The age of the Evil Genius

Explaining the success of Simon Cowell, Jose Mourinho and the rest.

New Statesman
Photo: Getty Images

Simon Cowell, creator of The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, is perhaps the best-known and most powerful of the lot. In the name of democratising culture, he has created a mono­poly that stretches across television, the press and the music industry. By giving us what we want, he has created vast power for himself and we happily go along with it. Cowell is brilliant but twisted – an evil genius.

Michael O’Leary, the force behind Ryanair, is another. Ryanair takes pleasure in humiliating us and yet still we come back for more, in the process making it the most profitable airline in Europe. Peter Mandelson represents another variant: the modern éminence grise, an irresis­tibly charming dark power, pulling the strings, the power behind the throne. José Mourinho, the Real Madrid coach, exemplifies yet another common trait of the Evil Genius by offering his fans a Faustian bargain – the football may be methodical and at times dour, but eventually he grinds out victory.

Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, is a rare female candidate for the title, at least as she was portrayed by Meryl Streep in the role of Miranda Priestly for the film The Devil Wears Prada. Impossibly demanding, cruel and bullying, Mir­anda nevertheless had people falling at her feet, wanting to impress her even as she made them grovel. Gordon Ramsay does something similar; his awful behaviour appears to be part of his charm. Welcome to the Age of the Evil Genius.

Why is the Evil Genius such a troubling figure? Because the EG disturbs our cosy assumptions about the relationship between being morally good and being technically good at something. We like to associate the idea of genius with having a high moral purpose. Yet these days talent can also reside in people who appear to be cold, calculating and apparently amoral, even to the point of being devoid of social conscience and a capacity for empathy.

However, the most troubling aspect of the EG is what it says about us. The point about O’Leary and Cowell, Wintour and Ramsay, Mourinho and Mandelson is that they do not force us to do anything. We choose to be enthralled and ensnared in a latter-day form of voluntary servitude. As Simon Glendinning, reader in European philosophy at the London School of Economics, puts it, their power is to make us give in to our desire for something corrupted. Gilbert and George, EGs of the contemporary art world, say that they know things are going right when what they are doing feels wrong.

Where have all these EGs come from and why have they appeared in such numbers lately?

All-seeing I

The original idea of the EG comes from Descartes, who caused uproar by positing the possibility of an evil God who was all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful, and yet also deceiving. The Leveson inquiry is an exploration into how the entire political establishment came to be in thrall to an evil genius of this kind, in the form of Rupert Murdoch. But Murdoch’s reach and power pale in comparison to the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook or Apple. They are Descartes’s EG made real: all-seeing, all-knowing, possibly untrustworthy. Apple has our credit card numbers; Google knows what we are searching for; Facebook knows what we say to our friends; Amazon is turning fulfilment into something that can be delivered through our door. No newspaper magnate had such scope to insert himself into our lives, to shape our opinions and interests.

On the surface, Facebook seems to be designed for us, to allow us to connect and share. In reality, we increasingly conduct our lives for it; we choose to channel our lives through its templates and protocols, thus making it even more commercially successful. The power of Facebook and its peers does not prove that they are sinister, but the more we embrace them, the more of our lives, tastes, worries and hopes we hand over to them and the more vulnerable we make ourselves to the possibility they will abuse that intimacy.

There is another kind of EG even older than Des­cartes – the evil tempter, Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus or the devilishly attractive Satan in Paradise Lost. This kind of EG makes the perfectly pitched offer to tempt us into doing things we know we should not. In a society that is highly consumerist and yet increasingly concerned to appear moral, much of the modern marketing industry could be grouped under this banner.

Temptation is the field of operations for barbarian populists such as Simon Cowell and Michael O’Leary. The barbarian populists are creative and honest but rather unpleasant. They have little time for niceties but they are at least straight with us. They have huge energy but are also destructive. The nature of their genius is to see what we want even if we are not prepared to admit it to ourselves.

O’Leary saw that people neither really wanted nor needed what the older airlines called “service”. Instead, he called it as it was: people just wanted safe, cheap, reliable flights. The price of that is the hostility with which Ryanair treats its customers, but then the popularity of Ryanair seems to testify to how widespread is our appetite for masochism. Similarly, Cowell will be honest with you even if it’s painful. Realising that the music industry was in trouble, he devised a way to give us what we wanted – watching television on family nights in, having a say in who gets to become famous – which delivers to him enormous power over an industry that is collapsing around him, in part because his production line of predictable, forgettable, middle-of-the-road and mediocre acts is hastening its demise. The one sure winner, every time, is the person we have all come to know as “Simon”.

The barbarian populists gather us behind them because they present themselves as democrats confronting an old-fashioned, outmoded and self-interested elite. That is how they persuade us to overlook their seedier side. Tom Bower, in his biography of Cowell, Sweet Revenge, suggests that he was driven to create Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor to get his own back on snobs in the music industry who sneered at him when he was starting out, and in particular his one-time business partner Simon Fuller, creator of the rival Pop Idol franchise.

At a party in the US, Cowell was heard telling Fuller: “All I’ve done, Britain’s Got Talent, The X Factor – and much more – is revenge for what you did to me. And there’s much more to come.”

