This essay considers the question whether the psychological structure of a financial trader markets can be characterised as a neurosis or whether a satisfactory characterisation requires as an additional analytic category the denial of the Name-of-the-father as the anchor of the symbolic system. The interpretation of the trader as a neurotic is developed in Zafiropoulos (2014) and, with some nuances, in Zabala Corradi (2014). Together, their pioneering contributions took on the important issue of the analytical and clinical implication of the working in financial markets for the first time. Our exploration builds on their work, which explicitly posits itself in the wake of Freud’s classic works Totem and Taboo (1914) and Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921). In this reading, the unease of the trader constitutes a modernised example of Freud’s notion of the discontent in culture. According to Zafiropoulos the work by Zabala Corradi « perfectly shows that the trading floors unite – in the classic Freudian logic of mass psychology – a crowd of obsessional neurotic sons (ibid., p. 15) ». The Head of the trading floor here represents the Law of the banking institution and functions as the paternal Ego Ideal of the crowd of traders with all the ambivalence between love and hatred that such a relationship implies. Haunted by their unconscious desire to murder their leader, traders will try to atone for their guilt by obsessively trying to earn as much money as possible under his command. The money is then handed over to the banking institution embodying the Law. Furthermore, any personal gain is squandered and lost as an additional sign of atonement before the Law in function of an individual economy of guilt and reparation. Such psychological structures encourage exploitative relationships including the possibility of perverse manipulation by the Head of the trading floor, who will use his traders to incur ultimately uncontrollable risks.
Other than offering a general clinical perspective on the subject working in financial markets, the approach by Zafiropoulos and Zabala Corradi analysing the unease of the financial trader as a symptom of neurosis aims at countering the evolutionist approaches proposed among others by Gauchet, Lebrun and Melman (Zafiropoulos, p. 2-3). The latter postulate a, yet to be properly defined, state of « hyper-modernity », which induces a number of symptoms that may include perversions or « white psychoses ». The financial trader here would be a paradigmatic representation of a subject lacking of paternal references. The roots of the malaise of the trader would thus need to be defined with the help of a notion of generalised psychosis, or the « white psychosis » of an incompletely constituted subject.
Neither approach allows for a satisfactory answer. The recourse to a not further defined state of hyper-modernity to explain new behavioural patterns substitutes discursive impressionism for proper analytical theorising. At the same time, the solid conceptual approach by Zafiropoulos and Zabala Corradi considering the financial trader as a neurotic is not quite sufficient to explain a number of empirical observations about the realities of working in financial markets. These observations detailed in section two describe a world very different from that of the neurotic. Of course, one may find neurotics in banking, although one will find them more frequently among analysts, risk controllers or specialists in information technology rather than among traders. The trading floor, however, is the stage for a number of phenomena that neurosis can only very incompletely explain.
A third section will present the outline of an alternative, or rather complementary, theory to account for these phenomena. This theory will seek to avoid the binary opposition between neurosis and psychosis, which results from a very Cartesian interpretation of Lacan’s concept of the foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father. Instead, it proposes the notion of denial or negation of the Name-of-the-Father, which permits a more complete characterisation of the behaviour and personality of financial traders. The Name-of-the-Father is in this context the signifier of the Other, the treasure of signification, in its function as the locus of the Law. While going beyond the interpretation of the trader as a neurotic, this approach will remain faithful to the tradition established by Freud and Lacan, where the unconscious has a stable syntax anchored by the metaphorical link established by the Name-of the-Father.
This syntax expresses itself in linguistic and behavioural structures that are ultimately accessible to semiotic analysis. The subject employing the strategy of denial is thus capable of symbolic signification but will behave as if the Name-of-the-Father did not exist. It will thus substitute the rule of the one eternal Law marking the transition from nature to culture, the prohibition of incest, with a number of socially codified rules or laws that can be substituted at will and at high frequency.
A fourth section will conclude by presenting the institution of the panopticon introduced by Jeremy Bentham, universally recognized as the founder of economic utilitarianism, as a metaphor for the market economy. The panopticon as devised by Bentham is a model prison, in which prisoners’ behaviours, and ultimately minds, are reformed through the supervision of an invisible warden. While this may seem anecdotal at first sight, the panopticon highlights in a very crude, almost cartoonish manner the substitution of an abstract symbolic entity with a totalitarian system of precise rules for social behaviour. This is, in fact, at the heart of our argument : the substitution of a symbolic entity, which may be called a totem (Freud), a symbolic father (Lacan) or a « floating signifier without semantic value » (Lévi-Strauss), with a set of socially codified behavioural rules is the necessary condition for a pure market economy. The latter is, of course, a hypothetical concept even though financial trading floors approximate it quite closely in reality. The issue is thus not the foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father (the social Other cannot function in the absence of symbolic competence) but its denial and its suspension as a normative benchmark for individual behaviour. Quite obviously, the ubiquitous presence of the social Other in the form of the inter-personal networks of the Internet era reduces the costs of this denial substantially as myriads of local normative frameworks of varying duration and stringency in terms of self-control offer low-cost alternatives.
A consensus approach
There is much continuity between the interpretation of the trader as a neurotic and the one presented here of the trader as an individual living in an unconscious denial of the relevance of the Name-of-the father for the construction of his symbolic universe. Denial is, of course, also a classic Freudian concept developed in the articles on “Negation” (1925) and “Fetishism” (1927). This essay indeed tries to answer the question posed by Zafiropoulos « how do changes in… the social Other modify the structure of the subject of the unconscious (Zafiropoulos, p. 3) ? » However, beyond the consensual observation that in the financial world « the envelope of the symptom » (Lacan) is highly specific, we would like to show that for today’s financial traders also the unconscious structure of the production of symptoms is specific and differs from the structure under neurosis.
While he denies the pertinence of a unique symbolic reference, the trader « remains a subject » (Antoine Masson) in the sense that he possesses a basic symbolic competence allowing him to produce variously structured symptoms. However, these symptoms can no longer be captured by the classic categories hysteria, obsession, phobia or perversion. This is primarily due to changes in the structure of the production of meaning in societies with permanent recursive informational feedback loops. In such a context, it is possible to produce socially intelligible sense by transforming libidinal energy through displacement and condensation, i.e. to produce symptoms, in a fluid, intermittent and ephemeral manner without a permanent reference to a single Name-of-the-Father structuring the mental space of the individual in a stable, complete and internally coherent manner, both at the conscious and the unconscious level.
