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The sociopathic nature of corporations: Power Dynamics and how to break free

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By Kasper Benjamin Reimer Bjørkskov

· 9 min read

In the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham designed what he believed was the perfect prison, called the Panopticon. The Panopticon was a circular prison with open-sided walls facing the cells and a tower in the middle. The tower could be manned or unmanned because, as Bentham said,

 "The fear and uncertainty were enough to grind rogues honest." 

In the 20th century, the French philosopher Michel Foucault used the Panopticon as a metaphor for the power dynamics of observation. According to Foucault, when we know we are being watched, we behave in a certain way, forcing ourselves to appear normal and respectable in the eyes of society. Over time, we internalize this fear and begin to police ourselves. This is why we stop at a red light in the middle of the night, even when there are no cars around. 

We modify our behavior and bend our actions to the power of self-surveillance and internalized norms, which are imposed on us by societal authorities. There is no need for actual guards in the Panopticon towers because the guards are in our minds. Self-surveillance influences our behavior because we internalize the feeling of being watched. This persistent fear of observation functions as a form of social control, and is more rooted in our culture than we might think. 

The gaze and judgment of others in our heterodox culture create a panopticon-like prison, compelling us to conform to societal norms. This cultural phenomenon is not natural; it is crafted by elites who use narratives to justify the current system, keeping us confined in a nearly inescapable prison. We are told to keep working to ensure a good society and welfare, despite the reality of an increasingly unequal distribution of the surplus of  wealth, a trend that has intensified since the 1970s. Today, eight individuals possess more wealth than four billion people.

The mechanisms through which elites preserve their dominance over the masses bear a striking resemblance to the principles of the panopticon, wherein cultural norms established by the same elites function as a form of self-surveillance that enables them to remain in power.. This elite-driven narrative permeates the corporate and economic spheres, where the anthropomorphization of companies has helped ensure the proliferation of traits associated with the Dark Triad.

The term "Dark Triad" refers to three interrelated personality traits: sociopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. These traits are not fixed diagnoses but rather fluctuating characteristics that individuals can exhibit to varying degrees depending on the context.

Narcissism: involves an inflated sense of entitlement and a desire for recognition and admiration.

Sociopathy: is characterized by a lack of empathy, indifference to others' suffering, and an absence of remorse.

Machiavellianism: is the ability to manipulate and strategize, often with a focus on self-interest and cunning.


While these traits can sometimes be found in effective leaders within modern societies and corporations, they are also seen in today's financial system, where corporations function as institutional sociopaths, embodying the traits of the Dark Triad.

The acceleration of these traits occurred when corporations were endowed with "personhood rights." Originally conceived to extend individual rights to marginalized groups, this legal doctrine was subsequently applied to corporations, affording them the same legal protections as individuals. In the 1886 case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, the Supreme Court's headnote indicated that the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause applies to corporations. This granted corporations personhood rights, allowing them to benefit from due process and equal protection, similar to individuals, but without the same level of accountability.

In today's system, corporations function as institutional sociopaths, embodying the traits of the Dark Triad. They are cybernetic entities, operating independently of any single person. The removal or replacement of individuals, whether a CEO or a factory worker, does not affect the corporation's continuity. These entities follow legal agreements and protect their directors from personal responsibility for corporate actions, thereby perpetuating a system driven by profit maximization without empathy.

Corporations, by design, are conditioned to grow indefinitely and dominate markets, embodying narcissism. Their strategic foresight aligns with Machiavellian principles, focusing on long-term dominance and manipulation. The lack of empathy in corporate actions is a result of their cybernetic, non-sentient nature.

The corporation operates as an obligate sociopath. This characteristic drives corporations to propagate the notion that externalities cannot be anticipated or mitigated. This notion is advantageous to those who benefit from creating these externalities, as it allows them to privatize gains while socializing losses. As a result, the beneficiaries of these externalities are able to shape the dominant narrative, much like historical victors who have written history to suit their own interests.

Consequently, many prevalent ideas are marketed as a discourse to justify and uphold the power of the dominant class. The dominant narrative often acts as an apologetic defense for the existing power structures. This is why colonialism was framed as a benevolent mission to civilize indigenous cultures through violence and why capitalism is often portrayed as a force that has lifted people out of poverty, despite evidence that more people are living in poverty today than ever before.

“Hierarchies feedback on the natural  system pushing it to further expand because Elites depend On the expansion of surplus for their survival as elites” - Lisi Krall 

This analysis highlights two crucial points: The path to escape the prison of societal norms involves holding elites and corporations accountable, breaking free of the heterodox culture, aligning goals beyond mere profit maximization and dark triad traits. It underscores the importance of challenging and rewriting the dominant narrative we must transform from the dark triad to a light triad inspired by the wisdom of original people. 

