (Of course, ‘the person who organized the entire plot was a communist.’) Grandiosely, Łobaczewski also compares his discoveries to those of Copernicus and speculates that a (likely mythical) Russian samizdat edition of his writings inspired Mikhail Gorbachev to dismantle the Soviet system.
All of this raises plenty of questions about Łobaczewski’s own personality and whether he’s the best person to be advising us about the menace of character pathology.
Let’s turn to the book itself. The ‘political ponerology’ of Łobaczewski’s title is, in his words, a ‘new branch of science’ dedicated to studying the ‘genesis of evil.’ This newness turns out to be overblown. Łobaczewski owes the better part of his thinking to fin de siecle eugenics – which he sometimes espouses openly – and to a cyclical model of history that is even more ancient. Societies (his theory goes) oscillate between good times and hard times. Good times ‘create moral weakness’ and ‘enable pathological plotters’ because idle, comfortable people are susceptible to decadent ideologies. Then disaster comes and adversity brings moral improvement. You can find more eloquent statements of this idea in Plato and Machiavelli, and it has even trickled down into a G. Michael Hopf quote much favoured by the online right: ‘Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.’ But the difference between ‘hard times’ and ‘good times’ nearly always depends on which stratum of society you belong to. Were Russians in 1901 having a good time or a hard time? Were they a nation of sybarites or a nation of paupers? It’s a meaningless question unless we ask: which Russians?
Łobaczewski’s only innovation here is to rename this theory, ‘the hysteroidal cycle.’ Borrowing some language (if not much else) from Charcot and Freud, he likens people living in ‘good times’ to hysterics who repress moral strictures and bristle at killjoys who would ruin their buzz with such passé things as time-honoured, ancestral values. (Hysteria metaphors aside, this is a common idea in conservative thought, and, again, there’ve been wittier versions of it.)
Had Łobaczewski stuck to that, his book wouldn’t be too bizarre, but nothing to write home about either. His ideas become more disturbing when he sets about explaining how ‘deviant individuals’ are supposed to corrupt and take over societies. Nations and institutions, Łobaczewski tells us, are like organisms. By extension, personality disordered people represent a ‘foreign body within the organism of society,’ akin to ‘germs [that are] not aware that they will be burned alive or buried deep in the ground along with the human body whose death they are causing.’ Dozens of times, the book refers to the social presence of personality disorder sufferers as an ‘infection,’ which carries an unpleasant echo of Nazi propaganda that compared Jewish communities to bacteria.
The first group of ‘deviants’ in Łobaczewski’s line of fire are so-called ‘characteropaths.’ These are people with ‘acquired deviations’ due to subtle brain damage. For unclear reasons, Łobaczewski believes that characteropaths are the most common kind of abnormal personalities and estimates that an improbable 5-7% of children have brain lesions from early injuries; over time, these cause ‘negative deformation of [people’s] characters.’ While it remains accepted science that brain damage can alter the personality, Łobaczewski lays an unusual – and almost monomaniacal – emphasis on its role in world history. Everywhere, he imagines, there are people walking around with hidden brain lesions, not only from head injuries but bacterial infections, carbon monoxide exposure and the side-effects of antibiotics. At one point, he even claims that brain damage from childhood mumps is a major reason that teenagers join ‘felonious youth gangs’!
For Łobaczewski, the problem isn’t simply that characteropaths have personality flaws. They also exert an insidious sway on others, corrupting the normal people around them by their sheer presence: ‘[T]heir influence easily anchors in human minds, traumatizing our psyches, impoverishing and deforming our thoughts and feelings, and limiting individuals’ and societies’ ability to use common sense and to read a psychological or moral situation accurately.’ He blames the First World War on an early head injury that made Kaiser Wilhelm II into a characteropath and repeats the accusation with Stalin, whose characteropathy is supposedly betrayed in ‘some photographs’ by a ‘typical deformation of the forehead.’
