Banking culture: fear is the key

As the maelstrom engulfing the banking industry shows no sign of abating, even though Bob Diamond has finally fallen on his sword,1 neither has the search for explanations.  As I highlighted in a previous post, attention is currently on the culture of the banking industry.    However, as I pointed out in that posting, ‘culture’ is a tricky concept, and it often seems the term is used when no-one really has a clue about what’s happening and what to do about it.

There is also a real danger, by focusing on ‘culture’, that the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other.  At the moment it still all seems very personal: the public’s and the politicians’ anger is being directed at particular individuals, e.g. Diamond.   As many commentators have rightly pointed out, this is to ignore the more systemic, structural problems with the whole financial industry, which, of course, are in turn symptomatic of the problems at the heart of finance capitalism.

However, to go from personalising the problem to politicising it, i.e. looking for socio-cultural, structural explanations, runs the risk of forgetting that actually there are real people involved, making real decisions.  You only have to read the interviews in Joris Luyendijk’s banking blog to remind yourself of this and to get an insight into the mindset of the people who work in the City.2  Of course, this is a perennial problem in the social sciences: swinging from personal, individualistic explanations to structural, socio-cultural ones.  As always the truth is probably elsewhere.

But I digress somewhat.  A couple of years ago Michael Sinclair published a rather interesting book entitled Fear and Self-loathing in the City.3  Sinclair is a chartered psychologist who has worked with a great many City people in a therapeutic capacity, and his book does provide an invaluable, clinical insight into the collective psyche of the City.  And the title says it all: contrary to what many people think, the underlying motivation in the City, and I suspect in many other corporate environments, is fear.  And linked to this fear is what Sinclair describes as a self-loathing, a deep-seated sense that one is just not good enough, that one has to prove oneself all the time.

It seems a bitter irony that such individuals should have to try and prove themselves in such an unforgiving environment as the City.  As many commentators have pointed out, and as I discussed in my Therapy Today article on the City,4 this is a Darwinian, dog-eat-dog culture, where only the fittest survive (will this form part of the Government’s review of the City?).  It seems the last place that anyone who has doubts about their self-worth would want to find themselves, especially as the price of failure is so high.  And by this I’m thinking particularly about all those psychological causalities, the ones that Sinclair has to treat.  If you are mentally ill in the City you are a dead (wo)man walking.

So why would anyone who is already feeling very unsure of themselves, and quite possibly already has a very fragile sense of self, want to be in an environment where they are at constant risk of exposing such vulnerabilities?   But might not this be the whole point?  The whole idea is to test themselves, to put themselves through stress and pain, so they can master their underlying fears and anxieties, their sense of worthlessness.  And perhaps the City is the ideal place to enact this very ancient scene…..

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  3. Sinclair, M. (2010) Fear and Self-Loathing in the City: A Guide to Keeping Sane in the Square Mile. London, Karnac Books. []
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