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Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College,

Riggio, Adam. “Belief in a Weird World: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 1-5.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

H. P. Lovecraft’s creation, Cthulhu, is one of the world’s most famous symbols of the weird.
Image by Chase Norton via Flickr / Creative Commons


Weird is a strange word. The idea of weirdness itself is rather strange, as suits the subject I suppose. Bernard Wills has written the essay anthology Believing Weird Things, in part, to explore what weirdness is. The book itself, however, is rather weird. Or at least, it’s weird to an academic audience.

Let me explain. While I write quite a few book reviews for SERRC, over the last while, the amount of time between my receiving a review copy and actually writing and submitting the review of the book has lengthened from a flexible to a messianic duration. So my reviews often end up being informed by other reviews of the same book, where others have gotten around to it before me.

So this review is also, though in small part, a rebuke to Matthew Dentith’s earlier review of Believing Weird Things published late last year.[1] Although it remains far from perfect, Wills has written a book that is both challenging and accessible to a wide audience. Believing Weird Things is a popular book of philosophical thought, in the tradition of Bertrand Russell’s public philosophical essays. For some audiences of researchers, a book of that character may be too weird to understand at first.

What Is Weird? The Weird? Weirdness?

Whether something is weird is not a matter purely of ontology. There is no weird in itself, since weirdness is a relational property. Something is weird only in comparison to something else, relative to surroundings, wider environments, or the expectations of people regarding those surroundings and environment.

Weirdness is most fundamentally an epistemological concern. When a sudden disturbance appears in the smooth flowing of a natural process, that disturbance is simply disruptive and destructive. We as self-conscious observers may call it weird, but regarding the process and its disruption in themselves, there are matters of fact alone.

Science-fiction and horror literature has probed the nature of weirdness in more nuance than many philosophical arguments. The weird unsettles expectation, which creates an immediate fear and a profound fear. Speaking immediately, a weird encounter is a sign that presumptions about the reliability of the world to sustain your own life are in doubt. That causes fear for your life.

The more profound fear of the weird inspires is that, more than just your life being at risk, the fundamental nature of reality is at risk. It would be extremely dangerous to encounter creatures like the Shoggoths of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” one of the stories that helped forge the genre of weird fiction, but their nature is weird enough such an encounter would call into doubt everything you believed about reality itself.

To be weird is to have a character or nature that is such an anomaly for your expectations of how and what the world is, as to be unnerving. A natural process cannot be unnerved, only a self-conscious subjectivity. What is, is; what is weird must be understood as weird.

Weirdness, therefore, is in the eye of the beholder. At least that’s what I would say if I were disposed to cheap clichés. Different people with different histories, cultures, moral and aesthetic values will consider different things weird.

The Relative Relativity of Weirdness

Wills himself describes it well in his essay on Rastafarian religious beliefs, one of the best in the volume. Rastafarianism is a Caribbean religious minority, its people marginalized in the faith’s Jamaican birthplace. The religion’s cultural influence far outshines its size because of the global fame and historical influence of Rastafarian musicians in reggae, such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Lee Scratch Perry.

But to someone raised in a generally Christian culture, some Rastafarian beliefs are genuinely strange, even though much of the religion is a clear outgrowth of the Abrahamic tradition. The Rastafarian Jah is the same God as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Rastafarianism recasts the Jewish concept of the chosen people to refer to all Africans who suffered from colonization and the Atlantic slave trade, their Exodus being the ongoing process of decolonization. Like Islam, the moral principles of the religion incorporate rituals of worship into everyday social life, and it roots those moral principles in the shape of world history.

Rastafarian parallels with Christianity are, as Wills and I agree, rather weird. Rastafarianism has a Messiah figure that operates according to the same metaphysical principles as Christ. Haile Selassie I, Ethiopian Emperor from 1930 to 1974, is the living incarnation of God for Rastafarians.

I use the present tense because Rastafarians hold that Selassie is alive in some form, despite his 1974 assassination in Ethiopia’s communist uprising. In all seriousness, I expect there eventually to be a theological schism in Rastafarianism over how to reconcile their faith with the fact that Selassie was murdered and his body stuffed under the toilets of a palace bathroom, discovered decades later, long after that palace had been converted into government offices.

I can talk about this with an air of humour, as though I’m joking from a position of relative privilege at the expense of Rastafarianism and Rastas. The detachment that allows me to dehumanize Rastafarian culture with this smirking bemusement is rooted in my attitude toward the faith: it is alien, a culture I know only through song lyrics and cultural stereotypes. I find the Rastafarian faith’s messianism weird, but only because I was not raised a Rasta or near any Rastafarian communities.

In Wills’ best essays, he uses these extended philosophical case studies to uncover the epistemic, political, and moral implications of who considers what weird, and why.

Bernard Wills - Believing Weird ThingsA Disjointed Path to Its End

The only real problem I have with the book is that not all of its essays are as good as its best. If I can use terms that more often describe albums, Believing Weird Things is a little front-loaded. The book is divided roughly in half. The first essays explore weird ideas and beliefs as a philosophical historian building a book of fascinating case studies. The second half of the book describes different ways in which weirdness has been weaponized, how difference and strangeness become no longer guides to fascinating places, but targets to be destroyed.

If I can take a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean, consider this. The best essay in the first half of Believing Weird Things is “Why I Am Not a Rastaman.” The best essay in the book’s second half is “Portrait of an Islamophobe.”

Yet I don’t want to linger too long on praise for the actual best essay in the volume, where Wills insightfully and incisively identifies the dynamics of racist discourse that show how Islamophobic ideology merges the dehumanization of colonial racism with the paranoia and massification of classical European anti-Semitism.

That’s all I really need to say other than that “Portrait of an Islamophobe” alone is ethically worth your buying Believing Weird Things at its affordable price, expressly for the purpose of rewarding Wills with one more purchase in his next royalty payment.

So when my biggest critique of a book is that some essays aren’t as good as others in an essay collection, you can be pretty sure that I don’t have a significant problem with what he’s doing. Believing Weird Things ends with two essays that originally appeared in earlier forms at SERRC, two analyses of the nationalist turn in Western conservatism.

Those essays offered quality insights on the true nature of conservatism as a tradition of English political philosophy whose classical works were the landmarks of Thomas Hobbes and Edmund Burke, and how the nationalism that dominates today’s right wing itself betrays many of the principles of those great thinkers.

However, they make for an odd fit with the other essays of the book, all of which explicitly experiment with our concept of the weird to develop a new philosophical insight. These last two essays are fine in themselves, but as they appear in Believing Weird Things, they amount to filler tracks that stand apart from the main themes and style of the book.

Misunderstanding the Will to Weirdness

My last point is a soft rebuttal to Matthew Dentith’s earlier review of Believing Weird Things. I couldn’t help but find Dentith’s critiques a little off the mark, since they were rooted in a conception of the weird that Wills didn’t share. This conception of the weird is rooted in Forteana, the study and archiving of generally weird and strange phenomena, rumours, objects, folklore.

There are two central organizing concepts in the work of Charles Fort, as he first developed his project and how it has continued since. They are anti-systematicity and skepticism of skepticism. Fortean catalogues of weird things and events make no attempt to understand these departures from the norm as expressions of some underlying order. This is anti-systematicity, which parallels skepticism of skepticism, the refusal to doubt that something exists or occurred merely because its existence contradicts or is contrary to established knowledge.

Any system of knowledge based on these principles of anti-systematicity and skepticism of skepticism will regularly produce weirdnesses, because if you hold them, you will accept without much trouble radical departures inductively valid expectations about what is and is not possible. But these principles do not exhaustively define what is weird or what weird is. Fortean epistemology is openness to the weird, but does not itself define that which is weird. Dentith’s analysis of Wills’ work conflates the two.

