Why Are Bankers Killing Themselves? The Answer Might Surprise You

In late 2010 segments of the world believed themselves to be witnessing the prophetic powers of the Mayan calender. Birds began to fall from the sky. For many people, this signaled a dark warning: we must change our economic and political behaviors, in sympathy with the environment, or else all life on earth will come to an end. However naive, the sentiment was an important one – the “end times” became thinkable. A rational explanation inevitably followed when National Geographic wrote that most biologists know that mass bird deaths are normal occurrences. The lesson was that “[n]o matter how it arrives, death appears to be very much a fact of life for birds.”

I believe that the important shift that happened during the Mayan Calender and mass bird deaths debacle was the return of the question of the end. Indeed, during the optimistic age of post-structuralism it seemed that, as Katerina Kolozova might put it, there was an impossibility of thinking about limits. Language and discourse marked the indefinite horizon of thinking – the infinite snuggled up with human finitude. An unfortunate biproduct of ‘infinite thought’ was that it became impossible to think ‘the end’ of capitalism. Even the world of radical politics and philosophy became Fukuyamaian: capitalism itself became infinite. But the limit imposed itself in the popular imagination through the fantastical Mayan speculation, global warming science, and so on.

In early 2012, reports circulated around the globe that there were mysterious mass fish deaths, bodies washing up off the coast of a lake in Nanjing, China. This time a rational explanation for these occurrences was precluded by an interesting and rather brilliant activist strategy: activists no longer discussed isolated occurrences (as in the mass deaths of birds) but rather tallied occurrences of all sorts of mass animal deaths happening across the globe. One report listed dozens of isolated mass fish deaths and asked the question: “Why are  millions of fish suddenly dying in mass death events all over the planet?”

In different ways the question of the end insists on being asked.

On February 3rd, 2014, another mass animal death sung out for our attention. Within the span of a week, as many as 5 suicides occurred by former employees of J.P. Morgan Chase & Company. These were high impact employees: a senior risk manager, vice president, chief economist, executive director, finance professional, CEO, and so on. Before jumping ahead by speculating as to what all of these mass deaths have in common, lets focus on these, our closest animal ancestors, bankers. Some reports have indicated that bankers suffer from high levels of anxiety, provoked by long hours, difficult work, and lack of respect from the public. Reports have also focused on the fact that bankers are moved toward suicide because they naturally feel guilt about their role in the global economic crisis and the economic burdens of the 99%.

No doubt, a certain level of anxiety and guilt may have played a part in these suicides. Guilt is itself a type of anxiety. Psychoanalysis teaches us that guilt is conditioned by giving ground to one’s desires. Traditionally, the superego is thought to function as a mechanism of prohibition: “No! You can not have what you desire.” And so, if one gives ground to one’s desire, one might feel the overpowering anxiety of guilt.

Contrary to popular opinion, it does not matter whether or not the banker is actually guilty. It does not matter – especially – if he is guilty for the economic crisis or for the impoverishment of millions of people. What matters, with respect to his guilt, is that he himself believes himself to be guilty. Those who immediately conclude otherwise simply miss the point about guilt: guilt exists as a response to the superego injunction/prohibition and not as it were by some transcendental moral system outside of the banker’s mind.

To complicate matters a little more, it will prove difficult to get to the root of this guilt. When one feels an overpowering sense of guilt, typically the source of this guilt is absent or concealed. Recall the stereotypical husband who abuses his wife – as he slaps her he yells, “look at what you made me do!” The point is that he feels guilty for what she made him do, not for what he is in fact doing. Guilt functions in a similar way. The person who feels guilt may consciously describe the source of his guilt, but clinical practice demonstrates that this is a false front, a way of absolving oneself of responsibility for the true source of one’s guilt. Those who feel an intense sense of guilt more often do not even know how to articulate its source.

And so it is not as if the banker actually knows, consciously, the source of his guilt, that it is, for example, guilt for his role in the suffering of so many. It is much more paradoxical: the banker is not guilty for the suffering of others but rather for his own failure to enjoy. Failure to enjoy what? Perhaps the riches he and others have earned. The superego injunction is to “Enjoy!” It is your duty to enjoy, to transgress the superego’s own prohibitions, precisely so that you will be immobilized by guilt. Under contemporary capitalism, the superego injunction seems to make too much sense: you must be happy, you must love your career, you must enjoy and never be upset, critical, angry, etc.

Under contemporary capitalism, the superego injunction is also to enjoy your “fun” job. The “fun” job is rapidly coming to the fore. Most of us can not imagine working for a job that does not have regular outings, appreciation days, contests, teams, and so on. When I first met my wife, she shared a funny commercial with me. It was an advertisement for an educational program in refrigerator repair. The repairman said, in the commercial: “I always wanted a COOL job!” This is the framework of capitalism today. We all want to have cool jobs, and we feel guilty if we do not have one. Many of us even openly claim to already have a cool job. I presume that many of us say this in public so that the Other, the external manifestation of the superego, can see that we are in fact enjoying as we should.

All of us are enjoying our jobs. All of us, except for the bankers. The banker’s job is a part of the older framework. The banker’s job is advertised as a place of “prestige” or “status”.  You get the yacht, you get to wear the nice suits, and so on. So – if the banker felt guilty, it had nothing to do with his responsibility for our suffering. The bankers are killing themselves because they want to be held accountable for their failure to enjoy like the rest of us. As for the rest of us: we want to believe that the bankers enjoy and are responsible to us – as if we are all they think about. 

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