Maybe it's not a problem with "toxic people". Maybe it's a problem with capitalism.

It's far too common today to blame individual psychology and pose solutions in terms of ethics, education, self-help, therapy, or spirituality, when the real problem is social, economic, and structural. There are unequal power-relationships in late-capitalist society which produce interpersonal abuse as a necessary side-effect. It takes social-structural change to eliminate these dynamics. Window-dressing to teach the lions not to eat the lambs will largely fail - because an ethical capitalist is a failing capitalist. To argue otherwise is to reopen the old debate about Taylorism vs human relations perspective. Of course, human relations perspective is better for workers, but Taylorism is better for profits, at least in a downturn period like ours. Give workers autonomy and respect, and they reduce their workrate and focus on goals other than corporate profit. That's why the Taylorists largely won the "debate", and most companies today are Taylorised/McDonaldised, even though they give lip-service to human relations.

Capitalism is an updated version of the master-slave relationship. Bosses have a command relationship over workers, who are forced into this relationship by a relative lack of alternatives. People who succeed as bosses in this system are those who are best able to maintain a relationship of control and subordination. A bit of PR/CSR window-dressing is useful for legitimation, but not if it undermines the bottom line. Often, the most ruthless succeed.

Hence, a lot of bosses are horrible people. It helps to be a horrible person, if your job involves dominating others or manipulating them to raise the corporate bottom line. Someone who can fire an underperforming worker without pangs of conscience will do better for the company. Being able to be hated by your workforce and not caring about it, is an advantage in "making hard choices". Being prepared to cut ethical corners if there's no attendant legal or reputational risk, is an advantage to profits. Being motivated above all by social status and power over others will make someone more able to climb the corporate or political ladder. So, of course, dark triad traits will suit people well to political and corporate success - the same way height is useful in basketball. If you don't want dark triad bosses, you'd have to change the rules of the game (aka revolution). Of course, it also helps to not be too obviously a horrible person, but a lot of psychopaths are superficially charming and good at PR.

There have been studies which show that expensive private schools basically encourage psychopathy. Children in these schools are abandoned by their parents at an early age, have to compete to survive in a Lord of the Flies hierarchy of children, and learn that they have to abuse others or else be abused themselves. This artificially reproduces the structure which is known to produce psychopathy among poorer people. Their parents learnt these same values and take them out on their children as well (e.g. Donald Trump's father was a harsh disciplinarian). Children both imitate and learn to compete in terms of these values - to identify with the oppressor. This makes them effective oppressors in turn. This is not a question of individual deviance, it's a systematic class structure.

In Domination and the Arts of Resistance, James Scott discusses the traits of societies with and without power hierarchies. One of them is, that in societies with power hierarchies, people are more self-controlled and more instrumental. This affects the bosses as well as the oppressed. Because of the power-inequality, both sides have to be constantly alert for opportunities to increase their power and reduce their adversary's. Another relevant study here is Zimbardo. Put people in situations of uncontrolled power, with a need to keep subordinates in check, and they turn into nasty people. "Toxic" dark triad traits don't cause structural oppression, structural oppression causes dark triad traits, or at least pushes those who hold them to the top.

So, while I'd love to be rid of horrible bosses (and bosses in general), the psychologisation of workplace oppression worries me. The language of "toxicity" is dangerously dehumanising. Its modern use seems to have started with the idea of "toxic ideologies", used in counterinsurgency discourse. This was a standard part of the dehumanisation of enemies - along with "rats in holes", "inhuman monsters", "snakes" and the rest. But then "toxic ideologies" got extended to all kinds of prejudiced beliefs, and then to personality traits and relationships - so now we have toxic personalities, toxic relationships, toxic social environments, toxic workplaces, toxic culture, toxic masculinity. And the effects of this rhetoric are dangerous. Viewing someone as "toxic" is very close to viewing them as a rat or snake which needs to be killed, as in Hitler's rhetoric. It may feel appealing to round up the "toxic" bosses, declare them unemployable, send them to mental hospitals or re-education camps or just surgically remove the "toxic" infection by killing them (which is where this rhetoric leads). But it's been tried before (Mao's landlord purge for example) and it hasn't destroyed "toxic" power-relations. What would really change things, is to change the structure so the power-relations are different. Strengthen trade unions. Create a basic income and legalise practices such as squatting, so people don't feel they have to work or starve. Reduce the power of managers and restore autonomy to professionals and artisans. Run companies as workers' cooperatives. Legalise effective methods of protest which can be used by people subject to oppressive management. Replace profits with quality of life as the goal of public policy. These changes reduce the horrible bosses' power. It creates exit options and it incentivises bosses who can attract workers voluntarily, and workplaces organised on a horizontal model. Even if there are still "toxic" people, they can't do so much damage when they don't have the power - when nobody has the power. I have seen this in practice in non-hierarchical spaces. There are still nasty people, but their power to control others is limited to what they can obtain by informal influence and persuasion - and they burn up these resources pretty quickly.

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