Joris Luyendijk’s new project up at the Guardian is aiming to apply the methods of social anthropology to the financial sector in the City of London. He’s carrying out interviews in pubs and coffee bars with people at all levels and in different roles in financial services industry, to get a proper picture of how the social roles all fit together. So far, he has made at least one major discovery:
- People in the Guardian comments section really, really hate bankers
I know, I was just as surprised. I’ve been doing my own amateur social anthropology exercise too. By which I mean that I’ve got a Twitter account and some spare time, and as a result, have been collecting prime specimens of banker abuse. So far, I’ve gathered that I, personally, have stolen from every single benefits claimant in England, and that Sir Fred Goodwin (crime: got a big pension, managed a bank poorly) is clearly a bigger criminal than Sir Anthony Blunt (crime: betrayed dozens of serving agents to Stalinist Russia). And, of course, during the recent London riots, dozens of variations on “who is the real criminal – the man who smashes a shop window and steals an iPod, or the man who gets paid a bonus?”
Because, at the end of the day, Dr Harold Shipman murdered 52 infirm old women in order to steal money from their wills, but bankers, get bonuses. Who is the real criminal, eh??
It is without any anticipation of popularity or agreement (or even any real hope of not being called an asshole on my own blog, although I must say that would be jolly nice if you were in the mood) that I tell you that I think this is all rather a pack of bollocks.
So read on …
Luyendijk’s qualified defence of bankers against the rage element in the Comment is Free community basically seems to hinge on the fact (which is basically true) that lots of people in the financial industry didn’t really have very much to do with the decisions that led to the current financial crisis. It’s actually a good point well made, and although I try not to rely on it too much in self-defence at parties, I do occasionally feel the need to point out to professional Northeners who are about to do a number about “the City of London”, that the only two banks to actually go bust in the UK were Northern Rock (based in Newcastle) and Bradford & Bingley (based in Bradford). Also requiring rescue and state funding were RBS (Edinburgh) and HBOS (Edinburgh and Halifax, though the decisions that really caused the damage were taken in Halifax).
But as I say, I don’t really want to rely on this sort of defence myself, because it’s a bit of a cop out for a number of reasons. The financial market system stands or falls as a system, and I think it’s a really bad idea to make anything important in your politics depend on blaming it for the crisis. Two reasons for this;
First, as I said three years ago, macroeconomic events have macroeconomic causes, not microeconomic ones. Bad, stupid products like Option ARMS or subprime buy-to-let teaser mortgages, were not invented by the industry out of sheer cackling evil; they were invented because they were the only way to get the people into the houses, given how expensive property had become. This was, as Dean Baker keeps reminding us, a housing bubble first and foremost and a financial bubble second; we are in a recession basically because of the disppearance of a huge amount of household sector wealth.
How expensive property had become … this is one that I’d like to linger on, because it rather points out that the number of people who a) benefited from and b) causally contributed to, the bubble and bust is rather bigger than you might think. The “Location, Location, Location” crowd (which in one way or the other, means pretty much the entire British middle class) are in this one up to their eyeballs, and if they want to rage at “bankers” while sitting on their still-massive property gains, then I for one am not inclined to take them any more seriously than the man who eats sausage but won’t talk to the pig-sticker.
However, of course, there were plenty of people who didn’t own houses in the 90s and 00s, and who thus didn’t benefit from the boom, who are suffering as a result of the recession, including the benefit claimants from whose mouths I was accused of taking the bread. Even in this case, though, I think that making a big deal about “the bankers caused this crisis/stole from us/etc” is a big mistake.
And that’s basically for the simple reason that there is no hope for egalitarian politics if you are going to build it on such weak grounds. This was the lasting contribution of Jerry Cohen’s criticism of Marx. The demands of egalitarian justice are not based in some convoluted proof that the rich have in some way stolen from the poor. The case for redistributive taxation does not rest on bankers’ bonuses being stolen goods, or even on them being undeserved. If you try to agitate for egalitarian policies based on this kind of argument, you are never going to make a strong case, because in the first place, “bankers” didn’t actually steal that money, for the most part, and secondly, if you are giving all the agency to “bankers” then you are accepting the first premis of the “wealth creators” rhetoric, and this is going to destroy you, politically, across the business cycle.
There’s also an economic version of the same argument. The answer to the question “Hospitals, or bank bailouts?” is “deficit spending, you ass!”. Money for the banking sector bailouts hasn’t come out of the mouths of babes and Sure Start centres; the austerity measures were a specific and separable decision, made by people who ought to be held accountable for it.
So my basic message here is that economics isn’t a morality play, even in the face of a depression. Even morality isn’t a morality play, most of the time. I wasn’t actually responsible for the housing crash and nor were most of my mates. We didn’t close down your local library or put your student fees up; that was the coalition government who did that. In general, if you want to build a better society, the message from the more thinking and socially responsible element of the financial sector is “send us the bill and spare us the lecture”.
 Oh all right, “trolling for”
 For which there should be consequences for the people who sold them, just on an encourager les autres basis. Financial regulation is not a morality play, either.