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by Robert M. Young

First, an acknowledgement about how difficult the subject of money is to think about psychoanalytically. Before I became a psychotherapist I worked for a long period in the history of the biological and human sciences and have been involved in developing the social constructionist perspective in those disciplines. I therefore felt optimistic about making a contribution to a series under the banner of ’social construction’. However, when I got down to it, I found the history, philosophy and social relations of money much more intractable than I anticipated. I originally submitted the ambitious title ‘Levels of Interpretation of the Social Construction of Money’. I will try to offer some of those, but the paper I am actually able to give should really have a much more modest title, ’Some Reflections on the Psychodynamics of Wealth’. It is concerned with a small but important corner of the general field of money. I want to begin by saying that I come from a political tradition which may rarely be instanced these days but which says that you should theorise your own experience and experience your own theories. That accounts for much of the source material in what follows.

Two things have struck me while I have been preparing this talk. The first is the paucity of literature on psychoanalysis and money. The American Psychoanalytic Association on-line Jourlit/Bookrev database (of 29,000 entries) produced none which referred to a substantial article or book. The CD-ROM which is supposed to contain the main body of psychoanalytic journal writings (over 31,000 references) produced only four citations, none of which was a proper article or book. There are three books, one out of print, one insubstantial, and the third is concerned with that deep topic, fees. The second thing that struck me was how reductionist the small number of available theorisations are. The key point is apparently related to the libido theory, in particularly, money as faeces, with anal retentiveness for the hoarders and anal expulsiveness for the spenders. Practically all of Freud’s references to money concern denigrations of it: uncleanness, dirt, faeces, rats. The same is true of Abraham. Fenichel wrote that anal retentiveness is the basis of the desire for possession for possession’s sake and is the source of all irrational behaviour concerning money (quoted in Herron and Welt, 1992, p. 27). Most psychotherapists and psychoanalysts have moved on from thinking in terms of the libido theory to the framework of object relations theory, whose theoreticians, as far as I have been able to discover, seem not to have addressed themselves to this matter. Among the relevant themes which span these two theoretical frameworks are possessiveness, giving, control (of faeces/money) and, of course, envy and spite.

I accepted the invitation to give this paper, because it gave me an opportunity to think about something which has surrounded me in dramatic ways all my life. Mind you, proximity has not been the same as possession. In my life money has, for the most part, been tantalisingly out of reach, and I have a much closer acquaintance with Sisyphus and Tantalus than I do of Midas, although I will have something to say about some of his heirs whom I have known.

I’ll come clean at the start. I grew up as an impoverished scion of a formerly landed family in the world’s most envied locus of dropsical wealth, Dallas, Texas. If you are in any donut at all about just how widespread this envy is, go to any town or city in Eastern Europe (I go regularly to Sofia, Bulgaria) and check out the bars and kiosks sprouting up under the new capitalism which have Dallas in their names. Indeed, I grew up in the very suburb where the television series which evoked the world’s envy was set. I swam in the real-life Jock Ewing’s swimming pool and met JR, Bobby and much of the rest of the clan. I even shared a girlfriend with one of the good ole boys and was a friend of the daughter of the man Jock Ewing cheated, Digger (played, you’ll recall, by Keenan Wynn). The Dallas suburb of Highland Park where I grew up was at the time the place with the highest per capita income on earth (this was just before the Arab states gushed with oil money). H. L. Hunt, the real life model for the patriarch of the Ewing family on television, was reputed to be the richest man on earth when I was a boy. Lots of other people in the neighbourhood were wealthy by any standard, and many were the parents of my friends and girlfriends. When I went to Yale there was a DuPont and the heir to the Coors beer fortune in my class. Indeed, my present partner is a descendant of some of the richest and most aristocratic people in Britain, and her grandfather was at one time not many decades ago the richest person in the country. Her parents, like mine, fell on hard times a generation or two later and spent some years in imminent danger of bankruptcy.

