Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media during an election night event at Mar-a-Lago on November 8, 2022 in Palm Beach, Florida.

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Neoliberal Bullies Have Controlled the World Long Enough

We should seek to build societies in which aggression and dominance are not rewarded.

The researchers claim to be surprised by their findings, but is it really so remarkable? A large and impressive study of children’s progress into adulthood found that those who display bullying and aggressive behaviour at school are more likely to prosper at work. They land better jobs and earn more. The association of senior positions with bullying and dominance behaviour will doubtless come as a shock to many.

This is not to suggest that all people with good jobs or who run organisations are bullies. Far from it. It’s not hard to think of good people in powerful positions. What this tells us is that we don’t need aggressive people to organise our lives for us. Neither good leadership, nor organisational success, nor innovation, insight or foresight, require a dominance mindset. In fact, all can be inhibited by someone throwing their weight around.

Whether in game theory or the study of other species, you quickly discover how the dominance behaviour of a few can harm society as a whole. For example, a study of cichlid fish found that dominant males have “lower signal-to-noise ratios” (sound and fury, signifying nothing) and counter-productive impacts on group performance. Anything sound familiar?

At every stage of education and career progression, and in politics, economics, and international relations, we should seek to replace a competitive ethos with a cooperative one.

A win for bullies is a loss for everyone else: their success is a zero-sum game. Or negative-sum: The first study I mentioned also found that school bullies are more likely to abuse alcohol, smoke, break the law, and suffer mental health problems in later life. But the bullies’ triumph is also an outcome of the dominant narrative of our times: For the past 45 years, neoliberalism has characterised human life as a struggle that some must win and others must lose. Only through competition, in this quasi-Calvinist religion, can we discern who the worthy and unworthy might be. The competition, of course, is always rigged. The point of neoliberalism is to provide justifications for an unequal and coercive society, a society where bullies rule.

It’s a perfect circle: Neoliberalism generates inequality; and inequality, as another paper shows, is strongly associated with bullying at school. With greater disparities in income and status, stress rises, competition sharpens, and the urge to dominate intensifies. The pathology feeds itself.

The researchers who conducted the first study suggest, having discovered that bullies prosper, that we should “help to channel this characteristic in children in a more positive way.” To my mind, this is the wrong conclusion. Instead, we should seek to build societies in which aggression and dominance are not rewarded. It would be better for schools to focus on dissuasion and counselling.

But at every stage of our lives we are forced into destructive competition. Not only are children pressed repeatedly into winnowing contests, but so are schools. In England for instance, with its Sats tests and brutal Ofsted regime, these contests damage the well-being of children and teachers. As always, the competition is organised to enable the wealthy and powerful to win. But, as Charles Spencer explains in his memoir of life at boarding school, winning is also losing: Parents who send their children to private schools pay to create a dominant outer persona, but the child in the shell might be twisted into knots of fear and flight and anger.

This counter-education is reinforced in later life by a thousand self-help books, websites, and videos. For example, a popular site and programme called The Power Moves, run by the social scientist Lucio Buffalmano, teaches you “10 ways to be more dominant.” These include exerting social pressure, claiming territory, “aggress, assert and punish,” and face-slapping. You can also learn eight ways to dominate women, an essential lesson because, apparently, “women sleep with men who make them submit.” The techniques Buffalmano promotes include “hold her face if she refuses to kiss you,” “jokingly push her into a horizontal position,” “jokingly drag her toward the bed,” and “penetrate her mind with ‘Daddy Dominance.’”

Buffalmano claims he wants “to advance humanity by empowering good men to advance, lead, and win.” The more likely result is to increase the pool of utter jerks. We should learn instead to be thoughtful, prosocial, kind: to resist dominance, whoever exercises it.

Obvious bullying in the workplace is no longer generally tolerated. But I suspect that in many cases the apparent improvement is a result of bullies learning to mask their impulses, while they continue to control and manipulate without stepping over the HR line.

But overt bullying is resurgent in politics. Trump, Putin, Netanyahu, Orbán, Milei and others do little to disguise their crude dominance behaviours. When Trump stalked round the back of Hillary Clinton during their presidential debate and when he disgracefully mocked a journalist’s disability, we could see the child he was—and the child he remains. Our political systems—centralised, hierarchical—are ripe for exploitation by bullies. As in the school playgrounds of old, the worst people end up on top.

The same dynamics operate at the global level. Governments assure their people they’re engaged in a “global race”: If we fall behind, another nation will overtake us. This story of zero-sum competition justifies any and every abuse. It was used by European nations to rationalise their empire-building and elective wars. It was soon accompanied by a self-serving myth: that the dominance race will be won by the “dominant race.” As Charles Darwin put it: “The civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” By subtler means, with subtler justifications, the rich nations still play the same game: Their wealth is to a large extent dependent on extraction from other countries.

But while the one-sided race between nations continues, we collectively race toward the precipice of environmental collapse. If ever there were a need for cooperation and collaboration, it is now. But competition reigns, a competition all of us are destined to lose.

In short, we should stop celebrating coercive and controlling behaviour. At every stage of education and career progression, and in politics, economics, and international relations, we should seek to replace a competitive ethos with a cooperative one.

This is the amazing thing about human beings, as opposed to cichlid fish: It doesn’t have to be like this. We can control our own behaviour, and envision and build better forms of organisation. Through deliberative, participatory democracy, both in politics and in the workplace, we can create systems that work for everyone. There is no natural law that states that playground bullies should continue exacting tribute for the rest of their lives.

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