HE.S.T.A.F.T.A. - Scientific Society of Mental Health Professionals


  • Sotiris ManolopoulosPsychiatrist-Child Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst
  • corruption
  • differentiation
  • individualization
  • pathological narcissism


The phenomena of corruption are ubiquitous. In this paper corruption is studied as an inherent component of human nature and as pathology of criminality. A thought disorder unites these two aspects of corruption. This thought disorder concerns the dominance of pathological narcissism and the abolition of limits and differences between self and others. With radical mechanisms of splitting – recognition and simultaneous denial – of affects that link us with ourselves and the others, the individual removes his self as a subject of repetitions and phantasies, with result not to feel any moral responsibility for another subject. The question is not how a system (individual, family, community) can punish but how it can contain the phenomena of corruption.

Key Words : corruption, differentiation, individualization, pathological narcissism.


According to many counts, in recent years the phenomenon of corruption has extended horizontally, doing away with distinctions. It provides the picture of an epidemic that puts us in mind of the idea of a repetition and phantasy of omnipotence. In his novel  The Eagle’s Throne  Carlos Fuentes poses the question: why do politicians leave so many traces of their corruption behind? Fuentes’ response: because they feel omnipotent. They ignore reality. I would add that they want to be unmasked, to be exposed, to make a show of themselves.

The neurologist David Owen (2012), former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Great Britain, borrowed from Greece the concept of  hubris  to describe politicians who display enormous self-confidence and refuse to let anything get in the way of obtaining what they want. There have been studies (sociological, historical) of the phenomenon of “endemic” and “structural” corruption. Here I will deal with some types of thinking that make us open to corruption, approaching the concept with the ambivalence common to many: as a phenomenon inherent to human nature, and as a criminal pathology.

David Mamet in his play  Glengarry Glen Ross  has one real estate agent say to another who opposes the “scam” they are running: “You can’t refuse. You heard me! So you’re guilty too.” The fact that the other agent heard the suggestion to run a scam means that he too is implicated. He has the willingness, and therefore is guilty. Because he was there and heard the corrupt proposal, he also “owns” a share in it, like someone with an illegal substance in their possession that was slipped into their pocket by someone else. Is he guilty for listening? For keeping quiet?

We have many layers of “silence” protecting the self from reality. Children learn early on how fickle their parents’ ability to empathize is: you have to please them so atht they take care of you. One basis for growth is the ability to say “no”, to distinguish pleasant from unpleasant, inner from outer, real from unreal. However, they learn at an early age that it is necessary but risky to listen, to speak, to form bonds, to say no, to differentiate themselves, and to decide for themselves what reality is.

The infant’s ability to create bonds is innate, and is owing to its biological immaturity. An infant would die if it were unable to send a signal to be heard by its mother, who will give it importance and thus, communicative value. For Freud (1895), this particular act is the beginning of morality.


In the beginning was the  act . The act of impulse starts from the body, forming the psychic world through the mother’s mediation. The act is a link between what I  do to the other outside myself and what I am inside myself (within). If my need to act and express my self is obstructed, I react violently. In the beginning, the infant is the entire world and acts without mercy for others. Gradually it becomes important not to lose the other, who acquires meaning and becomes one of the infant’s objects. It begins to want to make reparations. It is then that anxiety begins: Will its actions be paralyzed out of fear lest it either lost itself or did harm to another? Will it dare to put its thoughts into action to find out how far it can push the limits?

If it is true that biology makes the human animal a “political” animal, and the Polis a natural phenomenon, then we have to admit that this innate ability makes corruption a natural phenomenon as well. From the beginning of life, helpless and dependent on others, we have inscribed deep within us our contact with reality as painful and traumatic and cultivated a hatred for truth (Bion, 1965). Sometimes, it is healthy to turn a blind eye. The mother’s “lie” has a positive side: she dresses the infant’s body so it won’t be naked; she tells the helpless infant that there are no wars, hunger, destruction, financial crises; she maintains a period of illusion. Later, the same individual “clothes” reality, and “tinkers” with it to make it bearable. The word “seduction” in ecclesiastical Latin meant “lie, betrayal, corruption”. In the language of psychoanalysis, “seduction” is a primary fantasy that makes the presence of the other an influence that structures the psyche. With the “lie” of the mother -the first “seductress”- the infant is awakened to life at her breast  (Freud, 1905· Laplanche, 1992). The “lie” is the transfer from the body, need, and milk to the breast, desire, representation, fantasy, and to the other, who becomes the object of our love, aggression, knowledge, and friendship. The baby is entitled to live a phase of legitimate illusion. After real satisfaction at the mother’s breast, the infant is left the next time to recall in hallucinatory form this satisfaction as it sucks its finger. As the infant is fantasizing about the breast, the mother comes and nurses it, and the baby believes that she has created her presence and whatever exists in the world. The infant believes the world exists because it wants it to; if it stops hallucinating satisfaction, if it stops fantasizing and feeling, the world will cease to exist. Gradually, the mother introduces reality “in small doses” (Winnicott, 1971). Legitimate illusion is maintained throughout our lives in unconscious processes (fantasies, dreams) as the potential for “joie de vivre”. Infant omnipotence is projected onto the parents. Little by little, the child internalizes the idealized images of the parents and organizes the function we call the Ego Ideal. This is but one part of the totality of functions we call the Superego, originating from the child’s identifications, through which she internalizes the prohibitions and moral commands  regulated by relations with the parents before she abandons them by resolving the Oedipal conflict. What appears before her as an ideal is “the replacement for the lost paradise of childhood…” (Freud, 1914).


