The Banks are Made of Marble

by Chris Bertram on October 18, 2011

Watching footage of the Occupy protests suddenly reminded me of Pete Seeger’s marvellous song (played at Jerry Cohen’s funeral btw). I thought it would be a nice thing to share.



Sandwichman 10.18.11 at 4:45 pm

The bankers have lost their marbles.


marcel 10.18.11 at 4:49 pm

Yes, but then they turned around, played for all the marbles, and won ours (which is pretty much what they had been doing before they temporarily lost theirs!)


AntiAlias 10.18.11 at 5:17 pm



piglet 10.18.11 at 5:20 pm

Just stumbled over this:
Debunking Economics by Steve Keen.

Anybody read the book and cares to comment?


Letitia Campbell 10.18.11 at 5:27 pm

nice. very, very nice. this is a Pete Seeger kind of time.


NickS 10.18.11 at 5:31 pm

As a note, it appears the Pete did not write the song:

Les Rice, the composer of this song, is a New York State apple farmer and one-time president of the Ulster County chapter of the Farmers Union. His songs have made him well-known to farmers throughout the northeast. Perhaps his most well-known composition is “Banks of Marble” which achieved great popularity among union members throughout the country and even in Canada, where new verses have been found.


Harold 10.18.11 at 5:37 pm

Not many know that Pete is an accomplished 12-string guitarist.


Shelley 10.18.11 at 5:59 pm

Loved the photograph, since my writing is about how Americans survived the first Crash in the Dust Bowl.

I’m waiting for the new Pete Seeger of the new Crash to emerge.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear the Occupiers on Wall Street singing a huge and really in-your-face version of Handel’s Messiah. Or maybe the real verses to “This Land Is Your Land”?


Harold 10.18.11 at 6:18 pm

I saw a video of the Occupiers singing the real verses to “This Land Is Your Land.” Don’t remember where. It is funny how these songs stay relevant.


Sandwichman 10.18.11 at 6:41 pm

piglet @ 4 I haven’t read Debunking Economics but was on the Post-Keynesian list with Keen when he was writing it and am familiar with his more non-technical arguments. I think Keen has basically got it right in terms of proximate causes.

Behind the debt to GDP ratio, though, lurks the question of what is impelling the immense expansion of private debt. The short answer is income inequality. The producers of wealth (workers) are not receiving enough income to buy enough of what they produce, so the gap is filled by credit.

So then what generates the growing income inequality? At this stage of the investigation a lot of people are tempted to jump to an “evil-doer” hypothesis that singles out the political power and campaign contributions of the big bourgeoisie. Although there is some truth to the explanation it is not sufficient. Why are people letting them get away with it? Here’s where Keynes’s “money illusion” and Marx’s absolute and relative surplus value come into play. But there’s a paradoxical bit of doggerel from American labor history that sums it all up:

“whether you work by the piece or by the day, reducing the hours increases the pay.”

If that verse sounds ridiculous to you, it is because you don’t comprehend the money illusion and the different forms of surplus value. If you comprehend those two analyses, you’ll grasp what Mary Steward was getting at: the illusory pursuit of higher nominal income by workers can result simply in boosting the rate of absolute surplus value — a treadmill effect in which workers are running faster and faster yet falling further behind.


John Quiggin 10.18.11 at 6:51 pm

@piglet I reviewed Keen’s book when it came out


Ingrid Robeyns 10.18.11 at 7:05 pm

Thanks for this, Chris. I think no social protest can do without songs and poetry (and slogans, but they have those!), and this song is very strong indeed.


mrearl 10.18.11 at 7:14 pm


Uncle Kvetch 10.18.11 at 7:42 pm

I think no social protest can do without songs and poetry

Lately I find myself thinking back to some of the classic topical tunes of the Thatcher years (“Ghost Town,” “Stand Down Margaret,” Robyn Hitchcock’s “Brenda’s Iron Sledge,” Elvis Costello’s “Tramp the Dirt Down,” Kirsty MacColl’s “Free World”) and being struck by how timely they are at the moment.

