The more I hear about the culture of certain parts of the financial sector, the more I want to read Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Although intended by Ellis as an unburdening of the dark feelings he was having at the time of its writing, American Psycho is now regarded as a blistering satire of the entire 1980s yuppie culture. This status is not entirely undeserved – Ellis’ consumerist ennui had to come from somewhere. His personal state was a symptom of a wider cultural problem, and I think his creative choice to make the severely unbalanced, if outwardly successful, protagonist of his novel into a psychopath is actually a clever observation – I believe that psychopathic traits are critical to the shape of contemporary capitalism.
This is not to suggest that Bob Diamond, Fred Goodwin and Henry Paulson secretly have a Bluebeard-esque secret penchant for brutality of course – psychopathy does not equate to the cartoonish image of a slavering monster. In truth, a psychopath is someone with a particular set of qualities – namely, a lower capacity for fear, guilt and empathy, and increased tendency to take risks and to manipulate others. Patrick Bateman was certainly a psychopath, but the violence he stooped to was merely an outward expression of what is fundamentally an inner condition. Part of what makes American Psycho so poignant is that there is very little difference between Bateman’s emotional profile and that of other members of his social circle – what marks him out is uncontrolled outbursts of violence, the evidence of which is ignored, laughed off, or cleaned up by his friends and colleagues. The implication of this ambivalence is clear; that yuppie culture – with its egotism, greed, relentless ambition and callous indifference – is inherently psychopathic. Interestingly, journalist Jon Ronson has made a similar observation; in his new book, The Psychopath Test, he reveals that 4% of top-flight CEOs are psychopaths – not a big proportion, but it is 4 times greater than the psychopathic proportion of society as a whole. This is based on a study by forensic psychologist Robert Hare, whose findings, though not based on a randomly selected sample, are interesting, if not conclusive. The slew of articles published on this recently wildly exaggerated the original figures and overstated their significance, but this association of psychopathy with capitalism hasn’t just cropped up recently.
The 2003 documentary film The Corporation addresses the same issue, but at a macro level. It takes its lead from the status of corporations as legal persons, and moves to assess their behaviour as if they were moral individuals. The conclusion is that corporations as a rule behave like psychopaths – due to being legally obliged to take the most profitable route in all circumstances, corporations express the same disregard for the needs of others that psychopaths exhibit – taking risks that a normal human mind would find unimaginable. Corporate culture in recent years has also become increasingly short-termist; another feature it holds in common with the mindset of pyschopaths. Such chronic short-termism and a lack of fair appreciation of risk were critical in stimulating the sort of practices that lead to the market collapse, and the subsequent anaemic recovery.
A different perspective on the cultural features that lead to the financial crash is presented by Karen Ho in her ethnography Liquidated. Based on fieldwork she conducted amongst Wall Street bankers, Ho describes how, through rarefied recruitment practices, Wall Streets creates a climate of extreme meritocracy. But rather than guaranteeing a high quality of service provision, this attitude instead serves to rationalize “outrageous” compensation schemes, by giving bankers and other financial employees an inflated sense of their own self worth and abilities. To me, this reflects another troubling psychological feature – narcissism – that can exacerbate the risks posed by psychopathy in the high halls of the economy.
What is interesting about these analyses is that they both root wider economic outcomes not in the whims of a nebulous market, but instead in what Ho calls “concrete practices” – the daily interactions and attitudes of real people. Like Ronson, I am loathe to make grandiose claims about all bankers being psychopaths or narcissists. Although it is probable that they have a relatively high incidence of certain traits – such as a tendency towards boredom and increased ambition – those features in and of themselves do not equate to a medical diagnosis of any of these conditions. But I do think it is useful to think about social organisation in terms of the psychological realities it supports; as Bruno Latour once said, the small holds the big. Indeed, Ronson suggests that consumer capitalism is, in essence, psychopathy writ large – the creation of a politico-economic system that is reliant upon the manipulation of the majority by calculating, cold-hearted interests that care little for the needs of others. Even if the great majority of people involved, even at high levels, are not psychopaths, the aggregates they form exhibit those conditions. Bad attitudes trickle down, far more effectively than money, through entire organisations and out into society. But how?
I think Ho’s ethnography provides an answer. If you look at her work with a Gramscian eye, it becomes obvious that the “rationalization” certain bankers are engaged in serves as a form of self-imposed false consciousness. The notion of meritocracy justifies psychopathic practices, allowing otherwise empathic individuals to rationalise what they’re doing as necessary, or even positive. If the crowd of people are “masters of the universe”, then how can their choices, even unethical ones, be anything other than the right ones? Regardless of whether the psychopaths are real or virtual, personal or institutional, their influence bleeds across the edifice of global trade, serving as the ruby essence of capital.