Parasitism and Psychopathy under Capitalism.


Let us take two distinct, but potentially complex, concepts. Firstly, that of parasitism, feeding off a host, secondly that of psychopathy, a concept less easily defined. Parasitism is a methodology of living, an opportunist mode of vitality that thrives alongside its chosen host. But such thriving is subject to the biological and social capacities and potentials of another organism or social body. Therefor, parasitism is essentially a mode of being that requires and harnesses another’s life, desire and biological necessities in order to survive. This is a crucial aspect to keep hold of, we can consider the etymology of the word parasitism (para- alongside + sitism, from sitos – food). Parasitism literally means to live alongside ones food. To live, for the parasite, is more than mere survival; to live is to be, to exist and be defined on multiple registers. These registers may be evolutionary, biological, ecological, economical, and most importantly ontological. One could say that a parasite is only a parasitic insofar as it is defined and determined subject to its juxtaposition with its food; its status on every register is determined by its ‘alongsideness’, its adjacency. The host the parasite feeds off sustains not only the biological vitality of the parasite -  the host and its adjacency form the very ontological basis of parasitism. The parasite may be born from a host, or destined for a host or thriving within a host, regardless, the parasite is such because of its present, retrospective or coming adjacency.

Psychopathy, on the other hand, is not a pathology of the lunatic killer characterized by Hollywood, in fact very few high rating psychopaths become criminals (although the few who do tend to draw high levels of media attention).  Psychopathy can be broadly defined as a lack of empathy - a complete void in the space where conscience, empathy or sympathy ‘ought’ to reside. I emphasize this particular and most general aspect of psychological categorizing because I feel it is a detail that many other facets of the category are contingent to. I suggest that the majority of psychopathic traits are derivatives of this very subjective, internal and psychological lack. It is perhaps this confusion and conflation of causalities that makes psychopathy such a fascinating and misunderstood concept. For example, one may research psychopathy and uncover all sorts of complex and enthralling details: narcissism, the god complex, childhood trauma, weak father figures, strong mothers, abuse, sadism, sexual deviancy, the MAO-A (The Warrior Gene), frontal lobe trauma etc. My interest in psychopathy is simple and galvanized by a quite simple belief. I believe that psychopathy is nothing more and nothing less than a state of thinking without empathy coupled with a particular set of quite clinical and empirical facts (neurological, biological and genetic) relating to stimuli. All other ‘symptoms’ are the previous two aspects of psychopathy manifesting in various societal dissonances. It is precisely from this basis, a basis of neurological or genetic predispositions to empathy, which all other aspects of preconceived psychopathy are contingent to. For example, if I, or you the reader, had no empathy and could not sympathize with others then we would ultimately pursue our own interests regardless of the pain, damage or consequences our pursuit or such interests may cause to others. If we had no empathy we would be utterly selfish. I say this because of a pair of philosophical truths. Firstly, if I can only conceptualize and regard “I”, then everything else, regardless of phenomena, must be subject to “I”. If “I” cannot conceive of the existence of feelings in others on the same basis as those feelings must be felt by “I”, tangible empathy, then they cannot exist for “I”. So, although we may never know of the pain a loved one may experience through misfortune we can, in some sense, sympathize. We feel for them in a manner that is more than a conceptual acceptance of their biological trauma and subjective experience. We may not writhe around in pain on the floor, but our sympathetic understanding is much more tangible than a clinical comprehension that a certain biological trauma yield a certain experiential trauma. I feel this point is most commonly realized in the degrees of sympathetic experience. When a loved one is hurt our sympathy is high, when we are engrossed in a film characters tragedy we sympathize quite intensively yet news reports of statistics of natural tragedies don’t tend to trigger feelings of sympathy until testimony and first hand accounts and the accompanying harrowing imagery is appear. This is a difference of affective stimuli and conceptualization, a crucial difference that I will expand on later.  Secondly, and most controversially, I suggest that empathy is programmed socially and learnt psycho-socially – thus: there are degrees of aptitude in learning the skill of empathy and also various environmental and biological aspects can hinder, impeded or outright destroy the capacity of empathy in an individual. If, empathy can be learnt or hindered by environmental factors then psychopathy is, in effect, a symptom or vector. It is also at this point where I will emphasize that psychopathic, is not a category that one is or is not – rather, psychopathy is a spectrum made up from registering on many spectrums (although, as I have already suggested, the current categories are conflated and confused – as well as widely contested within the psychological fields).