The EG’s trick is to paint himself as a misunderstood outsider and victim, a man on the side of the little people, even as we will him on to accumulate power.

Prince and the revolution

Machiavelli’s The Prince is the inspirational source for another variety of EG: the power behind the throne. One of the best examples in literature is Shakespeare’s Richard III, a morally appalling, disfigured cripple, for whom there is no depth to which he will not sink and yet disarmingly honest and self-knowing, depraved and seductive. Mainly these figures do not become king. They continue to operate in the shadows, from Karl Rove to Peter Mandelson and their fictional counterparts Malcolm Tucker in In the Loop; Kasper Juul, the troubled spin doctor in the Danish political thriller Borgen;or Stephen Meyers, the media expert in George Clooney’s The Ides of March who blackmails the Democratic presidential candidate into making him his chief spokesman.

Alastair Campbell does not count as an EG because he so evidently lacks the icy coldness required. But if Mandelson had become a football coach he would have been José Mourinho: both have made a virtue of not being liked. Perhaps one reason Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was so successful was that its central protagonist, the scheming Thomas Cromwell, was so recognisably an evil genius.

The final type of EG is the mad scientist, the Victor Frankenstein who pursues his ideas so far that he loses touch with his humanity and moral purpose and creates a monster technology that is both awe-inspiring and appalling.

In a society drenched in technology, in which science is inserting itself ever deeper into the human mind and body, through genetics and nanotechnology, more scientists will be accused of being perverted geniuses like Frankenstein, their science diverted to mistaken ends. This is particularly fertile ground in a society that is both gripped by the desire to extend and prolong life by investing in its deep faith in science and clings to a small “c” conservatism of the kind you find in the Daily Mail.

The result is that we are likely to get more technologies that excite and appal us in equal measure. The purveyors of those technologies will often find themselves cast as EGs.

Heroes and villains

Our lives are ruled by evil geniuses because the conditions that breed them in science, technology, consumer culture and politics are so fertile. If we want a society that hums with innovation and ideas, we need people who break convention rather than abide by it. That means they could be slightly odd, transgressive, or even immoral. Yet that in turn is why some people regard Gilbert and George as talented but twisted, making art out of old chewing gum and faeces. They would regard it as a compliment.

Talent counts for nothing, however, unless it offers people something that they find attractive. Evil geniuses tempt their way into our lives. They are seducers and brutes. They tap into our desires, spot our vanities and play on our weaknesses. Even as we are being robbed, we cannot help admiring the way they reel us in and humiliate us once more.

Yet the evil geniuses of history, in literature and philosophy, were freakish figures, created to reinforce and remind us of our need to stay on the straight and narrow, to resist temptation. The main change in our times is that the modern Evil Genius helps us to get away on holiday and cook our food, entertains us on a Saturday night, writes our bestselling news­papers, guides our fashion choices, connects us to our friends and advises our Prime Minister. The EG has become a dominant force in our lives only by becoming domesticated – literally brought home.

Sadly, the reason there are so many of them is as much to do with us as them. We willingly hand over the details of our private lives to distant technology companies. We secretly want to be persuaded to do what is wrong for us. We admire people who can be rude and direct in a way that would embarrass most of us.

The modern Evil Genius revels in lowering and reducing us, rather than lifting us up and expanding our horizons. Cowell has maintained an extraordinary grip over public taste for a decade by never overestimating the public. EGs do not pretend to be inspiring and idealistic; they cut to the chase, strike a bargain, offer a deal and, above all, they want to win. For them, everything should be judged as a means to an end. They despise people whom they regard as self-righteous and who believe their work is a higher calling. That is why Mourinho savours his triumphs over Barcelona, which believes it is more than just a football club. Mourinho is interested only in winning and in his self-image; Barcelona believes its football stands for a better way to live. Mourinho’s mission is to expose that high-minded aspiration as a pretension, just as Cowell reduces music to a production line and O’Leary’s recipe is to turn everything into a transaction.

Of course heroes need villains. Harry Potter would be very dull without Voldemort. Data, the sentient android in Star Trek, is made all the more appealing by having an evil brother, Lore. Moriarty, played with such psychotic sparkle by Andrew Scott in the BBC television series Sherlock, is a perfect example of genius made evil. Moriarty has to exist in order to make Holmes seem less odd.

These alter egos remind us how thin is the line between good and evil. Yet Nietzsche was a century ahead of us in seeing a different possibility – that modern society would unleash huge energies that would be both creative and destructive as they were untethered from notions of God and religion, operating beyond good and evil. That is the netherworld into which the EGs are taking us. The danger in our time is that the evil geniuses are not the contrast, the minor key, but dominant players who set the tone.

Unless we support figures who represent something more uplifting – Jamie Oliver over Gordon Ramsay, Pep Guardiola over José Mourinho, Jimmy Wales over Mark Zuckerberg – we will leave the field open for the evil geniuses to take over, and we will have only ourselves to blame, because we fall into their grasp all too willingly.

Charles Leadbeater is the author most recently of “It’s Co-operation, Stupid” (IPPR/ Co-operatives UK).