People who got knocked on the head as babies aren’t the sole culprits behind Łobaczewski’s pathocracies. More dangerous, apparently, are schizoids and psychopaths who have ‘inherited deviations.’ Incredibly, Łobaczewski claims that these conditions are transmitted through simple Mendelian inheritance, just like haemophilia and colour blindness. (This would bring relief to a lot of frustrated geneticists if it were the least bit true.) Indeed, for all the importance Political Ponerology places on genetics and descriptive psychiatry, its understanding of both fields is firmly stuck in the 1920s, before anyone guessed that genes were much more complicated than allele charts.
Under Łobaczewski’s theory, the early ground for a pathocracy is laid by schizoid intellectuals. Their detached introversion and doctrinaire black-and-white thinking make them the perfect midwives for deviant ideologies that ‘may poison the minds of society on a wide scale and for a long time.’ Here, Łobaczewski reverts to the classic obsessions of the Polish far right. He claims that schizoid personality disorder occurs at its highest ‘among Jews.’ And his favourite example of a Jewish schizoid philosopher is, to no one’s surprise, Karl Marx. He quotes a minor Polish psychiatrist who labelled Marx and Engels ‘bearded schizoidal fanatics’ and also alleges to find typical schizoid thinking in The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. (We find no acknowledgment that the latter document is a forgery. Łobaczewski seems to treat it as an actual manifesto.) He also proposes that, ‘for purposes of proper mental hygiene,’ we shouldn’t read Marx by considering his ideas, but rather by scanning his works for ‘characteristic’ symptoms of schizoidia. To be doubly sure that no one will be seduced by Marxian pathology, Łobaczewski recommends this as an activity for ‘two or more people.’
The supposed hallmark of all deviant ideologies is something Łobaczewski calls ‘the schizoidal declaration.’ He phrases it as follows:
Human nature is so bad that order in human society can only be maintained by a strong power created by highly qualified individuals in the name of some higher idea.
This statement might describe about half the history of political philosophy. We’ll even find that it fits Łobaczewski’s own worldview pretty well. Indeed, as one example of a schizoidal declaration, our author produces a quote from the Bolshevik secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinski which he could easily have written himself: ‘My forbearance derives not from my fancy, but rather from my clear vision of the cause[s] which give rise to evil.’
It’s a troubling fact that the kind of psychiatry Łobaczewski advocates has actually been a past ally of fascist dictatorships. Antonio Vallejo-Nájera – the ‘Spanish Mengele’ who was one of the top psychiatrists of Francisco Franco’s regime – also voiced a belief that Marxists were ‘schizoid’ and devoted his research to ‘investigating the bio-psychic roots of Marxism’ in the hope of finding a ‘red gene.’ Acting on his eugenic proposals, Franco’s government is estimated to have forcibly removed as many as 30,000 children from their parents and destroyed birth records.
Among the less prominent ‘deviants’ in Łobaczewski’s book, we find ‘skirtoids,’ a hypothetical thuggish personality type that he suggests is the result of racial interbreeding. ‘If that were the case, North America should be full of skirtoids …’ Googling the term, I can’t find a single mention of skirtoids by anyone save Łobaczewski. He claims to have gotten the concept from an unnamed work by Ernst Kretschmer, a prominent German psychiatrist of the 1920s and 30s.
Kretschmer’s career, like Vallejo-Nájera’s, gives us another example of an unsavoury alliance between eugenicist psychopathology and fascism. After Hitler’s rise to power, Kretschmer became a supporter of the Third Reich and an expert advisor for its 1933 involuntary sterilisation policy. Kieran McNally’s A Critical History of Schizophrenia (2016) notes that a key justification for the policy was the ‘erroneous belief’ that ‘a recessive Mendelian gene’ could account for mental illness. This is basically the same genetic theory that Łobaczewski espoused to the end of his life.
The ultimate villains of Łobaczewski’s narrative are psychopaths, and he initially presents them more-or-less as they appear in Hervey Cleckley’s much more reputable book, The Mask of Sanity (1941): remorseless, deceitful and unable to form attachments. Once a pathocracy takes over, we read, a cabal of disordered personalities – representing 6 per cent of the population – promptly occupy all important positions and become a new aristocratic class. Healthy people are expunged from the power structure until the pathocrats hold a monopoly over every institution, from academia to the police. Psychopaths form only a tenth of this 6 per cent but end up as the regime’s puppet masters.