Parasitism and Psychopathy go hand in hand. The psychopath would not be a psychopath outside of a social environment – in prison psychopaths die (conceptually). I propose this brave statement on the basis that a psychopath, a being devoid of empathizing with other social beings, can only be defined as such subject to his or her capacities to sympathize and empathize with others. If others are removed, and the person labeled “psychopathic” exists in a social vacuum, then psychopathy, as socially defined, ceases to exist. Likewise, parasites perish without a host body. In fact, the only evolutionary argument about the existence of psychopathy (as a symptom of the MAO-A/”warrior gene”) is an argument that suggests survival through parasitism. Psychopaths require others, not only to survive biologically and evolutionarily – to take advantage of resources and thrive and reproduce – but also on a purely ontological level: a psychopath is defined purely by its divergence from and use of its fellow species. The ontological and biological giveness of the psychopath is contingent to the environment or prey or host.


Here I will return to the first definition of psychopathy, a definition that I feel all social definitions of psychopathy derive from – a lack of empathy. More precisely, I will briefly explore affective stimuli and conceptual conceivability, or to phrase it another way, tangibility and knowability. We are all defined, though not exclusively, by how we react to our environment and its stimuli, but studies conducted on high-level clinical psychopaths reveal quite empirical differences in our capacities to react, learn and relate to the stimuli and environment. For example, high-level clinical psychopaths do not show blink response to negative imagery[1]. Further, many clinical studies have show that high-level clinical psychopaths have abnormally diminished responses to positive or negative aural stimuli. Lastly, other studies have shown that high-level clinical psychopaths do not respond to bleep timed skin electrocutions; the test involves a small electric shock being repeatedly given to a hand after a set of bleeps, the concept is simple, after the bleep a shock is delivered.[2] Neutral participants display high blood flow in the shock region as anticipation for the discomfort as well as a post-auricular response (which is viewed as simplistically as the Voight Kampff from Bladerunner) whereas high-level clinical psychopaths do not show similar signs of anticipation. The suggestion of all of these studies is simple: high-level clinical psychopaths do not react as much to external stimuli. This is precisely, where psychopathy becomes so relevant in contemporary life. Much of Berardi’s work explores how my generation is over stimulated. Too much information and cognitive and attentive demands have led to a deluge of attention disorders and Ritalin prescriptions. Too much affective stimuli and and cognitive labour precarity and fractalization have led to a widespred use of Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors.  Berardi states how these are nothing less than symptoms of panic, reactions to the environment and its blitz of stimuli:

“The symptoms of it are quite evident: millions of boxes of Prozac are sold every month, the epidemic of attention deficit disorders among youngsters, the diffusion of drugs like Ritalin to school children, and the widespread epidemic of panic.” (Berardi, 2009, p.82)

The irony of the term psychopath is that it means suffering psyche (psycho – psyche + path, from pathos – suffering). Yet clinical studies show high level psychopaths display almost no reaction to visual, aural and tactile stimuli. Studies have also shown that individuals recognized with a high level of psychopathy have a reduced response to aural stimuli. [3] In fact, some studies have suggested that because of high-level clinical psychopaths lacking capacity to react to external stimuli their capacity to learn from pain is greatly diminished. Evolutionarily this explains the proportional rarity of high-level clinical psychopaths (learning quickly from pain is useful for survival) but it also points to a lessened capacity of post event trauma, fear, anxiety and panic. Psychopaths are generally less fearful and less likely to panic under pressure. In a sense, psychopaths are, via developmental, biological or genetic reasons better equipped to ‘cope’ amidst the affective din of contemporary life. Psychopathy is the ultimate formatting of the psyche for the 24/7 information blitz we suffer from.

