Text submitted to the Guardian today:
This may seem an odd and unexpected thing for me to say, but when it comes to the question of the bankers and morality I find myself agreeing with the bankers rather than the various philosophers and prelates who are brought on to give us their views on these weighty matters. The reason is not because I have suddenly crossed class lines to throw my lot in with the bourgeoisie (I’m sure there are many who think I did that years ago) but because the idea that this current specific crisis around the manipulation of the LIBOR rates is clouding the fact that in order for it to function, capitalism requires the manipulation of economic truth in all areas of life. Above all it is based on one big sleight of hand about how one actually creates value in an economy.
When something goes wrong the defenders of the system will always say that it is not the system’s fault but that of a few rogue traders who are distorting the reality. They are like those who say that the Soviet Union would have been fine if it hadn’t been for Stalin or that fascism might have worked if it hadn’t been for Hitler’s obsession with the Jews. By turning what is essentially a structural socio- economic analysis into one of individual guilt, ethics and morality it is possible to avoid any serious questioning about the system itself. Hence my defence of the bankers; I rather like the fact that they have no time for the cant and hypocrisy of those who live from and support the capitalist system but who turn a blind eye to the way in which it exploits both workers and the planet every day, sucking both dry in order to extract a surplus from them. To paraphrase Adorno; if you want to talk about morality then you can’t keep quiet about capitalism.
Capitalism is a system which is based upon the extraction of surplus value from the employment of human labour in which the amount of value created by the individual worker is not rewarded to its full extent. Any capitalist will tell you this. They would not employ anyone if they could not make surplus value from them. This surplus value can then be used for various purposes: i.e. reinvestment, retooling, expansion, securing market position, advertising etc. A part of this surplus value is then taken in profits and these profits can either be spent in the form of the consumption of goods and services or, increasingly, they can be diverted into a financial sector whose very raison d’être is to further increase those profits without recourse to any productive basis. This speculative function of neoliberal capitalism which everyone is suddenly finding so evil and immoral is therefore not something which simply exists as an excrescence upon some sort of pristine and moral capitalism but is the current historical expression of the system of capitalism itself. Thus the very point of capitalism in its present form is to extract surplus value not only from direct human labour but from the fruits of that human labour and even unto the non-existent fruits of those fruits in any way possible.
Of course it may be possible to tinker around the edges with this system in order to try and re-inject some sort of moral and ethical dimension back into it and it is certainly the case that the welfare state which was created in 1945 and which is now under serious attack after the phoney war of the last 30 years, was an attempt to do that. But we mistook that welfare state and the integration of the working class into a social settlement for morality. We also took those Trente Glorieuses as the reality of capitalism, whereas in fact they were an exception to the rule. What the news brings us every day is evidence of the fact that class conflict never went away, it simply hid behind a veil of plenty.
The mistake is to suppose that capitalism ever had a moral dimension in the first place. Of course the Ayn Rands (from Greenspan on down) and many Marxists (from Marx on down) have argued that this is precisely what makes it so productive and profitable. It is not hindered by any systems of belief or faith which seek to give to humanity as a whole any sort of overarching moral role or presence. Human beings are simply factors of production in the system and, in a sort of Aristotelian-Nietzschean concept of natural masters and natural slaves, those who rise to the top of the system are there not because they are morally better than anyone else, but because they have the requisite “will to power”. Reading the e-mail correspondence between the various traders fixing the LIBOR rates and indeed listening to anyone defending the right of individuals to avoid tax on the grounds that it is not illegal, is everyday proof of the fact that morality has nothing to do with these calculations. The answer is not to try and make individuals more moral, but to change the system into one which is inherently more moral.