Transcript: Anne Manne in conversation with Ramona Koval

Watch the interview here.

RAMONA KOVAL: Anne Manne, welcome to the Monthly Book.

ANNE MANNE: It’s lovely to be here.

RK: Well, your book starts with the Anders Breivik story, so I want you to tell us that story so that people who are watching us can get a context to what happened with Anders Breivik.

AM: Well, a young man first of all exploded a bomb in the centre of Oslo in Norway and then he went heavily armed to an island where the young members of the Norwegian Labour Party were gathered for a summer camp. And in this very idyllic and beautiful setting he came across with extraordinary heavy weaponry and then proceeded to kill 67 young people.

He had been planning it for some time. He was an isolated, humiliated loner, which is a real theme in the mass shootings. When he was arrested, there was an incredibly interesting and revealing scene where he was standing on this island with these young slain people who suffered terribly, not only through dying but were in agony or had suffered the terror of him and seeing their young friends being slaughtered. And as the policemen approached him, he held up a finger and he demanded a bandaid because he had a small cut on the finger.

And I thought that was extraordinarily revealing of the narcissism in this person. And indeed there was a controversy straight away when he was arrested as to whether or not he was suffering from psychosis and therefore not responsible for his actions. And in a way some people wanted him to be not responsible, because if he was responsible, then [it’s] such a horrifying thing to think that someone would want to do this and carry it out in full and lucid mind.

But the first suggestions that he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia were regarded as incorrect by numbers of specialists, and finally in the trial he was described by different forensic psychologists and psychiatrists as having an extreme narcissistic personality disorder – perhaps the most extreme you’ve ever seen. And that is exemplified in the way he behaved. I have to say, not only did he hold up a finger to have a bandaid on but when he was in the trial at no point did he show remorse for what he had done, even though the relatives of the young people who were killed had to hear in graphic detail what he’d done; he often described it in very cold, clinical ways.

There was one moment, however, where he was moved, and that was when they showed a video of a part of his manifesto, his ideological manifesto, because he’d actually couched the whole attack on these young people in terms of defending Norway and Europe against the Islamic hordes who were allegedly coming, and against what he called cultural Marxists who were undermining the proper nature and hierarchy of society. But he actually wept at that moment when he heard his manifesto – a bit of it – being read out, at the sound of his own words.

RK: So he wasn’t in the throes of some kind of madness, because he had let a bomb go off first so that he would take all attention away from what he was going to do on the island.

AM: Yes.

RK: So, a lot of planning.

AM: Yes.

RK: And ability to carry out. His executive facilities were very, very good.

AM: There was meticulous planning, obsessional focus on detail. The manifesto itself is an extraordinary document of some 1500 pages. It was put up on the net. It’s actually quite cogent, even though it’s a pastiche of other people’s ideas, particularly very right-wing people. And it’s kind of crazy, ultimately, but it’s certainly not what you’d expect from someone in a state of schizophrenia who often has a word salad and strange connections.

RK: And things underlined and capital letters and all the things that we’re familiar with – some of us have had letters like that from people.

AM: Yes, yes. So that what is significant to that person is not significant to others, and we’re wondering why this word is such a signifier of so much meaning and so much terror or so much desire or whatever it is.

So the disintegrative aspects of schizophrenia were not true of Breivik. And as I say, it was not long before people quickly picked up not only his narcissism. For example, they said, “How did you feel when you were killing all those young people?” and he said, “Well, you know, it was terrible for me. War is hell, all those brains and blood spurting out, look how I suffer.” So again there is a focus on the self where there is no other. The other person has disappeared from your line of mindsight.

RK: Well, let’s then talk about this diagnosis of narcissism. How do you know when you’re talking to a narcissist? What are the symptoms? 

AM: Well, initially you may not. Because they may seem very charming, they may seem lively, and they certainly like attention. So they may be creative performers, if you like. They may be quite sparkling as people and charismatic. However, as time goes on, rather than with a friendship with a non-narcissist where you might perhaps not see qualities at first and they’re obscured by different aspects you don’t quite understand about them, but gradually you grow to become fonder and see deeper and deeper aspects that you admire and cherish in them, with a narcissist, it’s the opposite experience. You begin to realise that you have a use value. You begin to realise that this person is exploitative and extremely entitled. And certainly if they’re criticised, where if at first you’re providing admiration then you withdraw that admiration and offer criticism, one aspect of the narcissist is that if they are criticised or humiliated, for example, in a laboratory study, someone who scores higher on narcissism will be willing to give a really aversive loud burst of noise to punish the person who is criticising their performance if they feel shamed by it, or simulated electric shocks.

So they are dangerous when they feel shamed or criticised or humiliated. So over time these aspects come to the fore. If you’re working in a team environment, you may find they continually self-enhance and claim credit for the work that’s really the work of the group. These are not people who say, “We did this.” They say, “I did this,” and they might even cut someone out or the group out of credit and want to be the one who takes the credit for it. And they self-enhance constantly.

RK: They’re always terribly good at things.

AM: Yes, and better than they really are. Because when they actually assess against a performance, they discover they’re no better than anybody else.

RK: Which must be very annoying, to be a narcissist, because you’re constantly being shamed and humiliated because you’re not actually being celebrated by people around you for the things you think you deserve. 

AM: Well, exactly, and one of the items on a very important measure called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory gives you fixed choice questions but one of them is “I like to get the respect I deserve”, and of course sometimes we get that and sometimes we don’t but it doesn’t mean you can give someone a electric shock because you haven’t been treated in the manner you have either become entitled to or you feel entitled to. 

RK: The latest narcissist, I guess, is that US killer, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger. He fits into this category, do you think?

AM: Uh, yes.

RK: So he had a manifesto too, didn’t he?

AM: He did and he put it on the web. Often one of the aspects is narcissism is wanting to be seen, what Christopher Lasch called the theatre of the everyday, and the theatre of everyday now of course has so many outlets for people either to twitter or to put a YouTube video up or somehow be seen in some way.

RK: Because it’s everywhere and every day and every moment.

AM: And there’s never a moment where you cannot try to be seen. There’s never a moment you may not pursue attention. 

RK: We should just say what Elliot Rodger did.

AM: Yes, well, he first of all went on several YouTube – he put several clips of himself up and he wrote this manifesto and then he proceeded to kill young men and young women. And the issue was that he felt rejected by women but also humiliated by people who he thought were their sexual partners. He described himself as perfect, as beautiful, as magnificent, and then he proceeded to say why aren’t these young women – he was an unhappy virgin, he’d not yet had sexual relationships. But rather than deal with any of those issues, rather than seek a therapist or in any way try and deal with it within reality, he seemed to have entered more and more of a fantasy world where he was able to take vengeance not only, interestingly, upon the young women that he felt had rejected him but those young men who had not been rejected by the women, so he actually killed men as well as young women.

RK: So what do you think the evidence is that the problem of narcissism is getting worse? Presumably we’re getting more narcissists or they’re getting more deeply narcissistic. I should say that the book talks about narcissism in the individual and we’ll later get onto narcissism in society, but stay with the individuals now, are there more narcissists? Can we measure that?

AM: Well, there are ways of measuring – essentially two ways. One is the checklist that psychiatrists would use and the other is a Narcissistic Personality Inventory that is essentially used by academic psychologists, particularly university students or college populations. But you can also see it not only in those quite precise measures, where they are finding an increase in narcissism but I think just look around you: there are rising rates of plastic surgery. We now don’t have Thailand getaways, we have Thailand makeover getaways where people go and come back 11 kilos lighter and it’s due to the liposuction rather than losing their luggage.

RK: (Laughs)

AM: In the general incivility, in public discussion, a lot of anger and to me inappropriate personalisation of issues very often. You see it in road rage, where people simply cannot put up with being held up at an intersection. And we see it in ways where we’re less willing to be – which we’ll look at perhaps later – generous and empathetic to those who are struggling, [those] more vulnerable or less fortunate than ourselves.

So I think there are many ways you can look at rising narcissism. I don’t agree with all of Christopher Lasch’s case, but there was one thing I really did agree with – and essentially my book is one of the same turf in this sense. It’s not his endorsement of the patriarchal family but his examination of where the psyche meets the larger culture. And what he did say was that prevailing conditions bring out the narcissism in people. So I guess that was one of the things that was interesting. I believe that, for example, it’s not just Elliot Rodger but when we look at much milder cases of sexual aggression the literature on sexual narcissism is highly interesting and it is a different way of looking at it, but I think it’s very illuminating. If narcissism is rising, then we’re going to have more and more of those cases, unless we take steps to counteract it.