Hanly (1984) distinguished the Ego Ideal from the ideal ego. The ideal ego indicates a state of actual being; the Ego Ideal, a state of becoming: “The ideal ego … believes that it has been given a guarantee of perfection … the Ego Ideal in contrast refers to a perfection which must be achieved (in the future), to a (potentially) achievable but not-yet-achieved dynamic. It is an idea of perfection towards which the Ego is obliged to strive… The Ego Ideal establishes objectives, goals, and intentions for the Ego’s actions/activity, specifically for its maturation… it holds before the Ego its destiny” (p. 253).

At the end of adolescence, we synthesize a mature Ego Ideal that regulates our self-esteem; we internalize the morality of our community; we define ourselves, establish commitments, defending our own interest and the common good. There are always conflicts of interest, but we acknowledge reality, that is, we respect the other’s right to be different from ourselves. The sense of reality is built around satisfactions and deprivations from the original perfection of the narcissistic union with the mother, in which the infant feels itself to constitute the whole world. It is this perfection we are seeking in corruption, which predominates wherever difference is not recognized. There is a clear qualitative difference between positive narcissism, which is a love and concern for one’s own interests and welfare, and pathological narcissism, where envy and the destruction of the narcissism of others prevails.

The “selfish society” is made up of individuals or groups of individuals acting to satisfy their own personal interests at the expense of others (Koutsoukis, 1997). It constitutes a major form of resistance to civil society, which works on behalf of the collective interest. Marcovich (2013) traces the financial criminal to the “dark triad” of pathological “narcissism”, “psychopathy”, and “Machiavellianism”. The three share several characteristics, including an inability to empathize with others, spite, emotional coldness, and chronic aggression. Deception promises eternal certainty. In contrast, morality is uncertain because it is linked with the limits of the predictable, with delusions. Why should a person arrogantly imagine he has the right to boundless wealth and admiration? “Because I deserve it”, he answers. “Because I am the whole world”. And so, he acts out a fantasy of omnipotence in which he believes he is splitting the self, eliminating from within himself the undesirable part, and placing it in (projecting it onto) another, who now functions like that “bad” piece of himself (Bion, 1962). A result of this fantasy is that the same people who engage in corrupt acts accuse the establishment and authority: everything is “rotten”. We need to study the functions of splitting(s), of the mechanisms by which we recognize and simultaneously refute a traumatic perception of reality. Splittings within individuals and groups give corrupt behaviors the “uncatchable” property of continuously eluding the control of (conscious) thought: one part of the Ego acts, the other knows nothing… it is not there to acknowledge [i.e., to be situated in] what it does.


We are all familiar with the fascination exercised on “mere mortals” by psychopathic (antisocial) personalities with their megalomania, social ease, levity, lack of respect, lack of concern about the limitations imposed by society’s ethical norms, absence of commitments, breadth of learning, affability, sociability, adaptability, ability to deal with situations, and to manipulate, lie, deceive, and harm others to achieve their selfish goals. Beneath this mask, an inability to feel guilt may be discerned. Superficially, such a person repents. But they do not feel shame in the ancient sense of the word. They may momentarily feel narcissistic shame and contrition, but these are immediately displaced onto one of their victims. Such an individual is captive to the need to exhibit himself; he cannot remain faithful to anyone apart from himself. At the center of this pathology lies the inability to feel guilt and the concomitant desire to make reparation. The psychopath provokes the environment so that he may respond in certain ways. He is searching for a lost object, an other who had meaning for him. But the meaning of the other has been lost. All that remains is their material side, which offers a release of tension (experienced as need), but not a genuine experience of the satisfaction of a desire which can then be transformed into thought. The other is only a means to an end, a service-provider.

In the Nixon case, Rangel (1985, p. 166) heard in the argument “everybody does it” that “it’s no big deal”, that everyone feels the same, that no one’s different and there is no individual responsibility. We can be flexible with the framework and say, “OK, basically we all want the same thing, and therefore we’re all the same.”

However, the question is how the (legitimate) illusion of the sense of perfection becomes a pathological narcissistic belief (delusion) that “everybody owes us”. This sense is observable in close familial relationships. Nepotism and corruption comprise repetitions, compulsions of the perpetuation of close relationships of favoritism, the abolition of limits, non-differentiation, traumatic exposure during childhood, and the sacrifice of autonomy.

