Arnold Kling  

The Desire to See Others Suffer

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James Lewis argues that fascism involves

the political use of sadism to recruit millions of followers in a campaign of pleasurable punishment against a scapegoated person or group.

I found the essay provocative, which is a term I apply when I find something interesting even though I have doubts about some of the ideas. In particular, he writes as if America is immune to the disease of desiring the suffering of others. Am I supposed to believe that slavery was carried out without sadism? Am I supposed to believe that Americans harbored no ill will toward Japan after Pearl Harbor?

Still, I think it provides an interesting lens through which to view history. Which organized groups and which standard practices were designed to cater to a desire to see others suffer? How did these groups and practices come to be viewed as uncivilized?

What was the role of religion? Does the concept of hell reflect a desire to see others suffer, or does it help to divert that desire, as people refrain from sadistic punishment because they are confident that the deity will administer justice?

Finally, bringing this back to political economy, what does it mean for the "road to serfdom" argument? Is it possible to have an economic dictatorship in which the leaders are able to retain power without creating a scapegoat group and giving people the opportunity to indulge in the desire to see others suffer? If dictatorship without scapegoats is possible, should we not distinguish between socialism+sadism and a more humanitarian version?

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

I think anything other than social spontaneous orders result in an establishment of Us and Them. It begins with tribalism and continues up through dictatorship -- with varieties in between. The easiest way to get political support is to get people to accept an Us-Them narrative. People need an enemy to fight in politics.

Spontaneous orders undermine this, thus undermining power politics. This is why most political parties are anti-spontaneous orders. Spontaneous orders facilitate people getting along, and that's the last thing anyone involved in a government wants.

pj writes:

I think hatred of others and desire to harm them is a significant, albeit concealed, force in politics in all countries.

But I'm doubtful that scapegoats are needed. In America especially, the objects of hatred are diverse enough that actually naming a scapegoat would be devastating to a politician.

Rather, the trick is to give haters the impression that you share their hatred, without actually stating it and scaring off the people who don't have that hate.

Thus, if you attend Jeremiah Wright's church and listen to anti-American and anti-white screeds, but disavow him and speak calmly yourself, you may be able to persuade those who hate America and whites that you are on their side, while persuading everyone else that you are not.

I think that by the time scapegoats can benefit a politician, a society must be lost in hatred.

Regarding the road to serfdom argument, hatred lends support to coercion, since that is the only means to damage the hated. And coercion creates dictatorship. So the cultural decay comes first, and creates the institutional background of dictatorship.

John writes:

Sadism in economic affairs is especially important -- think of class warfare in general. Some people feel that some poor "deserve" to suffer because of their status, while some people think that the rich "deserve" to suffer because of their good fortune. The human desire for status will always mean that someone else's drop in status will give us a little pleasure. I think that's what drives much of redistributive public policy.

fundamentalist writes:

The two driving forces of socialism are envy and the desire to see the wealthy suffer.

As for hell, it can be a desire to see others suffer because there seems to be very little justice in this life. For example, few people would think that Hitler's suicide was justice, and Mao never was brought to justice. But fear of hell can provide motivation against committing evil against others.

B.B. writes:

Lewis' biases are showing. The examples he uses for fascism are valid, but what about examples of Communists?

Marxism uses an ideology to give the Communists moral legitimacy to commit sadistic acts. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Tito, Castro, Chavez, Dear Leader Kim were/are sadists, and their followers have committed horrors. The capitalist classes, landlords, property owning farmers were punished. It was free and easy once the Communists believed that that class was responsible for poverty, war, inequality, and injustice.

We see a touch of this in Obama, in the rhetoric and actions involving Goldman Sachs or BP. He whips his followers into a frenzy to get them to back up his plans to punish his enemies.

przemek writes:

Aside from being biased (communism!), Lewis concentrates on fringe or extremist beliefs, not realizing that ideologies designed mainly to rationalize cruelty are very much part of mainstream. A lot of religion-based morality, or the way we think criminals should be punished, are really just sophisticated ways of allowing people to act on their sadistic impulses while still believing they're fundamentally good people ("C'mon, I'm only stoning him to death because it pleases God, not because I like stoning people to death!")

As to why we have this sadistic impulse in the first place, and why we need to conceal having it from ourselves, is much less clear to me.

guthrie writes:

Fear of chaos is, IMO, a basic human trait. If someone can label a 'cause' of the chaos, and do so presenting a high enough status, then relief and loyalty of a goodly group of people can be the result. In other words, I think the principals regarding this sadism rise above political labels and involve manipulation of basic fears for the attainment of power.

Really I think 'sadism' is the wrong word choice for the most part. 'Relief' might be more appropriate for most of those who engage in the punishment of the scapegoat.

I think it's possible for a 'scapegoat-less dictatorship', but I think it would take a lot more work for the dictator.

guthrie writes:

... for the dictator to accomplish.