But Dentith’s error is a learning opportunity for us in who the best audience for Believing Weird Things would be. Dentith’s misinterpretation flowed from his prior experience in academic research. Earlier in his career, the study of Forteana and the works of Michael Shermer, particularly his 1997 Why People Believe Weird Things, was important to his intellectual development.

In the introduction, Wills frames his own Believing Weird Things as a response to Shermer’s arguments from the end of the last century. Dentith critiques Wills for having chosen an apparent interlocutor from more than 20 years ago, seeing this as an attempt to restore Shermer’s ideas to a place in contemporary philosophical debates in the spheres of academic publication. But Wills never justifies such a restoration in his own book. Indeed, Wills never refers to Shermer in as much detail in the rest of the book as he does in the introduction.

Such a use of Shermer appears sloppy, and I do think Wills should have been a little more explicit in explaining the role that Shermer’s work plays in his own thinking. A figure who plays such a major role in an introduction, but disappears throughout the main body of the book makes for poor academic writing.

But Wills’ only mistake here was having given Dentith the opportunity to make his own mistake. Wills does not aim to restore Shermer to some more prestigious position in academic philosophical debates. Engaging with Shermer’s ideas has a more personal meaning for Wills, because a chance encounter with Shermer’s work was the inspiration for a trilogy of books that explore the nature of weirdness, of which Believing Weird Things is the second.

Wills refers to the work of Shermer to invoke him as an inspiration for his in-progress trilogy. Invoking an intellectual ancestor is not a reason that can inspire most academic writing, especially that based in paywalled research journals. Dentith did not understand this aspect of Believing Weird Things because he kept his analysis inside the context of the academician’s writing.

Conclusion: Life Is Weird

Bernard Wills has written a book for a general thinking audience, a contribution to the social and ethical antidotes to rouse the red-pilled from their dogmatic slumbers. Believing Weird Things asks readers to re-evaluate what they consider reasonable and strange, that weirdness is a category without a simple definition or clear boundaries.

Contact details:


Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 48-52.

Wills, Bernard. Believing Weird Things. Montréal: Minkowski Institute Press, 2018.

[1] Okay, that makes me sound way, way too late.

Author Information: Brian Martin, University of Wollongong,

Martin, Brian. “Technology and Evil.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 1-14.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

A Russian Mil Mi-28 attack helicopter.
Image by Dmitri Terekhov via Flickr / Creative Commons


Humans cause immense damage to each other and to the environment. Steven James Bartlett argues that humans have an inbuilt pathology that leads to violence and ecosystem destruction that can be called evil, in a clinical rather than a religious sense. Given that technologies are human constructions, it follows that technologies can embody the same pathologies as humans. An important implication of Bartlett’s ideas is that studies of technology should be normative in opposing destructive technologies.


Humans, individually and collectively, do a lot of terrible things to each other and to the environment. Some obvious examples are murder, torture, war, genocide and massive environmental destruction. From the perspective of an ecologist from another solar system, humans are the world’s major pestilence, spreading everywhere, enslaving and experimenting on a few species for their own ends, causing extinctions of numerous other species and destroying the environment that supports them all.

These thoughts suggest that humans, as a species, have been causing some serious problems. Of course there are many individuals and groups trying to make the world a better place, for example campaigning against war and environmental degradation, and fostering harmony and sustainability. But is it possible that by focusing on what needs to be done and on the positives in human nature, the seriousness of the dark side of human behaviour is being neglected?

Here, I address these issues by looking at studies of human evil, with a focus on a book by Steven Bartlett. With this foundation, it is possible to look at technology with a new awareness of its deep problems. This will not provide easy solutions but may give a better appreciation of the task ahead.


For decades, I have been studying war, ways to challenge war, and alternatives to military systems (e.g. Martin, 1984). My special interest has been in nonviolent action as a means for addressing social problems. Along the way, this led me to read about genocide and other forms of violence. Some writing in the area refers to evil, addressed from a secular, scientific and non-moralistic perspective.

Roy Baumeister (1997), a prominent psychologist, wrote a book titled Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, that I found highly insightful. Studying the psychology of perpetrators, ranging from murderers and terrorists to killers in genocide, Baumeister concluded that most commonly they feel justified in their actions and see themselves as victims. Often they think what they’ve done is not that important. Baumeister’s sophisticated analysis aims to counter the popular perception of evil-doers as malevolent or uncaring.

Baumeister is one of a number of psychologists willing to talk about good and evil. If the word evil feels uncomfortable, then substitute “violence and cruelty,” as in the subtitle of Baumeister’s book, and the meaning is much the same. It’s also possible to approach evil from the viewpoint of brain function, as in Simon Baron-Cohen’s (2011) The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. There are also studies that combine psychiatric and religious perspectives, such as M. Scott Peck’s (1988) People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil.

Another part of my background is technology studies, including being involved in the nuclear power debate, studying technological vulnerability, communication technology, and technology and euthanasia, among other topics. I married my interests in nonviolence and in technology by studying how technology could be designed and used for nonviolent struggle (Martin, 2001).

It was with this background that I encountered Steven James Bartlett’s (2005) massive book The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil. Many of the issues it addresses, for example genocide and war, were familiar to me, but his perspective offered new and disturbing insights. The Pathology of Man is more in-depth and far-reaching than other studies I had encountered, and is worth bringing to wider attention.

Here, I offer an abbreviated account of Bartlett’s analysis of human evil. Then I spell out ways of applying his ideas to technology and conclude with some possible implications.

Bartlett on Evil

Steven James Bartlett is a philosopher and psychologist who for decades studied problems in human thinking. The Pathology of Man was published in 2005 but received little attention. This may partly be due to the challenge of reading an erudite 200,000-word treatise but also partly due to people being resistant to Bartlett’s message, for the very reasons expounded in his book.

In reviewing the history of disease theories, Bartlett points out that in previous eras a wide range of conditions were considered to be diseases, ranging from “Negro consumption” to anti-Semitism. This observation is part of his assessment of various conceptions of disease, relying on standard views about what counts as disease, while emphasising that judgements made are always relative to a framework that is value-laden.

This is a sample portion of Bartlett’s carefully laid out chain of logic and evidence for making a case that the human species is pathological, namely characteristic of a disease. In making this case, he is not speaking metaphorically but clinically. The fact that the human species has seldom been seen as pathological is due to humans adopting a framework that exempts themselves from this diagnosis, which would be embarrassing to accept, at least for those inclined to think of humans as the apotheosis of evolution.

Next stop: the concept of evil. Bartlett examines a wide range of perspectives, noting that most of them are religious in origin. In contrast, he prefers a more scientific view: “Human evil, in the restricted and specific sense in which I will use it, refers to apparently voluntary destructive behavior and attitudes that result in the general negation of health, happiness, and ultimately of life.” (p. 65) In referring to “general negation,” Bartlett is not thinking of a poor diet or personal nastiness but of bigger matters such as war, genocide and overpopulation.

Bartlett is especially interested in the psychology of evil, and canvasses the ideas of classic thinkers who have addressed this issue, including Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Karl Menninger, Erich Fromm and Scott Peck. This detailed survey has only a limited return: these leading thinkers have little to say about the origins of evil and what psychological needs it may serve.

So Bartlett turns to other angles, including Lewis Fry Richardson’s classic work quantifying evidence of human violence, and research on aggression by ethologists, notably Konrad Lorenz. Some insights come from this examination, including Richardson’s goal of examining human destructiveness without emotionality and Lorenz’s point that humans, unlike most other animals, have no inbuilt barriers to killing members of their own species.

