What Morgan Stanley’s President
(And Ernest Becker) Taught Me About Capitalism!
“Working at Morgan Stanley is like making love to a gorilla,” joked our president during his speech at the firm’s annual dinner years ago. “You don’t stop when you want to. You stop when she wants to.” Wives sat stoically. Our heads nodded, feigning laughter, not because it was funny, but because it was painfully true. And not just for us at Morgan Stanley, but for everywhere on Wall Street.
Yes, Wall Street is a savage jungle, gorillas rule, and every Wall Street investment banker at Morgan, Goldman, Citibank and the rest are all locked in this same lovemaking with that same Insatiable Gorilla.
You can’t stop. You’re trapped. So you play. You feed on it. Blinded by the passion, the money, the power, the energy, the sense of life purpose she creates for you. Yes, she rules America’s great capitalist jungle, Washington politicians, Silicon Valley’s innovators, Main Street Businesses. You damn well better obey.
Since those great days at Morgan Stanley I’ve come to a bizarre awareness: That “Insatiable Gorilla” is actually a metaphor for something quite profound. That Gorilla is the all-almighty “Invisible Hand” of capitalism Adam Smith immortalized in his classics on The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
Yes, the Insatiable Gorilla we all know is the mysteriously cryptic Invisible Hand guiding capitalism in the new century: the America that embodies Ronald Reagan’s global superpower status, the democracy bred into me as a US Marine Corps sergeant who wanted o save the world from communism, and our economy and government that’s balancing free-market conservative principles with liberal compassion, without self-destructing.
Capitalism’s “Invisible Hand” Hides A Deep “Fear of Death”
When I was new on Wall Street I read a bizarre assortment of books that enlightened me on “The Gorilla’s 7 Laws.” This library included the 20th century “Adam Smith’s” Super-Money, The Money Game and his masterpiec.e Powers of Mind. Also Napoleon Hill’s Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, Richard Bach’s Illusions, Gail Sheehy’s Passages, Alan Watts’s Way of Zen, Scott Peck’s Road Less Traveled and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
In fact, looking back all that was the only way to grasp the meaning of the delightfully enigmatic “Invisible Hand,” who’s meaning later became clear in phrases like “trickle-down” and “greed is good.”
But the one book that’s haunted me since my first days at Morgan Stanley is Ernest Becker’s philosophical Denial of Death. It took several readings over the years to sink in, a little time with a shrink while at Morgan Stanley, work on a doctorate in psychology and later working as a health-care professional helping a few hundred executives, physicians, actors, rock stars, athletes, politicians, royalty and other celebrity alums of the Betty Ford Center.
Today Becker’s core message seems all too obvious and is indeed quite easy to understand for everyone except those trapped inside the bubble that has become Wall Street’s great American Capitalist Jungle—all those who live in a jungle run by the Insatiable Gorilla that’s a another disguise for capitalism’s Invisible Hand.
Yes, All Humans Are Obsessed With Immortality!
Stick with me, we’re going to have an interesting time mixing, matching and merging metaphors so that we can penetrate Wall Street’s behavior with the ‘Insatiable Gorilla” as a channel to reveal the seven psychological principles of the banker’s brain, quoting the wisdom of Earnest Becker and Sam Keen’s brilliant preface summarizing Becker’s message.
So here’s a short version of the “Gorilla’s 7 Laws.” Seven simple laws explaining the human cycle of rising to power, then our self-sabotaging behavior at the peak, and inevitably self-destruction and collapse. Imagine we have an archetypal Wall Street insider, a banker here on the analyst’s couch discovering for the very first time the deepest fears they hide … and why us humans travel this path, make these same decisions:
Law#1. From Birth, We Realize The World Is Hostile, Unsafe
Wall Street CEO, broker, trader with billions, they all face the same deep angst in their souls where an inner war rages, every day since birth. Becker’s world is nothing like “Disneyland” says Keen: “Mother Nature is a brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw, who destroys what she creates,” brutally “tearing others apart with teeth of all types — biting, grinding flesh,” and more.
Law#2. Fear of Death Overwhelms Us With Intense Anxiety
We live in “terror: The harsh reality that “out there” are mortal enemies, out to destroy us. Becker sees our basic human motivation as a “biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death.” So we adapt, endure the pain of existence in a cruel world, endlessly racked with anxiety, “helpless, abandoned in a world where we are fated to die.”
