Robin McAlpine looks at the political purpose of the redemption of bankers and demonisation of the public sector
There is perhaps no means of social control more important, more powerful and in many ways more dangerous than the creation of heroes and villains. They define how we see the world, what we aspire to, what we will accept and what we will condemn. In creating these poles we draw circles around behaviours and ways of existing which include and exclude, almost as directly as if we were corralling cattle or penning sheep. But there are many ways we can do this. What makes heroes and villains so powerful is that we do not realise we are being corralled and penned; in fact, we think that it is us who are drawing the circles. With notable exceptions, it is not. We rarely even notice it is being done.
Let us begin a long way back with an archetypal example. From what little historical material is available the best guess we can make is that Mary Magdalene was probably the lover and more likely the wife of Jesus Christ. Certainly, even by the uncontested contents of the Bible she was the first apostle – when Christ arose from the dead it was to Mary that he chose to reveal himself. If theologians are to be consistent then we must assume that this is not a coincidence or an accident (we’re talking about the embodiment of omniscience returned from beyond human experience here). Christ chose Mary to bear witness to the single greatest event of human existence (again, if you are to take the theology at face value). We have here a hero, a strong, intelligent, independent woman to whom the Lord has chosen to reveal the wonders of the universe. The other Mary was simply a human vessel used for the production of the human version of God and as such should have no real theological significance. To her was given a non-negotiable task, to Magdalene a window into eternity. But the following two hundred years (running up until the Council of Mycenae at which they patched together the Bible from a plethora of scraps of writing by many different authors) were not exactly a period of feminist revolution.
By Mycenae – where a group of rich and powerful men (and only men) locked themselves away with the explicit intent of controlling the nature of the burgeoning Christina religion – there had been a full reversal of fortune for the two Marys. One, the really important one who is key to the whole Christian faith, is transformed from her genuine role as hero into that archetypal female villain, the prostitute. The other, a theologically insignificant woman with absolutely nothing whatsoever to say for herself, is created instead as a heroic virgin. And there we have the genesis of Catholicism’s attitude to women as we understand it.
This is no coincidence or chance. This all took place in a highly patriarchal time and the messages are so clear as to be almost funny – to be a virgin, passive and to hold no opinion is the characteristic of the Mother of God. To be a political activist and female, challenging the state and the existing church along with a young preacher, is to be hidden under the charge of whore. Be like the good Mary and conform. The Church created the hero and the villain it wished to make of women and in terms of penetrating deep into the culture of Christina countries, there is no doubt it worked.
But the hero and the villain is all-pervasive if we look for them. For example, the primary function of criminal justice is not really to protect the public from dangerous people nor to punish the bad but mainly to make clear the boundaries between good and bad (or more specifically good an evil). A trial is as much about describing the reasons that someone is defined as a transgressor as it is about discovering guilt. In this sense, all trials are show trials, telling us what is acceptable and what not. We explain in detail why someone is condemned and we ensure the detail of their transgression is understood. This is really the only way we can understand the history of criminal justice – the hanging of pickpockets is neither an appropriate punishment not an effective protection of the masses but can only be understood as an 18th century way of explaining what will be tolerated.
This runs through until today – after all, the most vilified crimes in the country just now include ones in which no-one is really being protected and the punishment is for doing something we deem to be unacceptable rather than because anyone is harmed. One is the ‘promotion of terrorism’, a crime which involves thinking or reading things we don’t want you to think or read. The other is downloading child porn. This is not a victimless crime by any means, but the perpetrator is more often than not nothing more than an observer of a horrible act. Really, in both cases we are much less interested in what someone did (looked at something horrible, read something objectionable) and much more interested in what they represent.
Then we have the ‘role models’. In the last ten years we have had shoved in our faces a whole new breed of person – the entrepreneur. We are left to gasp in awe at people who are heroes because the make money. In fact, often they are heroes despite not really making any money (there is no space here to elaborate on how underwhelming the achievements of many of our high-profile business leaders are but when you are feted simply because you can get column inches by running photo-shoots of women in underwear or because you bought up successful public monopolies at knock-down prices then something is odd). The message though is clear enough – we celebrate grasping, no-holds-barred personal enrichment and we are supposed to want to be like them.
We could end up in a situation where the elite are no longer allowed to bend any rule in the sole pursuit of their own vast enrichment – if this idea took seed we could be staring at the end of global neoliberal capitalism as we know it. We need a new villain.