Sorry, incomplete idea a the end there!

max writes:

Perhaps Bryan can speak more authoritatively on this, but wouldn't Singapore qualify as a "benign" economic dictatorship?

Jeff writes:

"In Iran today, sadistic torture is a standard practice"

It was pretty standard practice at Guantanamo Bay, too, for a time. It probably still is standard practice at Bagram.

What are we to make of this?

The Unbeliever writes:

I don't think Pearl Harbor really counts; desire for revenge is a distinct motivation from sadism.

In fact this whole discussion seems to assume a streak of sadism universal to all humans. At the very least, such an inherent flaw should be proven before we start defining large portions of history in terms of sadistic enjoyment by its participants.

(And if such a trait is universal, doesn't it stop being an aberrant "flaw" and more of a normal thing--a feature, not a bug?)

The Unbeliever writes:

Re: Kling's final question:

It may be possible to have socialism without sadism, but I'd argue it is impossible to have true socialism without significant class warfare. If you define forcible redistribution as sadism, then no "more humanitarian" version of socialism exists.

But my more interesting point is that dictatorship without scapegoats is very possible, the prime example case being the originators of the term itself: the Roman dictator. So it depends on how they came to power: the Roman dictators were selected by the consuls to accomplish a task; the early 20th century European dictators exploited harsh conditions and a grievance culture to seize power.

Granted, you could say that although it followed the minimal definition of "one man with absolute power", they were temporary appointees intended for specific tasks and a 6 month term. The modern, permanent, government-defining, cult of personality version of dictatorship may require scapegoats to overcome the populace's preference for more liberal forms of government. (Especially since modern citizens have many centuries' worth of information on various forms of government, whereas data wasn't as universally available back in ancient Rome.)

So although sadism and scapegoating isn't necessary to be a dictator... it certainly seems to help. Particularly if they're planning to carry out some modern form of atrocity, instead of merely holding raw power for the sake of convenience or efficiency.

Bonus discussion question: are the "czars" appointed by elected politicians a form of dictatorship? If so, are they the benign type, or the sadistic type?

Floccina writes:

Believer or non believer if humans take pleasure in a scapegoated person or group, the story of Jesus is a great story. God takes his own son to make him the scapegoat to end all scapegoats.

Of course one could argue that it has not changed much. Maybe when the Anna-baptists (Amish and Mennonites) become the majority (there populations are doubling every 15 years) it will finally put an end to scapegoating.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

Troy's comments about "us and them" hit home with me, because both political parties have their extreme elements which would be quite happy to see the other party suffer in the present. My concern is that the potential for spontaneous order can be thwarted in times of economic uncertainty, when one party or the other could get the upper hand and scapegoat the other to get "justice".

Les Cargill writes:

Communism was a lot like Fascism in the ways that really matter. But Tito's Yugoslavia wasn't *as* sadistic, and where it was, we've seen what he was keeping a lid on subsequently. The point is that power gained violently requires continued violence to maintain it. It takes a real act of political will and faith to jump to something more like the US system. Tito also leads one to believe that Russian Communism was simply Russian, and that Russian history is uniquely violent in general.

Floccina: Yes, that "scapegoat to end all scapegoats" idea is what underlies René Girard's ideas surrounding mimetic desire. It's a very powerful suite of ideas, but I have no way to know if it's true or not. The history of Judaism also seems to contradict the idea that Girard's work implies - that Christianity is unique and necessary for a civilization that operates on a plane higher than Rome.

Finally, sadism is not unique to Fascisms - Christopher Hitchens thinks that one reason George Orwell left the Foreign Service was because he felt himself slipping into sadism.

Chris Koresko writes:

By coincidence, I just ran cross this clip from a Democratic primary debate in which the President argues for raising the capital gains tax even if doing so reduces revenues, for purposes of fairness.

Kurbla writes:

I do not see the evidence that fascist states - including the original one - are significantly more sadistic than, for example, USA. Episodes as legal torture and A-bombing are well known; I'm not aware that Mussolini ordered any sadistic crime of comparable extent, and Salazar's Portugal didn't even practised capital punishment.

Brian Clendinen writes:

I think everyone is forgetting Fascism is just a branch of socialism that has only a few differences from communism. China has for the most part turned into a fascist country.

However, I think there is a small minority in communism/fascism/socialism that are true believers. What others would view as sadism they honestly think it is the right thing to due and take no pleasure in it.

Or as C.S. Lewis put it “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. “

Monte writes:
Is it possible to have an economic dictatorship in which the leaders are able to retain power without creating a scapegoat group and giving people the opportunity to indulge in the desire to see others suffer

FDR and Lee Kuan Yew immediately come to mind as benevolent dictators whose administrations flourished without identifying an enemy within (an enemy that required no final solution, anyway).

Tom Leahey writes:

Re Hell
In the Middle Ages, Aquinas and Dante explicitly list as one of the pleasures of heaven seeing the suffering of the unsaved in hell.

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