Bartlett on the Psychology of Genocide

To stare the potential for human evil in the face, Bartlett undertakes a thorough assessment of evidence about genocide, seeking to find the psychological underpinning of systematic mass killings of other humans. He notes one important factor, a factor not widely discussed or even admitted: many humans gain pleasure from killing others. Two other relevant psychological processes are projection and splitting. Projection involves denying negative elements of oneself and attributing them to others, for example seeing others as dangerous, thereby providing a reason for attacking them: one’s own aggression is attributed to others.

Splitting involves dividing one’s own grandiose self-conception from the way others are thought of. “By belonging to the herd, the individual gains an inflated sense of power, emotional support, and connection. With the feeling of group-exaggerated power and puffed up personal importance comes a new awareness of one’s own identity, which is projected into the individual’s conception” of the individual’s favoured group (p. 157). As a member of a group, there are several factors that enable genocide: stereotyping, dehumanisation, euphemistic language and psychic numbing.

To provide a more vivid picture of the capacity for human evil, Bartlett examines the Holocaust, noting that it was not the only or most deadly genocide but one, partly due to extensive documentation, that provides plenty of evidence of the psychology of mass killing.

Anti-Semitism was not the preserve of the Nazis, but existed for centuries in numerous parts of the world, and indeed continues today. The long history of persistent anti-Semitism is, according to Bartlett, evidence that humans need to feel prejudice and to persecute others. But at this point there is an uncomfortable finding: most people who are anti-Semitic are psychologically normal, suggesting the possibility that what is normal can be pathological. This key point recurs in Bartlett’s forensic examination.

Prejudice and persecution do not usually bring sadness and remorse to the victimizers, but rather a sense of strengthened identity, pleasure, self-satisfaction, superiority, and power. Prejudice and persecution are Siamese twins: Together they generate a heightened and invigorated belief in the victimizers’ supremacy. The fact that prejudice and persecution benefit bigots and persecutors is often overlooked or denied. (p. 167)

Bartlett examines evidence about the psychology of several groups involved in the Holocaust: Nazi leaders, Nazi doctors, bystanders, refusers and resisters. Nazi leaders and doctors were, for the most part, normal and well-adjusted men (nearly all were men). Most of the leaders were above average intelligence, and some had very high IQs, and many of them were well educated and culturally sophisticated. Cognitively they were superior, but their moral intelligence was low.

Bystanders tend to do nothing due to conformity, lack of empathy and low moral sensibility. Most Germans were bystanders to Nazi atrocities, not participating but doing nothing to oppose them.

Next are refusers, those who declined to be involved in atrocities. Contrary to usual assumptions, in Nazi Germany there were few penalties for refusing to join killings; it was just a matter of asking for a different assignment. Despite this, of those men called up to join killing brigades, very few took advantage of this option. Refusers had to take some initiative, to think for themselves and resist the need to conform.

Finally, there were resisters, those who actively opposed the genocide, but even here Bartlett raises a concern, saying that in many cases resisters were driven more by anger at offenders than empathy with victims. In any case, in terms of psychology, resisters were the odd ones out, being disengaged with the dominant ideas and values in their society and being able to be emotionally alone, without peer group support. Bartlett’s concern here meshes with research on why people join contemporary social movements: most first become involved via personal connections with current members, not because of moral outrage about the issue (Jasper, 1997).

The implication of Bartlett’s analysis of the Holocaust is that there is something wrong with humans who are psychologically normal (see also Bartlett, 2011, 2013). When those who actively resist genocide are unusual psychologically, this points to problems with the way most humans think and feel.

Another one of Bartlett’s conclusions is that most solutions that have been proposed to the problem of genocide — such as moral education, cultivating acceptance and respect, and reducing psychological projection — are vague, simplistic and impractical. They do not measure up to the challenge posed by the observed psychology of genocide.

Bartlett’s assessment of the Holocaust did not surprise me because, for one of my studies of tactics against injustice (Martin, 2007), I read a dozen books and many articles about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which between half a million and a million people were killed in the space of a few months. The physical differences between the Tutsi and Hutu are slight; the Hutu killers targeted both Tutsi and “moderate” Hutu. It is not widely known that Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa, yet many of the killings occurred in churches where Tutsi had gone for protection. In many cases, people killed neighbours they had lived next to for years, or even family members. The Rwandan genocide had always sounded horrific; reading detailed accounts to obtain examples for my article, I discovered it was far worse than I had imagined (Martin, 2009).

After investigating evidence about genocide and its implications about human psychology, Bartlett turns to terrorism. Many of his assessments accord with critical terrorism studies, for example that there is no standard definition of terrorism, the fear of terrorism is disproportionate to the threat, and terrorism is “framework-relative” in the sense that calling someone a terrorist puts you in opposition to them.

Bartlett’s interest is in the psychology of terrorists. He is sceptical of the widespread assumption that there must be something wrong with them psychologically, and cites evidence that terrorists are psychologically normal. Interestingly, he notes that there are no studies comparing the psychologies of terrorists and soldiers, two groups that each use violence to serve a cause. He also notes a striking absence: in counterterrorism writing, no one has studied the sorts of people who refuse to be involved in cruelty and violence and who are resistant to appeals to in-group prejudice, which is usually called loyalty or patriotism. By assuming there is something wrong with terrorists, counterterrorism specialists are missing the possibility of learning how to deal with the problem.

Bartlett on War Psychology

Relatively few people are involved in genocide or terrorism except by learning about them via media stories. It is another matter when it comes to war, because many people have lived through a time when their country has been at war. In this century, just think of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, where numerous governments have sent troops or provided military assistance.

Bartlett says there is plenty of evidence that war evokes powerful emotions among both soldiers and civilians. For some, it is the time of life when they feel most alive, whereas peacetime can seem boring and meaningless. Although killing other humans is proscribed by most moral systems, war is treated as an exception. There are psychological preconditions for organised killing, including manufacturing differences, dehumanising the enemy, nationalism, group identity and various forms of projection. Bartlett says it is also important to look at psychological factors that prevent people from trying to end wars.

Even though relatively few people are involved in war as combat troops or even as part of the systems that support war-fighting, an even smaller number devote serious effort to trying to end wars. Governments collectively spend hundreds of billions of dollars on their militaries but only a minuscule amount on furthering the causes of peace. This applies as well to research: there is a vastly more military-sponsored or military-inspired research than peace-related research. Bartlett concludes that, “war is a pathology which the great majority of human beings do not want to cure” (p. 211).

Thinking back over the major wars in the past century, in most countries it has been far easier to support war than to oppose it. Enlisting in the military is seen as patriotic whereas refusing military service, or deserting the army, is seen as treasonous. For civilians, defeating the enemy is seen as a cause for rejoicing, whereas advocating an end to war — except via victory — is a minority position.

There have been thousands of war movies: people flock to see killing on the screen, and the bad guys nearly always lose, especially in Hollywood. In contrast, the number of major films about nonviolent struggles is tiny — what else besides the 1982 film Gandhi? — and seldom do they attract a wide audience. Bartlett sums up the implications of war for human psychology:

By legitimating the moral atrocity of mass murder, war, clothed as it is in the psychologically attractive trappings of patriotism, heroism, and the ultimately good cause, is one of the main components of human evil. War, because it causes incalculable harm, because it gives men and women justification to kill and injure one another without remorse, because it suspends conscience and neutralizes compassion, because it takes the form of psychological epidemics in which dehumanization, cruelty, and hatred are given unrestrained freedom, and because it is a source of profound human gratification and meaning—because of these things, war is not only a pathology, but is one of the most evident expressions of human evil. (p. 225)

The Obedient Parasite

Bartlett next turns to obedience studies, discussing the famous research by Stanley Milgram (1974). However, he notes that such studies shouldn’t even be needed: the evidence of human behaviour during war and genocide should be enough to show that most human are obedient to authority, even when the authority is instructing them to harm others.

