The Guardian’s new banking blog is a crying shame

by Jerome Roos on September 22, 2011

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In an attempt to come up with an ‘anthropology of bankers’, the Guardian ends up offering Luyendijk a platform for uncritical quasi-academic whitewash.

What would a self-styled Dutch ‘anthropologist’, whose only anthropological experience includes an M.A. from the University of Cairo and a stint as a Middle East correspondent for a leading Dutch newspaper, have to say on global finance? And even if he had anything interesting to share, why should we care? This is probably the first reaction solicited by the Guardian announcement that it had hired Joris Luyendijk to run its new banking blog.

But for me, as a fellow Dutchman familiar with Luyendijk’s reputation, my initial reaction was very different. When I first saw that the Guardian was launching “an anthropological study of the bankers“, with Luyendijk as its principal contributor, I got so excited for a second that I almost committed that ultimate Facebook-sin-for-critical-thinkers: sharing an article before you’ve even read it — just because the title gets you so worked up that you simply have to.

But after containing myself and deciding to plough through the blog’s initial posts first, my mood suddenly changed. With every additional line I read, I felt my initial excitement (and my respect for Luyendijk and the Guardian) sink deeper and deeper into the ground. By the time I had finished reading the first week worth of posts, I had made up my mind: the Guardian‘s new banking blog is the greatest missed opportunity in the history of web-based journalism.

The Greatest Missed Opportunity

I know this is an unusual thing to say — but, then again, these are highly unusual times. As “survivors” of this historical moment, we have all lived through the single greatest banking crisis since the Wall Street Crash of 1929; we are living through the single greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression; and we might be facing the single most catastrophic collapse of a politico-economic community (the eurozone) since the implosion of the Soviet Union.

What’s more, we have all lived through one of the most rapid escalations of socio-economic inequalities since the birth of capitalism. While the populations of Western countries are being told to “tighten their belts” — or, in slightly less tactical terms, “to suck it in and cope” — one class of professionals is getting away with record profits, stellar bonuses, and no criminal prosecution for negligence or fraud whatsoever. Such is the nature of our time.

With this in mind, one would hope that an “anthropological study of the bankers” would help us unravel the intersubjective web of meaning that sustains this culture of greed, based as it is on the mindless pursuit of profit, reckless gambling, and utter disregard for humanity. One would hope that it would provide us with some insights into the narratives, norms, values and ideas that provide the internal justifications for this destructive type of behavior.

This weekend, ahead of the occupation of Wall Street, we published an article in which we quoted a famous Wall Street trader admitting that the global financial system is entirely based on “ripping off poor people.” As the trader put it to Michael Lewis, another Wall Street insider, “this system is ‘fuck the poor’.” Wouldn’t it be fascinating to study the underpinning norms of such a system, and the myriad ways in which its participants systematically suppress the truth?

I had expected that Luyendijk would be the perfect guy to do just that. While I never read any of his bestselling books (I felt they were a bit too poppy and quasi-intellectual), I developed a liking for him after seeing an interview on an episode of the Dutch documentary series Tegenlicht. In it, Luyendijk lamented the fact that there was not a single journalist in the Netherlands who dedicated his time to exposing the wrongdoings of a company like Royal Dutch Shell.

This powerful criticism gave me the impression that Luyendijk would be attempting to do something similar for the financial sector. But, as it turns out, the Guardian‘s banking blog is none of the kind. Indeed, Luyendijk doesn’t seem to get much further than saying that: “the people in this very powerful sector are worth learning more about. And the good news is, when you listen to them in their own words, that can actually be pretty entertaining. And humanising.”

Humanizing the De-humanizers

This is Luyendijk’s first major mistake — one that reveals the extent to which ideology has penetrated our minds, especially in a “liberal” country like the Netherlands. Luyendijk apparently feels that popular rage against the bankers is a dehumanizing stereotypification. While there is clearly an element of truth to this observation, the statement itself misses the point. After all, aren’t the folks who see other people through the prism of profit alone the real de-humanizers?

Indeed, when it comes to dehumanization, we should all hold up a candle to the banks. The way the financial sector treats the public is reification at its purest. Verdinglichung, or “objectification”, is the very trademark of global finance. Every child in Greece, for example, is born with a 40,000 euro debt to their name. This practically means that every baby is, upon birth, turned into a money-making machine for banks that refuse to pay for their own bad lending.

And what about the millions of poor African Americans who were fraudulently tricked into subprime mortgages they could never realistically repay, simply because the banks knew that, as long as house prices kept rising, these people’s livelihoods would show up as “assets” on their balance sheets? How about having an “entertaining” and “humanizing” conversation with a US Army Captain who lost his home because of an $800 debt while on duty?

As long as Luyendijk does not address the bankers’ dehumanization of the people, a serious danger will continue to lurk underneath the surface of his project. Consider this extreme example: the full-color footage of Hitler playing with his dog was profoundly humanizing in its effects. When you see the images, you suddenly realize the Führer — forever the modern incarnation of pure evil — was actually “just another human being.”

But that is exactly what the footage was meant to do: it was meant to “normalize” the inhumane behavior and twisted subjective lifeworld of a pathological individual by “humanizing” his outwardly perceived persona. What the innocent smiles and the spectacular scenery were meant to obscure was precisely what Slavoj Žižek once revealed behind the Sound of Music: a destructive and discriminatory essence. Propaganda Meister Goebbels had it all figured out.

What Luyendijk is attempting to do is obviously on a different plain altogether — it doesn’t even need mentioning that any comparisons between the financial crisis and the Holocaust are entirely nonsensical — but there is still an important similarity in the ideological function of his project. By seeking to humanize people engaged in profoundly dehumanizing behavior, Luyendijk risks normalizing their destructive and discriminatory essence.

Addicted to Anger, or Addicted to Power?

Upon the launch of the blog, Luyendijk just published ten simple monologues of anonymous people employed in the banking sector trying to explain themselves. No analysis. No interpretation. No criticism. Nothing. According to Luyendijk, he is just “building a database”. But, in truth, he’s failing to admit that even the choice of what to put in such a public database is a profoundly political decision in and of itself. Where are the commodity brokers, for instance?

Needless to say, Luyendijk got butchered in the blogosphere. “Going over the first 500-plus reactions to the banking blog since its launch last Thursday,” he writes, “it is difficult not to wonder what kind of psychological benefit some people might derive from venting their anger about bankers. Is it possible to get addicted to anger? Addicted in the sense of losing the ability to think rationally about your addiction, of blocking out all inconvenient information that may challenge the addiction, and of needing ever larger doses to feel satisfaction?”

The problem, of course, is that these rhetorical questions could just as easily be reversed: Is it possible to be addicted to money, or to power? Addicted in the sense of losing the ability to think rationally about your addiction, of blocking out all inconvenient information that may challenge the addiction, and of needing ever larger doses to feel satisfaction? And what is the psychological benefit some people might derive from pursuing a career in banking?

Now these would have been brilliant questions to ask for an anthropological investigation into the culture of banking. But after just one week, Luyendijk appears to have given up already, shifting the focus of his project from an anthropological study of the bankers to a quasi-intellectual interpretation of popular anger against the banks. And even at that, he is failing dramatically. At this point, I almost wanted to cry. What a shame. What a missed opportunity.

By now, Luyendijk appears to be more interested in amateuristically criticizing the “addiction to anger” of the millions of people who have been completely deprived of their livelihoods, than in questioning the “addiction to money and power” that was responsible for this deprivation in the first place. In the process, he turns the perpetrators into victims and the victims into perpetrators — the people are now at fault for blaming the banks! See here the power of ideology.

In a genuinely free market economy, most bankers would have lost their jobs and their money by now. Indeed, in a genuinely just society, many of them would have been locked up behind bars ages ago. As long as the financial institutions upon which their fancy lifestyles depend continue to rely on public money to survive, the bankers have absolutely no right to complain about their portrayal in the media. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Rotten Apples, or Rotten Basket?

But the sham continues. Dodging questions about the structural power and the destructive essence of the industry, as well as the inevitable ethical difficulties that arise when you abrogate the responsibilities of subordinates for following the orders of their superiors and thereby sustaining the criminal behavior of those in power (the “Nuremberg defense“), Luyendijk inadvertently lifts the veil on his own “addiction to anger” (Stockholm Syndrome, anyone?):

If there’s one thing that has suddenly begun to annoy me no end it is categorical statements about “the banks” or “bankers”. I have learned by now that such generalisations obscure just how different many of the activities across the financial sector are. If you are angry about “the banks”, you need to specify which parts.

Again, Luyendijk misses the point. When you criticize your favorite football team for playing a bad game, do you have to individually distinguish the performance of every single player, or can you legitimately argue that the match was crap? Do you have to atomize and segregate each and every subject of your analysis, or can you see a larger whole binding them together? When we criticize bankers, we do not criticize individuals — we criticize their structural power.