When I went to Cambridge I was friends with David (now Lord) Sainsbury, who once took me on a holiday which cost more than my annual grant. In the end, when he became dramatically rich the money came between us, and it wasn’t possible to sustain the friendship. I was also close for a time with a person who had a penchant for becoming an intimate of various wealthy people, some of whose family fortunes are household names. It is my observation from my own experiences in Dallas and since and from observing such relationships that it is very difficult, indeed, for friendships between very wealthy and not at all wealthy people to avoid becoming ones of mentor-protégé. Put more starkly, one can easily become a courtier to wealthy people. To receive their largesse is to put oneself structurally in the position of one to whom, at a very deep level, it does not occur to disagree or make waves in the relationship. There are strong disincentives against falling out with such friends. They look after you with generous hospitality and inclusion in their lifestyle. This produces a kind of regressed dependency and evokes a subtle form of deference. As far as I can make it out, the terms of the tacit pact is that the wealthy person lowers his or her guard, believing that in this case, true friendship can exist and that the prudential distrust of people’s motives which is natural among the wealthy, can be relaxed. The recipient of the largesse ostensibly asks for nothing and thereby receives much. I am not suggesting that either party is consciously acting from any but sincere motives, but I am saying that large disparities of wealth pollute the possibility of true and equal friendship.

People who place themselves in this space seem to me to have no emotional hearth of their own (or an impoverished one), so they bask in the warmth, containment and appreciation of their host’s largesse. Idealisations abound. It rains presents (sometimes of money), tickets, parties, visits to grand houses (sometiemes estates), trips to resorts, treats for the children and gear they or their parents cannot afford. I can illustrate this in small way with a story from my childhood. Christmas was always Spartan. It is true that we were not well off by local standards, but, on reflection, I think our Christmas was unnecessarily modest and attribute this to my father’s being orphaned. His father died when he was nine and his mother when he was thirteen, and I imagine that Christmases, for various reasons, were not happy times for him. I think that on this annual time for celebrating families he reproduced in our family the deprivation he felt as a young boy. We would have a wholesome and happy time decorating the tree and pinning up our stockings over the fireplace. Come morning my sister and I would wake up early and excited and would have to wait until an appointed time for the family to process up the hallway, only to find very modest presents. It was always disappointing, and I would quickly begin to dream of going next door. Our neighbour was a wealthy and eccentric man who presented a gift of cash to every child who came to visit on Christmas morning. I did not feel entitled to take myself there, but my friend Anthony was related to our generous neighbour, so I eagerly awaited a phonecall from him suggesting we go together to ’Uncle Tom’s’, where we each received crisp five dollar bills — a lot of money on those days. This visit was for many years the high point of my Christmas day. The one Christmas which was not disappointing was when I had taught a wealthy friend how to dive into the swimming pool, and his parents offered me the gift of my choice — a chemistry set.

I speak as someone who decided to move away from a context where such relationships were, as I have illustrated, available to me. Although I have been near lots of money in my life, I have earned a regular wage since I first became a newspaper delivery boy aged nine and have had to carry on in waged work throughout all but the last four years of my eleven year university education. I also managed to lose a million, three hundred thousand pounds while publishing Free Association Books, and I will almost certainly be paying off those debts until the day I die.

You’d think, then, that I’d have something pretty insightful or at least rueful to say about money. I’ll offer some hard-won reflections, but I must say at the outset that I still find it mysterious and fascinating, although I have never — and this contrasts sharply with some close friends and colleagues — been much attracted to having lots of it and never had the knack of getting my hands on much of it. Actually, a friend of my father whom I greatly admired and whose mother once gave me a new car, asked me to go to work for him when I graduated from university. He said he’d make me wealthy if I came in with him. Unfortunately, he was in the lumber business, and I wanted to be a psychoanalyst. When I last heard he’d set up a bank and was worth over eight hundred million dollars. He died recently; I was not mentioned in his will.

My father was always seriously in debt, because my mother was chronically ill, and there were all those doctor bills to pay. Because, as I’ve said, he had been orphaned at nine, he thought it right that I should begin to pay my own way at that age. It was all I could do to try to keep up with the rich people all around me with their tuxedos, corsages, balls, cars, summer camp, trips to Europe, stylish clothes. It colours one’s childhood to be told not to go into this or that shop, ’because we owe them money’, never to have clothes which were new or chosen by oneself, never to have one’s own bicycle, always to be without luxury items one’s friends take for granted. I often think that the main reason I went to Yale was not its educational merits but because I could not afford to pay for the lifestyle practised in the sort of social fraternity I would be expected to join if I’d gone to a college nearer home.