Another relevant emotion is hatred. Although hating is a widespread phenomenon — most recently evident in the phenomenon of online harassment (Citron, 2014) — Bartlett notes that psychologists and psychiatrists have given this emotion little attention. Hatred serves several functions, including providing a cause, overcoming the fear of death, and, in groups, helping build a sense of community.

Many people recognise that humans are destroying the ecological web that supports their own lives and those of numerous other species. Bartlett goes one step further, exploring the field of parasitology. Examining definitions and features of parasites, he concludes that, according to a broad definition, humans are parasites on the environment and other species, and are destroying the host at a record rate. He sees human parasitism as being reflected in social belief systems including the “cult of motherhood,” infatuation with children, and the belief that other species exist to serve humans, a longstanding attitude enshrined in some religions.

Reading The Pathology of Man, I was tempted to counter Bartlett’s arguments by pointing to the good things that so many humans have done and are doing, such as everyday politeness, altruism, caring for the disadvantaged, and the animal liberation movement. Bartlett could counter by noting it would be unwise to pay no attention to disease symptoms just because your body has many healthy parts. If there is a pathology inherent in the human species, it should not be ignored, but instead addressed face to face.

Remington 1858 Model Navy .36 Cap and Ball Revolver.
Image by Chuck Coker via Flickr / Creative Commons


Technologies of Political Control

Bartlett’s analysis of human evil, including that violence and cruelty are perpetrated mostly by people who are psychologically normal and that many humans obtain pleasure out of violence against other humans, can be applied to technology. The aim in doing this is not to demonise particular types or uses of technology but to explore technological systems from a different angle in the hope of providing insights that are less salient from other perspectives.

Consider “technologies of political control,” most commonly used by governments against their own people (Ackroyd et al., 1974; Wright, 1998). These technologies include tools of torture and execution including electroshock batons, thumb cuffs, restraint chairs, leg shackles, stun grenades and gallows. They include technologies used against crowds such as convulsants and infrasound weapons (Omega Foundation, 2000). They include specially designed surveillance equipment.

In this discussion, “technology” refers not just to artefacts but also to the social arrangements surrounding these artefacts, including design, manufacture, and contexts of use. To refer to “technologies of political control” is to invoke this wider context: an artefact on its own may seem innocuous but still be implicated in systems of repression. Repression here refers to force used against humans for the purposes of harm, punishment or social control.

Torture has a long history. It must be considered a prime example of human evil. Few species intentionally inflict pain and suffering on other members of their own species. Among humans, torture is now officially renounced by every government in the world, but it still takes place in many countries, for example in China, Egypt and Afghanistan, as documented by Amnesty International. Torture also takes place in many conventional prisons, for example via solitary confinement.

To support torture and repression, there is an associated industry. Scientists design new ways to inflict pain and suffering, using drugs, loud noises, disorienting lights, sensory deprivation and other means. The tools for delivering these methods are constructed in factories and the products marketed around the world, especially to buyers seeking means to control and harm others. Periodically, “security fairs” are held in which companies selling repression technologies tout their products to potential buyers.

The technology of repression does not have a high profile, but it is a significant industry, involving tens of billions of dollars in annual sales. It is a prime cause of human suffering. So what are people doing about it?

Those directly involved seem to have few moral objections. Scientists use their skills to design more sophisticated ways of interrogating, incarcerating and torturing people. Engineers design the manufacturing processes and numerous workers maintain production. Sales agents tout the technologies to purchasers. Governments facilitate this operation, making extraordinary efforts to get around attempts to control the repression trade. So here is an entire industry built around technologies that serve to control and harm defenceless humans, and it seems to be no problem to find people who are willing to participate and indeed to tenaciously defend the continuation of the industry.

In this, most of the world’s population are bystanders. Mass media pay little attention. Indeed, there are fictional dramas that legitimise torture and, more generally, the use of violence against the bad guys. Most people remain ignorant of the trade in repression technologies. For those who learn about it, few make any attempt to do something about it, for example by joining a campaign.

Finally there are a few resisters. There are groups like the Omega Research Foundation that collect information about the repression trade and organisations like Amnesty International and Campaign Against Arms Trade that campaign against it. Journalists have played an important role in exposing the trade (Gregory, 1995).

The production, trade and use of technologies of repression, especially torture technologies, provide a prime example of how technologies can be implicated in human evil. They illustrate quite a few of the features noted by Bartlett. There is no evidence that the scientists, engineers, production workers, sales agents and politician allies of the industry are anything other than psychologically normal. Indeed, it is an industry organised much like any other, except devoted to producing objects used to harm humans.

Nearly all of those involved in the industry are simply operating as cogs in a large enterprise. They have abdicated responsibility for causing harm, a reflection of humans’ tendency to obey authorities. As for members of the public, the psychological process of projection provides a reassuring message: torture is only used as a last result against enemies such as terrorists. “We” are good and “they” are bad, so what is done to them is justified.

Weapons and Tobacco

Along with the technology of repression, weapons of war are prime candidates for being understood as implicated in evil. If war is an expression of the human potential for violence, then weapons are a part of that expression. Indeed, increasing the capacity of weapons to maim, kill and destroy has long been a prime aim of militaries. So-called conventional weapons include everything from bullets and bayonets to bombs and ballistic missiles, and then there are biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Studying weaponry is a way of learning about the willingness of humans to use their ingenuity to harm other humans. Dum-dum bullets were designed to tumble in flight so as to cause more horrendous injuries on exiting a body. Brightly coloured land mines can be attractive to young children. Some of these weapons have been banned, while others take their place. In any case, it is reasonable to ask, what was going through the minds of those who conceived, designed, manufactured, sold and deployed such weapons?

The answer is straightforward, yet disturbing. Along the chain, individuals may have thought they were serving their country’s cause, helping defeat an enemy, or just doing their job and following orders. Indeed, it can be argued that scientific training and enculturation serve to develop scientists willing to work on assigned tasks without questioning their rationale (Schmidt, 2000).

Nuclear weapons, due to their capacity for mass destruction, have long been seen as especially bad, and there have been significant mass movements against these weapons (Wittner, 1993–2003). However, the opposition has not been all that successful, because there continue to be thousands of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of eight or so militaries, and most people seldom think about it. Nuclear weapons exemplify Bartlett’s contention that most people do not do much to oppose war — even a war that would devastate the earth.

Consider something a bit different: cigarettes. Smoking brings pleasure, or at least relief from craving, to hundreds of millions of people daily, at the expense of a massive death toll (Proctor, 2011). By current projections, hundreds of millions of people will die this century from smoking-related diseases.

Today, tobacco companies are stigmatised and smoking is becoming unfashionable — but only in some countries. Globally, there are ever more smokers and ever more victims of smoking-related illnesses. Cigarettes are part of a technological system of design, production, distribution, sales and use. Though the cigarette itself is less complex than many military weapons, the same questions can be asked of everyone involved in the tobacco industry: how can they continue when the evidence of harm is so overwhelming? How could industry leaders spend decades covering up their own evidence of harm while seeking to discredit scientists and public health officials whose efforts threatened their profits?

The answers draw on the same psychological processes involved in the perpetuation of violence and cruelty in more obvious cases such as genocide, including projection and obedience. The ideology of the capitalist system plays a role too, with the legitimating myths of the beneficial effects of markets and the virtue of satisfying consumer demand.

For examining the role of technology in evil, weapons and cigarettes are easy targets for condemnation. A more challenging case is the wide variety of technologies that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and hence to climate change, with potentially catastrophic effects for future generations and for the biosphere. The technologies involved include motor vehicles (at least those with internal combustion engines), steel and aluminum production, home heating and cooling, and the consumption of consumer goods. The energy system is implicated, at least the part of it predicated on carbon-based fuels, and there are other contributors as well such as fertilisers and clearing of forests.

