The Couch and the City revisited: from Marx to Lacan (via Žižek)

There are several ways to think about psychoanalysis in relation to corporate environments such as the financial City of London.  Perhaps the most obvious one is to look at the individuals who work in that environment and the types of psychological problems that they experience.  As I have highlighted a number of times on this blog, there is a growing body of research that suggests there is something seriously amiss in the Square Mile (and its next door neighbour Canary Wharf) in terms of the psychological well-being of those who work there.

Why this should be is still a contentious question: could it be that there is something ‘toxic’ about the culture that leads to problems such as depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and a range of other mental health problems?  Or could it be that the City attracts a certain type of person who is psychologically flawed in the first place?  Clive Boddy, for example, argues quite persuasively that it is the latter: the City and the rest of the financial world attracts what he describes as ‘corporate psychopaths’, people who have no conscience or real interest in other people. 1  Their primary concern is to amass as much money and power as possible, and to do whatever it takes to achieve this aim.

So perhaps one way that psychoanalysis could help is to try and find ways to identify such corporate psychopaths, and prevent them from doing too much damage.   Certainly, Boddy thinks that something along these lines is needed.  However, there are a number of problems with this argument, both practical and conceptual.  From a practical point of view it’s hard to see how such ‘character types’ could be identified in the first place.  Yes, there are a number of tests that purport to be able to identify psychopathic personalities.  But psychopaths tend to be very clever people – or at least the ones who do well in corporate environments.  Furthermore, there are reports that some British banks are using such tests in order to actively recruit psychopaths precisely because they are seen as being the best type of people to promote the interests of the organisation, i.e. to make large amounts of money without too many scruples.2

The conceptual, or perhaps I should say clinical, problem concerns the very notion of ‘psychopath’ in the first place.  Freud certainly used the term ‘psychopathology’, but was not referring to any particular ‘type’ of individual.  Rather, he used it to refer to the kinds of behaviours and symptoms exhibited by (primarily) neurotic patients, e.g. as in the ‘psychopathology of everyday life’.3

Lacanian psychoanalysis is quite precise when it comes to diagnosis and is based on a structural differentiation rather than one based on symptoms or ‘character’ or ‘personality’ ‘types’.   Clinical structures are either neurotic, perverse or psychotic.  My own view is that much so-called ‘psychopathic’ behaviour is probably linked to a psychotic structure.

There is a more fundamental problem here.  It relates to the question of ‘applied psychoanalysis’4    There is a long history of using psychoanalytic ideas and techniques to study and work with organisations, and there is a vast body of literature on this subject.  However, I think there is a real danger here of creating a ‘straw man’, i.e. the (‘pathological’) corporation.

The point is we all live in a world of organisation, i.e. a complex network of signs, representations, images.  In Lacanian terms these refer to the Symbolic and Imaginary registers.   Obviously there are different forms of networks, which equate with different forms of organisation.  But in what sense can we differentiate between this notion of organisation and the idea of ‘organisations’ that are somehow separate from the rest of our lives.   To talk about ‘organisational psychoanalysis’, for example, is to imply that this is different from ‘clinical psychoanalysis’, i.e. what goes on in the psychoanalytic consulting room.  The point is, though, people bring their organisations into the clinic, i.e. that complex symbolic-imaginary matrix which constitutes the subject.

However, I think there is another way to approach the question of psychoanalysis and the City.  At first sight it might look precisely the type of ‘applied psychoanalysis’ that I’ve just criticised.  In order to see why this is not necessarily the case we need to take a detour, starting with Marx.

Why Marx?  What has Marx got to do with psychoanalysis?  In fact, wasn’t it the Marxists who argued that psychoanalysis was just bourgeois ideology, designed to deflect attention away from the real material conditions of existence?   Some of them did for sure.  However, there is actually a long tradition within Marxism of utilizing psychoanalysis to try and gain an understanding of human subjectivity and how this relates to questions of ideology and capitalist exploitation.  This is a fascinating field in its own right, but this is not what I wish to write about here – or at least not directly.

Rather, I want to look at a particular form of reasoning deployed by Marx.  In fact, it’s a particular form of reasoning about form itself.  This is something that Žižek picks up on in the first chapter of his seminal (in my view) work The Sublime Object of Ideology5  However, this is not the main thrust of his argument, which is to develop a theory of ideology and the subject.

Marx is addressing the question of commodities and commodity relations.   More specifically, he is addressing the question of value.  In fact, there are two different values in question here: the use value of the commodity, the reason why a person might wish to own it in the first place; and the exchange value, what someone would give in exchange for the commodity (which is either another commodity, or, more likely, a sum of money – which in Marx’s view is a very special type of commodity6 ).   For Marx, the exchange value of a commodity was determined by the amount of labour that had gone into creating it.  This is not a particularly Marxist idea,7 but it provides the foundations for a much more radical analysis of commodity relations.

Marx writes about exchange value being ‘congealed social labour’.  Another way to look at this is to think about the labour, the work, that goes into the creation of any commodity, be it a cup of coffee or a component part for a missile.  Because a capitalist economy is based upon commodity exchange (including the exchange of money as a commodity) relations between people become commodity relations.  In other words, social relations are commodity relations.  Because we are immersed within such a society, it is very difficult to imagine any other form of relations.  However, in feudal times (and before), social relations were different.   The classical ‘archetype’ for this relation is the Lord-Bondsman or, as Kojève prefers, Master-Slave, relationship.8   We could also refer to Lord-Serf, Master-Servant relations.  This is an important point to note because, contrary to the expectations of Marx, and many economists, who thought that industrial capitalism would pave the way for the abolition of such relations, the resurgence of finance capitalism has, in the view of a number writers, ushered in a new serfdom – one based on debt9.

To return to commodity relations: the key point here is that commodity relations are a form of social relation.  However, the key word here is form.  What this means is that commodity relations are not disguised relations between people, i.e. if you pull away the ‘veil’ of commodity relations you will find relations between people ‘behind’ the ‘veil’.  Rather, the commodity relations  really are social relations in this kind of social structure.  Interestingly, though, Žižek does suggest that this form of social relation is, in some way, a ‘disguised’ Master-Slave relationship.   Is it therefore possible to ‘deconstruct’ capitalist, i.e. commodity, relationships in some way to reach the Master-Slave relationship, i.e. the relationship that characterised pre-capitalist societies?  And isn’t this precisely where psychoanalysis could come in – to ‘decode’ or ‘decrypt’ such abstract relations?

  1. Boddy, C.R. (2011) The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis. Journal of Business Ethics, (102), p.pp.255–259. []
  2. personal communication from Clive Boddy. []
  3. For example slips of the tongue, jokes, etc. []
  4. Jacques-Alain Miller uses this term in a very precise way.  Here I am using it in a much broader sense to refer to the application of psychoanalytic ideas and techniques outside of the consulting room.  In this sense Žižek could be said to be engaging in ‘applied psychoanalysis’, although personally I think this would be a mistake. []
  5. Žižek S. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso; 1989. []
  6. Marx saw money as the universal equivalent of exchange value. []
  7. in fact, Marx was drawing upon the ideas of classical political economy and its labour theory of value. []
  8. Kojève A. Introduction to the reading of Hegel. Lecutures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. New York: Cornell University Press; 1969. []
  9. See for example Hudson’s two excellent papers on this subject. []