City madness?

As mentioned in previous posts, there is a (growing) view that the City and other major corporate institutions are being run by psychopaths.  I’ve already cited the work of Clive Boddy on this subject, but other commentators have also observed there is something quite pathological about large corporate environments.  At the same time, however, I have queried the idea of ‘corporate psychopathology’.  There are two main reasons for this.  The first is that I think we have to be careful not to anthropomorphise corporate entities, i.e. to treat corporations as if they are human beings, and to ascribe clinical categories, e.g. ‘psychopath’ to them.

The second reason relates to the term ‘psychopath’ itself.  Boddy, for example, is quite clear that it is the individual members of large corporations, including financial ones, who have the problem – although he also acknowledges that modern corporate environments are ideal for such individuals to thrive.   Boddy argues that:

An understanding of Corporate Psychopaths……has helped to answer the question of how organizations end up with imposters as leaders and those organizations are then destroyed from within.1

Boddy also refers to the growing academic interest in ‘dark leadership’, the idea that leaders of organisations are not necessarily as benevolent or concerned about the welfare of their organisation as previous management writers have assumed (which also raises questions about the origins and ideology of such a ‘cult of leadership’ in the first place).  To quote Boddy again:

…the Corporate Psychopath’s single-minded pursuit of their own self-enrichment and selfaggrandizement to the exclusion of all other considerations has led to an abandonment of the old fashioned concept of noblesse oblige, equality, fairness, or of any real notion of corporate social responsibility.2

It is not clear exactly what Boddy means by the term ‘psychopath’ this particular paper, but he does refer to the work of Robert Hare, a leading expert of psychopathology.  Hare has also raised concerns about the damage that such people can do to major financial and other types of organisation.  Certainly such individuals come across as superficially very sociable and engaging, and even charming, and are also very decisive – exactly the qualities you might think were essential in a good leader or manager.

And yet this is also the crux of the problem: because such individual are sociable, engaging, know what they want and can be very decisive, they do very well in corporate and other kinds of environment.  People want leaders who they like, and leaders who, whilst everyone else is dithering and uncertain, know exactly what to do.  The fact that this turns out to be for the benefit of the leader and not anyone else is usually only apparent when it’s too late – often the individual will have departed from the organisation (or what’s left of it) before alarm bells start ringing.  And the chances are they will go off and do very well in another organisation, and same story will be repeated.

This point about decisiveness is important, especially when it’s linked to certainty.  Popular management books and ‘how to get rich quick’ type texts are full of very positive and decisive statements.  There is usually little room for doubt, criticism or serious reflection.  And in many ways this is reflects how leaders and senior managers behave.  Most people in a senior corporate position would not last five minutes if they deliberated too much about things, questioned everything, express doubt about themselves or the organisation (at least openly3).

The problem is, however, that certainty, an absence of doubt, is also characteristic of psychosis.  The psychotic knows, whereas the neurotic is plagued by doubt.  Of course this is not to say that anyone who has a positive attitude, who appears confident or expresses certainty is necessarily psychotic.  It rather depends of the nature of such certainty – and its consistency.  The psychotic is also often very troubled by his or her place in the world – in fact such a place is often experienced as very precarious.  The psychotic’s sense of being is usually very tenuous and fragile.

Within the Lacanian tradition, the psychoses are one of the three clinical structures – the other two are the neuroses (hysteria and obsessional neurosis), and perversion.  Psychoses is written in the plural because Lacanians differentiate between paranoia, schizophrenia, manic depression and autism. 4   In my previous post I looked at the question of Anders Breivik and the disagreements over his diagnosis.  One of the reasons why many commentators think he isn’t psychotic is precisely because he seems to have a (fairly) coherent political ideology, is able to articulate it, is able to explain, again in a fairly articulate manner, his actions, and, of course, managed to plan and execute a fairly major, military style ‘operation’, however abhorrent it might have been.   This level of coherence and organisation suggests to some people that Breivik cannot be mad.  For example, Professor Simon Wessely, of King’ College London, is quoted as saying:

For schizophrenia to explain Breivik’s actions, they would have to be the result of delusions ………The meticulous way in which he planned his attacks does not speak to the disorganisation of schizophrenia.5

However, this statement appears to reflect two other common misconceptions about psychosis – that it equates with schizophrenia, and that deluded people cannot act in an organised, coherent and rational manner.  With schizophrenia there certainly is a significant degree of disorganisation in the subject, and often they feel they are being ‘swamped’ by thoughts, visual and auditory hallucinations, physical sensations, and often a range of somatic complaints.

With the paranoid individual, however, things can be very well organised.  This is the whole point about paranoid subjects: they construct an often elaborate delusional system, a whole world view, which positions them very precisely in relation to roots of their problems, i.e. in the ‘external’ world, in the Other.   As Darian Leader, whom I referred to in my previous posting, explains:

Paranoia has three classical components. The paranoiac has located a fault or malignancy in the world, he has named it, and has a message to deliver about it.6

Reading the first psychiatric report on Breivik makes it very clear that he was very clear about the roots of the problem, i.e. ‘cultural Marxism’ and the Islamization of Norway.  Furthermore, he realised that it was his mission to oppose this, and he spent a great deal of time, effort and money preparing for the ‘operation’.   But the most disturbing thing of all reading through the interviews with Breivik is his absolute certainty, his absolute conviction that his view of the world is the correct one, and that only he (and his Knights Templar associates7) knows what has to be done.

How would someone like Breivik have coped in the world of corporate finance?  Apparently he did have some success in financial trading and ran a number of businesses, again it would seem with a degree of success, although in the end they appeared to go bankrupt.    And, of course, the City culture is one of ‘dog eat dog’, the ‘survival of the fittest’.  These ideas are not a hundred miles a way from the Darwinian ideologies that describe a clash of civilisations, of religions, of races.  In the City you have to be very organised, very focused, totally ruthless, and there is no room for doubt – although paradoxically of course it is also a very anarchic environment .

The point I’m getting at is not that anyone in a senior position within a financial (or any other) corporation is a paranoid individual who wants to purge the world of external enemies (real or imagined).  Rather, it’s to take a closer look at how they really see the world, what they are really doing in the organisation, what they really think of other people, especially the ones they have responsibility for.  It’s also to suggest that the very characteristics that appear to make such individuals such an attractive proposition for the organisation, especially those relating to decisiveness and certainty, may have another side to them.


  1. Boddy, C.R. (2011) The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis. Journal of Business Ethics, (102), p.255 []
  2. ibid, p. 257 []
  3. And the chances are they wouldn’t doubt in private either – after all, what would they be doing in such a position if they weren’t sure of themselves? []
  4. Most of Lacan’s work focused on paranoia, including a detailed reading of the Schreber case. []
  5. BBC News Health (2012) Breivik case ‘shows insanity misconceptions’ [Internet]. Available from: <> [Accessed 27 April 2012]. []
  6. Leader, D. (2011) Anders Behring Breivik and the logic of madness [Internet]. Available from: <> [Accessed 29 November 2011]. []
  7. Real or imagined – it’s not that clear []

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  1. Pingback: Suffering in silence: the madness of everyday life | Touching the Real

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