Most of these technologies were not designed to cause harm, and those involved as producers and consumers may not have thought of their culpability for contributing to future damage to the environment and human life. Nevertheless, some individuals have greater roles and responsibilities. For example, many executives in fossil fuel companies and politicians with the power to reset energy priorities have done everything possible to restrain shifting to a sustainable energy economy.

Conceptualising the Technology of Evil

If technologies are implicated in evil, what is the best way to understand the connection? It could be said that an object designed and used for torture embodies evil. Embodiment seems appropriate if the primary purpose is for harm and the main use is for harm, but seldom is this sort of connection exclusive of other uses. A nuclear weapon, for example, might be used as an artwork, a museum exhibit, or a tool to thwart a giant asteroid hurtling towards earth.

Another option is to say that some technologies are “selectively useful” for harming others: they can potentially be useful for a variety of purposes but, for example, easier to use for torture than for brain surgery or keeping babies warm. To talk of selective usefulness instead of embodiment seems less essentialist, more open to multiple interpretations and uses.

Other terms are “abuse” and “misuse.” Think of a cloth covering a person’s face over which water is poured to give a simulation of drowning, used as a method of torture called waterboarding. It seems peculiar to say that the wet cloth embodies evil given that it is only the particular use that makes it a tool to cause harm to humans. “Abuse” and “misuse” have an ignominious history in the study of technology because they are often based on the assumption that technologies are inherently neutral. Nevertheless, these terms might be resurrected in speaking of the connection between technology and evil when referring to technologies that were not designed to cause harm and are seldom used for that purpose.

Consider next the role of technologies in contributing to climate change. For this, it is useful to note that most technologies have multiple uses and consequences. Oil production, for example, has various immediate environmental and health impacts. Oil, as a product, has multitudinous uses, such as heating houses, manufacturing plastics and fuelling military aircraft. The focus here is on a more general impact via the waste product carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. In this role, it makes little sense to call oil evil in itself.

Instead, it is simply one player in a vast network of human activities that collectively are spoiling the environment and endangering future life on earth. The facilitators of evil in this case are the social and economic systems that maintain dependence on greenhouse gas sources and the psychological processes that enable groups and individuals to resist a shift to sustainable energy systems or to remain indifferent to the issue.

For climate change, and sustainability issues more generally, technologies are implicated as part of entrenched social institutions, practices and beliefs that have the potential to radically alter or destroy the conditions for human and non-human life. One way to speak of technologies in this circumstance is as partners. Another is to refer to them as actors or actants, along the lines of actor-network theory (Latour, 1987), though this gives insufficient salience to the psychological dimensions involved.

Another approach is to refer to technologies as extensions of humans. Marshall McLuhan (1964) famously described media as “extensions of man.” This description points to the way technologies expand human capabilities. Vehicles expand human capacities for movement, otherwise limited to walking and running. Information and communication technologies expand human senses of sight, hearing and speaking. Most relevantly here, weapons expand human capacities for violence, in particular killing and destruction. From this perspective, humans have developed technologies to extend a whole range of capacities, some of them immediately or indirectly harmful.

In social studies of technology, various frameworks have been used, including political economy, innovation, social shaping, cost-benefit analysis and actor-network theory. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but none of the commonly used frameworks emphasises moral evaluation or focuses on the way some technologies are designed or used for the purpose of harming humans and the environment.


The Pathology of Man is a deeply pessimistic and potentially disturbing book. Probing into the psychological foundations of violence and cruelty shows a side of human behaviour and thinking that is normally avoided. Most commentators prefer to look for signs of hope, and would finish a book such as this with suggestions for creating a better world. Bartlett, though, does not want to offer facile solutions.

Throughout the book, he notes that most people prefer not to examine the sources of human evil, and so he says that hope is actually part of the problem. By continually being hopeful and looking for happy endings, it becomes too easy to avoid looking at the diseased state of the human mind and the systems it has created.

Setting aside hope, nevertheless there are implications that can be derived from Bartlett’s analysis. Here I offer three possible messages regarding technology.

Firstly, if it makes sense to talk about human evil in a non-metaphorical sense, and to trace the origins of evil to features of human psychology, then technologies, as human creations, are necessarily implicated in evil. The implication is that a normative analysis is imperative. If evil is seen as something to be avoided or opposed, then likewise those technologies most closely embodying evil are likewise to be avoided or opposed. This implies making judgements about technologies. In technologies studies, this already occurs to some extent. However, common frameworks, such as political economy, innovation and actor-network theory, do not highlight moral evaluation.

Medical researchers do not hesitate to openly oppose disease, and in fact the overcoming of disease is an implicit foundation of research. Technology studies could more openly condemn certain technologies.

Secondly, if technology is implicated in evil, and if one of the psychological processes perpetuating evil is a lack of recognition of it and concern about it, there is a case for undertaking research that provides insights and tools for challenging the technology of evil. This has not been a theme in technology studies. Activists against torture technologies and military weaponry would be hard pressed to find useful studies or frameworks in the scholarship about technology.

One approach to the technology of evil is action research (McIntyre 2008; Touraine 1981), which involves combining learning with efforts towards social change. For example, research on the torture technology trade could involve trying various techniques to expose the trade, seeing which ones are most fruitful. This would provide insights about torture technologies not available via conventional research techniques.

Thirdly, education could usefully incorporate learning about the moral evaluation of technologies. Bartlett argues that one of the factors facilitating evil is the low moral development of most people, as revealed in the widespread complicity in or complacency about war preparation and wars, and about numerous other damaging activities.

One approach to challenging evil is to increase people’s moral capacities to recognise and act against evil. Technologies provide a convenient means to do this, because human-created objects abound in everyday life, so it can be an intriguing and informative exercise to figure out how a given object relates to killing, hatred, psychological projection and various other actions and ways of thinking involved in violence, cruelty and the destruction of the foundations of life.

No doubt there are many other ways to learn from the analysis of human evil. The most fundamental step is not to turn away but to face the possibility that there may be something deeply wrong with humans as a species, something that has made the species toxic to itself and other life forms. While it is valuable to focus on what is good about humans, to promote good it is also vital to fully grasp the size and depth of the dark side.


Thanks to Steven Bartlett, Lyn Carson, Kurtis Hagen, Kelly Moore and Steve Wright for valuable comments on drafts.

Contact details:


Ackroyd, Carol, Margolis, Karen, Rosenhead, Jonathan, & Shallice, Tim (1977). The technology of political control. London: Penguin.

Baron-Cohen, Simon (2011). The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York: Basic Books.

Bartlett, Steven James (2005). The pathology of man: A study of human evil. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Bartlett, Steven James (2011). Normality does not equal mental health: the need to look elsewhere for standards of good psychological health. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Bartlett, Steven James (2013). The dilemma of abnormality. In Thomas G. Plante (Ed.), Abnormal psychology across the ages, volume 3 (pp. 1–20). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Baumeister, Roy F. (1997). Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty. New York: Freeman.

Citron, D.K. (2014). Hate crimes in cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gregory, Martyn (director and producer). (1995). The torture trail [television]. UK: TVF.

Jasper, James M. (1997). The art of moral protest: Culture, biography, and creativity in social movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, Bruno (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Martin, Brian (1984). Uprooting war. London: Freedom Press.

Martin, Brian (2001). Technology for nonviolent struggle. London: War Resisters’ International.

Martin, Brian (2007). Justice ignited: The dynamics of backfire. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Martin, Brian (2009). Managing outrage over genocide: case study Rwanda. Global Change, Peace & Security, 21(3), 275–290.

McIntyre, Alice (2008). Participatory action research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: New American Library.