I dare say you are finding this recitation nostalgic and self-indulgent. It may be, but it also has a serious purpose in my attempt to evoke the interrelations between money and self-esteem. We live, we swim, in a sea of questions about money, as basic to our identities as the air we breathe. As a young boy the air I breathed was one of debt and uncertainty about paying the mortgage, anxiety and bitterness on my father’s part about his lot. I was a meritocrat among spoiled kids. The fact that I was a scion of the local aristocracy but poor by local standards and had to make my own way is fundamental to my sense of self-worth, my energies and ambitions and my willingness to stand up to established authority in the various settings in which I have found myself. It is also the root of a lot of stubbornness and unwillingness to knuckle under or to hold onto a job in the way my father had to, just because of the financial security it offers. My first point, then, about the social construction of money is that our identities are inescapably forged in relation to whether or not our families have it and how they deal with it if they do and if they don’t. Dolly Parton’s family did not have it, but they dealt with this fact in a way which made her strong and ambitious (she sings about this in ‘Coat of Many Colors’). The same is true, in a very different sense, of Robert Maxwell and Don Vito and Michael Corleone of ’Godfather’ fame. Ditto Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, George Soros and Mother Teresa: each indulged a species of omnipotence in relation to money.

Bringing this point closer to home, my partner told me in the course of my writing this paper that when she left for a week early in our relationship, it was because she (and her confidantes) felt that she could not manage the uncertainties of living with someone whose finances were as precarious as mine then were. She felt that in the light of her father’s perpetual financial ups and downs and her own fears about not having much inside, she just couldn’t hack it. She soon returned, however, and has gained strength from our ability to manage whatever the Inland Revenue and other creditors could throw at us over the years, including, for example, a demand for immediate payment of £50,000 or they would take me to court. She and I can both say, with some trepidation, ‘We have always somehow managed’, as, indeed, did my parents and hers.

These insecurities cut deep. A recent Guardian essay reported that money is the most frequent cause of marital conflict. It was certainly a live and perennial issue in my parents’ relationship. The only time my mother really stood up to my father was over buying me a certain sort of shirt which all guests were required to wear to go to a teen-age birthday party. I had up to that point ‘made do’ with hand-me-downs. My father saw no reason to alter his practice and had no spare money. She won, but it was a real struggle. I ought to admit that in subsequent years and right up to the present I have always bought many more shirts than are strictly needed. My eldest son, who writes scripts for ‘The Bill’ on television said to me recently that when someone asked him about the pluses and minuses of his childhood, he replied that I never taught him ‘the grammar of money’. I at first thought he was grateful for that, since he, like me, has followed his own creative bent and has worked primarily for cultural capital rather than financial rewards. It turns out, however, that I misheard him and that he finds it a handicap. He tells me that the grammar of money (which some rich people know) is that ’money solves your money problems. The "grammar of money" is one of pragmatism. Get that right and then money can be used for the things that money is appropriate for.’ Get it wrong, and you will not ’treat money, or acquire it, appropriately’. He tell me that getting it right is not one of my skills and therefore not one of his.

I am not sure how to generalise the role of money in the alchemy of selfhood. Let me give you some clinical vignettes. I had as a patient a ‘poor little rich girl’ who attained practically no academic qualifications, never married, got into a long-term relationship with an impotent ne’er-do-well and essentially did nothing with her abilities — significantly because the family gave her a substantial allowance all her life. She felt that she had the identity of being a member of the family who owned an emporium the name of which is a household name, and nothing more was required of her, however much she professed to want to accomplish something. I suggest that she lived in a life-long psychic retreat. I was unable to shift her. A second youngish woman was the daughter of parents who were both distinguished members of our profession, but, as parents, they were overbearing. She was very mildly disabled but completed university and a professional qualification, but she has found herself unable to take the initiatives which would allow her to practice her profession, and she has also remained unable to get involved in a relationship. Such outcomes are, of course, multiply determined, but I am satisfied that if her parents had not gone on and on supporting her financially, necessity would have given birth to enough invention for her to be a productive member of society and probably to grow up enough to get into a relationship. Both of these women had a relatively cosy space which allowed them not to grow up and make their own ways. They were disenabled by money, which became a sort of Kleinian inexhaustible breast. Since an economic base was provided, they never had to become self-reliant.