The post-industrial society of today is characterised by three interrelated phenomena : the progressive disappearance of space, the increasing disappearance of time, in particular, the time to process information at the level of the psychological subject, and the permanent virtual interconnection of any one individual potentially with all other individuals but, in particular, with the members of his peer group. The global financial sector is in the vanguard of this process. It thus makes sense to take the financial trader as a paradigmatic figure of the contemporary individual that develops a number of relevant new symptoms in a particularly pure form.
The new forms of communication and interaction with a constant immediate and complete access to the social Other through the Internet offer new possibilities for mental and emotional development, in which the denial of the Name-of-the-Father becomes an attractive option for the subject as it holds out a promise of enjoyment (jouissance) untainted by the experience of symbolic castration, i.e., the painful recognition of the behavioural and sensory adaptations required by the passage from the world of imagination into reality. The denial of the name-of-the father thus opens a space for the social Other as an alternative system for the production of normative references. Implicit in this reasoning is, of course, that the social Other can only partially substitute for the functions hitherto ensured by Name-of-the Father in structuring the subject of the unconscious. While the social Other can provide any number of behavioural norms, it cannot provide coherence of these norms at the individual level. In other words, the social Other can provide moral guidelines but no ethical impetus. This is precisely the difference of the « trader » with a member of the horde of brothers in Totem and Taboo or the « masses » in Group Psychology. The social rules of the latter are mutually consistent and ultimately converge in stabilizing a single, common, unconscious Ego Ideal of the members of the horde embodied in the figure of the leader.
The social Other as a normative reference provides rules but no coherence among those rules. The denial of the Name-of-the-Father thus poses the question to which extent the normative references handed down by the recursive mechanisms of social adaptation remain mutually consistent and coherent at the level of the individual. The structure of the construction of normative references is thus not the same at the time of the primitive horde, at the time of the industrial revolution of Adam Smith, which, broadly, is also that of Freud and at the time of virtual social networks today. The industrial revolution, accompanied by the emergence of a middle class and a « civil society » witnessed a first dramatic change in the modes of symbolisation. The medium is the message here, as the same technological changes that allowed for new forms of production and consumption also allowed for much more fluid horizontal communication between auto-organising individuals. Think of book printing, newspapers, electromagnetic signalling, telephones, trains, canals, road networks etc. This allowed a new stage in the substitution of the symbolic father, at the time represented in a very concrete way by the political and religious powers in place, as a normative reference. Adam Smith was the first to show how this symbolic instance, named in his Theory of Moral Sentiments the « impartial spectator », morphs from an explicit, conscious reference into an unconscious structure in a market environment (Keppler, 2010).
Our era, the era of virtualisation, electronic trading, Internet, ubiquitous social networks and omnipresent socially codified information has gone one step further and is characterized by recursive information loops that can make and break « unconscious structures » in ever faster ways. We are tempted to speak of ephemeral unconscious structures, well aware the contradiction such a term implies. These ephemeral normative structures are modelled on the Name-of-the-Father, which in the state of denial has been inscribed but is no longer functional. It is important to recall that the Name-of-the-Father as the apex of the unconscious structure is not foreclosed with the trader. He still provides a matrix of meaning and an idea of the law, but is no longer capable of imposing his Law in a consistent manner. The trader, the emblematic subject of the market society, is thus constantly skirting the limits of the forbidden. At this limit, the respect – constantly challenged and questioned – of a series of transitory social norms substitutes for the respect of the Law, the prohibition of incest. The trader is thus never ready to recognize castration as such, but he is always ready to recognize a partial castration, which engages him only for an instant, to recommence with the enjoyment of the object and its substitutes the moment after.
The Empirical Limits of the Approach of the Trader as a Neurotic
The first thing one notices when stepping on a trading floor is the incredible energy that it exudes. This is not a world of neurotics but a world characterized by the permanent enactment of excessive and competitive enjoyment. The creed of the trader is « I enjoy more than you » even before « I earn more money than you ». Money is a means to engage in an ostentatious display of enjoyment rather than an objective per se for the trader, precisely because he is not an obsessive neurotic. However, evolving permanently at the very limit delineated by the denial of castration, trying to reconcile maximum enjoyment with social functionality, requires great vigilance and a hyper-attention that can be sustained only when coupled with a permanent adrenaline discharge. A trader always works, both literally and figuratively, at the limit. In the literal sense, he works at the limit that his financial institution has set for the risk exposure of his portfolio. Needless to say, outside those limits not only lie the greatest risks but also the greatest gains. In the figurative sense, a trader permanently works at the physical limit of his capacity to sustain that particular internal tension which alone allows perceiving and, if possible, anticipating, the slightest movements of that beast to which he has sworn allegiance to, that amorphous multitude, which is the market. If ever his hyper-attention should flag, he will immediately sustain it artificially with the help of licit (coffee, nicotine) or illicit drugs (cocaine, amphetamines).
The trader is not permanently cogitating like a neurotic. This would waste valuable time. He must react instinctively, gregariously, automatically and mimetically. The last point is important. If the obsessive neurotic « creates his own private religion following the death of God » (Vanier), then the trader’s religion is alternately presided by his peer group and the market as a whole. Under no circumstance can his religion be a private affair. There is perhaps room for a cult of the market with some religious overtones, as, can be observed with some investors in bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. However, a private religion, or any bona fide attachment to an official religion, would introduce a symbolic split between the word and the object, which would again slow down the trader’s insertion into the self-referential feedback loops that are permanently maintained by the screens, the phones and the banter among colleagues. Contemplating the symbolic split between words and objects as well as its corollary, the existence of a « floating signifier without semantic value » (Levi-Strauss), is the defining feature of all religion. This brings us back to the original question if the trader is an obsessive neurotic. Theoretically, the definition of an obsessive neurotic as the follower of a private religion could be adapted to cover the trader, in particular by including notions of conspicuous consumption and ostentatious enjoyment as signs of devoutness and the market and the peer group as symbolic instances. However, this would require semantic contortions, including the definition of a mimetic rather than a symbolic Ego Ideal, of a kind that would make the exercise of defining the trader as an obsessive largely meaningless.
Can the Head of the trading floor represent a suitable Ego Ideal ?
A trader must be young. The permanent enactment of enjoyment, the permanent testing of the limits of the forbidden in both work and play (the fast cars, the clubs, the short-term vacation trips, the erotic relationships etc.) is very exhausting for the body. It is rare for a trader to stay in business beyond the age of 40. An old trader is a pathetic figure. Either, he has become a neurotic, i.e., he has imposed contortions on himself, which avoid risks that are too costly while pretending that is still running with the pack ; or, he has become a pervert, capable of exploiting younger colleagues through the ruses learned by experience, possibly both. In both cases, he is a cheat and his younger colleagues know it. This is a major difference with the paradigmatic institutions presented in Freud (1921), the army and the church. One can be an old soldier or an old priest in an honourable manner. Age might even enhance his standing as it provides a certain aura that stems from the self-sacrifice in the service of the shared Ego Ideal. It is instead structurally impossible for an old trader to acquire such an aura except in the self-congratulatory manner of an older wealthy man who pathetically confounds the flattery of those interested in his money or his contacts with symbolic competence.
Without fathers no sons. The son of the trader does not exist. Of course, this does not mean that a concrete individual trader cannot have children. However, he will have them in the name of a father whom he denies, or suspends, as long as he is active on the trading floor. Zafiropoulos and Zabala Corradi are right that a trader will usually found a family only following his, early, retirement or his conversion into a less stressful position in the same organization. Zabala Corradi provides an illuminating case study of this process around a trader named « Alvaro ». The latter indeed founds his family only when he abandons the conspicuous consumption of his trading days, identifies with the values of his accountant father and begins working in the « real » economy, a steel foundry (cited according to Zafiropoulos, p. 7). Alvaro is thus able to exit his denial and returns to the Law-of-the-Father (Zabala Corradi). This implies some renouncement of enjoyment and the acceptance of personal limits. In short, the former trader accepts some form of symbolic castration and settles into a stabilizing neurosis in order to found a family.
However, one must be cautious not to interpret the active trading phase as being defined by a sort of temporary unconscious structure that can be unwound at a later stage with ease. Zafiropoulos is right to question the pertinence of a denial of symbolic regulation limited in space and in time (Zafiropoulos, p. 9). Clearly, in this essay we consider the structure of a denial of the Name-of-the-Father as a permanent feature of the financial trader. However, denial is an ambivalent structure to start with. A fetishist will alternate moments of intense arousal around the object he has chosen as the substitute of the maternal phallus with periods of latency. Also the trader can alternate between phases, in which the symbolic dimension with a more or less pronounced. Three remarks in this context : first, the symbolic dimension will be largely absent during active trading. Second, even when engaging in symbolic discourse off-work, say talking about art, politics, how life projects etc., it will be difficult for the trader to avoid a certain form of insincerity. While he is fully capable of symbolic discourse, he will always try to avoid any irreversible personal commitment that could be associated with it. Third and most importantly, traders do not stop trading because the re-discover their symbolic roots and recognise the unsatisfactory superficiality of their ways. The stop either out of mental and physical exhaustion or because they are no longer profitable, the two phenomena being closely related.
There exists therefore no reason why life post-trading should provide a more stable symbolic structure. Yet the absence of a permanent peer group serving as a sounding board for normative references will induce the former trader to adopt far greater caution. While any analyst will quickly spot the difference between a soundly grounded and a cautious subject, externally observable social behaviour might be quite similar under the two circumstances.
During the traders’ active phase, contrary to what one might think, the Head of the trading floor will not function as a guarantor of symbolic stability. The Head is neither a father who provides an anchor for symbolic signification, nor a master who transmits it and makes it relevant to the real world. He is more akin to a « big brother », who exploits the naivety of his younger colleagues. The Head of the trading floor, who works side by side with his collaborators without any particular distinction, is a former trader who has survived. He has survived by imposing certain limits on both his trading and his conspicuous enjoyment. His task is to ensure the delicate balance of the group between euphoria and risk control. Despite his outrageous salary and bonus, the Head of the trading floor remains an ambiguous character between the neurotic and the perverse, always at the risk of ridicule. A former trader himself, he is acutely aware of the risks of his role, which he assumes with great discipline and much self-deprecating humour. The movie Margin Call quite nicely depicts this character.
The Head of the trading floor needs to verify that limitations on risk are observed, while constantly inciting his traders to challenge them. This makes legal judgements about relative responsibilities in cases when exceeding the limits leads to massive losses particularly difficult. Putting massive pressure on somebody to work at a limit that does not allow for any grey zones will inevitably lead to exceeding the limit at certain moments. Everybody knows this, nobody will ever acknowledge it. Only hyper-vigilance and luck will preserve the individual trader from being punished for a transgression.
The Head of the trading floor thus does not function as a guardian of the symbolic Law. Neither does the bank or an alternative financial institution. The bank functions primarily as a prized treasure whose fantasised possession promises limitless enjoyment. The bank is the heiress of the omnipotent phallic mother and hence the organizing entity and ultimate beneficiary of the game that is played on the trading floor. By construction, the bank thus defies any symbolic power and constitutes a strongly attractive opposite pole that, at the unconscious level, draws in the trader’s psychic energy like a vortex. In order to survive, traders reward the bank at the conscious level with an extraordinary and, in fact ostentatious, degree of professional promiscuity and an utter lack of loyalty.
Finally, one must discard the persistent myth that at a psychological level trading is akin to playing in a casino. A bank is not a casino ; a trader is not a gambler. Assimilating banks to casinos is a vindictive fantasy of those who have to endure the power of banks while ignoring their real nature. Unlike the lonely and loyal gambler at the roulette table, who plays to loose in order to pay or rather to establish a debt in the melancholic knowledge that he will never succeed, the trader never plays to lose but always to win. His gain is measured in both material and immaterial terms. Peer recognition is the primary motivation in the financial industry. The only thing a trader aspires to lose is quite literally the name of his father. The greatest sign of esteem that traders can bestow on one of their own is to give him an immediately recognizable nickname. « Fabulous Fab », the « London Whale » etc. are part of recent market lore.
Losing money also does not have the same meaning for a trader or a gambler. The gambler embarks on a quest for identity wondering whether he has an identity beyond his function as a surrogate for the maternal phallus. Such a quest is, for instance, beautifully translated into images and music by Wong Kar-Wai in his movie 2046. The gambler must lose in order to prove that he is more than the product of his mother’s desire for completeness. The trader instead must win in order to preserve the recognition of his peers.
The hyper-codified universe of modern finance is always characterized by the systematic absence of any symbolic dimension that would recall the Freudian myth, subconsciously re-enacted by the neurotic, of the murder of the father at the hands of the brothers of the prehistoric horde, as well as the ensuing guilt and emotional auto-mutilation of the brothers that follows. In a situation, where the structuralising force of the Name-of-the-Father is denied both individually and collectively, traders will create their own rudimentary symbolism, which is structured around the social Other, in order to survive as a subject.
The knife-edge between denying a unifying symbolic instance and preserving the symbolic competence to engage in communication with peers, colleagues, customers and competitors poses the question « which precise form does the social Other take ? » Zafiropoulos advances the hypothesis that it is constituted by the « algorithmic Other », the « algorithmic machinery of the Other conceived by brillant mathematicians who have become the masters of the young traders being watched by their screens (Zafiropoulos, p. 5-6). » Zafiropoulos goes even farther when maintaining that the trading algorithms can fully substitute for the function of the Name-of-the Father, which is, of course, at the heart of his hypothesis that the trader is a neurotic that displays no fundamental difference with neurotics in other areas of social life or in previous times. He thus states :
Do we not need to search in the mathematical language… the signifiers that organise trading and, if appropriate, in the place of the signifier without semantic value or the Name-of-the Father which, according to Lévi-Strauss, allows symbolic thinking to deploy itself… the spirit of all things mathematical that structure the world of the traders (ibid., p. 12, emphasis in original) ?
This is an attractive hypothesis for two reasons. First, electronic screens are ubiquitous on the trading floor. They constitute a very important link with the trader’s social Other. Any trader works with multiple screens that provide both raw information and numerical data that has been treated by mathematical algorithms to provide indications about correlations between different markets as well on the evolving structure of the traders’ portfolio. Second, electronic trading driven by mathematical algorithms is indeed becoming more and more important, with algorithmic trades constituting more than half of all volumes in some markets. The best-paid employees of large financial institutions are increasingly the « quants », the highly qualified mathematicians and theoretical physicists that devise the trading programmes. By the way, the latter count any number of neurotics, usually obsessive neurotics, among them. However, their mental structure is very different from that of the traders, with whom they have little personal contact.
The hypothesis that the mathematical formulas driving the algorithms whose results are flashing on the screen, the « ghost in the machine » so to speak, constitutes the anchor of the trader’s symbolic structure is ultimately based on a misunderstanding of the relationship between the trader and trading algorithms. The two are in a fierce relationship of substitution. As soon as the automated trading by an algorithm is more profitable, the trader will be unceremoniously sacked. By the way, nowhere is sacking more unceremonious than in the financial sector, where it is not uncommon to have one’s dismissal announced in the morning and to have to leave at lunchtime with a cardboard box under the arm.
As long as the human trader is more profitable than the algorithm, any quantitative information provided by the system is part of the constant flow of information on which the trader needs to react. Again, his aim is to stay as close as possible to the « market », i.e., that particular social Other that is constituted by the totality of all other traders. Of course, any quantitative information helpful in this process will be assimilated immediately. At the same time, however, strictly no piece of information has the temporal persistence that would be necessary for a stabilised symbolic structure to emerge. While there might be habits, favourite websites, chat-rooms, news sources or even particular trading programmes, each single one of them has value only to the extent that they allow the trader to stay in the general process of creation and defeasance of informational objects that serve as temporary attractors for the flow of communication.
Living in the flow of the murmur of the peer group defines also the trader’s perception of himself. His Ego is established primarily by the sympathetic mirror image that his peers reflect of him. Outside of his peer group, which is his only normative reference, the trader strictly knows no conscience, guilt or shame that would characterise a neurotic. Even trading losses are never « losses » in the sense that they would establish a moral debt. The trader works on the assumption that absolutely any loss can be made up by the next punt. This leads to the well-documented cases of snowballing losses, when losing traders manage to circumvent the risk controls of their banks. Their motivation here is not guilt, trying to regain the money lost. It is not their money to begin with. The motivation is to save their bonuses and hence their standing in the peer group. Even major transgressions, the multi-billion losses at Société Générale, UBS or Barings Bank come to mind, thus do not inscribe themselves in any symbolic regulation around public scandal, process and punishment. The individual traders concerned are absolutely sincere when they proclaim their innocence. Moreover, all traders know that their days are numbered, since the life of a common trader on the floor is physically unsustainable beyond the age of forty. Enjoyment and constant excitement wear out bodily and mental health usually well before middle age. This looming deadline further justifies any transgressive behaviour, any absurd gain or insane risk. Everything has been paid for in advance !
Traders thus never trade to lose and, in fact, on average, they do not. Even « hedged » bets are never fully symmetrical. Thanks to the informational advantage of the big banks and hedge funds, the latter intervene in the market slightly earlier than other actors who receive the relevant information only with a slight delay, a delay that is sometimes only measured in fractions of a second. This informational advantage is the basis for the persistent gains of the big financial institutions. Trading is certainly not a zero-sum game but the principal source of a bank’s profits. Unlike the languid and elegant dweller of the casino, an alert trader does indeed win on average. Otherwise, banks would stop employing them immediately.
An Ambivalent Form of Symbolic Competence : the Denial of the Name-of-the-Father
The rivalry among equals (peers) permeates every aspect of the trading floor. Such rivalry and jealousy necessitate shared references, which imply some form of deference to shared signifiers with a certain symbolic weight. In this sense, we agree with Zafiropoulos that the trader does not live outside of all symbolic reference. The decisive point, however, is the changing and partial nature of these symbolic links, which is constantly constructed and deconstructed by recursive feedback loops of limited duration. The jealousy which supports the social bound is thus attached to « strange attractors », which consist of objects that are random ex ante, but that are hyper-determined ex post and constitute non-negotiable normative references once the process of recursive feedbacks between all members of the group has run its course.
The primary condition for such an « attractor » is that it must be codifiable and immediately recognizable. It is of secondary importance whether at any given instant the attractor is constituted by the Rolex on the wrist, the haircut, physical prowess, the costume, the familiarity with a trendy nightclub or restaurant, the appropriate accent and vocabulary, a car, a fashionable vacation spot, the type of companion, the appropriate address, or, finally, the design of furniture and art recommended by the arbiter elegantiarum of the moment.
The inter-subjective, partial, ephemeral and, ultimately, limited nature of these symbolic structures implied by the denial of the Name-of-the-Father is different to the nature of the symbolic structures implied by either neurosis or psychosis. While the term denial or negation was developed by Freud in connection with the fetishist’s denial of the absence of his mother’s phallus, the term has wider bearing for mental structures, where a fundamental symbolic competence exists, but where the subject remains latent and refuses, at least partially and temporarily, to act on its basis. This is the appropriate starting point to determine the mental structure of « the trader », as the typical representation of a certain type of personality in post-industrial society. A trader is not a psychotic. Psychopaths, such as the crazy trader of Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, are as rare or as frequent among traders as in the rest of the population.
Traders thus possess symbolic competence but refuse to fully act on it. The consequences of denial can perhaps best be presented by starting from the paradoxical formula that the trader evolves in an environment that is characterised by a de-symbolised symbolism. Let us explain : the notion of a symbol derives from the Greek symbolon, a broken clay ring whose two halves were kept by the two contracting parties as proof of their legitimacy in the settlement of a contract for forward delivery. A symbol is thus always characterised by a fracture. This fracture applies to the difference between the two contracting parties as well as to the irreducible gap between the words of the contract and the act of the actual exchange. A symbol is thus a sign that in a self-referential manner draws attention to its own abstract, non-material nature as a sign rather than its material nature as an object. Ultimately, any symbol thus insists on the gnoseological abyss that separates the word and the object, the signifier and signified.
The void of this abyss can only be overcome by faith, the faith in the power of words and the power of signs. This faith is organised precisely by the Name-of-the-Father, who anchors the symbolic universe. Freud in Totem and Taboo assigns this anchoring function to the totem who inherits its power from the slain father of the original horde. In his Lacan and Levi-Strauss or The Return to Freud (1951-1957) (Karnac Books, 2010) Markos Zafiropoulos shows how the notion developed by Lévi-Strauss of a « floating signifier without semantic value » assumes the same anchoring function in the symbolic system as Lacan’s notion of the Name-of-the-Father. For the Polynesians, whom Marcel Mauss describes in his book The Gift (1925), this function is embodied in the « spirit of things », the mana, orenda or hau. The equivalent role is assumed by the ancestral spirits of the Pacific Indians engaging in the tradition of the potlatch. The choice by Lévi-Strauss in his « Introduction the Work of Marcel Mauss » (1950) to settle on the term « floating signifier without semantic value » has the advantage of focussing on the logical function in the construction of the symbolic universe and of avoiding any anthropomorphic imagery that could suggest a religious interpretation in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the Name-of-the-Father, the signifier of the Other, presides all signification and meaning and establishes the paternal metaphor as the anchor of the symbolic universe. The paternal metaphor which establishes the link with the symbolic father is always based on faith. It is modelled on the faith that the child has in the words of his mother who designates his father, a link that is vital but unprovable. Of course, the acceptance of a symbolic instance other than the mother is also the basis of neurosis as this vital leap of faith demands a fundamental re-organisation of the mental space, most importantly the acceptance of the non-identity of words and objects. Henceforth, the neurotic will suffer from the fact that the words he or she speaks, and even the terms in which he or she thinks, will never be able to convey the totality of his or her external and internal realities. The libido arising from the body will be the most persistent and the most troublesome of these realities. As it cannot be completely absorbed by an individual act of language, it forms the libidinal residual that Lacan called the « object a » and that bears some similarities with Peirce’s « dynamic object » as a motor of continuing verbalisation.
The world and behaviour of the trader, both at work and in his private life, is now wholly organised around the objective to support and demonstrate his denial of this symbolic fracture. The life of the trader is structured by the ambition to show that signs and objects are fully substitutable : the numbers on the screen are the same as the money they represent, the number of « Likes » received by the pictures posted on Facebook are the only measure of the value of the last vacation to an exotic location, even the fancy car is worth just the jealous glances of his colleagues, neither more nor less. In the semiotics of C. S. Pierce and Umberto Eco, the semantic world of the trader is populated by icons, which conflate the sign and the object, representation and concrete existence, social meaning and individual experience.
Of course, also the psychotic uses an iconic form of signification in the sense mentioned by Freud in his Metapsychology, i.e., that the psychotic « confuses the word and the thing ». There are, however, two fundamental differences between a psychotic and a « trader », who, again, is referenced here not as a sociological reality but as the representative of a particular psychic structure. First, the trader can switch back to a symbolic mode of signification if need be, in particular outside the trading floor. To some extent he controls his denial, although this control becomes more difficult and costly as time advances resulting in the burnouts that hit many traders past 35 years of age. Second, while denying any responsibility towards the Law of a symbolic father, the trader nevertheless is very eager to conform to the norms and values emanating from the social Other that is constituted by his peer group. His behaviour and communication is thus stabilised by social norms. Even if the latter may be random and transitory, this nevertheless constitutes a decisive difference with the delirium of the psychotic, who loses control over his verbalisations as he is being talked as words splutter forth in a random walk of associations that is fed by a libidinal surplus that he is unable to absorb.
Even when it comes in the form of a literal adherence to a set of ephemeral social rules rather than in the form of an ethical commitment to a paternal metaphor, this commitment to social intelligibility makes all the difference between the madman and the trader. Such a commitment to social intelligibility implies a repression of the libido, even if, as such, it does not permit sublimation in the Freudian sense, for which it constitutes a necessary but not a sufficient condition. The lack of authentic sublimation precisely translates into the great physical and mental effort that is necessary to live continuously at the edge that is constituted by the denial of the Name-of-the-Father.
At the same time, one must distinguish the particular form of repression that is performed by the trader from that of the neurotic. The libidinal repression of the trader is partial and momentary, limited both in its extent and duration. The trader subjects himself to a sequence of partial standards that structure his behaviour on and off work but that never commit him in his totality. The very function of this strict adherence to disparate social norms is to avoid a more complete adherence to the general symbolic Law that is organised around the prohibition of incest at the level of the unconscious. As stated above, the social norms to which the trader adheres are the result of recursive intersubjective processes that stabilise only once after they have run through a sufficient number of feedback loops. The like buttons on Facebook are the simplest and flattest possible version of such recursive feedbacks between everybody and all, but there exist an infinite variety of such viral processes, some of which may very well integrate creativity, invention, humour or, more rarely, irony. A good trader will sense the emergence of a new norm, a new fashionable object serving as an attractor, and, of course, a new price, a fraction of a moment before his peers. Such a skill of anticipatory emulation is a source of great professional and personal pride. It even characterizes a certain type of leader. However, while new norms are adopted easily and at great speed there exists no mechanism, neither for the leaders nor for the members of the peer group, that would allow coordinating and integrating the different partial norms or to arbitrate in cases where the latter may be incomplete or conflicting with each other.
The « personality » of the trader is the sum of his attributes that have been identified and validated by his peers. In other words, the Name-of-the-Father is not operative, although it is not foreclosed in sense of Lacan. One might speak instead of the vanishing or the suspension of the Name-of-the-Father. The possibility of symbolic meaning is neither directly denied, nor actively pursued. It is as if the symbolic function is put in parentheses. The Name-of-the-Father may thus continue to subsist as a simple reminder of the need to conform to social norms, which are followed to the letter rather than to the spirit. There even exist, rarely, traders that are openly religious. Since at least the monotheistic religions thematise the link to the symbolic father in various allegorical ways, one may legitimately think that this could interfere with the denial of the Name-of-the-Father. However, this is excluded almost by definition. A trader who would let symbolic signification get in the way of rapid responses that are shaped essentially by mimetic processes, would lose an essential part of his efficiency. Does this mean a religious trader is a contradiction in terms ? Not necessarily, the only condition is that the enactment of his link to the symbolic father is confined to his private life and must not thwart the self-organizing processes of the market and the peer group.
The denial of the Name-of-the-Father obviously explains the high level of libidinal energy that permeates the trading floor. Trading floors also form the backdrop for the most profane language you will ever hear. If this excess of energy is temporarily channelled, it will allow the young men under adrenaline to evolve as closely as possible to the boundary that separates profit maximization from reckless risks.
For traders, there exists is no decisive difference between their pattern of behaviour at work and off work. In their private lives, traders continue the phallic competition among peers organised by a few simple signifiers with a total domination of exchange value over use value. Think of it as competitive fetishism which includes, of course, according to Freud’s original definition the denial of castration and hence of the symbolic fracture. Obviously such fetishism includes commodity fetishism in the sense of Marx and Baudrillard, i.e., the elevation of an exchangeable object to functioning as a substitute of the phallus. However among traders the fetish in question is not so much a particular commodity or an object that could assume the phallic function in a specific form of erotic perversion. In the world of finance, the most important fetish is the trader himself. More precisely, the fetish consists in the image of his Ego that he projects to himself and his peers. This is in Lacan’s terminology the imaginary Ideal of the Ego as opposed to the symbolic Ego Ideal, both emanating from Freud’s Ich-ideal. The trader as a fetishist of a new type must, of course, demonstrate his ability to earn money. Even more important for his standing in the peer group, however is his body and outward appearance as signifiers of his capacity of enjoyment, and most importantly, his ability to satisfy better than anyone else the changing and demanding social norms that are associated with a permanent state of plus-de-jouir in the sense of Lacan. This competitive enjoyment demands that the trader commits his own body as a guarantor of authenticity, including the taking of stimulant drugs, until he crashes if need be.
In principle a trader works until he burns out physically, emotionally and mentally. Ideally, by then he will have amassed a sufficient amount of capital to open a restaurant, an art gallery or a spa, to live on the beach or to take over an organic plantation of wine or olives. Such images of physical and nutritional sustainability arise with insistence in the stories of ageing traders and contrast with the unsustainability of their professional and private lives during their active period. Ironically, these new attractors are shaped by precisely the same recursive processes organised at the level of the peer group, even though they are now converging towards a new set of now physically more sustainable norms. Even during this sustainable coda to his active life, the former trader will espouse causes and issues (vegetarianism, animal welfare, combating climate change, environmental protection, organic food etc.) which commit the subject, often quite intensively, but always in a partial manner that isolates one issue from another in both a synchronic and a diachronic dimension. In other words, even in retirement the former trader has neither the ability nor the desire to forge coherence among different specific social norms in order to approach anything that could resemble a personal ethics.
The absence of a « floating signifier without semantic value » and the psychological subject
Let us return for a moment to the question of the mental structure implied by the denial of the Name-of-the-Father, which is also the question of the existence of a psychological subject. The constitution of a subject requires an opening, a hiatus, in the chain of signifiers. In Levi-Strauss’ terms, the constitution of a subject requires the « floating signifier without semantic value » that provides the necessary flexibility between the necessarily discontinuous chain of signifiers and the continuous flow of sensory experiences or mental images. The beginning of signification consists in the ability to isolate specific elements of the surrounding environment. Such a floating signifier exists in the neurotic mind but not in the psychotic mind. Lacan’s expression for the floating signifier is, of course, precisely the Name-of-the-Father.
In the case of denial of the Name-of-the-Father, it is not useful to approach the question of the existence of such a floating signifier in the binary logic of « exists, does not exist ». From the point of view of a semiotic analysis of mental processes, neurosis and psychosis are the two limits of a continuum of modes of signification that are distinguished by the degree of elasticity or flexibility between the signifier and the signified, the sign and its mental representation or content.
In the neurotic mind, the metaphorical condensation and the metonymic displacement of an individual signifier displays a certain semantic elasticity, i.e., these transformations lend themselves to interpretation, doubt, irony, wordplay etc. without completely losing their link with in some generally accepted meaning, even if the latter is questioned, criticised, augmented or relativized. This ability to maintain an ultimately coherent matrix structure of different signifiers, which together form meaning in its most general sense, is the necessary condition for any form of repression, the constitution of an unconscious that permits at least a partial absorption of the libido. The existence of such a flexible matrix or, more precisely, lattice structure is also the sign of the presence of an Other, who guarantees the process of semiosis, i.e., the progressive linkage of different signifiers, and the coherence of the semantic universe.
In a psychotic state instead, this elasticity between the signifier and the signified breaks down. There is no Other, who in his radical difference to the subject could impose direction and purpose on the process of semiosis. In this state, there exist two options. If the link between signifier and the signified is completely broken, signifiers will be associated randomly or according to what one could describe as a « first come, first served » basis without any filter or ability to select and recombine semantic elements according to higher structuring principles, which necessarily operate in a metaphoric dimension. One might think of such a state of delirium as a radical pursuit of pure metonymy, where words are hopelessly incapable to act as shock absorbers for the physiological reality of an onslaught of the libido. The other option seems to constitute the polar opposite of the delirium of the psychotic but indicates in fact the last barrier before the breakthrough of an impulse. It is characterised by an extreme rigidity of the link between the signifier, the signified and any object the subject associates with the signified at any particular moment. The sign here is inseparable and ultimately indistinguishable from the object and thus becomes, in the definition of C. S. Peirce and U. Eco an icon.
Our hypothesis is now that the trader as pure economic subject uses this iconic mode of signification, to a far higher degree than any subject outside the sphere of the market. In other words, the world of the trader is characterised by a far greater rigidity of the link between signifier and the signified than this is usually the case. Pursuing this reasoning further, proper analytic manner to define the economic sphere is to define it is that subset of social relations that is characterised by an iconic form of signification. This is not the place to discuss the historic causality of this association, i.e., whether the market economy creates an iconic form of signification or whether the latter is responsible for the former. Let us just say that an iconic form of signification due to its high codification and replicability permits a reduction in market transaction costs and is thus essential in achieving high degrees of economic efficiency through repeated trading at low cost. Whatever the directionality of causality, economics is the study of social interactions involving an iconic mode of signification.
It is evident that the pure economic individual, the pure trader, is a conceptual fiction. To function in everyday life any trader or any other economic individual must be capable of that everyday form of sublimation that consists in engaging in social exchanges that require some sort of symbolic elasticity in order to establish that sort of « sym-pathy » between two individuals that passes for successful communication. However, in the specific world of the financial markets the most successful traders are those capable of working precisely at the physically demanding limit that separates a universe, in which the sign is worth the object and where all actions and values are immediately recognisable and codified, from uncontrolled impulsive behaviour. Living in the midst of a peer group necessarily requires some sort of repression of libidinal impulses. However on the trading floor we are dealing with a limited, superficial, momentary repression that does not translate into coherent unconscious structures. The name-of-the father exists but the trader, to the extent that he acts like a trader, will deny him and thus restrict his impact on the semantic universe in which he evolves.
The trader thus constantly evolves on the edge between neurosis and psychosis in a process that is stabilised only by a number of highly specific and disparate social norms formulated by the peer group or the institution he works for. The slenderness of the libidinal repression that this state of mind implies must not be considered an undesirable side-effect. On the contrary, it precisely guarantees the energy level necessary to execute rapidly vast amounts of highly codified, shallow communication, producing, re-producing and reacting at high speed to disparate semantic content transmitted by iconic signs. Physiology, e.g., testosterone levels, may explain why these very high energy levels under tight constraints are generated more easily by men than by women. But this is an open question for experts in physiology outside this essay. Fact is that the vast majority of traders are men. Most surprising is perhaps the fact that financial trading is one of the few remaining bastions of maleness, where women actually express little desire to seize it. Given the ever more stringent requirements for gender balance in these politically correct times, financial institutions have a strong incentive to hire female traders but, so far, most women seem to find less stressful and more attractive employment elsewhere.
Zafiropoulos interprets the dominance of male traders as the result of a polarisation by a « libidinal structure of repressed homosexuality, which very incompletely hides the anal erotization typical for the market economy (Zafiropoulos, p. 3). » The statement indicates a key point but requires further explanation. There exist heterosexual traders, openly gay traders and certainly also traders with repressed homosexual tendencies. The key point, however, is not a particular sexual orientation of the trader but the mobilisation of his libido in following and sustaining the informational feedback loops that constitute his daily universe. In order to perform the trader will have to live with, and even artificially generate, if necessary, an incompletely absorbed libidinal surplus. In other words, the archetypical trader will forego the benefits of a stable, fully satisfactory erotic relationship. Repressed homosexuality constitutes a powerful example for creating such an unabsorbed libidinal surplus, it is, however, but one constellation under which such a surplus is generated.
An individual trader will be a subject in the analytical sense in an intermittent manner or he might be a potential subject, however he does not act as a subject when acting as a trader. His task does not consist in formulating new metaphoric combinations between signifiers that would enrich the web of meaning. He will instead roam the established web of meaning at great speed. This means that to some extent automated trading constitutes a serious threat to the profession of the trader. However, the trader also needs to codify quickly whatever new information arises and must insert it at a specific place in the web of meaning. This latter task is one activity where automation cannot completely substitute humans although this boundary is continuously being pushed back as signals from the « real », non-financial world are converted into financial units according by ever more sophisticated programs of pattern recognition. Nevertheless, even the decreasing space of human originality on the trading floor cannot be associated with the work of a subject as it is usually understood as it lacks the ambition to constitute any form of sublimation but defers to a need for social rather than personal sense.
The observation that « one is not a subject of the market in the same way as one is a subject of the revolution or a child of God » (Vanier) must be pushed to its logical consequence : the market in its pure form does not know a subject in the analytic sense. The market, by definition, is established by the intersubjective consensus of a multitude of individuals, each one of which is participating in the process on the basis of the commitment to taking this intersubjective consensus as a normative reference without referring to a third party. Herein lies the essential difference between a market exchange and the exchange of gifts in the sense of Marcel Mauss as established in his Essai sur le don (1925). In addition, in the perfectly codified, or rather permanently codifying, universe established by financial markets, the trader does not know chance in the sense of an unforeseen and unforeseeable accident. Affirming the absence of chance in a universe that is structured by probabilistic risk assessments might surprise. However, one must not confuse an oscillation of the coloured lines on the screen with that sort of adventure that can change the trajectory of a subject from one moment to the next as it touches the unconscious structure at a vital point and sets it swinging. As Stéphane Mallarmé remarked, « a throw of the dice will never abolish chance ».
In this perspective, what can one say about the trader’s mental health and, if apposite, his cure ? Of course, traders are not a particularly strong segment of the clientele of analysts. Nevertheless, there exists a distinct malaise of the trader. After an initial period of euphoria, having attained the much desired status of a trader, doubt sets in rather quickly. In a universe where all desire is attached to codified, communicable and exchangeable objects, the trader does not suffer from dissatisfaction in the usual sense. His desires are far too easily fulfilled. This is another important difference with the neurotic. The trader’s suffering is best captured by that state of mind that Lacan described in his Seminar 10 as « anxiety resulting from the lack of lacking (le manque du manque) ». The denial of the Name-of-the-Father, which held out the promise of suspending the painful experience of inadequacy in front of one’s own desires which analytic theory calls the symbolic castration, is now relived as an anguishing lack of identity. As limits recede and everything become possible, the trader is haunted by the question « Who am I ? » much like any other subject who ignores himself. Let us be clear, if the trader does not act like a subject when acting like a trader, the man who works as a trader but suffers existentially in his daily work suffers as a subject in the analytical sense and is thus amenable to analytic treatment.
An interesting point regarding the relating clinical condition of the trader is whether the trader is at heart a melancholic. Melancholy was defined by Freud in « Mourning and Melancholy » (1917) as a state in which « the shadow of the object falls on the Ego ». Needless to say, the trader lives amongst an abundance of objects which all direct him towards the one original object to which he attached himself to as a child. And it is Adam Smith, the first theorist of the modern economic subject, who remarked in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) that « the very suspicion of a fatherless world must be the most melancholy of all reflections ». Would a fatherless world, in which multiple objects combine to cast a permanent shadow of the original object, not apply to the trader ? No. This is one of the points where the original definition of the trader living in denial of the Name-of-the-Father is at its most useful. Unconscious sadness when facing a fatherless world would apply to the gambler who seeks a form of symbolic castration that would be attested by his loss at the gaming table. In the case of the trader, contrary to the gambler, inscription of the Name-of-the-Father has taken place but the subject has decided not to act on it. He thus suspends the relevance of the Name-of-the-Father as a normative instance and substitutes it with the self-referential feedback mechanisms of his peer group and the wider market. Only towards the age of thirty-five or forty, when the repeated effort of jumping from one disparate norm to the next results in physical and mental fatigue and an increasing rate of errors, the trader will begin to contemplate to reconcile himself with the idea of symbolic castration and the relevance of the Name-of-the-Father. In the most auspicious cases, this will take place in the context of the work with a good psychoanalyst.
The Panopticon of the Market
The panopticon or panoptic is the blueprint of a model prison, later extended to psychiatric hospitals, developed by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the English philosopher and journalist. The panopticon is a closed building in the form of a circle or semicircle, in which each inmate has a cell on the outside of the circle, while wardens are placed in a tower in the centre of the circle. The wardens can observe each inmate at any time, while they themselves cannot be seen by the inmates. Bentham attached great importance this latter point. The inmates know that they can be observed at any time but they actually do not know when they are observed. Bentham argued that this would not only allow great savings in personnel, but also induce a behavioural improvement as the inmates would over time internalise the demands of the invisible supervisors. Bentham thus does away with the need for a symbolic instance that would set appropriate norms and regulate the inmates’ behaviour and substitutes it with human supervisors whose veiled presence in combination with the authority to punish misbehaviour is supposed to be able to assume the same function.
The platform of the trading floor which guarantees the reciprocal visibility of all by all is a special kind of panopticon. It extends through the electronic instruments of trading beyond the physical trading floor to the market as a whole. Here values and behavioural rules are constantly being generated adapted and substituted by new rules. A million eyes watch and judge every individual trader. The specificity of the panopticon of the all-seeing market is that it takes Bentham’s vision one step further. The symbolic father is no longer substituted by wardens with a special authority to mete out punishment in the case of transgression but a multitude of peers. In the panopticon of the market there no longer exists any distinction between the inmates and their supervisors. Everybody is at the same supervised inmate and supervising warden. Transgression from the norm, which is now formulated inter alia in the form of a set of prices for different goods and financial products, is punished immediately in terms of a trading loss.
The intimate connection between Bentham’s panopticon and financial markets is far from fortuitous. It hinges on the fact that both institutions are driven by the radical intent to substitute a symbolic normative instance based on the paternal metaphor with alternative processes capable of setting and enforcing norms of social behaviour. This is not just coincidence. Bentham was the founder and chief propagandist of utilitarianism, the idea that all human behaviour is a function of a personal calculus to maximise pleasure and to minimise pain. Bentham’s approach, which was subsequently refined by Mill, father and son, Menger, Pareto, Walras and others, became the basis for the utility theory that is at heart of modern economics. For Bentham the utilitarian, the panopticon was at the very center of his work as he sought for many years to convince the English political class of its economic, hygienic and pedagogical virtues.
Challenging the Symbolic Father beyond Death: Bentham’s « Auto-icon »
Life is stranger than fiction. In his anti-symbolic and utilitarian zeal, Jeremy Bentham is one of the most determined promoters of the shift towards recursive intersubjective processes. His objective here is to avoid the slightest break between the object and its representation, a break that would leave space for the presence of a universal symbolic instance. His most original and unsettling action in this vein was the stipulation in his will that his body was to be preserved as a mummy and publicly displayed. This wish was realised with the help of a physician friend. To this day, Bentham’s remains, in the meantime replaced by a wax effigy, can be admired in a glass cage on the first floor of University College London (UCL) by students and visitors. Bentham himself coined the astonishingly apt term for this most theatrical staging of his own refusal to accede to the symbolic state: he called his (future) dead body an « auto-icon », a self-referential icon.
How must we interpret Bentham’s morbid fascination with his own dead body given that he has entered the history of ideas as the accountant of pleasure and pain and the champion of utility as the unique principle of social organization? It is understandable only if we fully comprehend the iconic mode of generating meaning in the technical sense of Peirce and Eco. Iconic signification always comports a challenge to the radical otherness of any force guaranteeing symbolic meaning, simply by affirming that no “floating signifier” is required. The greyish wax head and the dusty wig of Bentham’s own hair must thus be read as a refusal even beyond death to enter into the immortality of the paternal metaphor. The modern day equivalent is constituted by the computer programs that ensure that an avatar continues one’s electronic communications and social media accounts beyond physical death
The materiality of the dead body is thus Bentham’s last pathetic challenge to the symbolic father. This is the same symbolic father that he had hoped to substitute as social reformer with the wardens of the panopticon and as economic theorist with the intersubjective formation of socially codified preferences establishing economic utility as the unique norm for judging social behaviour.
The essence of utilitarianism evolves around the notion of cardinal utility which is based on the double assumption that human pleasures and pains are both measurable and comparable across individuals. It is above all the hypothesis of interpersonal comparability that interests us here. In an earlier form of this interpersonal comparability of pleasure and pain, Adam Smith developed a theory where the sympathy mechanism creates socially communicable « moral sentiments » from the primary material of the non-communicable individual impulses. These moral sentiments converge towards shared values, including economic values, which translate into behaviour focussing on socially appreciated attributes such as increased wealth (Keppler (2008)).
Assuming the comparability of utility among different subjects will always tend towards the normative establishment of « objective » value. This is particularly the case with Bentham. Contrary to Smith, who will identify the socially relevant norm of exchange value ex post as the outcome of social processes of communication and trading, Bentham works assumes ex ante the existence of an objective form of utility, whose maximisation must guide all social organisation. The potential sinister implications of such an assumption are nowhere more evident than in the panopticon.
According to Bentham, a social hygienist with paranoid tendencies, the panopticon was to be used both for criminals and madmen. The question is, of course, who defines social deviancy in such cases. In his great meditation on what it means to be a father which is his late novel Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years or the Renunciants (1821) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Bentham’s contemporary, defined utility as « what is acceptable to all and turned towards life ». Similarly to Smith, social acceptability is here the outcome of a process not a premise. With Bentham, utility instead becomes an abstract norm to satisfy. Given the extreme reduction of time on the trading floor between the signal and the reaction required by the trader, the norm, even when set by a decentralised process, needs to be satisfied by every individual as if it was imposed from the outside. The quantitative disappearance of time that could be used for reflection and adaptation results in a qualitative change, in which the newly established set of prices morphs into an absolutely obligatory new norm for each participant.
The trader is now akin to a Benthamian inmate imprisoned in the panopticon of the trading floor, where his only salvation consists in the rapid satisfaction of different clearly outlined social norms. Who is enforcing this permanent submission under constantly changing norms? The imperative to earn money, of course, but money is abstract even for traders. The trader’s invisible wardens are composed by the social Other constituted by his peer group as well as by the wider market. Each individual trader is obviously again the warden of his peers. In the panopticon of the market everyone is watching everybody else and vice versa. In the absence of any symbolic authority imposing its Law, the eyes of your peer in front of you, your equal, your image, define the laws.
Paris, November 2017