And if you look at the way some of these young men in the ADF [Australian Defence Force], at universities – at Yale University in the US or here – there is a huge amount of not only entitlement but also willingness to behave exploitatively. And what they’ve shown in detailed psychological work is that someone more narcissistic is more likely to act with aggression and feel entitled if they encounter a sexual refusal. So it becomes very significant, not only at an individual level, to do with a rape culture. They are more likely to endorse rape myths, for example, the higher they score in narcissism. They’re more likely to go into denial, which is another aspect of narcissism, over what they’ve actually done. There’s an extraordinary study by Diana Scully in the US. She interviews incarcerated rapists and they will say things like “We had sex, I don’t know why the woman didn’t ring back,” and they will think that they’ve never had a refusal. Actually they’re there because they have stalked someone, broken into their apartment, raped them, but they are so distorted in their thinking and it couldn’t possibly be the case that they are–

RK: They think this is foreplay.

AM: Well, yes, you know. And they even say that. “She was really into oral stuff,” you know, because they’ve forced her to perform oral sex and so on. And so I think it’s an illuminating and as yet unexamined framework. So I’m trying to pull it together and also link it to a culture of entitlement.

So I think that’s one [way narcissism is prevalent], and another one is narcissism in sport. And there I use the case of Lance Armstrong and the corruption of the Tour de France and the corrosion of character which occurred.

RK: I didn’t know much about Lance Armstrong until recently. I hadn’t realised what a heroic story he had, and we’ll get back to him in a second, but I really wanted to talk about how do you make sure you don’t make narcissists. What do we know about their experience as children–

AM: Yes.

RK: That may have inclined them towards this?

AM: Well, this is the great question. And for me the book was like a psychological mystery story that I wanted to unravel. I found it completely fascinating and I read hugely in all sorts of domains. But in essence I should flag that there is a major contribution by Professor Jean Twenge and Professor Keith Campbell in a book called The Narcissism Epidemic. It’s based on serious scholarly work that they have done and many others have done. And I think it’s a tremendous lively account and I think they do some terrific empirical work – I think there’s a lot of things that I would agree with. However, I was less impressed and less convinced by their sense of a cause. And they have a fairly simple spoiling account. Children are spoilt, and there’s a lot of that: helicopter mother, helicopter father, you know, there is a problem of indulgence. Whereas the more I looked into it, the less I felt satisfied with this explanation. Instead I think it is a strange mixture, both in the individual cases I look at and also in the society at large. It is where there is a material indulgence, people get a lot of stuff, there is permissiveness. It is certainly true there is indulgence, that is one part of it. But as one of the authors, Jean Twenge, says in an earlier book, Generation Me, there’s a huge amount of anxiety and depression amongst young people as well, so you can’t – it seems to me – simply say, “Look, this is all bluster and so on.” There is also something happening in the culture which makes people adopt a kind of defensive narcissism, and in terms of child rearing I felt that in case after case that I looked at, and also across more mass studies, there is a mixture of indulgence on the other hand but also insecurity [on the other], where the children are best summed up a very brilliant psychologist on narcissism, John Fiscalini, where he says, “Children get what they don’t need and don’t get what they do need.”

RK: So are they being indulged for a tiny period of the time – that’s the time they have access to the parent or whoever is looking after them – and it’s all given then?

AM: Yes.

RK: And then what, they’re ignored, abandoned, the rest of the time?

AM: Well, not abandoned, because they might still be in the parent’s mind, but we live much more stressed and stressful lives, and so a lot of the arguments are about parents hovering all the time and being there and so on, which simply does not take account of how people live now, partly rates of divorce, when you have a father across the other side of the country, it doesn’t take account of our working patterns, so it’s an imperfect and inadequate account.

I also thought, which we could also discuss a bit later, that they underestimated this social ecology that parents are existing in. It’s not just a matter of individual choice and people choosing to treat a baby like royalty – in fact, people are responding to a hypercompetitive economy and they feel that unless they give the child every last gadget and every last bit of attention while they’re there, that child may miss out on finding a place in the world, so that it’s very success-oriented. But when I looked through the psychoanalytic case studies, and when I looked through quite a bit of other social psychologists who’ve also done large-scale studies, they seem to me to be showing up this pattern of … distractedness is probably the best way of putting it, of inattention, and then all of a sudden massive attention when they’re there, caught in the notion of quality time perhaps.

RK: When you have a look at these manifestos, am I wrong to think that there’s a mine of, or a line of, rapidly anti-feminism in their expression? And I’m wondering is that something about their relationship with their mothers?

AM: I don’t know enough about the Elliot Rodger case, his relationship. It’s certainly true of the Breivik case, but also an absent father. A mother is never a mother by herself; she’s always a mother in relation to what other people are doing to surround her if she is a primary caregiver, or whoever is a primary caregiver. [They] behave in a certain way according to the ecology that they find themselves inhabiting. If they are ignored and abandoned by others, then their task is going to be so much harder. But there is certainly a theme of male reactants, of retrieving manhood in incredibly destructive ways.