And I wonder whether OWS has the potential to inspire (directly or indirectly) some equally compelling music, and where it might come from. The US indie rock scene appears to be lodged up its own whimsical, self-reflexive, post-post-post-ironic backside for the foreseeable future, so there’s not much cause for optimism there.

Or maybe it’s already out there and I’m just not looking in the right places.


Grimgrin 10.18.11 at 8:25 pm


Watson Ladd 10.18.11 at 8:28 pm

Aren’t we just repeating the popular front craze for kitsch with this call? Stockhausen Serves Imperialism is probably required reading for anyone demanding politically involved art. Stockhausen expressed the horror of the world in Vietnam far better then Cardew’s delusional hymns to the British working class, just as the horrors of fascism meet their best denouncement in the violence of Webern and Schönberg rather then Brecht’s lyricism.


Hidari 10.18.11 at 8:32 pm

‘Or maybe it’s already out there and I’m just not looking in the right places.’

No I suspect it’s not out there. One of the things I’ve been increasingly struck by is the extent to which our modern ‘culture’ for the first time in my experience, not only does not reflect modern experience, but has almost no relationship to it. When I was younger, not only did culture reflect ‘our times’ but in many ways it seemed to be a better reflection of it than the ‘orthodox culture’ (i.e. what we learned in school etc.). But now it just doesn’t. You would have no concept, literally none, that we were living through the worst recession in modern times (much worse than the 1970s or 1980s) simply by watching TV, listening to modern music, watching modern TV (except the news) or watching comedy or movies or anything. Modern ‘culture’ is made almost exclusively now by people who want to become rich and have realised that fashionably reactionary politics are the best way to achieve this.

We used to go the the cinema, or watch TV, or go to a comedy club, or a gig, to engage with the modern world. Now we go to be ‘entertained’; to block it out, forget about it.

I mean what are we expecting? That Ricky Gervais, or Simon Cowell, or Alan Sugar, or Take That, or Gok Wan or Michael Macintyre or that guy who does the Go Compare ads might come out in support of #OWS? That Martin Amis might give his support?* Or Christopher Hitchens? Or Tracey Emin? It’s no good suggesting that these are merely the modern examplars of modern Right wing culture. ‘Our’ culture just is very very very reactionary and right wing, and it’s increasingly unlikely that genuinely politically aware art can ‘break through’.

Of course I genuinely hope that this is the sort of comment that will make me look ridiculous in 5 years time, and that a whole new wave of politically committed artists is just growing up but I remain sceptical.

*And yes I know that some writers recently signed some limp wristed ‘Manifesto’. It’s not exactly Brecht is it? Or The Pop Group? . Or the Gang of Four?

And yes I know how much this ages me, and, to repeat, nothing would make me feel happier than to be shown up by the wave of politically committed art and popular culture that is currently bubbling under.



Hidari 10.18.11 at 8:48 pm


First, Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, despite the ridiculous title, is actually still (just about) worth reading, and asks some hard questions about the relationship between art and politics even if its answers to these questions are absurd.

Second, and much more important, it is objectively true that Cheryl Cole, David Jason, Freddie Flintoff, Katherine Jenkins,David Beckham, Gary Lineker, Ross Noble, Rhod Gilbert, Jason Manford and Lee Evans and Tim Westwood (not to mention Christopher Hitchens, Michel Houellebecq and Martin Amis and Bernard-Henri Levy and all the other fashionably reactionary ‘thinkers’ of our time) do in actual fact serve imperialism and few people call them on it, or even notice.

It’s becoming increasingly the case that working in what Adorno called ‘The Culture Industry’ and having any sense of political commitment or (increasingly) any kind of common sense or basic intelligence, is simply a contradiction in terms. Our ‘culture’ is seleb culture. How could it be anything other than aggressively reactionary? (And the cosy ‘satire’ of 8 out of 10 Cats or HIGNFY doesn’t count).


