Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Greed is Not Good

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

An interesting aspect of the financial crisis that is besetting this country at the moment, and one that has been curiously overlooked by most commentators, is the predominant involvement of men. Now, given that men still hold the lion’s share of top jobs, that might not be surprising. But that is not what I mean.
When you examine the factors that led to the Irish economic meltdown you come across a particular pattern. One small sector of the banking world, run by men, found a marvellous way of earning huge profits by over-investing in property. Then the rest of the banking sector, run by men, decided to follow. And when the bubble burst, everyone was over-exposed and the rest is by now familiar to all of us.
So putting it simply, a male group mentality was at work here. It ensured that one small group, who were small players in the overall market, sought to shake off its small status and outdo everyone else. And then the bigger players decided they were not going to be outdone by these minnows and became just as reckless in their lending.
This male group mentality effectively saw everyone go over the cliff at the same time, and take the economy with it. It was a mindless adventure that showed a complete disregard for common sense or, dare we say it, ethical behaviour*. Why would a group of highly paid, highly educated men behave that way? Did they so desperately want to succeed?
Operating not only at the helm of the reckless banking sector but also in Government and in the regulatory authorities we find almost exclusively men. Accepting this, why then were there no male voices shouting stop? Why was their such an unspoken agreement that everything was fine when patently things were not? Are we to assume that that is simply how things go? Because if we accept this then by definition we have to accept that the same thing will happen again in the future. Equally, if we throw our hands up and say that this is simply the reality of the commercial world then we are effectively declaring it an ethics-free zone and that too becomes problematic.
So, if the current recession is bad news for the reputation of the banking sector, the Government and the regulatory authorities, it is also bad news for the reputation of men. Something prompted an arrogant, blindly reckless approach to conducting business. Something ensured that the men at the top of these organisations stop acting out of duty to the common good and focus exclusively on the sole interests of their own and their shareholder's remuneration. In doing so they put everyone’s wellbeing in jeopardy. Something made transgression of the rules an acceptable thing to do.
Now you will probably hear someone say that if women ran the system we might well have ended up in the same position. Well, that’s true, we might have. But we can never know that with certainty until that day comes. What we can say with certainty is that men were in charge and this is categorically how it ended up.
So what was it about these normally staid male bankers that prevented them from seeing sense, from shouting stop, from engaging in unsound and at times unlawful activities? And remember, we saw a similar male dominated system at work in church child abuse scandals but that is a different day’s work.
Focussing on the financial world for now, the generally agreed twin engines of global capitalism are greed and fear. Greed is the pursuit of profits beyond any measure of limit. Fear is the panicked flight from the possibility of losing what one believes one has already gained. Translated in psychoanalytic terms, greed in this case is the excessive pursuit of the ‘thing’, the lost thing that will satisfy all desire, fill up all lack, eradicate all unpleasure. Freud called it Das Ding, and it is ultimately an attempt to re-find an infantile nirvana. Fear, in this case, is the neurotic terror that arises with the prospect of this imaginary nirvana being closed off to us forever.
Also at work between these two poles is the essentially male characteristic of wanting at all cost to be the undisputed possessor of the phallus, the symbol of sexual power. Now that’s not to say that women don’t want to be sexually powerful either. They do, but psychoanalytically they tend to want it in more diffuse ways than men. They want it as an overall experience in their lives - one that is usually bound up and woven into key relationships. Profit-focussed men, on the other hand, usually want it by way of tangible objects. And usually in a single-minded way that can ignore broader issues such as rules or the greater good . That’s where money and possessions come in - they offer the perfect, culturally endorsed objects on which such men can fix their desires.
It is interesting, therefore, but perhaps not surprising, that practically no man (one or two brave souls perhaps) within the financial sector seemed willing to jeopardise his place within that mostly male group system by raising a warning flag. No one appeared willing to risk being seen as less than a man by suggesting that the party was not actually a party and that it might end in tears. Or that a limit (if not in law then at least in common sense) had been crossed for which a price would have to be paid.
And, we must also not forget, that psychoanalytically speaking men are formed differently to women. Those who take up the position of men go through separation from their mothers or primary carers in a more blunt way than women. And the first person they have as a male role model ie their father, is usually an imagined competitor for the same woman’s attentions. Girls too have to separate from the all providing love of their mothers but they become Daddy’s girls until they reach an age when societal and cultural prohibitions subtly guide them back to mother. The passage to adult womanhood is not as direct, blunt or as nakedly competitive as it is for men while still containing plenty of pitfalls to throw the route to adult female development off course.
The point being that men’s single mindedness, their competitiveness in regards to other men, their focus on objects to acquire or win or achieve, their diversion of sexual energy into making money can be good things at times. In our current climate they were ingredients that led to disaster because an extra ingredient was missing.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that human beings possessed the power of reason to secure our happiness and to provide us with a good will. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant said that a good will has nevertheless to cope with the problem, uniquely human, of unruly desires. And if you class greed as an unruly desire, our banking community, who were not alone in this, failed spectacularly to deal with this form of unruliness. The way of dealing with this, Kant said, was duty - the necessity to act out of reverence for the law. He said an action done out of duty (the result of human reason and a good will) has a moral worth, but action out of inclination (our self interest) does not.
French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Dr Jacques Lacan came along a little later and said a number of things in this regard. For too long, the concept of good has been confused with the concept of pleasure, and he believed they are not and should not be considered the same thing. Being guided by what is pleasurable is not the same thing as acting for the good. He said that a more ordinary measure would be to carefully examine our own motives, find out what it is that makes us act, question what our true desires really are and in the process come to see just how truly human we are. This, he believed, could well be a principle for good that might be valid for all.
To do anything else, to continue linking good with pleasure, might well be to adopt as a universal rule the proposal that we have the right to enjoy any person whatsoever, directly or indirectly, as the instrument of our pleasure. And, if memory serves me correctly, the last person to propose that idea was the Marquis de Sade.

* The Associaton for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Ireland’s 17th Annual Congress, ‘How to Act’ - Ethics and the Psychoanalytic Clinic in a Culture of Suppression and Demand. Saturday, December 4th 2010. Independent College Dublin, 60- 63 Dawson St., Dublin 2. Keynote Speakers: Ian Parker and Christian Dunker. Ian Parker is Professor of Psychology in the Discourse Unit at Manchester Metropolitan University and a practising psychoanalyst. Christian Ingo Lenz Dunker is Professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology of the University of São Paulo, Brazil and a practising psychoanalyst.