In the case of Breivik, his father walked out of the marriage very early, he had an extremely conflicted relationship with his mother. She seems herself to have been in deep trouble. She had a diagnosed borderline personality disorder, which is marked by great instability, emotional instability, fear of abandonment. And of course, yes, the husband has actually walked off. She told young Anders that she wished she was dead. There’s a little boy between the ages of nought and four being told this. The next minute she’d be speaking to him in a really sugary voice.

There was so much concern about what was described, not in enough detail for us to understand fully what happened, but [there was] a sexualised atmosphere in the home, so that by [the time Breivik was] four a psychiatric unit had been brought in to have a look at how … This is in a very liberal society that very rarely ever takes a child from their parents, but they did think Anders should be removed, and it was later a judge who decided that he wouldn’t be – probably on very old-fashioned grounds, that you should never remove a child from its mother, and of course it’s a huge thing to do.

But it was a seriously disturbed and distorted background. There was suggestion that he’d been sexually abused, although it wasn’t really clear who was responsible. And he lost contact with his father and there’s a tremendous amount in his manifesto of – it looks like trying appeal to the old father and to articulate the old father, and there is a way in which you could read the manifesto of seeing the “pollutant hordes” coming in as being the stepfather who came in and infected his mother with a venereal disease. So it’s a powerful theme, but it’s a way of coping with humiliation and shame to assert the most aggressive form of masculinity, and that’s also a theme through the chapter I have on sexual narcissism. 

RK: Like the case of Ariel Castro and his abduction and imprisonment and torture and rape of those three girls for 11 years. He was called an extreme narcissist and sexual predator. Again, you say he sees himself as a victim somehow here.

AM: Yes, it’s interesting you raise that because one of the strange conundrums of narcissism is that – although if you understand the underlying architecture of it it’s no longer strange – on the one hand they’re very self-enhancing, so he, typical of many rapists, does not acknowledge that he raped those women. He actually chained them up in the basement, put a motorcycle helmet over their heads so that their screams for the neighbours would be muffled. But he maintained in court – a long rambling monologue, very like Breivik’s – that he was not responsible for rape, that the sex was consensual and that the women were asking for it. He even abducted one woman by persuading her to get him to look for a dog, I think – somehow he persuaded her to get in the car. He spoke about it as if it was her fault. He had viciously assaulted his wife so that she had broken bones and so on, and he said, “Well, she put her hands on me, I put my hands on her,” a complete abstraction and refusal to acknowledge what had happened. So he was in complete and utter denial.

But coming to your point about self-pity, at the end he did burst into tears of self-pity, and right through the discussion of sexual narcissism there is a sense of not just entitlement but grievance, which is very evident in Elliot Rodger, and self-pity. And often a narcissist will have, precisely as you said earlier, because they have such grandiose expectations of being treated better than anybody else, they are so superior underneath, so perfect, that you’ll then have self-pity: “Why am I treated so badly?” When in fact they’re not treated any worse than any other person. Every person will encounter what Freud calls the reality principle – you realise that life will not always go your way and you’ll be disappointed in this, and maybe something else will go well, but it’s within reality, it will not bend to your will. Actually, as a psychotherapist once said to me, reality doesn’t give a shit.

RK: (Laughs)

AM: And it’s true. It does not. So you have to actually adapt to what it dishes out to you, whereas these people are like a small child, saying, “How, why am I not being treated better?”

And so self-pity can be a real kind of trope, and it’s particularly worrying in relation to women if it becomes part of an ideology that “these bitches are withholding what I need and want”. And the Ariel Castro and the Elliot Rodger [cases are] very extreme, but in the middle of that chapter I look at the much less extreme cases of date rape, which is the much more common form of sexual coercion, and [the perpetrators’] entitlement and sense of grievance and the ways in which pornography now works for young men – there’s been a lot of very interesting work on that.

RK: Back to Lance Armstrong and his story of “no matter, what he’s going to win” and “no matter what he has to take he’s going to win” and “no matter who else is standing in his way he’s going to win”, including his friends and people on his team. And you say that the corrosion of character in sport is emblematic of the wider social system, and you ask yourself and ask us whether narcissism has become the character of our times. 

AM: Mmm.

RK: Are you saying that in certain kinds of societies we get the narcissist we deserve in a way, or the narcissism is fitting into all of the other values that we say are the values we are interested in?

