While psychopaths have probably always been around us, in feudalist societies it would have been much harder for them to rise to positions of wealth and power. Unless you were born into the nobility, it was pretty tough to get out of your class circumstances and engineer yourself into a place where you could rise above.
Think about it this way – if, as guys like Robert Hale suggest, about one percent of the population rank highly on the psychopath test – and, if this has always been true – then up until the Industrial Revolution, if you were born a psychopath but were not a member of the aristocracy or nobility, let’s say you were the son of a blacksmith, then what could you do? You didn’t have much chance of putting together an army or rising above your stations in terms of wealth creation opportunities.
If you were a plebeian in the Roman Republic, your chances of rising to power were kept in check by the tools of the aristocracy – the Senate, the army and paid mobs. During the Roman Empire, a few plebs made it to become generals and even Emperors, but they were few and far between. A number of centurions of plebeian extraction were rewarded by Augustus after his civil war with Antony with property and suddenly found themselves as the nouveau riche and a seat in the Senate – but again, these stories were rare.
Oh sure – if you were a Hun in the 5th century, you could brawl it out with some other guys to see who would be the king of the tribe, and go from there. But in the Middle Ages, these opportunities were scarce. You might be someone like Francesco Sforza who, in the early 1400s, managed to turn his father’s private army of mercantile soldiers into becoming the Duke of Milan by winning some battles and marrying his illegitimate daughter – but again, those stories are quite rare in the annals of history.
For most of history, if you were born poor, for the most part, you stayed poor.
So if 1% of the population were psychopaths, and 99% of the population were poor, that means 99% of the psychopaths were poor and, while they probably caused trouble for their immediate family and village, they never went further than that.
However – then the Industrial Revolution came along and we entered the rise of capitalism. Now those 99% have a much better shot at unleashing their psychopathy on the world. They could get an education, get a job, and use their inherent psychopathy to climb the ladder of power inside an organisation – business, political, religious, academia or military. Suddenly, after 1000 years of being kept down in their villages, the psychopaths had a ladder to wealth and power unlike anything before.
Studies show that most people who are born poor continue to stay poor, it’s true. But we live in a world where the psychopaths who are born poor, and have no qualms about fucking other people over in their march towards power – who care as much about committing an unethical act as you or I do about what we ate for breakfast a week ago – have an open playing field.
Capitalism has unleashed the psychopaths on the world.
Now our job is to figure out how to ring fence them and keep them in check before they destroy the planet and all of us on it.