But Luyendijk clearly cannot see this. “The question is: are you going to try to separate the bad apples from the good ones, perhaps even encouraging the good ones to take on the bad ones, or are you going to angrily advocate throwing the entire apple basket out of the window?” Again, this is pure ideology revealed, this time in the form of anthropological particularism: you may shine a light on individual cases, but if you obscure the totality you’re still blind to the world.

Yet Luyendijk remains “intrigued” that the distinction between good and bad apples “is so difficult to draw for people. Or,” he obligingly asks, “am I missing something?” The problem, of course, is that he is. He’s missing the most important thing of all: the structural component. The point is not that we have a few bad apples in the basket (that’s the same old tiresome Fox narrative), but rather that the basket itself is rotten. Throwing it away is the rational thing to do.

And that’s where anger comes back in. As an Italian friend put it the other day, “never forget your right to be angered by the state of the world.” For the powerless people, the outsiders, those victimized by the financial community, who lost their homes, who can’t find a job, who can’t afford university, who can’t even flee their country, indignation is the only dignity they have left. Do you honestly want to take that away too? At what cost? Mass suicide?

Towards A Real Anthropology of Finance

So what we need is not some kind of quasi-intellectual hogwash, or corporate whitewash, but rather a genuine anthropological study exposing not just the self-evident fact that there are plenty of “good apples” in the basket, but rather the incontrovertible truth that the basket itself is rotten throughout. Until we get a firm grasp of how this rot has proceeded to corrupt the minds of men, any attempt at financial regulation or economic transformation will be bound to fail.

Luckily we still have our own outlets and we still have our own minds. For this reason, we at ROAR have decided to start a counter-series to the Guardian‘s banking blog. Unfortunately we do not have the monetary means to infiltrate the cosmopolitan champagne and caviar circles that Luyendijk is “enjoying” at present, so we are confined to secondary sources for our basic material — but that won’t stop us. The art of information activism needs no money.

Interestingly, my initial excitement (and subsequent disappointment) about the banking blog had to do with a personal dream: if I could have chosen to do another major in college, I would have picked anthropology (and psychology) and done my PhD on the investment banking culture. Even better, I would have recorded the whole thing with hidden cameras, to be able to share its absurdity with the world. Imagine that: an ethnographic study of the Goldman tribe!

It was last year, after meeting Bruno Latour, one of France’s leading intellectuals and the world’s most-cited academic anthropologist, that I realized I wanted to do this. In the late 70s, Latour did a groundbreaking study on scientists. He simply went into a laboratory and wrote down everything he observed. After several years, he emerged with enough evidence to back up what, at the time, was a highly controversial claim: that “objective” scientific facts are in reality nothing more than intersubjective social constructions.

These are the kind of groundbreaking insights (common sense by now) that we need on the world of finance. We need to stop dodging the real questions and get to the heart of this: What motivates people to go into banking? What are the cultural dynamics that give rise to rogue trading and/or reckless speculation? What are the normative justifications employed for the sector’s astronomical bonuses? What role does status play within the financial community, and how is it displayed? What is the worldview behind “irrational exuberance“?

All of these questions will be crucial to answer if we want to come up with a broad program for social, political, economic and cultural change. The plan of action we need, leading to the type of transformative processes that can revolutionize our society, will to a great extent depend on how we can raise the consciousness of insecure men and change the culture of greed they have constructed over the years. The future depends on it. I just wish Joris had realized that before he put his pen to paper.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Arjen van der Horst September 23, 2011 at 12:49

Dear Jérôme,

I believe you still commit a Facebook-sin-for-critical-thinkers. Joris’ project hasn’t barely started yet and you already concluded it’s a failure. The beauty of the project (that will last at least nine months) is that it’s a work in progress.

You have clearly decided that the banking sector is structurally rotten, which means your own investigation into the banking sector can only have one conclusion: the banking sector is structurally rotten. That would make your project boring and useless. Why bother? We already know what you think.

What I gather from Joris’ approach he wants to come in as an outsider. His mind is blank and preferably without prejudice. He will come out of the process as an expert, or that’s at least the goal. Any study guided by prejudice is doomed to fail, so we should applaud Joris’ methods.

Joris has only just started with a couple of portraits and you already concluded he’s not critical enough, a claim more people have thrown at him. This was Joris’ reply: “But these portraits are the first step in a project of at least nine months’ duration. There will be plenty of critical inquiry later – already a few insiders have written in to volunteer information about the darker or more controversial aspects of the sector.”

