The pathology of politics

This question usually arises because there seems to be no reasonable explanation. There is growing evidence that political power leads to diseases of the mind. What Kenneth Clark calls in his seminal work, The Pathos of Power. This is an old, old story of politics and leaders of all kinds. What inspired me to think about this is a 282-page book titled Cult of the Will, published by Gerard A Besson, and containing strident remarks about the deceptions and the “deranged” political personality of the late Dr Eric Williams.

But before we get into some aspects of Besson’s book, I feel obliged to comment very briefly on the “pathology of politics,” a subject which caused JL Talmon to write a book titled The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. Last September in Jamaica, during my address to Caribbean political party officials on election financing and democracy, a Grenadian party official asked me: “Why is it in the Caribbean, people appear and behave one way and as soon as they become elected as politicians they grow so arrogant, so different as if something gone wrong with them?”

The audience burst out laughing. PNM Opposition Leader, Dr Keith Rowley and Professor Selwyn Ryan, also present, smiled, knowingly it seemed. Yes, I too have seen the phenomenon in some of my own university colleagues who got elected. This ego-enhancing transformation has been a fascinating subject in psychopathology for ages, quite notably by Harold Lasswell, Sigmund Freud, Abraham Maslow and Carl Jung.

More and more, nurtured by excessive hero-worshipping and unchecked patronage, the diseased manifestations of political power — self-delusion, self-acclamations, bruising arrogance, unwarranted extravagance, thin-skinned, vengeful, etc. — all begin to inflict themselves upon a rather helpless public — at least for a time. Soon, the politician becomes a prisoner, a victim really, of his or her, search for further but scarcer gratifications, meandering between fleeting ecstasy and deep depression. Some get the sickness sooner than others.

With irritating insecurity, the politician gets a craving for more and more praise and reassurances, easily falling prey to a tightened circle of benefitting flatterers. This latter condition has been ascribed to Besson’s major subject, Eric Williams, by quite a few local commentators. However, as we also know, Williams still has his admirers who see his personality and deeds in more flattering terms. Besson’s book got reviews by John La Guerre, Selwyn Cudjoe, Brinsley Samarro and Selwyn Ryan. Then by columnists Marion O’Callaghan and Kevin Baldeosingh. For reasons of space, I will deal briefly with the second part of his two-part book — an explanation of victimhood and political mobilisation. Besson made a bold denunciation of the late Dr Eric Williams’ economic explanation for the abolition of slavery. Rather, Besson asserted both Williams and CLR James conveniently ignored the humanitarian anti-slavery movement and that Williams in particular, used a “victimhood” ideology to arouse black nationalism and achieve political victory. The reviewers could not resist dealing with the “victimhood” argument by Besson. The cult of the will, as he argues, creates a rather permanent condition of historically-generated victimhood, over one hundred years, and as sold by Williams and enthusiastically purchased by blacks. Cudjoe called this “a cruel accusation.”

If Besson had used Williams’ victimhood framework as a platform, then used contemporary political patronage, along the East West corridor for example, to link victimhood with what Besson clearly sees as continued “psychological dependency,” then his overall thesis might have gained further ground. But generally, in such subjects, social science inquiry, which is what Besson attempted in the later part of his book, finds great difficulty in linking cause and effect.

If Williams’ was an example of victimhood, it seemed to originate not so much from the historically-driven “cult” but self-inflicted through the psychological trappings of saturated political power. The way in which Besson presents his arguments is more courageous than many of us who prefer to be a bit more circumspect on such matters. And perhaps, there lies part of the value of his book. You know where he stands and you therefore know where to shoot. In a sense, Besson was trying to establish a level playing field for the society, a dismembering of a troublesome past for a more harmonious civic comradeship. But with early capitalism, slavery and indentureship as they were, how many will listen to this?

Professor Ramesh Deosaran (Emeritus) is author of “A Portrait of Political Power,” and Former Independent Senator.


"The pathology of politics"

More in this section