Embracing the light triad: The wisdom of original people offers a pathway to liberation

The dominance of the Dark Triad traits has led to a culture centered on profit, exploitation, and indifference. This environment functions like a Panopticon, a metaphorical prison of perpetual surveillance and control that traps individuals and communities in cycles of consumption and competition. However, the wisdom of original people offers a powerful alternative: the Light Triad. By emphasizing respect for all beings, interconnectedness, and sustainable stewardship, these principles provide a transformative framework for creating a more equitable and humane world.

This philosophical exploration delves into the essence of this transition and the transformative power of the Light Triad in dismantling the Panopticon of contemporary society. The wisdom of original people teaches us to treat every individual and living being with respect and dignity, recognizing their intrinsic value. This principle stands in stark contrast to the narcissistic tendencies of modern corporations that view people and nature merely as resources to be exploited. By adopting a perspective that values every being for their inherent worth, we shift from a hierarchical, exploitative model to one that fosters mutual respect and cooperation. This respect for all beings disrupts the Panopticon's control, as it empowers individuals and communities to assert their dignity and demand equitable treatment.

The principle of interconnectedness emphasizes that all life is interrelated and that the well-being of one is tied to the well-being of all. This wisdom of original people challenges the sociopathic indifference to others' suffering that pervades corporate practices. Recognizing our interconnectedness fosters a sense of community and mutual responsibility, promoting ethical decision-making that considers the broader impact on society and the environment. It's impossible to act in self interest when one recognized:

“I am, because we are” 

This interconnectedness weakens the Panopticon's grip by cultivating solidarity and collective action, empowering communities to challenge exploitative practices and advocate for systemic change.

Sustainable stewardship, a cornerstone of the wisdom of original people, advocates for the careful and sustainable use of the earth's resources to ensure the well-being of future generations. This principle directly counters the Machiavellian exploitation often seen in corporate strategies that prioritize short-term profits over long-term sustainability. By embracing sustainable stewardship, corporations can transition to practices that protect the environment and promote a healthier ecosystem. This shift not only benefits the planet but also liberates society from the destructive cycle of consumption and waste perpetuated by the Panopticon.

To enable the transition we must embrace the wisdom of original people and this will ensure a:

“path to a fairer economy that will deconstruct monopolies, decommodify essential goods, democratize production  and redistribute wealth.”

Deconstructing monopolies is essential, as they concentrate power and wealth, perpetuating economic inequality and control. By breaking up monopolies, we can create a more level playing field, fostering innovation and resilience. This deconstruction challenges the Panopticon's economic dominance, enabling smaller businesses and communities to thrive.

Essential goods such as healthcare, education, and housing should be accessible to all, not treated as commodities for profit. By decommodifying these goods, we promote social equity and well-being, weakening the Panopticon's hold on our basic needs. Democratizing production, by giving workers and communities a say in how businesses are run, ensures more equitable decision-making and broader sharing of benefits. Worker cooperatives and community-owned enterprises exemplify democratic production models that prioritize people over profits, challenging the Panopticon's hierarchical control. Addressing economic inequality through progressive taxation, social safety nets, and wealth redistribution policies ensures more equitable resource sharing. This redistribution disrupts the Panopticon's concentration of wealth and power, fostering social stability and justice.

The transition from the Dark Triad to the Light Triad, inspired by the wisdom of origins people, is not merely a practical necessity but a profound philosophical imperative. It calls for a reevaluation of our values and priorities, urging us to embrace empathy, community, and sustainability over exploitation, competition, and control. By adopting the Light Triad principles of respect for all beings, interconnectedness, and sustainable stewardship, we can escape the Panopticon's prison and create a more equitable and just world. This shift not only liberates individuals and communities but also enables us to start trusting each other again.  

The profound wisdom of original peoples illuminates our path, enabling us to dismantle the pervasive heterodox culture and the oppressive Panopticon of self-surveillance. 

By challenging the dominant narrative that benefits the few at the expense of the many, we embark on a philosophical journey toward the Light Triad, a journey that liberates us from the constraints of the Panopticon. 

This transformative quest requires the reprogramming of our existing systems, fostering a society that prioritizes ethical principles and social responsibility. Through these measures, we can cultivate a world where equity and justice prevail over the relentless pursuit of profit.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Kasper Benjamin Reimer Bjørkskov is an architect who specializes in converting complex environmental and social challenges into innovative, sustainable architectural solutions, promoting inclusive design that spurs societal change. He has actively engaged in numerous architectural projects dedicated to minimizing CO2 emissions, demonstrating the feasibility of constructing buildings and simultaneously reducing CO2 with no additional costs.

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