AM: Yes, well, I’ll just say a little of the story of Lance Armstrong. He, for a long time, was regarded as what one commentator called the Citizen Saint, and he had won seven Tours de France. It’s an astonishing marathon – one of the greatest endurance tests of humankind, over mountains, French countryside and the most difficult kind of terrain. So it’s a magnificent event and it’s run over three weeks, and the human endurance which is conjured by these whisper-thin cyclists and the strength they show of character is extraordinary.

So he was, in a way, everyone thought, justly admired for this, and he had cancer before he started on this journey, and there was a whole story he wrote, it was called It’s Not About the Bike, with a ghostwriter, a very brilliant sports writer, Daniel Coyle [actually, co-written with Sally Jenkins]. So he was first one of the great heroes of the modern age, and he would put forward: miracles can happen.

And it was a story that really spoke to the individual. The rugged individualism of America, you know, that the individual can conquer all, he can even conquer testicular cancer and so on. However, as was revealed on Oprah, at the end of a huge amount of very good investigative journalism and as a result of the US equivalent of ASADA here, the sports authority looking into doping and so on, it was found that he had actually been doping through all this time. And his testicular cancer was because he had been taking steroids and the kinds of things which would lead to that thankfully rare disease.

But it’s about not just the nature of a narcissist. He would say his basic stance in life was “whatever you’re doing, those other fuckers are doing more”. So it was hyper-competitive: “the winner will take all”, “I will be the winner”, “there are winners and losers”. The way he treated his team was extraordinarily … 

RK: Callous.

AM: Callous, exploitative, you know. If someone has some kind of injury … But he also used the doping to keep them in their place. If anyone threatened his dominance of the team, he would withdraw. The doping took two forms. The first was a lot of enhancing, performance-enhancing, drugs like EPO, which essentially delivers more oxygen to the blood, and that gives you more power. You can race up those mountains. People were bewildered by the increase in the peloton’s speed.

RK: Over the years, yes, the figures are amazing. Suddenly there’s this huge leap.

AM: They’re all riding faster.

RK: But evolution doesn’t work that fast.

AM: Alas, it does not. And that’s the great wonder of sport: the person, the task, the challenge, but will it be right on the day? Will it come right for the Olympics? And the temptation is always there to cheat, but we only value sport when it’s not cheating, for very good reason.

Anyway, he led many others on this path, and in fact there would have been other teams too where there just became a culture of doping – it wasn’t only Lance Armstrong – where in a way you couldn’t be a professional bike rider without doping.

So he would do things too like once they got on to the performance-enhancing drugs, he would use blood transfusions. And so he would take blood out at a time when he was not depleted and of his team, it would be done somewhere obscurely in Spain by a doctor, and at a key point when everyone is depleted they would be lying in a team bus and the blood would be dripping into their veins and they would be replenished with oxygen carrying red blood cells. And then within a reasonably short amount of time they would be strong, while the authentic riders, the non-cheats, would be flailing. So it struck me that the title of his book, “It’s Not About the Bike”, was in fact a deeper title than he realised.

RK: Mmm.

AM: I thought this is not about the bike, and it’s not only about the corruption of sport. One of the saddest things in this is to read not Lance Armstrong’s self-promoting, self-enhancing, very narcissistic autobiography, but to read the anguished accounts by young and talented riders who had the most wonderful ability – and here is this chance in life to fulfil that ability, that’s a very deep thing, it should be a pure impulse, it should be something we get behind and support – or [cyclist and anti-doping campaigner] David Miller from England. So these young, fresh-faced boys who hoped for so much and wanted to ride clean are gradually corrupted by the culture of the peloton.

So at the end of the chapter, I really thought to myself, it’s not about the bike, it’s not about sport, that this is reflective of a lot of other material I had read on the economy. Books like Robert Frank’s The Winner-Take-All Society, where he shows that when someone in our culture … Now with the internet, someone who’s a winner, or becomes famous or who becomes very well known, has far greater rewards than, say, the second-place getter. So the economics of sport has changed, the economics of opera singing, the economics of everything has changed because of that. But also that this is a hyper-competitive culture. We have taken a great leap forward into a different kind of capitalism. It’s not only consumer capitalism, which we’ve had for many decades now, but it’s a particular variant, and in that sort of society you are more likely to have a narcissistic character who is rewarded until you finally get to the last scene in the play, as it were, where, like Lance Armstrong, you realise they’ve been cheating. But nonetheless there’s been a great shift where this hyper-competitive elbows-out, really nasty pasty kind of ruthless attitude to people becomes at the centre of culture rather than something that is frowned upon and pushed aside.