To appreciate this point further we must quickly outline two of Berardi’s core concepts and the dynamic. The first is Cyberspace – cyberspace is technical, networked and infinite, in Berardi’s words “Cyberspace is the infinite productivity of the general intelligence, of the General Intellect, of the net.” (Berardi 2009, p.71). The second is Cybertime, “Cybertime is the organic, physical, finite capacity to elaborate information.” (Berardi, 2009, p.71) Berardi suggests that because many of the demands of contemporary living operate via infinite cyberspace our finite cybertime reaches a limit, it is at this limit where economic collapse happens, but this is a collapse that is lastly economic in symptom but crucially psychological in root cause: “I use the word collapse in a sense that is not metaphorical, but rather a clinical description of what is going on in the western mind. I use the word collapse in order to express the real pathological crash of the psycho-social organism.” (Berardi, 2009, p.82). Thus, collectively economic crashes occur due to our organisms finite capacities to process environmental stimuli and some of the many coping mechanisms of limit-approach is mass medication that diminishes ones tangible and emotional reactions to stimuli. Our cybertime is totally taken up with the environmental stimuli of late capitalism, but as well as attention disorders, widespread depression and anxiety a lack of empathy is the other consequence. Time is the key. Recall my previous distinction of the levels of empathy we experience from affective stimuli and conceptual conceivability, or to phrase it another way, tangibility and knowability. We may read on a rolling news bulletin that “2000 Dead in Hurricane” but this is pure data, or processing time is quick and cold, but were we to watch a documentary, with many images and personal testimony, or empathy would, understandably, increase. The victims would be more than numbers, they would be people with families, friends and a catastrophy of undeserved misfortune. Within audio-visual media we see the similar contingency of empathy to cybertime. Adverts try hard to engage our emotions, thoughts and sympathies with characters within the diegesis in order to sell us products, but I have never shed a tear after watching an advert. Cinema, on the other hand, is notorious for evoking strong feelings of sympathy within the viewer during the two hours of undivided attention they afford in the theatre. The deciding factor in both exemplary contrasts of empathy eliciting is time and attention: cybertime. Yet, I seldom visit the cinema, or watch a television documentary uninterrupted, contemporary cyberspace engulf my cybertime, I multitask, scan for updates, screen emails, I live in a colder and more detached manner. The following passage from Berardi summarises the condition of how “time-based psycho-bombs are exploding.” (Berardi, 2009, p.84)

“In recent decades, the organism has been exposed to an increasing mass of neuro-mobilizing stimuli. The acceleration and intensification of nervous stimulants on the conscious organism seems to have thinned the cognitive film that we might call sensibility. The conscious organism needs to accelerate its cognitive, gestural, kinetic reactivity. The time available for responding to nervous stimuli has been dramatically reduced. This is perhaps why we seem to be seeing a reduction of the capacity for empathy. Symbolic exchange among human beings is elaborated without empathy, because it becomes increasingly difficult to perceive the existence of the body of the other time. In order to experience the other as a sensorial body, you need time, time to caress and smell. The time for empathy is lacking, because stimulation has become too intense.” (Berardi, 2009, pp.84-85)

The time-based psycho-bombs are fissions of utter empathetic lack, ruptures of detached psychologies. Because our fleshy, sensitive corpus is over stimulated, temporeally and attentively impoverished the result is psychopathy, an intensely suffering psyche that is treated with a slew of Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or stimulants such as Ritalin that address attentive illness. But this epidemic of medication is not the only story. My suggestion here is that there are two types of psychopath, a suffering Berardian psychopath, and a more clinical and culturally stigmatized ‘psychopath’ – a psychopath that must be understood from the British and American usage of the term. Thus, there is the Berardian psychopathology of the suffering - an etymologically literal concept, a suffering psyche -  and also the psychopath of the few who happen, through a fluke of neurological, genetic and environmental conditions, to be best suited to the environment of stimuli excess. It is this latter type of psychopath, the psychopath I am most interested in, that are almost immune or best conditioned to cope and thrive within the cognitive and attentive climate that Berardi so wonderfully illustrates as a crucial mechanism of late capitalism.

This distinction needs to be approached with care, there are many subtle similarities and that ought to be taken into account. I state this now because, as I shall shortly show, the suffering Berardian Psychopathy, and the more traditional psychopathy that in clinical terms shows lack of reaction to aural, visual and tactile stimuli (and in cultural terms is associated with violence, dominance and crime), are in a sense poles of manifestation of the same condition.