Now we come to one of the book’s oddest statements. Because psychopaths are so rare, it isn’t easy to find enough of them to stack a whole country’s administration in the pathocracy’s favour. Consequently, once ‘such a system has lasted several years, one hundred percent of all cases of essential psychopathy are involved in pathocratic activity.’ (Were there any Russian psychopaths left at all in Siberia? Or were they all rescued and quickly promoted to government posts, regardless of how conspicuous gulag tattoos might’ve looked on a civil servant?)
Achieving this would take a fantastic degree of collective self-awareness on behalf of the pathocrats, a personality disordered ‘class consciousness’ that hardly exists even in today’s milieu of online mental health communities. More than that, it would take a lot of mutual trust and cooperation, plus an excellent ability for long-term planning. The psychopaths Hervey Cleckley described weren’t exactly brimming with these qualities – despite Łobaczewski’s name-dropping of his work. Admittedly, some clinical texts – such as Otto Kernberg’s studies of large group psychology – theorise that cults and dictatorships can be led by malignant narcissists, the milder siblings of true psychopaths. Yet Kernberg doesn’t respond to this problem with the hysteria that we get from Łobaczewski. He notes that malignant narcissists who end up in power positions need at least some basic competence at their jobs and that their negative effects on institutions are often slow and subtle. Importantly, he cautions that, in politics, ‘malignant narcissistic leadership should not be exposed with diagnostic psychiatrist labels’ but by drawing attention to the corrupt behaviour instead. After all, creating stigma around narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) brings the risk that fewer people might seek therapy for it. Reviewing previous research on the dynamic psychology of fascism, Kernberg observes that one of its hallmarks is discourse that ‘depict[s] enemy groups with symbols … associated with bodily waste, vermin, [and] dangerous, or toxic animal traits.’ Łobaczewski’s own addiction to microbial metaphors should give us pause before enlisting him as an ally to anti-fascism.
While Kernberg states that malignant narcissist leaders might bring similarly narcissistic people into their inner circles, this is not the only possible scenario. From Kernberg’s other writings – such as his magnum opus, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (1975) – we might gather that narcissists can also be tremendously bad at maintaining stable relationships. Many of the patients he describes are troubled people with a chaotically high turnover rate for friends, lovers and allies, prone to fleeting honeymoon periods that quickly turn sour. Nor is it a given that Kernbergian narcissists will always choose other narcissists to smooch and discard. Insecure, clingy, dependent characters might be drawn to a narcissist, too, in an attraction of opposites. This ‘dependency group’ – a concept from the psychoanalyst WR Bion – is among the leadership structures that Kernberg’s latest paper mentions, and seemingly quite common in cult-like organisations.
The media commentators who cite Łobaczewski would have us believe that leaders like Trump and Johnson are progressively weeding out the healthy from their cabinets until only pathological cronies remain. But did Trump fall out with Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, John Bolton and Anthony Scaramucci because they were wholesome? Four years of Washington punditry have sought in vain to find any lasting pattern to Trump’s hiring and firing. And there’s a purely pragmatic reason why populists like Trump – and his Italian forerunner, Berlusconi – might want to keep their sycophants from becoming permanent fixtures. A crony with a limited shelf life is less likely to be tomorrow’s rival. Whether or not Trump is a narcissist, his turnover rate doesn’t seem to be a recipe for something as monolithic as a pathocracy. He likes people, and then he doesn’t.