Milgram, Stanley (1974). Obedience to authority. New York: Harper & Row.

Omega Foundation (2000). Crowd control technologies. Luxembourg: European Parliament.

Peck, M. Scott (1988). People of the lie: The hope for healing human evil. London: Rider.

Proctor, Robert N. (2011). Golden holocaust: Origins of the cigarette catastrophe and the case for abolition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Schmidt, Jeff (2000). Disciplined minds: A critical look at salaried professionals and the soul-battering system that shapes their lives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Touraine, Alain (1981). The voice and the eye: An analysis of social movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittner, Lawrence S. (1993–2003). The struggle against the bomb, 3 volumes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wright, Steve (1998). An appraisal of technologies of political control. Luxembourg: European Parliament.

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs,

Sassower, Raphael. “Imagining a Different Political Economy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 7-11.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Image by Rachel Adams via Flickr / Creative Commons


One cannot ask for a kinder or more complimentary reviewer than Adam Riggio.[1] His main complaint about my book, The Quest for Prosperity, is that “Stylistically, the book suffers from a common issue for many new research books in the humanities and social sciences. Its argument loses some momentum as it approaches the conclusion, and ends up in a more modest, self-restrained place than its opening chapters promised.”

My opening examination of what I see as the misconceptions of some presuppositions used in political economy is a first, necessary step towards an examination of recent capitalist variants (that are heralded as the best prospects for future organization of market exchanges) and for a different approach tor political economy offered by the end of the book. Admittedly, my vision of a radically reframed political economy that exposes some taken for granted concepts, such as scarcity, human nature, competition, and growth is an ambitious task, and perhaps, as Riggio suggests, I should attempt a more detailed articulation of the economy in a sequel.

However, this book does examine alternative frameworks, discusses in some detail what I consider misguided attempts to skirt the moral concerns I emphasize so as to retain the basic capitalist framework, and suggests principles that ought to guide a reframed political economy, one more attentive to the moral principles of solidarity and cooperation, empathy towards fellow members of a community, and an mindful avoidance of grave inequalities that are not limited to financial measures. In this respect, the book delivers more than is suggested by Riggio.

On Questions of Character

Riggio also argues that my

templates for communitarian alternatives to the increasingly brutal culture of contemporary capitalism share an important common feature that is very dangerous for [my] project. They are each rooted in civic institutions, material social structures for education, and socialization. Contrary to how [I] spea[k] of these four inspirations, civil rights and civic institutions alone are not enough to build and sustain a community each member of whom holds a communitarian ethical philosophy and moral sense deep in her heart.

This, too, is true to some extent. Just because I may successfully convince you that you are working with misconceptions about human nature, scarcity, and growth, for example, you may still not modify your behavior. Likewise, just because I may offer brilliant exemplars for how “civil rights and civic institutions” should be organized and legally enshrined does not mean that every member of the community will abide by them and behave appropriately.

Mean-spirited or angry individuals might spoil life for the more friendly and self-controlled ones, and Riggio is correct to point out that “a communitarian ethical philosophy and moral sense deep in [one’s] heart” are insufficient for overcoming the brutality of capitalist greed. But focusing on this set of concerns (rather than offering a more efficient or digitally sophisticated platform for exchanges), Riggio would agree, could be good starting points, and might therefore encourage more detailed analyses of policies and regulation of unfettered capitalist practices.

I could shirk my responsibility here and plead for cover under the label of a philosopher who lacks the expertise of a good old-fashioned social scientist or policy wonk who can advise how best to implement my proposals. But I set myself up to engage political economy in all its manifold facets, and Riggio is correct when he points out that my “analysis of existing institutions and societies that foster communitarian moralities and ethics is detailed enough to show promise, but unfortunately so brief as to leave us without guidance or strategy to fulfill that promise.”

But, when critically engaging not only the latest gimmicks being proposed under the capitalist umbrella (e.g., the gig economy or shared economies) but also their claims about freedom and equal opportunity, I was concerned to debunk pretenses so as to be able to place my own ideas within an existing array of possibilities. In that sense, The Quest for Prosperity is, indeed, more critique than manual, an immanent critique that accounts for what is already being practiced so as to point out inevitable weaknesses. My proposal was offered in broad outlines in the hope of enlisting the likes of Riggio to contribute more details that, over time, would fulfill such promises in a process that can only be, in its enormity, collaborative.

The Strength of Values

Riggio closes his review by saying that I

offered communitarian approaches to morality and ethics as solutions to those challenges of injustice. I think his direction is very promising. But The Quest for Prosperity offers only a sign. If his next book is to fulfill the promise of this one, he must explore the possibilities opened up by the following questions. Can communitarian values overcome the allure of greed? What kind of social, political, and economic structures would we need to achieve that utopian goal?

To be clear, my approach is as much Communitarian as it is Institutionalist, Marxist and heterodox, Popperian and postmodern; I prefer the more traditional terms socialism and communism as alternatives to capitalism in general and to my previous, more sanguine appeal to the notion of “postcapitalism.”

Still, Riggio hones in on an important point: since I insist on theorizing in moral and social (rather than monetary) terms, and since my concern is with views of human nature and the conditions under which we can foster a community of people who exchange goods and services, it stands to reason that the book be assessed in an ethical framework as well, concerned to some degree with how best to foster personal integrity, mutual empathy, and care. The book is as much concerned with debunking the moral pretenses of capitalism (from individual freedom and equal opportunity to happiness and prosperity, understood here in its moral and not financial sense) as with the moral underpinnings (and the educational and social institutions that foster them) of political economy.

In this sense, my book strives to be in line with Adam Smith’s (or even Marx’s) moral philosophy as much as with his political economy. The ongoing slippage from the moral to the political and economic is unavoidable: in such a register the very heart of my argument contends that financial strategies have to consider human costs and that economic policies affect humans as moral agents. But, to remedy social injustice we must deal with political economy, and therefore my book moves from the moral to the economic, from the social to the political.

Questions of Desire

I will respond to Riggio’s two concluding questions directly. The first deals with overcoming the allure of greed: in my view, this allure, as real and pressing as it is, remains socially conditioned, though perhaps linked to unconscious desires in the Freudian sense. Within the capitalist context, there is something more psychologically and morally complex at work that should be exposed (Smith and Marx, in their different analyses, appreciate this dimension of market exchanges and the framing of human needs and wants; later critics, as diverse as Herbert Marcuse and Karl Polanyi, continue along this path).

Wanting more of something—Father’s approval? Mother’s nourishment?—is different from wanting more material possessions or money (even though, in good a capitalist modality, the one seeps into the other or the one is offered as a substitute for the other). I would venture to say that a child’s desire for candy, for example, (candy being an object of desire that is dispensed or withheld by parents) can be quickly satiated when enough is available—hence my long discussion in the book about (the fictions of) scarcity and (the realities of) abundance; the candy can stand for love in general or for food that satisfies hunger, although it is, in fact, neither; and of course the candy can be substituted by other objects of desire that can or cannot be satisfied. (Candy, of course, doesn’t have the socially symbolic value that luxury items, such as iPhone, do for those already socialized.)

Only within a capitalist framework might one accumulate candy not merely to satisfy a sweet tooth or wish for a treat but also as a means to leverage later exchanges with others. This, I suggest, is learned behavior, not “natural” in the classical capitalist sense of the term. The reason for this lengthy explanation is that Riggio is spot on to ask about the allure of greed (given his mention of demand-side markets), because for many defenders of the faith, capitalism is nothing but a large-scale apparatus that satisfies natural human appetites (even though some of them are manufactured).