So throughout human history we have always been told indirectly but unmistakably how to think and how to behave through the examples set by figures defined as heroes or villains – and largely we fall for it every time. Why bother ourselves with it just now? Well, because something blatant is happening before our eyes – we are in the middle of a ‘correction’ in which the established order is seeking to reverse the unfortunate occurrence of the wrong people having been vilified. Is it even worth reminding you why bankers are the great villains of our age? It’s not just the crash and the bailout; these people were destroying the very fabric of our society long before their biblical fall. The effects of speculative financial capitalism on the globe have been near catastrophic. In fact, when we remind ourselves that these bankers were twisting international policy to remove access to free clean water from millions of Africans to create water utility investment opportunities which would offer fast rewards (they won’t all die – someone will have to pay something so how can you lose?) we get a sense of who these people were/are. We think it was all abstract gambling – and some of it was. But an awful lot of it was not the slightest abstract – from young American couples tricked into buying houses they couldn’t afford simply to con more money from them to slave labour used to increase the viability of the stock market position of high street retailers, bankers were as immoral as it gets (and much more directly responsible for human suffering than any pathetic soul looking for images of child abuse). So we had every politician in the country writing fawning letters to Big Bankers in part to toady up to them but also to create the myth of their real worth – to us all. Then they suffer a fall as great as anything Milton could invent (oh how those politicians suddenly wish they hadn’t dropped Fred Goodwin that obsequious note…) and the whole ideology of neoliberal capitalism rocks. And make no mistake, it did. Almost every single word of the litany of the ideologies of the last 20 years looks not only suspect but blatantly wrong – only a market untouched by regulation can ensure stability and human happiness indeed.
Now, this is simply too dangerous to be allowed to take root. What happens if people start believing something counter to this? We could end up in a situation where the elite are no longer allowed to bend any rule or take any risk with no real risk whatsoever in the sole pursuit of their own vast enrichment. They might no longer be able to justify Babylonian wealth on the basis of ‘creating’ a few low-pay service-sector jobs. They might have to pay their taxes and behave with some humanity. If any of those ideas seeded themselves, we could be staring at the end of global neoliberal capitalism as we know it. But what to do? It is really indecently early to try to rehabilitate the bankers into heroes in one go. So what do we need? A new villain.
And so it is that out of the blue a massive debt carried by you and me as a result of a system which will not allow anyone with great wealth or power to lose it is placed squarely at the feet of – well, nurses as it turns out. Or the BBC. Briefly MPs. Social workers for sure, and certainly pensioners. In fact, absolutely anyone who is free of blame is in the frame so long as they are in receipt of public money of any sort. We are being fooled into thinking that the bankers did not create this disaster but that it was really Jonathan Ross and the guy who empties your bin. The bankers who whored themselves most are being repainted as virgins and the virginal public sector is being cast onto the street like a cheap call-girl. A straight line from Mycenae to Mandelson.
There is another part of the neoliberal enterprise at risk. We all know that resources – water, fuel and food – are scarce and growing scarcer. We kind of know that the resource wars have already started (at least we know Iraq was about oil). But they too are at risk. Iraq is now an official disaster and no-one thinks otherwise. The perpetrators were already writing that war off as a bad job and trying to get us all hooked on the ‘just war’ going on in Afghanistan. What is unfortunate therefore is that you would be hard pressed to find a punter able to explain what was just about it (at least in any country other than the US). But they can’t write that one off too or there is a risk that public opinion wouldn’t stand for another one. So we need to make us all willing to cheer on our next collective act of violence via other means; and therefore welcome Armed Forces Day. It is a good job Gordon Brown is really bad at this stuff or it might work (honestly, does he think that choosing a day and asking us to wave flags and cheer soldiers is going to be enough to hold the empire together? Yet another pale impersonation of the United States imported by a politician who gets that country in theory but simply can’t grasp how it actually works). We should be asking hard question about the military – there are many well-meaning soldiers but we should be more honest about the disturbing proportion of violent psychopaths and damaged young men close to falling apart – but the tabloids tell us to cheer, the body bags keep coming and only then do the oil contracts arrive.
There is so little space and so much to cover. The ‘Tax Payer’s Alliance’ sees the misbehaviour of the super-rich as another chance to attack services for the poor with the usual demonisation of the weak. The Royal Family is half-tool, half-protagonist as it cynically exploits William and Harry as poster-boys for the Windsors and the warmongers. Rupert Murdoch’s offspring spit poison at the BBC like deformed snakes on a Medusa head. And we are all told that somewhere deep down we know this ‘whole thing’ started when ‘asylum seekers’ started ‘flooding’ our country. Thank our lucky stars for such pretty, compliant, unchallenging ‘national treasures’ like Cheryl Cole from the X Factor. If only more of those uppity public sector workers were like her.
This nonsense won’t last – the real villains slipped their fake white capes with Enron and World Com and by RBS and Lehman Brothers they were standing naked down to their jet-black underwear. The old order might try to drape a white veil over them for now while throwing black ink at innocent bystanders. But it won’t work. A baddy is a baddy. Their time will come.