Hidari 10.18.11 at 8:49 pm

Maybe I should write a pamphlet (or a song) entitled Cheryl Cole Serves Imperialism. And perform it on Britain’s Got Talent.


Uncle Kvetch 10.18.11 at 9:02 pm

One of the things I’ve been increasingly struck by is the extent to which our modern ‘culture’ for the first time in my experience, not only does not reflect modern experience, but has almost no relationship to it.

Very true. There are some faint stirrings, though. Much is being made of the fact that one of the writer/producers of Sex and the City is also a producer of a new sitcom called 2 Broke Girls:

“The girls from ‘Sex and the City’ had relationship check lists; these girls barely have checks.” He added that he and Cummings liked the “really scary dynamic of talking about money on TV,” a topic usually glossed over or ignored — kind of like Carrie Bradshaw’s ability to afford designer duds and spiffy apartment on a columnist’s salary.

A far cry from the Gang of 4, granted, but even the most cursory acknowledgment of reality is something at this point. (Not that I have any intention of watching the show, mind you.)


actio 10.18.11 at 9:07 pm

A Seeger a day keeps despair away. His songs, and the other ones he played, are fitting for the times we’re in. But I’ve got to say that the current crisis sometimes calls for a bit more amped up soundtracks. Propagandhi, that’s your cue:


MPAVictoria 10.18.11 at 9:14 pm

Love Pete Seger. We don’t have any modern equivalent and we need one.
/Maybe Steve Earl?


Rich Puchalsky 10.18.11 at 9:23 pm

Not to say anything against Seeger, but is nostalgia what we really want right now? All of that protest music back from the times when we could have won but in fact actually lost?

I’m kind of glad that OWS has no Movement-identified music, visual style, or famous artist. Hidari writes that “We used to go the the cinema, or watch TV, or go to a comedy club, or a gig, to engage with the modern world.” Well, I’d rather that people engaged with the modern world by going out and engaging with the modern world. The idea that you could do that by going to a movie with the right aesthetics always was an illusion.


Watson Ladd 10.18.11 at 9:36 pm

Hidari, I read it as a moment in which you could somewhat honestly claim that revolution was around the corner. But it wasn’t Stockhausen who was the reactionary but Cardew. Cardew’s politics was a mirage, activity masking Stalinist regression in the highest degree. Stockhausen’s music, even if bourgeois, was at least honest about the reality of life. Today’s political responses in art will do exactly the same thing. Of course, to not go to Afghanistan would be to objectively support the Taliban. Such is life when the revolution has passed us by, and so the honest thing may be to no longer make art.


Chris Bertram 10.18.11 at 9:39 pm

…. or indeed comment at Crooked Timber, Watson.


Watson Ladd 10.18.11 at 9:59 pm

Well, that is an interesting question. At one level the accusation thrown at Stockhausen by Cardew was simply Stalinism. But it also had a ring of truth to it: how dare you make indulgent art for the few when you art could lead the masses to revolution? And with so many artists viewing their work (especially today) as political, the absence of politics must make for an absence of art. By contrast commenting on Crooked Timber isn’t something I have illusions about being political, and its something that does actually help me be political: Henri’s question about what factors caused trends over time is one that has forced me to rethink how I deal with something like neoliberalism for example. #OWS might lead to artists painting another generation of bad murals commemorating it. But that’s very different from Kandinsky’s response to the Russian Revolution, in part because #OWS won’t open up similar opportunities for society.


Andrew Burton 10.19.11 at 5:09 am

I was sorry that James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here Any More” never entered the national consciousness as a great protest song.

Everything about it works: the lyrics, the slow burn of the lead guitar, and McMurtry’s laconic phrasing barely holding back the rage. 5 years on, we’re making even less than we were then.


JJ 10.19.11 at 5:40 am

“…how dare you make indulgent art for the few when you[r] art could lead the masses to revolution?”