My arguments in the book are meant not only to undermine such claims but to differentiate between human activities, such as exchange and division of labor (historically found in families and tribes), and competition, greed, accumulation, and concentration of wealth that are specific to capitalism (and the social contract within which it finds psychological and legal protection). One can see, then, why I believe the allure of greed can be overcome through social conditioning and the reframing of human exchanges that satisfy needs and question wants.

Riggio’s concern over abuse of power, regardless of all the corrective structures proposed in the book, deserves one more response. Indeed, laws without enforcement are toothless. But, as I argue throughout the book, policies that attempt to deal with important social issues must deal with the economic features of any structure. What makes the Institutionalist approach to political economy informative is not only the recognition that economic ideals take on different hues when implemented in different institutional contexts, but that economic activity and behavior are culturally conditioned.

Instead of worrying here about a sequel, I’d like to suggest that there is already excellent work being done in the areas of human and civil rights (e.g., Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010) and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted (2016) chronicle the problems of capitalism in different sectors of the economy) so that my own effort is an attempt to establish a set of (moral) values against which existing proposals can be assessed and upon which (economic) policy reform should be built. Highlighting the moral foundation of any economic system isn’t a substitute for paying close attention to the economic system that surrounds and perhaps undermines it; rather, economic realities test the limits of the applicability of and commitment to such foundation.

Contact details:


Riggio, Adam. “The True Shape of a Society of Friends.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 40-45.

Sassower, Raphael. The Quest for Prosperity. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

[1] Special thanks to Dr. Denise Davis for her critical suggestions.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, Social Epistemology Digital Editor,

Riggio, Adam. “The True Shape of a Society of Friends.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 40-45.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

From the March for Justice for Police Violence in December 2014.
Sassower’s book does not directly touch on themes of institutional corruption, like the racialization of police forces as they act with undue violence and exploitation toward minority populations. But the communitarian moralities he thinks can overcome capitalism also has the potential to build progress here. More material for that sequel.
Image by All-Nite Images via Flickr / Creative Commons


As a work of philosophy, of political economy, of institutional analysis, Raphael Sassower’s The Quest for Prosperity has only one shortcoming. It makes for a tantalizing setup for his next work, and gives a reader the distinct impression that we are in store for a stunning sequel. Its title would be something like The Nature of Prosperity, or Remaking Prosperity. To the detriment of the actually existing book, reading The Quest for Prosperity makes you want desperately to read Remaking Prosperity, which unfortunately does not exist.

The Quest for Prosperity itself is a brilliant book, synthesizing many different concepts and images from several disciplines and traditions in the history of Western thought. It is a thoroughly researched and beautifully composed groundwork for a groundbreaking new philosophical approach to political economy.

The book drags a little in part three, which catalogues several hilariously inadequate new visions of prosperity that are unfortunately popular today. It would be news to someone who has only heard the hype of Silicon Valley and other ideologies similarly twisted to make working people desire their own slavery. But the average Washington Post, Manchester Guardian, or even Bloomberg News reader or fan of HBO’s Silicon Valley should already understand the toxic lifestyle PR of these moneyed industries.

As for that groundwork for the groundbreaking, the final two chapters offer a tantalizing glimpse of a work that explores the existence and revolutionary potential of the communitarian values underlying several disparate existing institutions. Unfortunately, it remains only a glimpse.

Economies of Scale

Sassower’s book revolves around an important ethical critique of contemporary capitalism and the culture of business and entrepreneurship that has grown so popular this century. In uncritically capitalist ways of thinking, there is only one set of terms in which people, social networks, technology, building and city architecture, institutions, organizations, ecologies, territories, and ideas are valued: their monetary potential. Such a morality of valuation reduces all that exists, including human identity itself, to a single dimension of ethical worth, and a petty-minded one at that.

The typical narratives to validate and venerate the contemporary economic order often appeal to images and concepts from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Smith is a touchstone for Sassower as well, but he is wise not to linger on the image of the “invisible hand” that haunts the populist imagery of harmony through competition. Sassower instead focusses on how Smith describes the molecular connections of market exchanges – vendors and tradespeople buying and selling from each other in a town marketplace.

In the marketplaces where capitalist exchange begins, the individuals making money from each other are not themselves competitors. Their relationships are collegial friendships among professionals, and Smith describes their interaction as “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” So when a community’s prosperity flows from its markets and commercial exchanges, that prosperity is not a product of competition, but of friendliness. (Sassower 60-61)

In such a social atmosphere, a community of people constitutes itself easily from the everyday interactions of the marketplace, where people develop feelings of love at a low intensity for the neighbours who sustain their lives. Relationships of everyday economic exchange occur at such a personal level that the mutual benefit of such exchange is a straightforward fact, discovered through quotidian observation. They are, as Sassower describes them, “sympathetic neighbours.” (Sassower 90-91)

The rapaciousness and greed typical of contemporary business cultures could not arise from such relationship networks of friendly truck and barter. The network’s members connect by dynamics of mutual sympathy. Such a network would not be able to sustain business practices characterized by the greed and hostility into which many young professionals are socialized in the 21st century’s most intense economic hubs. Greed and cheating would result in your immediate expulsion from the marketplace, having betrayed the friendships of the others in the network.

Such sympathetic neighbourliness could most easily be overcome with an outside disturbance. For our case, that disturbance was the flow of massive economic income to those small marketplaces. This was the income of industrialization and colonialism. Speaking more descriptively, it was the income of exponential energy growth in domestic manufacturing, and a huge influx of many kinds of wealth from distant continents (raw materials, currency metals like gold and silver, agricultural goods, slaves).

These enormous flows of capital are too large for truck and barter, too massive to engage instinctual human sympathy. As the stakes of economic activity grow hugely higher, this depersonalization of economic activity leaves a person adrift in commercial exchange. Unable to form the same intimate connections as in the far less intense marketplace exchange, the alienated, angry approach to business as a zero-sum game. No longer sympathy and friendliness, but fear and aggression characterize the psychology of someone engaging with this sort of economic system in daily life. (Sassower 105)

Art by Shepard Fairey. Image by Wally Gobetz via Flickr / Creative Commons

What Would a Virtuous Oligarch Be?

In an economic system where capital flows massively overpower the capacity for everyday personal relationship networks to manage them, business life tends to condition people psychologically and morally into sociopaths. This problem of the depersonalized economy remains a wall in The Quest for Prosperity that, on its own terms, is insoluble. On its own terms, it likely is impossible to restore the virtue of sympathy to the psychological tendencies of people growing up in a high-intensity industrial capitalist economy. Sassower therefore forges an alternative image of the economic leader.

If capitalism can only express justice when the mega-rich are generally benevolent, community-minded people who care about their neighbours regardless of wealth, breeding, or class, then Sassower can at least describe how an oligarch could become kind. He identifies one economic principle, the recognition of which begins to transform an oligarch from a greedy sociopath to a personal ethic of rationally-justified sympathy. That principle is demand-centric economics.

This is a simple economic principle, fairly well-known in popular culture. If too many people in a society are in poverty, then the economy will stagnate from cratering demand; too few people will have enough money to spend, even for basic necessities. When a very wealthy person accepts this principle, he consents to submit a healthy portion of his income to taxation so that government services can close these poverty gaps. A business owner who accepts the principle of demand-centric economics will pay the workers in his business more, so that their spending can continue to drive economic development (Sassower 123-124).

Demand-centric thinking in economics has not been a major principle in how government policy on incomes and wealth inequality has developed over the last 40 years. The Reagan-Thatcher era of Western governance took the opposite principle, supply-side or trickle-down economics, as gospel. This is the notion that as the wealthy’s tax burden becomes lower and lower, they will spend more of that money in capital investment, backing new business ventures, and expanding private-sector employment.

