All meat on the same bone

It\’s easy to feel remote from your fellow-countrymen. I felt like a visitor from another planet when the nation went into collective mourning for Princess Diana, and I did again last week, as tens of thousands of people began baying for the blood of radio presenters.

Initially I felt irritated by \’Manuelgate\’; the furore seemed like a distraction from \’real\’ news, like the continuing collapse of global capitalism. Then I realised that these were actually the same story: while regulators dozed, infantile over-paid idiots with egos the size of counties caused havoc with their reckless speculation. Both disasters started out small, noticed only by the aficionados, but rapidly snow-balled to become national (if not global) crises.

To stretch the comparison, we are now assured that there will be a retreat from risk-taking. Bankers will no longer trade arcane and spectral financial instruments, but will return to their \’boring\’ core business of offering punters somewhere to keep their money (which they can lend out to other punters). Similarly, BBC radio hosts will have to find something interesting or amusing to say between playing records (which doesn\’t necessarily involve prank calls, rude words or sex with burlesque stars).

A retreat from risk may seem reasonable, especially after the turmoil we have witnessed in recent months, but slipping back into stagnation, culturally and financially, does not seem very appealing either. Are we even capable of finding a happy medium, between stodgy and stifling conformity on the one hand, and the unconstrained exuberance of adrenaline-charged nutters on the other? It\’s too early to tell, but the omens are hardly promising.

From goose to snake

Watching Newsnight\’s \’trial\’ to examine who was to blame for the near-collapse of global capitalism last night, I could only wonder at the sheer quantity of bad faith on display.

The programme began with the results of a telephone survey, showing that the vast majority of the public blamed speculation in particular or banks in general for their irresponsibility, with s smaller proportion blaming the government, and five per cent each blaming regulators and the borrowing public.

The various \’accused\’ explained why it was not their fault. Paul Mason, the usually sensible Newsnight Economics Editor, talked in horror-struck tones of bankers being motivated to lend recklessly by the \”personal enrichment\” that could follow (as opposed to the altruism that usually prevails in financial services), and Will Hutton lambasted banks for not unilaterally cutting back their remuneration to a level that could be described as sane (and would no doubt lead to a swift leakage of skilled personnel).

So, the mess we\’re in is all a result of these evil institutions, which apparently operate in an entirely parallel universe from the rest of us? No. The simple truth, however unpalatable, is that – whenever we have rejoiced in cheap mortgages, easy credit card transfers or stockmarket gains – we have added air to the bubble. We may wriggle to avoid blame (and everyone else involved is, so why not?), but most of us were complicit in the system.

But now, less than a year after we were worrying about the terrible implications of asking rich people to pay tax, when all the talk was of killing geese that lay golden eggs, we stand astonished that financial institutions have been playing as fast and loose as they can, in order to maximise their profits.

Perhaps it\’s because I am a child of the Thatcher years, but I can\’t find it in my heart to expect capitalist institutions to be anything other than ruthlessly – and even recklessly – self-interested. You may not like it (and I don\’t much), but it\’s the world in which we live. As Michael Foot recently observed (a footnote to this), there was an alternative, but we chose a different path 25 years ago.

I\’m reminded of Al Wilson\’s Northern Soul classic, The Snake: a kindly woman takes in and looks after a snake that is dying of cold. Recovered, the snake duly bites her. As the venom takes hold, the woman complains of how her hospitality has been repaid, but the snake is having none of it:

\”Oh shut up, silly woman\”, said the reptile with a grin.
\”You knew darn well I was a snake before you took me in!\”