The Liberal response to the threat of revolution was a limited policy of structural co-optation disguised in the egalitarian plumage of upward mobility and meritocracy, where the would-be working class leaders to any potential revolution were economically separated from their class affiliation and integrated into the framework of a capitalist economy.

“…in part because #OWS won’t open up similar opportunities for society.”

You’ve got it backwards, again. It’s not the responsibility of the Occupy Wall Street movement to create opportunities for society. It’s the responsibility of a capitalist society to siphon off the potential leadership of a revolutionary movement.


Jackart 10.19.11 at 10:05 am

Of course in the UK, the problem is the Banks’ vaults AREN’T “stuffed with silver” and “we” do own (some of) them.


Chris Bertram 10.19.11 at 10:19 am

Yes Jackart, that irony had occurred to me too …. unfortunately part nationalization doesn’t seem to have the consequence that

… we’d share those vaults of silver
That we have sweated for


bert 10.19.11 at 11:39 am

There’s a reason the banks are made of marble.
Banks are inherently flimsy institutions, and this is by design. If a bank is being run the way it’s supposed to, its vaults of silver won’t actually cover its liabilities. So to shore up confidence and forestall the danger of bank runs, a great deal of effort is put into creating an illusion of solidity.
But that’s a postmodern insight. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie are premodern.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, though, particularly if all you’re looking for is a soundtrack.


howard 10.19.11 at 12:30 pm

Woody Guthrie: “We worked through spring and winter, through summer and through fall. But the mortgage it worked the hardest and the steadiest of us all. It worked on nights and Sundays, it worked each holiday. It settled down among us and it never went away. … It would put them to the test if the farmer took a rest, then they’d know that it’s the farmer feeds us all.”

But “farmer feeds us all” and “banks of marble” have three elements: a clear victimizer (banks, mortgages, interest rates); a clear (and sympathetic) victim (farmers, poor, but hard-working); and a clear (or in any event, easy to express) logical link between the two (farmers suffer from paying high interest on loans, and from foreclosure; banks benefit from those).

So for “#occupy x” what is the clear and sympathetic victim group (students with loans? auto workers? unionized teachers? people who bought too-expensive houses) and what is the (not-too-convoluted) logical link between the victimizers and the victims? Until we’ve got this straightened out, it will be hard to write an effective song.


MPAVictoria 10.19.11 at 1:55 pm

“I was sorry that James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here Any More” never entered the national consciousness as a great protest song.”

Andrew I love that song and it still has a place on my iPod to this day.


MPAVictoria 10.20.11 at 1:21 pm

How about this one?


Harold 10.20.11 at 1:44 pm

Shorter Watson: Can’t beat ’em, might as well join them.


Watson Ladd 10.20.11 at 1:58 pm

Henri, its precisely because we can’t beat them that we don’t join them. OWS will only produce another hundred bad murals across america commemorating another defeat as victory. That would be joining the forces of reaction by diminishing everyone’s sense of what is possible and plastering over the real questions of why the Left is dead. I propose we remember what is missing: anything that could be genuinely political.


Harold 10.20.11 at 2:01 pm

From comments on Economist’s view, someone has quoted a song that really is by Pete Seeger:

EMichael said…
Reaganomics, it is not a trickle, it’s The Big Muddy.

Well, I’m not going to point any moral;
I’ll leave that for yourself
Maybe you’re still walking, you’re still talking
You’d like to keep your health.
But every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We’re — waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Waist deep! Neck deep! Soon even a
Tall man’ll be over his head, we’re
Waist deep in the Big Muddy!
And the big fool says to push on!


Chris Bertram 10.20.11 at 2:41 pm

Thanks for the McMurtry Victoria.


MPAVictoria 10.20.11 at 3:09 pm

I must confess that it was Andrew who originally posted the link. My post was meant to express my approval.


MPAVictoria 10.22.11 at 10:39 pm

Even though I am sure no one is checking this thread anymore I just had to post this:

/Love ya Pete.

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