The Sadistic Irrational Bastards fallacy (SID)

On a couple of occasions I’ve heard Graham Scambler discuss what he calls the ‘greedy bastards hypothesis’ (GBH):

This asserted that health inequalities in Britain were first and foremost an unintended consequence of the ‘strategic’ behaviours at the core of the country’s capitalist-executive and power elite. It is a hypothesis even more plausible in 2012 than it was in the late 1990s.

The term ‘capitalist-executive’, borrowed from Clement and Myles, contained what I subsequently called a core ‘cabal’ of financiers, CEOs and Directors of large and largely transnational companies, and rentiers. These individuals were perfectly capable of ‘conspiring’ but despite being involved in fierce competition rarely had a need to do so in the post-1970s neo-liberal era of financial capitalism. This cabal, I intimated, has come to exercise a dominating influence over the state’s political elite (that is, the upper echelons of government together with its multifold ‘new middle class’ tacticians). US historian David Landes’ once asserted that ‘men (sic) of wealth buy men of power’; and my contention was that they got more for their money post-1970s than in the postwar welfare-statist era. So the GBH charged leading capitalists and politicians with what the likes of Engels and Virschow in the nineteenth century called homicide. As Michael Marmot has more recently averred, policies can kill, and when these are reflexively enacted their architects shouldn’t be surprised to find themselves liable to prosecution in the event of a regime change.

While I think he’s largely correct, I’d like to counterbalance GBH with my notion of the Sadistic Irrational Bastards (SID) fallacy. Put blunty: we often tend to impute egregious dispositions to those people doing things which we find profoundly disagreeable on a moral level. We exaggerate their deficiencies of character (how else could they do these things if they weren’t evil sadistic bastards?) and correspondingly pay too little attention to how structural circumstances enable actions which have no explanation other than sadism when considered in individualistic terms. SID is morally reassuring. In its most extreme manifestations, it supports conspiratorial thinking where the complex problems of the world are reduced to the Machiavellian machinations of evil men plotting in a room in some secret location. But I think it’s more widespread than this. It underwrites a sense of one’s own righteousness and supports the kind of indignation which can drive valuable protest.

However my problem with it is that it leaves us ill-equipped to make sense of people doing sadistic things who do not in fact seem to be sadists. What’s more, they’re capable of giving reasons to justify their actions. We may dismiss their reasons instinctively or even through careful consideration of their moral and intellectual merits. But adherence to SID leaves a mismatch between our moral experience and our rational appraisal which can be strategically disorientating. It can leave us torn between indignant condemnation and rational acquiesce: allowing us to be content with expressing our contempt without this leading to sustained action. It tends to individualise problems which are not themselves individualistic and supports late capitalist cynicism of the sort described by Zizek: overestimation of subjective disavowal going hand-in-hand with objective complicity.

Categories: Rethinking The World

Tags: , , ,

1 reply »

  1. The idea that social problems are caused by ‘bad people’ is a very common kind of folk sociology, and perhaps it’s the basis of all conspiracy theories. It’s dangerous, because it often leads to the demonisation of vulnerable groups, e.g. on the basis of religion, skin colour, nationality, etc. Shouldn’t one of the main tasks of sociology be to combat this folk sociology?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *