Giles Fraser: Egotistical malaise at the heart of the City

18 August 2010

MOST weekdays, at just about the time I go off to morning prayer, a young man in an Audi R8 sports car races down Ave Maria Lane, turning right into the Stock Ex­change car park. In the few hundred yards down the street, he manages to make the car boil with revs.

It always seems so stupid to be straining to get somewhere so fast, even before seven o’clock in the morning. But that’s the City, at least the financial City. It is all about aggression.

After a few days away on holiday, you notice it more. That Monday-morn­ing hit of testosterone enters the City through the veins of road and Tube, convulsing the square mile into money-making life. The rhythm is frenetic, even in August: buy, sell, buy, sell. It almost has the character of a collective consciousness.

So I wonder whether there is any mileage in trying to employ the tools of psychoanalysis on this collective consciousness, not least to explain the whole boom-and-bust philo­sophy that threatens the very exist­ence of viable financial markets.

One of the great insights of Freud is that the narcissism of satisfied aggression is so powerful and de­struc­tive that it ends up being a threat even to itself.

Aggressive determination may make things happen. But precisely because the ego comes so readily to be inflated with its own thrusting self-importance, and thus with a sense that it can do without any sort of restraint, it thereby contains the seeds of its own demise: hence, boom and bust. It is when the ego is at the height of its powers that it is the greatest threat to itself.

If this is right, then the inherent problem with the City cannot be sorted out by regulations, however useful. Human ingenuity, driven on by the desire for aggressive fulfil­ment, is always going to outwit the rule-makers. The bankers and traders are too sharp and too driven. Yet it is just this desire to outwit any boundaries which ends up threaten­ing the very existence of the City. In Freudian terms, the only thing that is completely without boundaries is annihilation, death itself.

What I experience on my way to morning prayer is a spiritual malaise that is deep in the heart of the human condition, and supremely exemplified here in the City. Most mornings, I take to God my own story of boom and bust, and ask for his strength to resist the persuasive hyperbole of the ego — and for forgiveness when I fail. Those who lose their life will find it.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s In­stitute.

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