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Narcissism + Neoliberalism = The Life Of I

The rise of hyper individualism and an I, me, mine, culture has encouraged two personality types to dominate business and politics. Where money, power and status lie, the corporate psychopath and the narcissist can be reliably found relentlessly chasing success at the expense of everybody else.

Host, Ross Ashcroft, met up with Journalist, Author and Social Philosopher, Anne Manne and Professor of Management, Clive Boddy, to discuss the connections between the corporate psychopath, the narcissist and their relationship to the neoliberal economy.

Connections

When confronted with the realities of everyday life, whether it be witnessing shoppers seeking solace from stress through consumption, or the culture of hyper-competitiveness in the workplace, it is difficult to think of Western neoliberal society as anything other than an alignment of corporate psychopathy and narcissistic behaviour traits of a kind depicted superbly in films such as American Psycho and Wall Street.

As a Social Philosopher whose work is focused in this area, Anne Manne, understands these connections and their societal implications. Manne says that the core elements that constitute a narcissistic character are an unstable sense of self and what the writer calls the three Es – an overwhelming sense of entitlement, a willingness to exploit others and a lack of empathy.

In addition, Manne says that if criticised, the narcissist will retaliate with humiliated fury and, in the workplace, often try and take credit for things that other people do by giving an impression of being a better and more successful person than they are.

“This is a person who wants to pursue attention to get attention, but is unwilling to give it. So it’s like the person you have lunch with who talks non-stop about themselves and then at the end of the lunch says, well, look, enough about me, what do you think about me?”, says Manne.

Extreme

Psychologists around the world have said that this kind of problematic obsessive self-focus has led to a rise in extreme forms of narcissistic behaviours. Manne points out that a lot of interesting research has been done highlighting how extreme narcissists inhabit the boardrooms of corporations. This research shows how the use of the letter ‘I’ in end of year reports is indicative of CEOs talking about themselves thereby negating any recognition of the contribution of others.

These kinds of damaging qualities are exemplified in other ways. The shift towards the neoliberal economy, for example, correlates to an increase in values like hyper-competitiveness, self-enhancement and the idea that the wage you earn is the measure of all things in the world.

Neoliberalism is not just an economic system promoting free market ideals, but actually carries with it a new kind of culture that is connected to growing inequality and greater narcissism.

“The richer you are, the more narcissistic you are likely to behave”, says Manne.

The obvious chicken and egg question that arises is whether neoliberalism is a Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ reflection of human nature, or whether it represents ideological opposition to the equitable direction society was moving in prior to its implementation?

Manne posits the latter:

“The narcissist puts himself in a position of privilege and, in neoliberalism, this was a system that privileged financial and political elites, while wages of ordinary folk stagnated everywhere where neoliberalism took root.”

Dysfunctional

This harsher, more punitive, and hyper-competitive system has caused more narcissistic behaviour and has led to the hollowing out and corruption of the institutions of education, business and government. In this kind of situation, new forms of self-enhancement take over and narcissism becomes the key to getting ahead. This, in turn helps ensure that high levels of inequality are maintained. Neoliberalism, inequality and narcissism are thus mutually reinforcing phenomena beneficial to the elites.

Ruthlessness, a lack of empathy and the ability to subordinate those around you, are the kinds of obnoxious traits needed for a narcissist to get ahead. This is not surprising given that the human qualities of compassion and empathy which are their antithesis, is key to defeating the politics of entitlement and exploitation upon which the dominant foundations of neoliberalism are built.

Another, often neglected, component in the societal equation is consumption. Indeed, consumption is the link between neoliberalism and narcissism which allows the latter to flourish as part of a feedback loop.

Manne explains:

“Often people will throw up their hands and say it’s terrible that narcissism is on the increase without seeing that there is an absolute economic logic to this for the very simple reason that people who are higher in narcissism, buy more. They are more oriented to materialism and brand names. And their sense of self, which is always a bit shaky, is more dependent upon all the trappings of material success.”

Corporate psychopaths

For the past two decades, the work of Dr. Clive Boddy has focused on psychopaths in the workplace. Boddy says that corporate psychopaths have many of the same character traits as narcissists – deceitful, manipulative, public humiliation of others, a lack of empathy, falsely charismatic, egotistical, self-centred etc.

Nevertheless, Boddy says that there are some important distinctions between the two:

“Essentially, a psychopath has no conscience and doesn’t care whether people like them or not. A narcissist tends to want people to like and admire them because that’s part of that narcissistic personality. What this does is it makes narcissists not quite as dark as psychopaths because narcissists want to be admired, at least by their followers, if no one else, whereas psychopaths really don’t give a damn.”

Boddy notes that between 0.6 per cent and 1.2 per cent of the adult population are categorically psychopathic and points to research which estimates that around 23 per cent of males have sufficient psychopathic traits to be problematic for society.

Regardless, many psychopaths in society end up in leadership positions within the workplace. This, says Boddy, is because their character traits are such that they are motivated by power, money and control – the very things, under neoliberalism, that well-paid, hierarchically structured, financially successful corporate entities offer in abundance.

Other characteristics

But Boddy says that this is only a partial explanation:

“One of their other characteristics is that they have a dearth of emotional connectivity which are linked to brain potentialities and brain connectivity issues. The emotional parts of their brain aren’t as connected and as activated as the brains of the rest of us. So they lack the ability to emotionally connect with other people, even if they’re married and have children. This leaves them free to spend more time pursuing wealth which makes them look productive and helps them get advancement in their careers.”

Boddy points out that there are also environmental influences:

“With the more and more fast, rapid turnover of personnel in organisations and the quickly changing workplace, we find that we get to know our colleagues less and less than we used to. This lack of deep understanding between people and the shallow veneer of normality, enables the psychopathic to hide their true personalities.”

When, in 2005, Boddy first mooted the idea of psychopaths being in leadership positions in corporate entities, the then paradigm was that psychopaths were limited to criminals and were in prison. But this changed following the release of Boddy’s paper, The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis. In it, Boddy posited the theory that the corporate banking sector attracts psychopaths in greater numbers than other sectors of the economy and that the higher up in the organisation you go, the more of them there seem to be.

Boddy notes that around four per cent of senior leaders are psychopathic, categorically, and says that this becomes exacerbated once the extra 23 per cent of males who have significant psychopathic traits are added into the equation. “Once these people are in leadership positions”, says Boddy, “then greed, risk-taking and gambling with other people’s money becomes enmeshed and part of the culture.”

The driving of large institutions into the wall in 2008 as a result of the behaviour of these psychopaths, has proven to be a huge vindication for the academic, whose work on corporate psychopathy prior to the crash had been dismissed by many of his peers.

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