“We all know bankers are greedy bastards!” Ideological dimensions to the financial crisis

Think back to 2007. Did you believe the end of neoliberalism was nigh? I must admit I did. It seems rather naive in retrospect. Yet fast forward five years and consider the political terrain: we have witnessed a massive consolidation within the financial sector and an unprecedented attack on the welfare state across Europe. As if by magic, a crisis of the financial system has been reframed as a crisis of sovereign debt, with ‘austerity’ (in essence the structural adjustment programmes that the organs of international capitalism have long imposed elsewhere) being pursued with breathtaking alacrity, accompanied by the continual refrain that there is no alternative.

So what happened? This question is one which will undoubtedly preoccupy large swathes of the acdemy for decades. However I do want to offer a quick observation about the ideological dimensions to a set of processes which are reshaping global society to an extent which I suspect is still not entirely understood. This concerns what the financial crisis established for the population as a whole. What did we learn from it? Oddly, I think the answer is very little. How were ‘bankers’, as the pantomime characters to whom financial capital is reduce, perceived prior to the crisis? As greedy bastards. How were ‘bankers’, as the pantomime characters to whom financial capital is reduce, perceived after the crisis? As greedy bastards. I’m generalising wildly here before anyone feels the need to point it out. Likewise, if you know of any longitudinal polling data about attitudes towards bankers, I’d love to see it. Without doubt, there are significant numbers of people who either approve of bankers or regard them as a necessary evil.

My point is simply that the discursive construction of ‘the bankers’ (rather than more or less well-informed propositional claims about the actual characteristics of specific people working in a specific industry) really hasn’t changed as much as one might expect. Although of course the social significance of the negative characteristics imputed to bankers has increased: after all THEY broke THE ECONOMY because of THEIR GREED. But the general perception of the financial system has changed much less than would seem likely given that, well, it almost collapsed. In a sense, the financial crisis represented an affirmation of what we all already knew.

The moral failings of the financial elite were widely recognised prior to the crisis and no one did anything because we couldn’t and/or because we benefitted from its continuation. But a lack of illusion about the nature of the people in charge, with the accompanying cynicism about their motives, facilitated a widespread disjuncture best represented by the weird position of the traditional Labour supporter during the Blair years: subjectively critical but objectively complicit in the reproduction of the social structures which were the object of their criticism. The apparent absence of ideological illusion about the nature of finance capitalism itself, as well as the political pragmatism and turn away from ‘idealism’ which naturally accompanies it, functioned as a form of ideological control. As Žižek puts it,  “a cynical non-identification with the ruling ideology’s explicit content is a positive condition of its functioning: the ideological apparatuses ‘run smoothly’ precisely when subjects experience their innermost desire as ‘oppositional’, as ‘transgressive’“. We all knew that bankers are greedy bastards before the financial crisis. Then after the crisis this shared recognition becomes an object of public debate. Bankers are ‘bashed’. Then everything ‘returns to normal’?

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