A third clinical story provides an insight into the emotional qualities of the psychic spaces financial circumstances can construct. My patient’s father was an entrepreneur who made a very bad business decision decades ago and has been struggling ever since to get out of a huge financial hole or at least avoid bankruptcy. This saga is ongoing to this day and has dominated the family since my patient was a pre-pubescent boy. He has done well, got an excellent degree and a profession and is earning well. However, he cannot commit himself to a single career and, most interestingly, repeatedly gets into situations with women in which he at first goes for them, then find fault (often somatic — hair, breasts, etc.) and does not commit himself. Then, as the relationship is declared over he finds he cannot let it go. He becomes utterly dependent on the woman to say she still wants him and yearns for a phonecall in which she will say that she loves him. He fears that he will be plunged into utter despair if he does not get the call. Yet, when it comes, he does not then re-enter the relationship or commit himself. Instead, he finds some sort of neurotic security in being in a recurrent state of reprieve. He can neither go forward to love someone else properly or back into the relationship with a proper commitment to the woman he can’t let go. I am suggesting that the atmosphere of the family’s ongoing saga of impending but avoided catastrophe has permeated his inner world. He cannot commit himself to a definite job or woman and finds himself in a limbo of reprieve, neither emotionally bankrupt and challenged to begin again nor prospering in a committed relationship.

There is more to say about the emotional tonality of this patient’s family. On the surface they are a loving family, but the parents have been preoccupied with economic survival all these years. The mother, moreover, uses the threat of banishment from the family to get the children back into line whenever they cross her. My patient was forever being found wanting as a boy and was sent to a succession of tutors to fix this and that deficiency. My perception is that the family was dominated throughout most of his formative years by the financial sword of Damocles hanging over them and unable to give unconditional love or even the kind of attention psychotherapists associate with the inwardness of good enough parenting. The result was that nothing was ever properly sorted out, and reprieve became the best state which could be attained. My patient is only slowly coming to believe that he has anything worthwhile inside him that is really him and not solely a facade, the product of all that remedial teaching. He is trying to find a vocation not based on money, but he said recently that what he really wants is a red Rolls Royce Cornice convertible like the one his father had before their financial troubles began. It symbolises an Edenic state before the Fall. In some settings, including the neighbourhood where I grew up, having a grand car or at least the latest model of a car is a prerequisite for belonging. In others, it can be a sign of compensating for insecurity about being esteemed. I know an academic who does not publish but regularly changes his late model fancy car.

I want now to move from the concrete psychological aspects of money to some abstract matters. Money replaced the bartering of real goods and services as a medium of exchange. In some cultures wealth is still measured in cattle or goats or some other object with its own obvious use value. The next step was to use as money substances which were rare and valued — minerals, jewels, eventually silver and gold. Coins were for a long time worth the value of silver and gold in them, and debasement of coinage was a capital offence, for example, when Sir Isaac Newton was in charge of the Royal Mint. With the advent of paper money, it could be exchanged for gold, and bills had a promise to pay in gold printed on them. The paper was backed by reserves of gold in the Bank of England, Fort Knox or wherever, as Ian Fleming’s ‘Goldfinger’ showed us. Then metropolitan nations came off the gold standard (we did it in the early 1930s). What stands behind money is no longer precious metals but the strength of the economy, and its value fluctuates daily and sometimes catastrophically. Other developments, including the most recent ones, take us even further from direct use values or rare metals to cheques and credit cards and ever more sophisticated ’smart cards’, where the money values are not even visible. I am reciting this trajectory to highlight just how abstract and symbolic money has become, as, indeed, have the means for stealing it and defrauding people. I carry around in my trousers pocket several tens of thousands of pounds — practically all of it credit which I dare not use, I hasten to add. Come to think of it, all of it is either credit card credit or overdraft limits, except for a few notes and coins. And yet I feel somehow well-off.

There are magical, even fantastical, aspects of my relationship with money. My labour somehow turns into paper and electronic impulses, which I then convert into housing and light and warmth, food and water, clothing, pleasure — books, videos, music, access to the internet. Most of these things occur by standing order or direct debit, so the money goes in and out of my possession without my doing anything or being much aware unless there is a crisis, and I have to discuss things with my bank manager. On the other side there is an ongoing nagging anxiety every month (shades of my father) that there will not be enough to pay for everything, and this periodically becomes acute and deprives me of equanimity and sometimes of sleep, as it did on Tuesday when I learned that my mortgage was increasing by £435 per month.

Money is also blinkering; it provides morally and politically convenient cut-outs which obscure real relationships. When I buy a wonderfully cheap piece of furniture at that nice IKEA store, I can be (or could be until last Sunday) blissfully unaware that it was manufactured by immiserated workers in Romania who are paid seventeen pence per hour by an employer who sells the product to an emporium whose Swedish founder was a Nazi sympathiser. Similar tales of exploitation are hidden from my view by the abstractness and the equivalencies of the exchange relationship in the manufacture of Nike shoes, many other clothes, most food and innumerable high-tech products made in the Far East. South America and free trade zones round the world provide other sites of grotesque exploitation which provide us, if we remove the cut-outs and our blinkers, with the grounds for a strong critique of the role of money in reification — treating people like things. This was exactly the goal of the industrial revolution: to make workers into machines that cannot err.

Money also provides scope for a lot of consciously imagined fantasy and of unconscious phantasy. It is not all imagination, of course. For example, I used gold cards to finance my business at one stage and did so on my bank manager’s suggestion, something a patient in the money business told me he had done once when the bank would not help him during a divorce. The links between money and expanding and contracting senses of self is very important. The equation of money with wealth and power is not pure illusion, but the aura of universality and lack of limit which comes along with these equivalencies is the stuff of madness, the madness of uncontainedness. Many lottery winners are unable to contain the appetites which having so much money allows them to indulge, and many get through it pronto, following the imprudent strategy of ‘Spend! Spend! Spend!’ People who inherit or amass a great deal of money also often believe themselves able to live without restraint. They trust no one and end up surrounded by sycophantic retainers and very little reality. The results can be pathetic, as in the case of the last days of Howard Hughes, whose eccentricities and reclusiveness became so great that there was no sensible person near him to save him from dying of the consequences of physical neglect and his obsession with the danger of infection. Something similar can be said of the last years of the heiress to the Duke tobacco fortune, Doris Duke, who ended her life in the clutches of an unscrupulous butler and dubious medical attendants, while her family was kept at bay. There was so much money around these people that their attempts at controlling everything and everyone around them ended up at the opposite pole with them helpless, dependent and in profoundly regressed states. No boundaries, no common sense, no one to trust and love and be protected by. Similar stories can be told about innumerable hugely rich families, the Gettys, the Guccis, the Guinesses, the Hunts, Barbara Hutton and the heiress Sunny von Bulow, who is still in a diabetic coma which was probably self-induced and whose children may have tried to frame her husband, Klaus von Bulow (‘Reversal of Fortune’).

In the aforementioned suburb of Dallas where I grew up, my generation was for the most part the second or third one from the creators of the great wealth. We were well-heeled, and most of us have led productive lives. However, my niece tells me that her generation is replete with high school age alcoholics and drug users, something unheard of in my day. Many of the children of my contemporaries are decadent, purposeless or (to use a striking phrase coined by Christopher Lash) without project. Parents are thinking hard about this problem. US billionaires John Malone, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have all decided not to leave their fortunes to their children, believing that to do so would ruin their lives (Sunday Times Business 18 January 1998, p. 7). The same is true of my richest friend in Dallas and of Britain’s Peter de Savary, owner of Land’s End and other notable properties. Something about decadence of inherited wealth was conveyed in a recent television series about the aristocrats in Britain. One was so foppish and spendthrift that he bedecked his bride with a fortune in jewels and made her sleep in them, a kind of willed Midas touch in lieu of contact with human flesh. She didn’t stick around for long. He went on to employ the cast of many West End plays to go to his castle, and he’d play the lead part, often in drag. He had to sell the jewels, went broke and died young. There were, for a time, no limits and no boundaries to his self-indulgence.