To appreciate this we may take a moment, a short detour, to think about a general working trend, that anyone who has worked in Sales or Customer Service will be familiar with. Let us picture a scenario, a call center for examples sake. Each day millions and millions of calls flood into a call center. The call center’s job is customer service, the company has not provided good service to its many customers which are now complaining. The predicament for the workers inside the call center is that the company will not allow full refunds, replacements or likewise. The company has accepted it simply cannot fulfill the service level promised by them and expected by the customers. Hence, the large busy call center. A large part of the job is looking at photos of injuries that customers may have experienced as a result of the failed products and services as well as listening to the customers’ grievances on the phone. One worker is a high level psychopath - let’s call her Sue. Sue takes her breaks mid call, cares little for the customers whose lives are ruined and refuses to help her co-workers or participate in any activities that involve social niceties. Alongside the Sue is Jane. Jane is not a psychopath, in fact she cares a great deal about the customers and her co-workers. Sue’s managers like her, she performs, according to the quantifiable criteria they have access to, very very well. She is consistent, efficient and highly productive – she takes more calls than many of her fellow workers. Jane, is not, according to her managers and the quantifiable evidence they have access to performing so well. Jane spends far too long listening, sometimes spending a whole afternoon trying to help or console one customer. The crux of the matter is that Jane cares too much to be as efficient. Janes focuses all her energy on one customer at a time, and empathizes greatly with the distraught customer’s she deals with. Sue does not empathise with her customers, she says what is needed to give enough of an impression of care and sympathy only so she can move on to the next call. For Sue, each call is a number, a task to complete with as little effort and in as quicker time as possible – the polar opposite of Jane. Sue is never tired at the end of each day, unlike Jane, who leaves the call center exhausted and often in a flood of tears. After months of this the managers have a meeting, they know Jane cares about her job and want to help her. The managers see in the reports that Sue performs best and so approach her to coach Jane. Sue refuses, explaining she will only do so for additional pay. The managers cannot pay Sue more, so instead they listen to her calls and build a script from they way she conducts her conversation with many upset customers. The managers notice how she ‘directs the call’, ‘controls the conversation’, ‘builds rapport’ and ‘manages the customers expectations’. Some weeks later the managers provide Jane with an intensive training course modeled on Sue’s recorded phonecalls. Essentially, Jane is given a script, she was supposed to follow the script as best she could, saying this or that at each junction to provide a satisfactory resolution for the customer. Jane explains that she doesn’t want to sound like a robot, that the customers need to be listened to and given respect and care because the product/service has failed so badly – at this the managers explain that as long as she follows the script the customers will feel respected and cared for. Jane grudgingly agrees to try the new way of working. After many months Jane is following the script flawlessly, she is almost talking automatically, she gets through so many calls with so much ease that she begins playing minesweeper and online scrabble on her computer to prevent herself from getting bored. At this stage Jane does not really listen to the tearful or angry words on the customers end of the line, she has stopped caring because she feels safe in the knowledge that as long as she follows the script she will give a polite, professional and sympathetic impression to the customer – a better impression than she ever could previously and with less emotional effort. This is the modus operandi of sales or customer service management; to put in place semi-automatic strategies that give an impression of care, empathy, enthusiasm, fun, excitement etc.



The little detour, the tale of Sue and Jane, shows the two poles of psychopathy. One is present from the start this could be because of frontal lobe trauma, it could be genetic, we may never know why Sue is like she is. Jane, however, is very low on the psychopathy spectrum, she cares deeply for everyone she comes into contact with; she is upset by the photos customers send in documenting their misfortune and she gets upset when customers cry, shout or swear on the phone. What is key here is that, due to the managers’ reports only showing quantifiable results Jane appears to be a poorly performing worker and Sue appears to be a highly effective worker. Because of this Jane is asked to behave and conduct her work life like her psychopathic co-worker Sue. So she can perform better, so her managers can effectively and quantifiably get more labour and results from Jane, she is trained into behaving as a psychopath. But this is not bad for Jane. By caring less Jane is upset less. After her training Jane never left the call center in tears. In a sense, Jane learnt how to become psychopathic so she could exist more comfortably in such a stimuli intensive and pressurized work environment.

Thus, the tale of Sue and Jane, shows a few things. That psychopathy is advantageous in high pressure and competitive work environments (this is not a new notion, there are a slew of films that concern themselves with the intersection of Capitalism and Psychopathy). The tale also elucidates how empathy is not productive in the quantifiable registers of many management methods concerned with productivity, volumes, efficiencies etc. Most, importantly, it shows how the Berardian suffering psyche, the Berardian psychopath must adapt to behave and feel like a psychopath proper in order to perform better and with less personal distress to themselves under conditions of high stimuli and pressure.  