You ask several good questions. What motivates people to go into banking? What are the cultural dynamics that give rise to rogue trading and/or reckless speculation? What are the normative justifications employed for the sector’s astronomical bonuses? What role does status play within the financial community, and how is it displayed?

I don’t have the impression Joris is dodging these issues. Just let’s wait and see how the project develops. And then make your mind up.
Best wishes,
Arjen van der Horst

Reply

Jérôme E. Roos September 23, 2011 at 15:57

Dear Arjen,

Thanks for your feedback, it’s much appreciated. One thing I’d like to make very clear: I never concluded that the project is a failure. In fact, it might well achieve its aims of “humanizing” the people who work in the finance industry; of sifting the “bad apples” from the good ones; of painting a more nuanced picture of the professionals who make up the sector. In that respect the blog could still be a major success.

What I do conclude, however, is that the blog is a missed opportunity. Given the extremely dire predicament in which we currently find ourselves, it seems that the aim of the project itself is flawed to begin with. Rather than making a study which seeks to sift the good apples from the bad ones, why don’t we study how a structurally rotten basket manages to infect even the good apples? How can sensible people, of good heart and clear conscience, get sucked into a collective state of mind that obviously has severely detrimental consequences for the rest of society? When even leading bankers themselves admit this fact, who would we be to claim “objectivity” and ensconce value judgments of this kind?

In fact, I will go further. Even if Joris starts asking critical questions about individual bankers and shady activities going on within the sector, his “methodological” point of departure (if you can even call it that), still primes him for a set of particularist conclusions, focusing on the functioning of the individual nots and bolts, rather than the engine as a whole. I’d be much more interested in questions dealing with the way that this system manages to corrupt the minds of even the best people — the type of questions Harry Mulisch asked in his account of the Eichmann case: how can a human being completely dehumanize not only the people who are affected by his actions, and in the process end up completely dehumanizing himself? How is it that good people end up operating like mindless machines, cogs in a system that steers their behaviors in profoundly self-destructive and anti-social ways? What kind of cultural justifications do these people come up with to sustain their collective state of insensitivity towards the real suffering of millions of people?

Joris’s point of departure is very different. For him, the basket is fundamentally sound. The objective is therefore not to investigate the basket itself, but to the interview the apples — to come to an understanding of the individuals within the system. While that point of departure has the air of objectivity to it, it is not an unprejudiced assumption in itself. In fact, it’s deeply imbued with ideology. Not coincidentally, it’s exactly what you hear on Fox News when Madoff gets arrested or Lehman’s goes bankrupt: “it’s just a bunch of corrupt/greedy fools, but the system is fundamentally sound!”

Now let me emphasize one crucial aspect here: there is no such thing as unprejudiced inquiry — this is exactly the positivist illusion that anthropology as a field is meant to expose. It’s why I mentioned Latour. You may pretend to approach your research topic with a “blank mind” or from the “neutral” perspective of an outsider, but in reality you will always carry hidden assumptions within your own worldview that will inevitably impact the direction of your inquiry. In this respect, what matters is not so much the answers you come up with 9 months from now, but rather the questions you ask today. That’s why I decided that this blog was a missed opportunity: it’s asking the wrong questions to begin with.

So yes, you are completely right to call me prejudiced — I am! But at least I’m honest about it. I believe that the banking sector as it functions today is destroying social cohesion and undermining the livelihoods of millions of people around the world. You think this conclusion is boring and useless. I think it’s the truth. We can go beat around the bush for 9 months and publish cutsy little monologues about the self-pithying bankers who are hated by the rest of society, but I assure you that by the time Joris starts drawing up his critical conclusions, the European banking sector will have collapsed (or a second series of unaffordable bailouts will have taken place).

In that respect, yes, you already know what I think, and that might be boring if you’re looking for new little factoids and entertaining gossip from the heart of the financial sector. But I assure you that all these tales are going to be inconsequential in the end, because we already KNOW what the problem is: the system is about to self-destruct. This conclusion/warning won’t be so boring and useless anymore if you end up finding yourself on the street one day, with no job, no home, no pension and no future. I’m not saying it will happen to you. But it’s already happening to millions of people around the world. That’s what I care about.

Either way, thanks a lot for reading and taking the time to share your views!

All the best,

Jerome

Reply

Debra Isaacs September 25, 2011 at 07:43

What a breath of fresh air your writings are!! I haven,t read this kind of truth since Hunter S. Tompson left D.C.
Thankyou To Jerome

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