Then why do they go on accumulating it? I have a friend whose parents made just enough money to move into our envied Dallas suburb. He has fought his way out of this marginality and has made money and more and more of it and joined the most exclusive country club, until a mutual friend wondered aloud why he keeps at it. ‘You can never have enough’, said my first friend. ‘You never know what forms of savings will take a dive.’ So he has money in the ground, in ventures, in Swiss banks, in Krugerrands, in shares, in bonds. But inside he is driven about the fear that there will one day not be enough. People like my friend and Trump and Maxwell and Murdoch all strike me as trying to shovel more and more into a bottomless pit of low self-esteem and fear that they do not belong. And when people who have made loadsa money with money lose it, the bottom falls out. This is how I would account for many of those suicides in the 1929 crash: their facades disappeared, leaving their sense of low self-worth for all to see in the collapse of their paper fortunes; they could not any longer deny it in themselves and could not bear it. I heard on the radio yesterday that there have been at least seven suicides in Japan in the recent market slump in which there was evidence of doing it from shame over financial failure.

Fetishism is the substitution of something near the real thing for the real thing — the knickers for the vagina which they cover, for example. The fetishist does not feel able to get any closer (Stoller, 1975). Marx spoke of the fetishism of commodities as the treatment of the relations between people as though they were relations between things (Marx, 1867, pp. 163-77). The act of fetishization is the substitution for our commitment and emotional regard for relations between people of the relations between things (Stoller, 1976, pp. 132-34; Marx, 1867. pp. 164-65). The fetishism of money is an equally fantastical substitution. We substitute for object relations with humans a devotion to something which we take to have unlimited potential: money. Think of George Eliot’s story of Silas Marner with his gold coins buried in leather bags. He loved the gold best of all. It was his identity until it was stolen. Luckily, he was able to replace his attachment to the dead gold of his hoard with love for the living, ’golden being’ of the young girl, Eppie. Some can never make this move. I have a Texas lawyer friend who once said to a client that he ought to begin thinking about arrangements to hand over his assets to his heirs. The reply was, ’I don’t care about nothing but my corporation’.

In my opinion, the quintessence of this way of thinking is portrayed in Smaug, the terrible dragon in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, who killed all and sundry to get their treasure, which he heaped up and hoarded in a huge cave, where he lay on top of it and devoted all his energies to guarding it. ’There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light (Tolkien, 1937, pp. 193-4). The point was to get as much wealth as possible, by any means, and to have it and protect it.

This brings us to the fetishization of money as a manifestation of narcissism, something which is all too apparent in the ways of some of our most visible tycoons. Mohammed al Fayed, Amstrad’s Alan Sugar and the press tycoon Rupert Murdoch come to mind. Prince Jefri Bolkiah, playboy brother of the world’s currently richest man, the Sultan of Brunei, would fly in fifty prostitutes from all over the world for a party in Brunei, paid £2.7 million for a jewel-encrusted picture frame and £5 million for a bedside rug made of 25.000 precious stones and solid gold thread. He paid £8 million for an ornamental screen and £10 million for ten watches with erotic decorations. He paid £20 million for the upper floors of the former Playboy Club in London (four times the assessed value) to house his prostitutes out of sight and is said to have bought over 600 cars in the past decade (Guardian, 13 February 1998, p. 3).

I suggest that moderate financial means bring with them a form of containment which moderates ones desires and puts a brake on self-indulgence and greed. Moderation of means militates toward the depressive position in which excess is eschewed and object relations are to whole objects. Immoderate means, on the other hand, facilitate splits and idealisations and can lead to uncontained self-indulgence in the paranoid-schizoid position with the treatment of others as part-objects and preoccupation with ownership and consumption in lieu of wholesome human relations. Think of Imelda Marcos’ six thousand pairs of shoes, Eric Clapton’s racks of Armani suits, the addictions of Sir Paul Getty, Sir Elton John’s profligate spending sprees, the Emperor Boukassa’s extravagant coronation, Hugh Heffner’s Playboy mansion. Merchants cater for these excesses. The store for the nouveau riche in Dallas, Neiman-Marcus, used to issue an annual Christmas catalogue which always had an item for the person who has everything. One year it offered ‘His & Hers Submarines’.