Let’s also bear in mind that Kernberg’s ‘syndrome of malignant narcissism’ doesn’t include rudeness as one of its defining symptoms. As many true crime buffs will attest, even the worst psychopaths can still seem debonair and articulate. You couldn’t have asked for a less Trumpish aspiring Republican than Ted Bundy, who, despite being a serial lust murderer, would never have been caught saying anything as uncivil as ‘grab ‘em by the pussy.’ His façade stayed firm up to his last interview on death row, when – with deadpan earnestness – he spoke out against pornography and violence on television. Offensiveness is an unreliable guide to how sick a person is. It may be tempting to suspect Trump of a personality disorder because his public demeanour is unashamedly vulgar. But vulgarity has proven a sound strategy at a time when a large chunk of the public resents people who talk like born politicians. Dr Allen Frances – one of the psychiatrists who wrote the DSM criteria for NPD – has dismissed suggestions that it explains Trump’s behaviour, precisely because talking like a cartoon narcissist has been so effective for his publicity.
The leaders we suspect of character pathology tend to be infamous ones, though there’s undoubtedly a selection bias here. We look for narcissism in the Hitlers, but not the Churchills. We assume it in crude, grotesque blowhards like Trump, but rarely consider how many polite, well-spoken narcissists – malignant or otherwise – may have coasted in and out of politics over the years, without causing any disasters or upsetting the status quo.
Łobaczewski’s other statements about pathocracies aren’t much better at explaining Trump. The 2016 Presidential Election didn’t need a schizoid intelligencia to scribble a manifesto of Trumpism. Bannon – the closest Trump had to a court philosopher – served him more as a backroom éminence grise than a flogger of Little Red Books. And, unlike Hitler or Stalin, Trump has made little effort to put his own people in charge of universities or newspapers or half the other institutions that a pathocracy is supposed to engulf. Who needs the loyalty of vice-chancellors when your opponent is Joe Biden?
Łobaczewski isn’t just inadequate as a prophet of Trumpian power. He’s also strikingly dishonest about his favourite topic, Soviet power. Readers of Political Ponerology might imagine that psychologists in the Eastern Bloc suffered under a blanket taboo on personality disorder research – a cover-up imposed by pathocrats who were anxious not to be unmasked. But of all the charges to lay against Soviet psychiatry, this is a shoddy one. In 1933, at the height of Stalin’s reign, a major book on personality disorders, Manifestations of Psychopathies by Pyotr Gannushkin, was posthumously published. For the grave sin of describing schizoids and ‘antisocial psychopaths’ at length, the late Gannushkin was punished by having a hospital, a Moscow river embankment and an annual medical award named after him! Meanwhile, I can find no evidence that the organic brain condition sometimes called characteropathy was a forbidden topic for Polish researchers under Soviet rule. Several papers on it from Poland were openly published at the time. Safe to say, their authors never argued that it was a society-destroying menace.
Did the Soviet elite have any motive for the restrictions Łobaczewski claims existed? It’s more than likely that Stalin’s personality wasn’t on the healthy side, but that doesn’t mean that he recognised such problems in himself – just as, for Łobaczewski, the schizoids, paranoiacs and egotists are always other people.
Now we come to the solution Łobaczewski proposes to safeguard society from pathocracy. The final chapter of Political Ponerology imagines a future where a ‘Council of Wise Men’ – consisting of top psychologists and psychiatrists – would have ‘the right to examine the physical and psychological health of candidates before the latter are elected to the highest government positions.’ We’re not told who would assess these assessors to ensure that they’re not psychopaths or schizoids themselves. Or who would assess the assessors’ assessors. Łobaczewski evades this infinite regress problem and continues that the ‘Wise Men’ would also give moral and psychological guidance to leaders, religious authorities and the public. At the same time, a eugenic ‘security system’ would bar personality disordered people from important positions and ‘help progressively diminish societies’ gene pool burdens of hereditary aberrations.’ Such measures would again be supervised by the ever-busy Council of Wise Men.
That, in sum, is Łobaczewski’s own ‘schizoidal declaration.’ Humanity is so helpless to avoid ‘infection’ by deviants that a technocratic coterie must be given vast powers to veto election outcomes and enact ableist policies to stop ‘aberrant’ people from breeding. Łobaczewski concludes that ‘a system thus envisaged would be superior to all its predecessors.’
Many a dictatorship has made the same claim.