[DEBATE] : Scapegoating the spivs
grinker at mweb.co.za
grinker at mweb.co.za
Tue Sep 30 14:32:55 BST 2008
Tuesday 30 September 2008
Scapegoating the spivs
The attacks on the greed and thievery of bankers is anti-capitalism at its
As the global financial crisis unfolds, a clear villain has emerged: the
Speaking in the aftermath of Lloyds' takeover of Halifax Bank of Scotland
(HBOS), the leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, slammed the
'short-selling spivs and speculators in the financial markets'. Last week,
it was the Church of England's turn with the Archbishop of York, John
Sentamu, calling 'short selling' traders 'bank robbers and asset strippers'.
The Sunday Express's front page editorial was equally unequivocal, blaming
'the greed and stupidity of the spivs in high finance'.
While politicians and bureaucrats have appeared more circumspect, they've
still been playing the same game of pin the blame on the fat cat. Secretary
to the UK Treasury, Yvette Cooper, declared the 'era of greed' over, and
said there would be 'no more business as usual' in the financial sector. And
in New York last week, UK prime minister Gordon Brown announced, in
similarly epochal terms, the end of the 'age of irresponsibility'. If greed
and recklessness are the defining adjectives for the 'age of
irresponsibility', its epitome is the city financier, his pockets bulging
with multimillion-pound bonuses, his black heart a slave to mammon. There's
something not right in global capitalism, and it's wearing braces.
Of course crises of capitalism have long sported an unacceptable face, to
use the words of Ted Heath. Let's take only the most notorious instance of
this blame game: anti-Semitism. Although it has a long, murky history, it
noticeably increased in intensity and prevalence throughout the West during
the Great Depression of the 1930s. In Germany it is notable that up until
1929, the year of the Wall Street crash, right-wing parties using
anti-Semitic rhetoric had had relatively little success. In 1928, Hitler's
Nazi Party polled just 2.8 per cent in the Reichstag elections. Come 1930,
however, that had risen to 18.3 per cent. Long associated with the movement
of capital, be it as the merchant or the usurer, the figure of the Jew had
come to embody banking or finance capital, a parasite on business and
industry, producing nothing but profiting nonetheless. In short, 'the
economic injustice of the whole [capitalist] class is attributed to them'
The apportioning of blame, the holding of a particular grouping to account
for society's economic travails, does not have to be so tragically
regressive. While those on the right played upon the association of Jews
with the (failing) international banking system, those on the left were able
to blame the figure of the ruthless capitalist, an accusation, which, while
still brimful with resentment, was underpinned by a progressive sense of how
society ought to be. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm notes of the Great
Depression, the sense of catastrophe and disorientation was largely limited
to the ruling liberal elite of businessmen and politicians. For everybody
else, 'unemployment, the collapse of agrarian prices, hit them hard, but
they had no doubt that some political solution for these unexpected
injustices was available - on the left or on the right...' (2).
What is notable about today's rush to blame a rapidly diminishing financial
oligarchy is that it lacks anything approaching a social perspective, a
critique of how things are in terms of broader social forces, no matter how
obliquely expressed. This means that not only has the content of the
scapegoating changed, its form has, too. It is now far more individualised -
that is, far more personally vituperative and psychologising. The culprits
are all too easy to identify: it's the money-grubbing speculators; it's the
unscrupulous short-sellers; it's the ruthless, amoral hedge funds. While the
particular financial service might change, the charge remains constant:
sheer, overweening greed.
The problems facing society are grasped not as social ones, as problems to
do with production and distribution, but with the behaviour of certain
people in the financial sector. As a result it tends towards, at best, a
moral hatred of certain individuals' actions, and at worst an immoral hatred
of certain individuals.
The latter was particularly apparent in the response to the collapse of
investment bank Lehman Brothers earlier this month. The sight of City types,
after years of complacent but smug self-aggrandisement, emerging
disconcerted into the cold light of unemployment was greeted by some with
glee; finally, it seemed, those accustomed to getting whatever they want
were getting what they really deserved. In the London Evening Standard, Will
Self didn't so much write as spit: 'All you bankers have had your fat years.
Now get ready for some very thin ones. You posed as the engines of economic
growth but really you were petrolheads, pure and simple, addicted to the
short-term rush provided by speedy profits.'
But if unconcealed Schadenfreude characterised immediate responses to the
implosion of the finance economy, the far more prevalent response has been
to moralise. In an article published last week, 'Face it: Marx was partly
right about capitalism', the Archbishop of Canterbury decided that the
problem was 'unbridled capitalism', which leads 'greedy and thoughtless men'
to speculate recklessly, while under the mistaken impression that the market
will look after itself.
An editorial in this Sunday's Observer likewise called for a 'compassionate
and progressive' outlook that recognises that the financial market failed
'because individual players in the city lost sight of their obligations to
the wider economy and to society. They failed on their own professional
terms to evaluate risk, and they failed morally, by demanding freedom from
restraint and then abusing it.'
What both the loathing of Self and the sanctimony of Williams rest upon is
an overestimation of the importance of the psychology and beliefs of those
in the financial services sector. They attribute to them an idolatrous
free-market fundamentalism which must be both punished and reined in. What
they refuse to see is reality of this so-called idolatry - that is, the
desperate reliance of Britain's economy not upon the production but the
circulation of capital values. It is less the workshop of the world than its
This overarching consensus on what is wrong is no positive vision of life
beyond capitalism; instead it's a sort of reluctant statism, nationalisation
by default. Just as this financial crisis is not 1929, so increased state
regulation does not, as some deluded souls seem to believe, herald a return
to 1945 and the world of Bevan and Atlee. The expansion of the state is not
born of the demands of a several million strong labour movement; it is the
panic-stricken reflex of a clueless political class. And as such the
scapegoating of financiers' behaviour will result in a form of regulation
analogous to that which prevails in civil society.
A critique of the disproportionate role of the City is needed, but one that
understands its prominence not as the triumph of avarice, but as a symptom
of the stagnation at the heart Western economies.
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