Although the policy was widely mocked in popular culture from its first emergence, it has become the foundation of tax policy for all the largest political parties in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and among almost all conservative or centrist parties in Europe. Despite its success as legislature, the material consequences have been disastrous, as supply-side tax policies have decimated social democratic institutions throughout the West, intensifying economic precarity for millions across Europe and the Americas.

Why supply-side economics succeeded in becoming, until recently, uncontested common sense in popular culture and state-level politics is its intuitiveness in particular contexts. If an ordinary person’s annual income rises from $40,000 to $50,000, she will spend more money. The supply-side propagandist then derives a universal principle: If you have more money, you will spend more money. With that generality in hand, a principle that applies at middle-class incomes will be taken to hold at oligarchical incomes.

This is, of course, false, for three reasons that Sassower describes. One, personal consumption cannot proceed at an intensity of millions or billions of dollars each year. Two, most of that massive personal income never returns to their domestic economies anyway, and is instead burrowed in tax havens. Three, the capital investment industry no longer focusses on supplying startup funding for businesses. (Sassower 116)

Instead, global finance investment concentrates on the day-to-day trading of stocks in already existing companies, securities bundles, and speculation on the future value of stocks, securities, and currencies. High-frequency trading is a blatant sign that these investments are not for reinvestment into the productive economy. In this practice, a firm’s single algorithm will make millions of trades each day, based on its analyses of minute-to-minute market fluctuations. (Sassower 117)

Turning these massive fortunes away from the communities of non-rich people in their surroundings and around the world is a subtle but harrowing moral failure, considering the many hundreds of billions of dollars are wrapped entirely in these trading concerns.

A Fantastic Book That Falls Short of Its Potential

An economy of oligarchial inequality produces an elite for whom the purpose of living is cartoonishly grotesque personal self-enrichment. Such an economy as the one we live in today on Earth also deranges those who have virtually no wealth at all compared to these titans of mass ownership and securities gambling.

Anxiety over a precarious life of low pay and debt maintenance consumes all personal energy to help others. That anxiety encourages hatred of others as desperation and stress pervert any reflective capacity for long-term judgment into a paranoid social reflexivity. Reduced to egotistic, short-term thinking and habituated into distrust and hostility toward others, the poor become easy prey for financial fraud. The payday loan industry is built on this principle. Poverty does not breed virtue, but fear and rage.

This ties to what I think is the only notable flaw in The Quest for Prosperity. Stylistically, the book suffers from a common issue for many new research books in the humanities and social sciences. Its argument loses some momentum as it approaches the conclusion, and ends up in a more modest, self-restrained place than its opening chapters promised. How he does so reveals the far more profound shortcoming of Sassower’s book.

Sassower is admirable and innovative in his call to regenerate communitarian philosophy as a politically engaged popular intervention. His method is a philosophical examination of how four quite disparate civic institutions express effective communitarian ethics in their habitual structure and behavioural norms. The Catholic and some other Christian Churches socialize its dedicated members as “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32), whose primary economic concern is safeguarding people from the indignity of poverty. (Sassower 242-247)

The Israeli kibbutz movement governs distribution of goods and the financial results of their community’s work literally according to Marx’s principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Countercultural communes in North America operated according to similar rules of management as kibbutzim, but with quite different moral orientation. Kibbutz political philosophy is a secularized agrarian marxism organized around a utopian purpose of building a communal Zion where all oppressed people of the world can live in a Jewish homeland.

American counterculture communes sought to create a living alternative to the immanent political problem of rapacious capitalism’s continuation of genocidal imperialism. Sassower also offers a phenomenological exploration of how military training builds strong interpersonal bonds of solidarity, a communitarianism among soldiers.

All these templates for communitarian alternatives to the increasingly brutal culture of contemporary capitalism share an important common feature that is very dangerous for Sassower’s project. They are each rooted in civic institutions, material social structures for education and socialization. Contrary to how Sassower speaks of these four inspirations, civil rights and civic institutions alone are not enough to build and sustain a community each member of whom holds a communitarian ethical philosophy and moral sense deep in her heart.

The Impotence of Civil Rights

You may consider it a bit excessive that a book review would include a brief argument that civic institutions are not on their own adequate to ensure and maintain the freedom and dignity of the people who live in their domain. Nonetheless, Sassower wrote The Quest for Prosperity with an ambition of a similar scope, critiquing fundamental concepts of contemporary ideology and economic morality as part of an argument for communitarian alternatives. So I will maintain my own intensity of ambition with his.

There are two reasons why civic institutions alone, while needed, are not sufficient to overcome with communitarian values the ambitions of people to become oligarchs. Each of the two reasons is a different philosophical approach to the same empirical fact about human social capacities and institutions.

I first want to mention a logical reason. This is the simple fact that, conceptually speaking, law is not itself a material power. There is nothing about the law, as law, that compels your conformity to itself. There may be a moral motive to obey the law, whether that moral reason is a universal imperative or the injunction of social pressure. There may be a coercive motive to obey the law, as when you are under threat of police violence such as arrest, imprisonment, torture, or summary execution. Most often, people obey the law for practical reasons, as when a government’s legislation and regulations structure institutions we need to manage our techno-industrial society. But law alone is not justice, and so compels no obedience.

Law having no power to compel obedience, the existence of laws prohibiting violence against human rights does nothing to prevent such violence. If recognition of the law were all that was needed for obedience, then laws would never be violated. Only some material power, existing in addition to those laws, can ensure their application in managing the actions of a population.

The ultimate material power in the application of the law are state institutions, and any related institutions they support. Raising money through taxation, investment in industrial developments, and central bank mechanisms, states fund law enforcement institutions like courts, rehabilitation centres, prosecutors, and police. But even in institutions whose laws promise equal and fair treatment, individuals operating within those institutions can still use material power to give themselves unfair advantage over the less powerful.

Consider a civil suit whose defendant must make do with the cheapest legal representation in Albuquerque, but whose plaintiff walks into court with Alan Dershowitz at his side. Consider also the many instances where the power of institutions and institutionally-reinforced morality of solidarity encourages police abuse of citizens.

An individual officer may coerce sex from women under threat of arrest, or shoot a civilian with little or no cause; fellow officers or police unions will cover for him. An entire police department will prey on citizens as a matter of policy, as in many cities in the United States whose municipal police departments require a minimum (and growing) number of misdemeanor and bylaw violation fines for budgetary purposes. One of those such cities, incidentally, is Ferguson, Missouri.

The Impossibility of Prosperity?

I give these illustrations to emphasize the ethical importance of the fundamental purpose driving The Quest for Prosperity. Most of the book is taken up by Sassower’s clear and insightful argument for why contemporary capitalism is a moral and ethical disaster. The Quest for Prosperity is a stellar addition to this tradition of critical thought that has accompanied industrial development since its beginning.

Sassower takes a more noble stand than a critique, however, in proposing an alternative to capitalist practice for the domain most essential to resisting and overcoming industrial and economic injustice: public morality and personal ethics. His analysis of existing institutions and societies that foster communitarian moralities and ethics is detailed enough to show promise, but unfortunately so brief as to leave us without guidance or strategy to fulfill that promise.

My illustrations – deep pockets undermining a court’s fairness, police predation and corruption – describe real injustices rooted in the greed and hatred facilitated through capitalism and the racism that turns the exploited against each other. They are here to remind thinkers who are likewise against such injustice of the urgency of our challenges.

Sassower has offered communitarian approaches to morality and ethics as solutions to those challenges of injustice. I think his direction is very promising. But The Quest for Prosperity offers only a sign. If his next book is to fulfill the promise of this one, he must explore the possibilities opened up by the following questions.

Can communitarian values overcome the allure of greed? What kind of social, political, and economic structures would we need to achieve that utopian goal?

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Sassower, Raphael. The Quest for Prosperity. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.