RK: Well, in part two, you start with, I suppose, the text for our times, by Ayn Rand, and I remember doing a story a few years ago, that I think Ayn Rand was the most read book. The numbers of people reading Ayn Rand in America was increasing, and these books were new, and I was kind of amazed, but tell us about her and tell us about her philosophy.

AM: Well, Ayn Rand, it’s a highly interesting case. I had not thought a lot about her, really, and I had dismissed her as a bit of a crank. When I came to look at the global financial crisis and look at what had happened to financial elites – which is the opening to the second half of the book, which is on narcissism and society, really I’m trying to look at the ways in which the broader aspects of our culture are shaping the individual – I realised she’s much more important than I thought. That was one of the first things, that many more people than I realised read her books. One of her books is called The Virtue of Selfishness (laughs).

RK: (Laughs)

AM: And I also recognised that some of the things I began to pick up in our culture around perhaps the ’80s and ’90s, I now had a name for it – you know, where people were asserting in personal life or in business or in politics as to who should get what, questions of justice, questions of inequality, questions of vulnerability were giving way the assertion of, essentially, the virtue of selfishness.

She herself was a refugee from communism, so what she was really saying all the time, her fear of the state was what had happened to her family. Communism was an evil system. She did suffer, as so many did. They at least survived. Something real propelled her out of Soviet Russia towards America, but her thinking was ever after distorted. But in many ways she reflected the extremity of the communist doctrine, only flipped on its head, and now the free market would give everything. Where the state would give it all, now the market would deliver.

RK: And the poor were just sucking the lifeblood out of–

AM: They were parasites.

RK: People who could get on.

AM: Yes, and there’s this tremendous assertion, and it’s interesting because she was a woman, but a very old-fashioned, masculine (laughs) version of self-sufficiency and strength. None of her novels or writings have anyone who’s sick or vulnerable or old or … Just the part of reality of life is there will be people – we will certainly be independent in our lives, but there will be people who justly depend up on us at different times. We may depend upon our parents when we’re young, but with absolute justice they depend on us when they grow old and frail. Whereas for Ayn Rand, everything is written as if you were all young and male and in your 20s. There’s also a scene in one of her novels where she actually endorses the overcoming of a woman’s resistance – it’s a rape scene, so very strange.

She behaved exploitatively in her own life with her marriage. She decided that one of her younger acolytes, they were attracted to each other, so they had this bizarre meeting where she announced (laughs) to her long-suffering spouse and to his long-suffering spouse that they would now be having sex this afternoon and that. So with this fait accompli he would trail off to a bar and get drunk, and the woman was very badly affected by it. And then when his ardour cooled, she then criticised him as if he was failing on philosophical grounds rather than just saying “I’m wounded by the fact that he has rejected me.” And he was expelled from the group, including by Alan Greenspan.

RK: Yean, well, that was interesting thing I didn’t know, that Alan Greenspan [the American economist who served as the chairman of the US Federal Reserve] had a very close relationship with her and her philosophies, and you call him a super-spreader of the narcissism epidemic. Remind us what he was responsible for.

AM: Well, he’s not the only character, you know – if it hadn’t been someone else – but nonetheless it’s highly interesting that he was a devotee for a very long time. There’s no evidence that he ever recanted from Ayn Randism and there’s a photo of him with [the former US president] Gerald Ford and Ayn Rand where you suddenly see the influence. And she herself said that he is going from the glory zone of private business as a consultant and moving into the lesser world of the state in order to fulfil this ideology of seeing that regulation is a problem, that the state is a problem, business is always right.

And so he presided over the deregulation, which then, if you read all the material on the global financial crisis, was actually crucial: the reform of the Glass-Steagall Act, which enabled a different balance of lending and allowed lending to become, in short, riskier and riskier. And so he was a much more important character and links back to this. He actually edited some of her books, and he wrote essays for the publications, and they are along the lines of completely uncritical endorsement of the values of a very extreme form of capitalism and of this narcissism of the self. I mean, the attitude to the poor, for example, was the best way to deal with the problem was not to be one, not to be a poor person, which somewhat overlooks how it is that people become poor, what happens when you have $5 an hour as a wage, when you have lack of education, when you have awful teachers in poorer districts and so on and so on.