However, the tale of Sue and Jane doesn’t tell the whole story. There is another side of the story that shows how psychopathy is a parasitic strategy dependent on the empathy of others. This other aspect of the tale illustrates how such psychopathic parasitism is a cultivation of capitalism, but that it is not a solution (as per Ayn Rand’s Capitalist Objectivism) but a symptom manifested by a change only a proportion of people can undergo. If we were all psychopaths capitalism would not work.

Here is why. Sue and post-training Jane ‘solve all their calls’. The customers then fill in surveys rating their experience. The questions are simplistic and closed: ‘Was your grievance addressed?’ or ‘Did the agent explain what they were going to do?’ or ‘Was the call answered quickly and politely?’ are the types of questions the customers answer. Almost all customers who fill in the survey respond positively to each closed question. But in actuality Sue and Jane did nothing to rectify the customers’ poor experience. Sue and Jane always answered quickly and politely. They always explained what they were going to do, but mostly as a control strategy to direct the conversation. Most tellingly, Sue and Jane often addressed the customers’ grievances by explaining that the service and product was poor - they would then apologize for this but then explain that nothing can be done because the resources of compensation or repair were limited and needed to be used on the most severe cases. Naturally most customers, after some cajoling, excepted that Sue and Jane could not help them and left feeling bad. Some customers felt bad because they suspected that Sue and Jane did not care. Some customers felt pushed into accepting poor treatment. And some customers felt that Sue or Jane did care but were helpless and useless. Despite all of this the customers could answer the closed questions with begrudgingly positive responses. This side of the story illustrates how Sue and Jane, in their psychopathic methods, preyed on and took advantage of the empathetic capacities of their customers.

But what of the most severe cases that did deserve some recompense or reparation? A quick examination of this minor aspect shows the parasitism inherent in psychopathic behaviors generated via capitals mans stimuli intensive environments. The company did have some resources for such incidents but these resources were not enough. The company was, via market forces, a monopoly that provided the worst service but at a price that was too high. The shareholders were always pleased. When a customer with very severe failure came through to Sue or Jane they offered the resources they could, but they didn’t have enough for all the very severe failures so they approached other co-workers. Sue and Jane explained to their co-workers that they had an unimaginably severe failure to deal with, and that, even though resources were stretched, their customer needed the recompense most. Sue and Jane bent the truth a little and exaggerated in order to get back on the phone and ‘solve another call’. Sue and Jane soon turned their control, manipulation and reasoning skills on their co-workers, they essentially exploited the empathy of their co-workers – Sue and Jane were psychopathically methodological empathy parasites. However, one day, a top performer from another office, Jed, moved to their branch. Jed was just as efficient and effective in ‘solving calls’ as Sue and Jane. One day Sue had the worst case she had ever experienced, she wasn’t emotional or distressed by the case but knew that the customer had the worst and most catastrophic failure she had come across. Sue approached Jed, and explained this. Jed said he didn’t care, that it was her problem to deal with. Sue explained the policy of resources being directed to the most severe cases; Jed explained that all his cases were worse than the one Sue was dealing with and told he to leave him alone to work.

The above illustrates how parasitic psychopathic working requires low level or non-psychopathic hosts. It also shows how capitalist psychopathic parasitism is contingent on the present and exploitable empathy resource of others. Thus, if we were all psychopaths, capitalism would fail, but at the same time, capitalism, technology and intensive stimuli environments are forcing people into operating psychopathically and parasitically. In a sense, capitalism creates parasitic psychopathic operandi but it cannot continue to do so.

Thus, the difference between the Berardian psychopath, the suffering psyche of over stimulation, and psychopath proper is that one is a pathway to the other. Or, to phrase it another way, the method of alleviating the suffering of the former is to become the latter. But this is not a cure for all, it is contingent on the suffering and exploitation of others. This passage is the capitalist passage, a flux that is not a solution but temporary change and temporary solution. This close examination of the interation between psychopathy and parasitism under late capitalism is an attempt to illuminate the forces and modes of capitalism. I suggest the dynamics explored here detail important biologically and psychologically grounded vectors of a capitalism that is inevitably doomed and nihilistic in its operation, function and implementation.



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[2] See www.researchgate.net/...psychopathy.../3deec52164d1aa6c44.pdf‎ (last accessed 26/12/2013)
[3] See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14992662 (last accessed 26/12/2013)