By Alison Banville
In the movie, American Pycho, Christian Bale gives us one of the most chilling portraits of a psychopath ever committed to celluloid. Adapted from the controversial novel of the same name by Brett Easton Ellis, the film introduces us to a man who appears to have it all. Handsome stockbroker Patrick Batemen lives in an expensive apartment, drives a fabulous car, wears exquisitely tailored suits and eats at the best restaurants with his classy fiancé. But these rewards are also the source of a constant, gnawing status-anxiety which sees him desperately fixated on maintaining his position in the hierarchy of success. The scene in which he boils with anger when a colleague produces a superior business card is one of the film’s most fascinating and chilling moments and it is this murderous rage which leads to him descending into an orgiastic killing-spree in which various examples of society’s dispossessed are dispatched.
That Ellis chose to place his character in the corporate world is no accident. Both the book and film are a storming piece of satirical excoriation in which Bateman’s violence is used as a metaphor for what the author considers the spiritual impoverishment of the naked materialism he and his equally acquisitive colleagues exemplify. He suggests it is the corporate culture itself which is psychopathic, and in this way Patrick’s own psychopathy is both the symptom and the disease. For he operates within this culture which defines success in purely material terms, and so the need for proof of his own success becomes his raison d’etre, the centre upon which his entire identity depends. All the more sinister is the fact that it becomes an incubus from which he cannot escape as long as he buys into that culture’s values, the result being a highly ironic realization that the more he has, the more insecure he becomes.
The notion of corporate culture as psychopathic is an interesting one, but has it any validity? The makers of the 2003 documentary ‘The Corporation’ certainly think so, their premise being that since companies benefit from their status as ‘corporate persons’ (a legal term denoting rights usually associated with individuals, or ‘natural persons’, such as the right to privacy or freedom of speech) it is relevant to ask - what kind of person are they?
To answer this they make use of the standard psychopathy test developed by leading psychologist Dr. Robert Hare. The traits which, when found together, identify a personality as psychopathic (lack of empathy, pathological lying, lack of guilt or remorse, parasitic lifestyle, manipulativeness, grandiose sense of self, superficial charm) are ticked off as the film progresses, accompanied by various examples of dubious corporate behaviour, including environmental destruction, inhumane working conditions, unethical marketing, media manipulation, patenting of life-forms, neo-liberal re-structuring programmes in exchange for aid, attacking of whistle-blowers and the use of dwindling resources for short-term profit.
All are juxtaposed with the Hare list, the conclusion being that the way a modern day corporation operates exemplifies the overarching characteristic of the psychopath - it has no conscience. Indeed, in the documentary, Milton Friedman, considered by many to be the father of neo-liberal economics, insists that a corporate executive has only one moral imperative - to make as much money for that corporation as he can. Friedman identifies something important here: it is the individuals inside the corporation who must choose to accept this imperative in order to ensure the company’s success in these terms. Are our thriving businesses attracting psychopaths as employees?
Dr. Hare, himself, has explored this question in his book, ‘Snakes in Suits, When Psychopaths Go to Work.’ He and co-author, organizational psychologist Dr.Paul Babiak, believe there is something in the very structure of the modern day corporation which encourages its employees to demonstrate those traits the Hare psychopathy test lists. They describe the ‘organization wars’ of the 1970’s and 80’s, as business moved away from the cumbersome bureaucratic model toward a more stream-lined, effective ‘transitional’ one: ‘egocentricity, callousness, and insensitivity suddenly became acceptable trade-offs in order to get the talent and skills needed to survive in an accelerated, dispassionate business world’ they tell us. One cannot help being reminded of the riveting TV spectacle of The Apprentice in which contenders proudly state there is no one they would not step on or sacrifice in their pursuit of success. The authors then go on to describe how inviting psychopaths find the corporate milieu, explaining that, ‘the temptation for someone with a psychopathic personality to join a fast-paced, competitive, and highly effective ‘transitional’ organization, especially one with few constraints or rules, is too great, and the rewards too significant, to ignore.’ With the result that, ‘psychopaths are more attracted to work for businesses that offer fast-paced, high-risk, high-profit environments.’
It may come as news to some that not all psychopaths are axe-wielding serial killers, that they can be suave, charming businessmen and women, admired and rewarded for the very traits which mark them out as one. But in a time of globalization what are the implications for society if the world’s most powerful organizations value such people? Some would say we need only look around us for the answer. Witness the sweat-shops of India, the disappearing rainforests, the polluted rivers and oceans, and the corporate owned media from which most people construct their view of the world.
The American writer and philosopher Henry Thoreau once declared: ‘It has been said that a corporation has no conscience, but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience’, neatly encapsulating the nature of the relationship between the entity itself and those operating within it. Indeed, they are the cells without which the corporate body would be lifeless; they give it form and agency and they set its moral limits. Friedman is very clear about what those limits should be. And not many are arguing with him.
But in a time of rapidly diminishing resources, environmental devastation, peak oil, food riots and seemingly perpetual war, is it not pertinent to ask if the institutions which control our lives should be run by those whose operating principles can be identified as psychopathic? Can the boundaries of the corporation’s moral universe ever be re-drawn so that human and environmental cost is calculated alongside profit margins?
The corporation has risen to a position of unprecedented influence until it now dictates the quality of life of every human being on the planet; in reality, it decides if many live or die. We are the first generation in history facing the possibility of ecocide, and we will be the last with the power to prevent it. Is it possible to envisage a world in which these things fall within the corporation’s scope of concern?
Is it possible to treat and cure this psychopath?
Not bloody likely….