America Is Being Led Astray By Narcissists
Capitalism is now a cult, and Jamie Dimon is the self-appointed leader of the “cult of capitalism.”
That message is gleaned from a Huffington Post column by Mark Gongloff, whose headline stated that not only is the J.P. Morgan CEO and chairman a cult leader but a “very dangerous” one. Why? Because apparently shareholders have signed “a billion-year contract” to join the cult, notwithstanding portrayals of Dimon as a greedy egomaniac and poster boy for everything wrong with capitalism.
His is a monster of a cult: Warren Buffett is a member. So is CNBC’s Jim Cramer. Says Gongloff, who labels Cramer a “shouty man”: “Cramer joined Warren Buffett and many more VIPs in singing Dimon’s praises and warning of the woe that would befall shareholders” if they split his roles. Still, “the media played along, helping … Dimon keep both of his jobs” as J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.’s chief executive and chairman.
Dimon, meanwhile, was doing what any self-respecting egomaniac under such a threat would do: acting like a petulant teenager and threatening to quit.
Today, reconfirmed as leader of the cult of capitalism, Dimon could serve as the perfect example of what psychologist Ernest Becker wrote about in his Pulitzer Prize–winning classic, “The Denial of Death,” a favorite from my years at Morgan Stanley. Dimon fits the cult-leader profile: charismatic narcissist, uncompromising, manipulating and threatening to his co-conspirators in the “cult of capitalism” and to the masses marching to the drumbeat of his destiny, off another economic cliff, bigger than 2008’s.
The destiny of this cult of capitalism is also driven by historical trends that Dimon cannot see, trends beyond his control, beyond his leadership talents. Why? He is blinded, incapable of seeing the mega-billion-dollar danger Gongloff claims to have spotted dead ahead.
Is the new capitalism is destroying America’s morals?
Earlier, Dimon revealed himself as a doomsdayer with a self-destructive streak. I first wrote of this back in 2011. After Dimon spoke at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce the headlines shouted: “Jamie Dimon Worries Financial Regulation Will Doom Banks Forever.” Reports followed: Dimon attacked Dodd-Frank as “the nail in the coffin of big American banks.” Doom? Coffin? No, over the top.
In analyzing this behavior, it does fit the diagnosis in Becker’s “The Denial of Death,” a classic analysis of why America is led by narcissists wired to self-destruct.
We now see what John Bogle call a “mutant” capitalism that no longer resembles Adam Smith’s inspiring economic principles enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. This type of capitalism has turned into an out-of-control virus destroying America’s moral values from within.
Missing is an sense of honor and love of democracy that made me proud as a U.S. Marine sergeant. Missing is a balance of conservative free-market principles with liberal compassion. All that has vanished in the blind ideologies of today’s Ayn Rand clones demanding a return to a world that mimics the Wild West.
Wall Street narcissists and their blinding ‘denial of death’
When I was first at Morgan Stanley, I read a wide assortment of books, from Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” and “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” to “Supermoney” and “Powers of Mind.” Becker’s “Denial of Death” still haunts me. It took many readings over the years — plus a Ph.D. in psychology and later work as an interventionist with hundreds of executives, physicians, actors, rock stars, athletes, politicians, royalty and other celebrities — to fully comprehend its power.
Today Becker’s message seems obvious: Wall Street insiders really are their own worst enemies. Once again, as in 2000 and 2008, a million blind insiders are self-destructing.
Instead of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” we now have many hands of narcissistic egomaniacs driving this new cult of capitalism. The philosopher Sam Keen, author of “Hymns to an Unknown God,” wrote a great summary of Becker’s worldview in “Denial of Death.” Here are seven steps in the rise and demise of the cult of capitalism:
1. The world is terrifying, hostile and unsafe
Wall Street insiders, playing with billions, all face the same, deep angst in their souls. An inner war rages every day from birth. This world is “not Disneyland,” says Keen: “Mother Nature is a brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw, who destroys what she creates,” brutishly “tearing others apart with teeth of all types — biting, grinding flesh.” This is our reality from birth until death. Both Hollywood and Wall Street remind us of it every day.
