A New Diagnosis for Capitalism: Tristam Vivian Adams’ The Psychopath Factory

“What if we’re living in a world full of super-social psychopaths?” is the question posed by Tristam Vivian Adams early on in his book The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organizes Empathy. Scary, as the term “psychopath” immediately triggers thoughts about people like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, or even Anders Breivik. Psychopaths, by the time we hear about them in the news, have committed atrocious crimes. Adams, however, starts his discussion of the super-social psychopath with a bit more controversy by proposing we differentiate between the diagnosis of psychopathy and its often-assumed criminal origin. To offer his readers opportunities for the empathy and identification needed for such an undertaking, Adams analyzes only famous fictional psychopaths, such as Hannibal Lecter of the Silence of the Lambs series, Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, or Tom Ripley of the Talented Mr. Ripley series. While it is easy to fall into the trap of perpetuating stigma by reinforcing fictional character stereotypes, Adams, for the most part, manages to use these characters as original examples of fully formed humans who exhibit psychopathological behaviors, but whose fictional narratives allow readers (those who have a deeper knowledge of them through popular culture) to see them in larger contexts beyond their criminal record.

By establishing an emotional connection with the reader through familiar fictional psychopaths early on, Adams shows that psychopathological behavior does not necessarily have to be linked to actual in-real-life mass murders. The theoretical framework of fiction serves to comfortably invite the reader into examination of his or her very own aspirations at the contemporary workplace. Looking from the Fordist assembly line model to Wall Street sharks of the 1980s and 90s, one commonplace idea is that successful capitalism eliminates all forms of warmth, feelings, and empathy. Time is money, and those who work hard and shut off emotions will make it to the top. In the current age of start-up tech companies, the work place has shifted once more. While the Fordist model still differentiates between labor in public and leisure in private, the new model suggests a metamorphosis of both worlds: the worker is encouraged to perform at work as he would at home. Top desired jobs feature ping-pong tables and unlimited frozen yogurt; no one works “for” anyone but only “with someone.” As Adams points out, common contemporary phrases like “don’t call me ‘boss’” contribute to this idea of no hierarchy at the workplace—instead we have a mere performance of equality, according to Adams. As Adams demonstrates in a number of work space scenarios, the ping-pong table, the frozen yogurt, “no ‘bosses’ and ‘colleagues’ but only ‘friends’” serve, ultimately, the larger goals of capitalist production: the happy worker is a good worker.

In this world of super-social work spaces, Bateman or Ripley would make great managers, Adams provocatively suggests, not because they are “criminal, selfish, or status obsessed,” but because they have mastered performances of charm and empathy needed to climb up the corporate ladder. Empathy becomes a tool, a strategy that works in the service of capitalism. Once we look at empathy as a skill set on a CV rather than simply human capacity for compassion, Adams’ question about living in a world of super-social psychopaths takes on a whole new meaning: psychopathology, in Adams’ theory, is no longer defined by deception and lies, but instead elevated by society as a desired attribute to make it in the corporate world.

Adams’ book advocates for a change of perception of psychopathy. Instead of treating it like a mental disorder, a lack or surplus of a given health condition, he proposes we look at psychopathy as a contagious sickness. Competition among colleagues has moved beyond public achievements like fancy degrees and work experience. The competent and successful worker will be able to use empathy as a method to show off that he or she is more than just a good worker. “The psychopath is not,” as Adams says, “…a failed script, a subject outside of the social or working code, but an example of capitalist code itself” (104). Confrontational in its urge to open our eyes to the role each and every one of us plays in the construction of a capitalist society, the book prompts readers to wonder which other aspects of contemporary life serve the same purposes. Furthermore, The Psychopath Factory left this reader wondering what other discourses beyond empathy might illustrate examples of the “capitalist code” gone awry. In an age of rising nationalisms, we might wonder, is Adams’ capacious diagnosis of psychopathology tethered only to capitalist aspirations?

While reading the book, the reader is left questioning her or his own subject position. Am I a psychopath? Am I, at times, too, only performing empathy? Which codes at work make me fall into exactly these scripts of super-social psychopaths, whether the script is not really caring about a colleague’s failure or participating in a team excursion that performs camaraderie rather than living it? Adams forces us to see our own ways of organizing emotions in the interest of our professional status. And while he is certainly critiquing the status quo as such, he also walks us through the genealogy that led to the necessity of curbing emotions for the sake of capitalism in the first place. Adams presents psychopathy as a necessary construct for success, born out of an appropriation of emotions for capitalist motives.

Psychopathy is one of the most stigmatized diagnoses in current media representations. Adams is one of the first to venture into the uncharted territory of freeing psychopathy from its stigma of criminality, a process that we have started to undertake for mental disorders such as bipolar disease or schizophrenia, but that still seems taboo for conditions such as pedophilia or psychopathy. Once we understand psychopathy as a spectrum, as a scale that moves between small daily acts of faking empathy to, at the very top, murdering someone in cold blood, we can start interrogating our own daily acts and contributions to the capitalist system. It is only when we admit to the super-social psychopath in ourselves that the question from the beginning of the book, “what if we are living in a world full of super-social psychopaths?,” no longer prompts a fear of being murdered, but instead suggests agency, will, and the ability to change what is in our own hands. In this sense, Adams’ book serves as a wonderful spark, critiquing capitalist society from the refreshingly new perspective of psychopathology. It will surely awaken many future debates around pathology, performativity, and where to locate failure within the capitalist system.

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Linnéa Hussein

Linnéa Hussein is a PhD candidate at New York University, where she is writing her dissertation, “Documenting Schizophrenia: The Scientific Gaze, Personal Testimonies, and Medical Training.” She has worked as a teaching assistant at NYU and Columbia University, as well as at the Jacob Burns Film Center, and she is currently employed as an adjunct lecturer at NYU, teaching classes on media theory and censorship practices.