Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Greed Ain't Good - for the Bankers

Social media is a wonderful route to expose and explore stories that are perhaps not brushed under the carpet as such, but certainly not highlighted by the mass (owned) media.

Rumbling along on a number of progressive and leftwing forums of late has been the rise in suicides among traders in the finance world, where traders in particular are nearly 40% more likely to kill themselves than the average. Thirteen men and women have killed themselves in almost as many months, often with no clear reason or warning. Three have been from JP Morgan, but others have been unconnected, their ages have ranged widely from 28 to 58, and so the cause behind this self-destructive trend seems elusive.

And yet...

Imagine being at heart maybe a relatively decent human. Imagine being pushed by parents or peers, or simply attracted to the idea of doing well, and entering their world with its twisted morality, its total competitiveness, its aggression... And the ingrained sense of total personal failure if you drop out... It's not a big step from there to standing in front of a speeding train.

In "The Spirit Level", Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, set out a convincing range of evidence that more equal societies are happier ones - not only for the poor, but for the better off as well. And not just because in a less desperate society there is less crime or ill health, but because it is also more co-operative and community-oriented. With less pressure to relentlessly compete and with traits like aggression generally disapproved of in the workplace and elsewhere, people from all walks of life can feel a little more at ease with each other and, crucially, with themselves.

Contrast that with the world of banking and high finance: with fortunes and record-breaking bonuses to be had at the rapid click of the mouse, buying and selling relentlessly, building up and tearing down financial empires regardless of the impact on real people and their livelihoods, facing pressure to achieve, to produce "results", any human would ultimately begin to struggle. Except perhaps for the psychopaths who happily inhabit such worlds, amplify them and thrive on a culture of dog-eat-dog.

And indeed, using the psychopath tests developed by Babiak and Hare, these traits are often confused with the traditional traits of "good" workplace leadership - aggression is equated to decisiveness; manipulative game-playing to interpersonal skills; lack of empathy to being able to make difficult decisions; disregarding social and legal norms becomes imaginatively go-getting, and so on. Consequently, among management roles, the incidence of psychopathy increases from the normal 1% of the population to 3%. A risk-taking, rule-breaking, high materially-rewarding sector like finance and trading especially is almost like wonderland for someone of such ilk.

Does this, then, explain the rash of suicides? It is impossible to say. But what is certain is this: even if 3%, or even 6%, of traders or their managers are psychopaths, that still means that over 90% are not. But if the culture is one favouring and shaped and reinforced by psychopathic traits, it might be little wonder if others might eventually struggle and wilt. Failure to compete, to meet targets - their wealth doubtless insulates them, but on a psychological level only to a degree.

Get out then, we might tell them - if they are not psychopaths, they should know better; and certainly given the soaring bonuses paid out to so many of them, it is a far easier option than for people in most other occupations to do. But if someone has been become inured to such a way of life, accustomed to it so that they cannot imagine alternatives, the prospect of leaving may well be overwhelming. And, at the end of the day, they are simply flesh and blood themselves.

In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, the protagonist, Owen, reflects on the excesses of the rich, but does not condemn them - they are, he concludes, simply playing out their part in capitalism. In this sense, capitalist society can destroy a banker almost as dispassionately as it destroys an unemployed or disabled person, though, of course, in far fewer numbers and with much more coverage than someone driven to take their lives by the prospect of not being able to repay a loan shark. In this twisted world, by turns forcing and encouraging people to compromise with their humanity and deal with the devil, no one, ultimately, is secure or able to be entirely content. Money can buy you happiness, except, of course, that it can't.

And yet, with bankers and benefits claimants alike taking their lives rather than continue living in the capitalist world we are told is the only choice, Wilkinson and Pickett's thesis seems confirmed. It may be difficult to feel much sympathy for greedy bankers struggling to cope with the culture they are steeped in. But a more equal society, a less acquisitive world, one where co-operation is prized over competition, or where, as the late Bob Crow succinctly put it, need replaces greed as the main societal driver - this would indeed be to the benefit of all.

Apart of course for the psychopaths. But we don't listen to them. Do we?


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