Stress and the City

This seems like a good time to consolidate some of my ideas regarding stress and/in the City.  Incidentally, Joris Luyendijk has been writing a fascinating Banking Blog in the Guardian since mid September 2011, which is a nine month anthropological ‘experiment’ looking at life in the financial City of London.  This is based around a number of interviews with City workers and is quite revealing.

One of the key points that Luyendijk seems to be picking up, and which I have also found in my own research, is that although City culture is extremely stressful and punishing, many people seem to thrive on it.  At the same time, though, the idea of people not being able to cope with such an environment, of suffering from stress or mental breakdown is strictly taboo.  A classic example of this are the concerted efforts by much of banking industry (and possibly the financial media) to deny that António Horta-Osório,CEO of Lloyds, has been suffering from a stress related illness, which resulted in him going off sick for three months.

In previous posts I have referred to the idea of ‘the winner’s enclosure’ – a term coined by Neil Brenner – and that going off sick with stress or a mental health problem can be seen as being outside of such an ‘enclosure’.  This is an interesting metaphor, and conjures up many associations around exclusion, boundaries, being an ‘outsider’, and so on.  At the same time there is a growing body of research and writing which questions whether the whole culture of the City is not in some way toxic and pathological, which leads one to wonder whether those who are cracking up are simple the honest ones.

One interview that Luyendijk conducted with a PR officer in a major brokerage company was particularly insightful.  The interviewee, a man in his late 60s (which is itself quite interesting bearing in mind the relative youthfulness of many City workers) talked about the five key criteria for success in the City.  These are: a good education; a craving for money; plenty of testosterone, linked a ruthless desire to win at any price; being in control; and discipline, in order to be able to cope with the demands of the work.  He also said the underlying factor that drives people in this environment is a “deep and very powerful fear of failure”.  He then goes on to say: “In the financial world, if you’re a nice person, you don’t get very far”.

In many ways this seems to confirm everyone’s worst fear about life in the City: you have to be ruthless, with a ‘macho’ and Darwinian view of life, be a control freak, to (mis)use your good education to manipulate other people, have a strong desire for money (and the power and lifestyle that goes with it), and, basically, to be a thoroughly unpleasant person, most likely with strong psychopathic tendencies.

However, perhaps this is a bit too easy – although it hasn’t stopped many of the commentators of Luyendijk’s blog weighing in with some pretty nasty comments regarding people who work in the City – ‘feral rats’ being one of the less offensive ones.

But it is too easy and a bit tooconvenient.  This is not to deny for one moment that any of the characteristics cited above are not prevalent in the City or indeed are not necessary criteria for success in such an environment,  Rather it is to point out that such characteristics are by no means restricted to the City.  You are likely to find them in any corporate environment, in politics, and, to be honest, in many other aspects of life.

At this point a Kleinian psychoanalyst might argue that this is a classic example of projection: all society’s destructive and negative impulses and feelings are projected into the City, which effectively becomes a scapegoat and allows everyone else to feel pious and self-righteous.   Perhaps there is something in this.  In times of social and economic crisis scapegoats are always useful people to have around.

And this brings us back to the notion of an ‘enclosure’.  Perhaps the City is not only an ‘enclosure’ for ‘winners’.  Perhaps it is also an enclosure, a container, for all the negative, unpleasant aspects of human life that the rest of society would rather not exist, whilst at the same time (unconsciously) craving for them.  This also introduces an ironic twist to the notion that to suffer a mental breakdown, to go off sick with stress or some other psychological problem is somehow to exclude oneself from the ‘winner’s enclosure’.  This may well be the perception of those ‘inside’ such an enclosure, but for everyone else on the ‘outside’ they would rather such people stayed inside, so they won’t have to look too closely at themselves.