But Ayn Rand got her comeuppance, in a way. She never recognised it but in her old age, having decried the state all her life, she actually, when she had developed huge health problems and her husband turned to state-funded Medicare in the US, had to depend on that, because not even a wealthy woman who had sold all those books could afford healthcare in the US. So that seemed to me a really good example of something that the neoliberal age is not really taking account of and something I’ve of course been interested in exploring [in other works], which is the domain of care.

RK: You talk about the “asshole affect”. Or do we say “arsehole” here?

AM: We say “arsehole”. There was a little dilemma.

RK: (Laughs)

AM: Because the researcher is American who’s done this work on what he calls the “asshole effect”, so in order to be true to his phrase I called it in the “asshole effect”. But yes, as we would call it, the “arsehole effect” is essentially that … at one level I’m speaking about the financial elites and the kind of excess, the kind of crazy behaviour of, for example, the CEO of Merrill Lynch, where the company is going under and then he, in the middle of it all, he orders a redecorating of his offices and he spends $90,000 on a new rug and that’s just one emblem of this age of excess, the amount of cocaine snorted at Bernie Madoff’s, who finally ended up in prison, the cheating that went on. And actually George W Bush had a good line about this. He said, “Wall Street got drunk.”

RK: And everyone else has the hangover. 

AM: Yeah, that’s right, and it’s as if, if Keynesianism was where the parents were still control, this is like a teenager’s party – an age of excess and an age of irresponsibility. You see forms of greed and all the rest of it being quite untrammelled, you think about the damage done to young people whose firm is wiped out and they don’t have a job, they have a mortgage. You think about damage done to a man who can’t even get a job – he’s middle-aged. So this is a human story. The GFC is just three little letters to cover immense suffering.

But to come back to the “asshole effect”, it’s not just in financial elites. And I was concerned to … again looking at the arguments that just individuals get greedy as opposed to they’re embedded in a culture allowing the wrong values to flourish. Essentially this young researcher called Paul Piff found that when he looked at affluence, he found really problematic aspects of people’s behaviour as they became wealthier. For example …

RK: Noblesse oblige did not kick in. 

AM: No, it’s not to say that it doesn’t for anyone, but essentially it was the opposite of what you might think. Certainly I think we know that if people are very poor they can behave in distorted ways for understandable reasons, so there’s been a lot of attention to that. But this book is much more looking at a different sort of problem which has emerged, which is too much of something, abundance.

For example, he positioned people at a crossroads and he just counted how many cars behaved badly and gave way or did not give way. He found that the wealthier the person, the flasher the car, the more expensive the vehicle – really clear correlations – would not give way either to pedestrians or to other drivers. So that was the first thing. As a former driver of a little 1930s Morris Minor I can attest to that (laughs) “arsehole effect” when it comes to driving. It only had a top speed of 60 kilometres an hour. I would see a smart car in the rear vision mirror and I would just have to get off the road and just park quietly while they zoomed past, because the rage was sufficient to do something very dangerous when they saw a little slow car in front of them.

RK: I’ve been doing school pick-ups for grandchildren, and [there are] ladies in great big, huge industrial Hummers or something.

AM: Yes, yes, yes.

RK: And my grandchildren say, “How come they only come out on Wednesday afternoons and Monday afternoons?” Because I say, “These people don’t know how to drive.” “Why do so many people who don’t know how to drive always come out on Wednesday and Monday afternoons?” But it’s the same thing, they’ve got an entitlement to the road.

AM: Well, that’s right. So this was a naturalistic experiment. Then he took it into the lab and he began to prime people with a sense of being entitled and wealthy, so he would give them certain images or get them to think of themselves as well-off. And he found they were more susceptible to cheating, more susceptible to telling a potential employer a falsity in order to get a better wage deal for themselves. They would be more likely to rush to the mirror to check their appearance before they thought an interview was to be photographed. They were more likely to draw a larger circle, the more affluent they were, for themselves, in relation to other people. Which I found very intriguing but also revealing.

RK: So a large circle in terms of what? Entitlement to space or …?

AM: Yes, and they thought themselves to be bigger than others. They were asked to draw simple circles to represent themselves and others, and the wealthier, the larger the circle. Also the less empathy they displayed towards people who were vulnerable. So he called it the “asshole effect”, to sum up in a very vivid and pithy way of putting it. And there’d been a lot of discussion in the US about this.