The premise behind my argument is that there is an almost universal belief that wealth brings happiness. While there is no doubt that extreme poverty brings misery, the fantasy that extreme wealth brings the opposite is a snare and a delusion which can be understood psychodynamically as an omnipotent, untrammelled expression of the pleasure principle. We believe that money brings freedom and betokens a universal equivalence. In fact, of course, what people usually do to get and keep wealth is at the expense of relationships and, in particular, family life. They are stressed, preoccupied; they work evenings and weekends; they go away; they are caught up in ambition, conflicts and competition, frequently to the point of desperate, all-consuming ruthlessness (Meltzer, 1992). Some are driven to drink; some have affairs; some part. I have a patient who was left by his mother for a long time when he was a baby and who works in an important financial institution. He has to go to work early, is kept late, takes work home and works on it over weekends. He has little time for his wife or for his serious interest in playing a musical instrument. Another, who was orphaned at a year and a half went into money as a career and works all hours looking after other people’s. It is a haven. Yet another, also orphaned, taught himself to make beautiful things but stopped when he discovered that the people to whom he sold them did not look after them properly. For each of these people the dialectic involving work, remuneration and satisfactions has gone awry, and they have not managed to fill with money the void of early emotional deprivation. I know another person who has been mildly but visibly physically disabled since childhood, made money in property and then sought to gain respectability by investing in a cultural venture, which he got control of by dubious means, only to discover that buying rather than earning status is neither healing nor fulfilling.

There is experimental evidence that poor children actually experience coins as physically larger than they are. For the truly poor, immiseration can lead to a stuporous state of wasting away, sapping all initiative. At the other extreme of the distribution of resources, for many very rich people, I suggest, money produces a developmental arrest and leads to an inability to form stable and enduring object relations. They surround themselves with sycophants and protégés, whose integrity and dignity are fundamentally compromised. The trajectory of such wealthy people is like that of the narcissist in Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholy’, where the healthy person can mourn the loss of a lovedone and in due course move on to a new object of affection. The melancholic, by contrast, loves something inside which he or she cannot give up and ends up with a narcissistic object choice, of which money is an excellent and very seductive example. The equation of money with sex and power is the theme of many potentates’ lives. My favourite example of this is the tycoon in ’Chinatown’, Noah Cross (based on a real person and played by John Huston), who set out to gain control over the life-giving and life-sustaining water rights in and around Los Angeles. His wealth and power led to an overweening polymorphous perversity, so he had to have his daughter, as well, and also her/their daughter, the fruit of their incestuous union. Money on that scale leads to belief that one is as entitled to indulge one’s primitive desires as self-indulgently as the original patriarch of Freud’s Totem ad Taboo, and the sexual license of dictators and merchant princes throughout history bears out the story Freud told there and in Civilization and Its Discontents about the foundation of civilization resting on the incest taboo. Money has been and remains the medium by which people believe that they can still have it all ways. Yet those who attempt it almost always end up, like Midas, with nothing warm to call their own. One of my contemporaries, who remained in Dallas and has done very well as an attorney, told me the other day that Dallas is now a soulless place where only money matters, and — having made his pile and having undergone a multiple bypass operation — he and all his friends are moving away to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in order to be people and to live more simply.

In closing let me remind you of the political impulse behind this talk. If you dig where you stand you may not get such apparently profound generalisations, but whatever insights you gain will be into real experience.



Paper delivered to Merseyside Psychotherapy Institute Series on ’The Mystery of Money’, Liverpool, 27 February 1998, Study Day on ‘The Construction of Money’.


American Psychoanalytic Association, Jourlit/Bookrev Database http://www.apsa.org/lit/index.htm

Bornemann, E., ed. (1976) The Psychoanalysis of Money. N. Y.: Urizen.

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