The Desire to See Others Suffer
By Arnold Kling
James Lewis argues that fascism involves
the political use of sadism to recruit millions of followers in a campaign of pleasurable punishment against a scapegoated person or group.
I found the essay provocative, which is a term I apply when I find something interesting even though I have doubts about some of the ideas. In particular, he writes as if America is immune to the disease of desiring the suffering of others. Am I supposed to believe that slavery was carried out without sadism? Am I supposed to believe that Americans harbored no ill will toward Japan after Pearl Harbor?
Still, I think it provides an interesting lens through which to view history. Which organized groups and which standard practices were designed to cater to a desire to see others suffer? How did these groups and practices come to be viewed as uncivilized?
What was the role of religion? Does the concept of hell reflect a desire to see others suffer, or does it help to divert that desire, as people refrain from sadistic punishment because they are confident that the deity will administer justice?
Finally, bringing this back to political economy, what does it mean for the “road to serfdom” argument? Is it possible to have an economic dictatorship in which the leaders are able to retain power without creating a scapegoat group and giving people the opportunity to indulge in the desire to see others suffer? If dictatorship without scapegoats is possible, should we not distinguish between socialism+sadism and a more humanitarian version?