However, he did make the point, and I expand on this in my book, which is that it’s actually quite fluid, because you’re not here dealing with … My book here ranges from the subclinical, the very mild, to the really extreme cases like Breivik and Elliot Rodger and Ariel Castro. So I must emphasise that we’re not talking about even a full-blown personality disorder, let alone someone … you know. So these are people, as he puts it, who could be otherwise. These are people who given the right primers, the right leadership, are actually … They’re not assholes, they can behave quite differently. So when they are shown images of child poverty, they can actually respond with empathy. So the thing we must look at is whether or not you can became so wealthy, particularly as one of the central aspects of the neoliberal era has been a great transfer to the top 1%, a great transfer to the top 20%. A huge inequality.

RK: And society, our society, now punishes vulnerability and penalises care.

AM: Mmm. Well, the person who is most admired, most praised, most desired, that kind of identity, I think is caught in that L’Oréal ad, which [stars] Patrick Dempsey. He is advertising a skin cream and he is walking along and he does various little things. There seems to be an expensive car in the background, there’s obviously a beautiful house and so on, and at one point he briefly handles a baby but there’s another pair of hands holding the baby, the baby’s sort of taken off stage. And to me that exemplifies the ways in which people are meant to pay their own way, they’re meant to have a job – including women – they’re meant to be self-sufficient economically and so on, which has many beneficial aspects for women, it’s a very good thing, but I don’t think we’re being truthful or honest about exactly what’s going happening to the care domain. I don’t think this is really written into it. It was certainly not written into Ayn Rand’s account.

And care has actually been marginalised. Often when I speak somewhere I’ll speak about care as being one of the central domains of life. And I will articulate a way of seeing that places it at the centre of life, not at the margins. And I’ll also talk about the shadow care economy, and how those who do a lot of care, whether they’re a person caring for someone with a disability, someone who’s caring for a husband who’s had a stroke, small children, we actually do penalise them economically. Where do they fit into this world of muscular animal spirits? Where do they fit into this world of self-enhancement and so on?

And people come up to me afterwards and they’ll say, “I’m so grateful you said that, because I have a daughter/brother/sister/mother/whatever with a mental illness and I am their caregiver and I feel like I’ve dropped out of the world.” Or a father might come up and say, “Actually, I have become the primary caregiver and it is astonishing now how I’m looked at. Now I see with new eyes what women go through.” And so this is an aspect of life.

I begin the chapter with David Foster Wallace’s wonderful thing about how two little fish are swimming along and someone swims past and says, “How’s the water today?” and they look at each other and say, “What’s the water?” It so surrounds them, they so take it for granted, they don’t actually think about it. And what he says is, “Look, the water is not all these things of ambition or all the rest of it, it’s actually care,” that ability to swing your attention to other people is such a precious thing.

RK: And you end on the ability to swing your attention to the care of the world, the care of the planet, the care of the future.

AM: The environment, yes.

RK: And how interesting that these individual aspects of narcissism writ large are having an effect on the very future of life on the planet.

AM: Yes, and that’s a really important thing to now talk about, because if we were simply talking about the excesses of affluence and people behaving like arseholes, it’s not great but it’s not the end of the world (laughs). Whereas if you look at this really crucial form of attentiveness we now have to give to the planet, which is telling us that there’s something wrong with what we’ve been doing, if you have a more narcissistic society, you are likely to be less willing to do something about it.

And in fact you find that at the very general level of where the argument goes, and I go through particular characters in denialism, but also, most importantly there’s work done by Keith Campbell, very interesting work, showing that people who are more narcissistic are less willing to share the commons. So given a situation where they have a forest and they’re told they have a certain amount of time they can exploit it, they will use up the resource very quickly. They do very well initially, but then very quickly everybody else is suffering, which is a great metaphor, I think, for our inability to tackle [climate change] and our susceptibility to be told a story that it’s not really happening or not to worry about it, or the ways in which the political process has moved away from a willingness to reach, to really take it on.

And if you move back from that, what we really need to do to tackle that, then you come across the way in which we are all getting embedded in this society where you cannot give up anything, where you cannot put up with a tax hike, because you need to have higher taxes in order to pay for necessary services. [There is] a sense of entitlement, a sense that the good life is bought by material things. And then of course there’s now such very good evidence that materialism doesn’t even lead to happiness, so there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we are looking at the world and ourselves.

RK: Are you an optimist?

AM: I think there are things that can be done about all of this. I decided not to have a conclusion which was about keeping bees (laughs), something that does not fully answer the power of the account beforehand. I think there are things that can be done, but I think that we face enormous challenges. What I was trying to do in this book was name a problem, because I think the first step is to name something, and so I’m naming it and I’m naming it narcissism.

RK: (Laughs) Well, Anne Manne, it’s been a great pleasure speaking with you for the Monthly Book.

AM: Well, it’s been lovely. Thank you.