2. Fear of death haunts all humans, creating intense anxieties
The world “out there” is filled with mortal enemies. Our basic human motivation is a “biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death.”
We adapt, enduring the pain of existence in a cruel world, anxious, “helpless, abandoned in a world where we are fated to die.” We live, relates Keen, in “terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression — and with all this yet to die.” Yes, it sounds like an endless summer of Hollywood blockbusters, repeating on an endless loop in our brains.
3. So we invent clever ways to quiet our anxiety, deny our fears
Every day, we try to deny this reality, block the fears from our minds: to survive, raise a family, be productive.
Denial is the “first line of defense that protects us from the painful awareness of our helplessness.” So, writes Keen, “we hide in our phony defense mechanisms” to “feel safe … able to pretend that the world is manageable.” As do all capitalists. “But the price we pay is high,” Keen continues. “We repress our bodies to purchase a soul that time cannot destroy; we sacrifice pleasure to buy immortality,” but “life escapes us while we huddle within our defended fortress.”
4. Our goal: Escape death, be an immortal hero saving the world
Here’s where the human brain is at its most brilliant, most evident with cult leaders: “Society provides the second line of defense against our natural impotence,” says Keen. For all cultures create “a hero system that allows us to believe we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth. We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to conquer an empire, to build a temple, to write a book, to establish a family, to accumulate a fortune, to further progress and prosperity, to create an information-society and global free market.”
And not just individuals but “corporations and nations may be driven by unconscious motives that have little to do with their stated goals.” Each driven by leaders whose unconscious motives have more to do with overcoming their anxieties about death as a hero. In fact, the motivations of leaders “making a killing in business or on the battlefield frequently have less to do with economic need or political reality than with the need for assuring ourselves that we have achieved something of lasting worth,” while, deep inside, they remain our cult leaders, selfish, self-seeking, little narcissistic egomaniacs.
5. Our heroic ventures create enemies, backfire, counterattack
This is the final act for capitalists and for capitalism. As Keen puts it, “our heroic projects aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world.” America vs. China, Republicans vs Democrats, etc. But the real war is always within us. Each of us projects our inner demons onto the real world. To distract us from our fear of death. And in our denials we convince ourselves we are immortal. In our minds we become as gods. And yet deep inside every hero quest to save the world are buried childhood fears, ancient terrors. And eventually this shadow world turns real, the game backfires, and old fears resurface, fighting back.
6. Our denial-of-death quest creates a blind hero
In Becker’s psychological reality we soon discover that “one of the key concepts for understanding man’s urge to heroism is the idea of narcissism.” Freud “discovered that each of us repeats the tragedy of the mythical Greek Narcissus.” We are “hopelessly absorbed with ourselves.” And 2,500 years of history has “not changed man’s basic narcissism.” In fact, “most of the time … practically everyone is expendable except ourselves.” We are indispensible. Forever. Immortal. We know best, for greed is always good in the cult of capitalism.
7. Escape into enlightenment? Sorry, but it gets worse
You ask: Is there hope for becoming a hero? Happy endings? Solutions? New strategies to get rich in recessions and bear markets? No.
As with Sartre’s existentialism, Becker sees no escape, “no exit” from the human condition — our denial of death, our destiny, our self-inflicted hell.
You’re trapped in a no-win drama: Even if you do get enlightened, your new enlightened state you will suffer a new awareness — that the cult of capitalism continues unenlightened, blind, driven to self-destruct by forces unseen and uncomprehended until it’s too late.
And unfortunately that leaves 300 million Americans trapped in the cult’s drama, where Wall Street’s greedy narcissists are unwittingly sabotaging the economy, lost in their silent conspiracy, controlling the invisible hand, in a costly war that will again lead, as in 2000 and 2008, to the fulfillment of the death wish of the cult of capitalism.
Paul B. Farrell is a MarketWatch columnist based in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Follow him on Twitter @MKTWFarrell.5 views