Law#3. We Create Clever Ways To Deny Fears, Hide Anxieties
Yes, you must deny it absolutely, blocking the fears from your conscious awareness. To survive, to be productive, raise a family, you deny the harsh reality of your eventual death. Your brain is clever, is the “first line of defense that protects us from the painful awareness of our helplessness.” So “we hide in our phony defense mechanisms” where “we feel safe … able to pretend that the world is manageable.”
Unfortunately “the price we pay is high,” quoting Keen. “We repress our bodies to purchase a soul that time cannot destroy; we sacrifice pleasure to buy immortality … And life escapes us while we huddle within the defended fortress” of our false self.
Law#4. We “Transcend Death” By Being a Hero, Saving The World!
Here’s where the human mind is at its most brilliant: “Society provides the second line of defense against our natural impotence,” says Keen. Yes, 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.”
In this rarified state of mind we can even see that “corporations and nations may be driven by unconscious motives that have little to do with their stated goals.” And driven by leaders whose unconscious motives have more to do with overcoming anxieties about death by proving they are heroes.
Where “making a killing in business or on the battlefield frequently has less to do with economic need or political reality than with the need for assuring ourselves that we have achieved something of lasting worth.” Yes, our leaders ostensibly pursue corporate, political and even altruistic goals while deep inside they’re all selfish, self-seeking and narcissistic.
Law#5. Our Heroic Journey Backfires — Enemies, Opposition, Wars
Keen aptly summarizes this for the Wise Gorilla: “our heroic projects that are aimed at destroying evil have the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the world.” America against China, GOP vs. Dems, etc.
But the real war is within us. Unfortunately, we are projecting it onto the people and the world around us. We fight harder to distract us from our fear of death, and convince ourselves we are indeed immortal, becoming as gods in our own mind. And yet, hiding deep under every hero quests to save the world is the old terror. And eventually, paradoxically, it backfires, opposition grows, returns fire.
Law#6. Hero’s Journey Crosses The Enemy Within, Narcissism
The great Gorilla of the Invisible Hand now focuses on Becker’s opening paragraphs where we discover that “one of the key concepts for understanding man’s urge to heroism is the idea of narcissism.” In fact, it was Freud who “discovered that each of us repeats the tragedy of the mythical Greek Narcissus.” We are “hopelessly absorbed with ourselves” and “twenty-five hundred years of history have not changed man’s basic narcissism; most of the time … practically everyone is expendable except ourselves.”
Ultimately we realize we are driven not just to survive, but to strive to become as immortals, to merge with the gods. Our psyche, our brains, our very DNA has been programmed this way. And Wall Street bankers are uniquely self-centered narcissists. That’s why capitalism is always “good,” always will be, and is pre-wired in us.
Law#7. Enlightened Hero? Or “Insatiable Gorilla?”
You want hope, asks the Insatiable Gorilla of the Invisible Hand? A way out of Wall Street’s Jungle? An end to your bizarre Hero’s Journey? You want solutions? A happy ending, new ways to get rich and retire in peace? Me too. But today, as with Sartre the existentialist, Becker offers “no exit” from your self-imposed hell. That’s a great Zen paradox: You may achieve enlightenment, but even then, you’re stuck here on Earth as a human, much as a Samurai warrior you must keep on fighting in the capitalists’ jungle.
Unfortunately that leaves us trapped in the inevitable conclusion that Wall Street’s jungle of heroic narcissists will inevitably backfire, sabotaging the Great America Dream. Yes, and same goes for all the world’s private-equity billionaires, Silicon Valley philanthropists, all our too-big-to-fail bank CEOs, all our big-ticket wealth managers and brokers, multimillionaire high-frequency quants, media anchors, all the Super Rich, their lobbyists and their ideologically linked-at-the-hip politicians — all the narcissists in America’s grand cultural conspiracy that’s taken over Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, will inevitably sabotage America’s capitalism.
Why? In the final analysis Wall Street insiders are like Icarus flying into the sun: Convinced they can avoid death by becoming as gods. But in so doing, their heroic journeys are destined to flame out, self-destruct, crash, burn, die. This is the fate of all individuals entrapped by the Gorilla of the Invisible Hand, a destiny we heard from many other visionaries. And obviously this virus has spread not just across Wall Street but all over America … for these laws govern the evolution of every human.