Pathological narcissism lies at the heart of the psychopathic delusion. Here we are not talking about murderers; we are speaking about ordinary people, the “people next door”. In an advertisement shown in cinemas years ago, there was a young man standing by himself, looking straight at the camera and saying ironically: “35% of you have committed X-offense (e.g. cheated on your taxes), 25% of you have committed Y-offense (e.g., cheated on your spouse), 19% of you have … etc. And yet, you all look like ordinary people. But you think that I drink an ordinary whisky.” He was advertising Canadian Whisky.

Many of us feel the need to believe what others say to us without examining it, without understanding it. We give the other person the seat beside us—that of our narcissistic double—to waylay us.


Freud (1896) observed that in neurosis, the internalizing of guilt and ability to acknowledge self-reproach protect the psyche, because it “poses for discussion” unprocessed traces introduced into the consciousness through repetition and thus, made available for representation. This type of protection is missing in paranoia (p. 18). The need to betray the other, to deceive him, is connected with paranoia (Jacobson, 1969). He who during his childhood has been traumatically exposed will expose himself and others to injuries.

Green (1986, p. 101) maintained that there is a latent paranoia at the basis of a culture. The identity of a culture is confirmed through splitting and rejection of unacceptable elements. This social paranoia can encounter individual paranoia, resulting in the severing of the bonds of the bodily senses and words, meanings, and objects which make guilt possible.

The paranoid suffers from a deficient autoeroticism and absence of a narcissistic double. He lacks the mother’s mirroring gaze. This is why he “treats” his paranoia with exhibitionism (Botella, 2005). All those who engage in acts of corruption feel the need to reveal themselves, to exhibit themselves. There is a continuum of corruption-paranoia-absence of the mother’s gaze-pathological narcissism-betrayal-exhibitionism. For Erlich (2013), corruption is associated with the dynamics of paranoia. Corruption in a society is equivalent to paranoid regression. Institutions can become pure cultures, incubators, of corruption.

Why it is that as soon as an institution begins to be organized, its “shadow economy” and corruption begin as integral to the institution’s own balance? Individual, interpersonal, and institutional repetitions and fantasies of violence, domination, law-abidingness, subordination, insurrection, and corruption converge and diverge in the organization of institutions and the state. Institutional frameworks absorb undifferentiated traces, giving us the security of the free space we need to function.

Bleger (1967) studied these “psychotic” (in the sense of self and other not being differentiated) and primitive traces as a “shadow economy” of the psyche and of the institutions within the framework of which they are deposited (“buried”) as material required for the economy of the institution’s functioning.

If the framework is flexible and we can “shake it up” a bit, then the unmetabolized traces are set in motion, providing material for processing and creating new symbolic representations that open up our prospects for the future. If the framework is inflexible, undifferentiated traces seek self-pacifying in the “perfection” of infantile omnipotence, in innocent acts like having a glass of whisky or in corrupt acts, avoiding the pain of the work of mourning the loss of omnipotence, and symbolization.


The organization of limits for every system with laws is an “experiment” that defines its field with a given logic. This organization automatically entails a large number of elements being left on the margins, in “illegality”, in the “shadow economy”, as manifested in magical practices and conspiracy theories, and in alternative “therapies” (diathermy, positive energy, warding off the evil eye, etc.) for serious physical illnesses.

The organization of limits means a choice, a negation that differentiates outer from inner, that distinguishes what exists in reality. In cases of positive narcissism (a benign love for one’s self-interest), transitional cultural objects (the fine arts, good policy, etc.)  predominate, where opposites creatively coexist and create a legitimate illusion as they do in in dreams, without destroying contact with reality. In conditions of pathological narcissism, envy, and destructiveness towards the other’s difference prevail; then the organization of an institution’s limits is not creative but perverse, that is, it denies reality (Winnicott, 1971, Green, 1986).

Institutions are self-organized through repetitions and fantasies of individuals and groups, with transparent statutory provisions. But are they harmonized with the whole of society? Do they reinforce the functions of reality-testing, ethical commitments, and the ideals of us all? In cases of significant deviation, the cynicism of the elites prevails. Then regression within the institution dissolves the bonds of the knowledge of reality, and shatters the bonds between needs, values, beliefs, and expectations. Aggression infiltrates everything. Either it is projected outward, creating enemies (extreme hate groups) or it is turned inward on institutions, in the form of corruption (networks of fraud).

The issue of corruption cannot be addressed if we adopt the logic of persecution. Rather, we need to think about how as individuals, systems, families, and communities we can recognize, symbolize, and endure our contact with reality, and contain the natural phenomenon of the corruption of bonds (Sher, 2010).

Corruption means that our needs and desires can be satisfied without being subject to regulatory, agreed-upon controls. It requires states of regression to more primitive ways of functioning, which coexist simultaneously with more mature ones. We need to look at their dynamics with a tolerance for “depressive” ambivalence, first within the context of a natural and innate human tendency to corrupt bonds with institutions (and) with others, man’s ability to say “no” and to organize his world, and secondly within the context of pathological narcissism, envy of the difference of the other, splittings, and group regression.

Kifissia, 09. December, 2014


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