A British bank is run with precision…Tradition, discipline and rules must be the tools”
It is more than fifty years since the Sherman brothers, Disney’s in-house composers, felt the unhappy George Banks and his octogenarian employers at Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank encapsulated the boring but reliable character of British finance.
Times have rather changed since E.L. Travers introduced the inhabitants of No. 17, Cherry Tree Lane in the 1930s. Yet, three decades and a world war after the publication of the first Mary Poppins, and the joke was still very much at the expense of the staid and the conservative. Indeed, it’s the very permanence of Edwardian London’s institutions that threaten the Banks’ family happiness. Their eventual redemption is achieved through rediscovering the values of creativity and imagination. It is not, however simply a personal absolution. The film ends, after all, with Mr Banks making partner.
Satire, understood as the deployment of humour for constructive social criticism, has always enjoyed a complicated relationship with the frameworks and actors of finance. In the spheres of politics and society, divisions are often clearer drawn, and artistic critics able to paint with broader brushes.
Attempting to unpick the interlocking interactions of economic systems, however, is replete with difficulties – complexity and obscurity the least among them. On the one hand, there is the danger of sliding into cynicism and nihilism, a course often morally bankrupt and usually a fuel for particularly poor art. On the other, there is always the possibility of not going far enough, of being seen to coddle the object of parody. Even Alexander Pope, confronted in the 18th century with the transformation of British mercantile power into conspicuous consumption, is unable to look on without a certain desire.
The earliest recorded use of satiric performance art to make a point related to finance is, of course, Greek. Aristotle relates the anecdote of “Thales the Milesian and his financial device” in his Politics. Thales, a man known for his wisdom, is reproached for his poverty. Indeed, his lack of money is held up as evidence for the uselessness of philosophy itself. Divining that the coming harvest will be a bountiful one, Thales invests what money he has in hiring the local olive-presses a year in advance, at a low fee given the potential risk. His futures punt pays off, and a year late he is able to charge “any rate which he pleased” to the desperate olive farmers. The lesson – philosophers can be as rich as they like, but “their ambition is of another sort” – perhaps goes someway to explaining the country’s benighted experiences 2,400 years later.
Despite its antiquity this celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit, if not business practise, proved brief. For much of subsequent history, finance has not been a matter for the public sphere, but subject to the whims and needs of the aristocracy and the clergy. It is through the prism of their concerns that we see it surface in the discourse.
The result is apparent in the money-lenders, spendthrifts, usurers, and misers that populate literature, poetry and painting from the Prodigal Son, to Ebenezer Scrooge. These characters, some of literature’s most memorable – from Shylock to Fagin to It’s a Wonderful Life’s Mr Potter- are punished for their sins and failings as individuals. Indeed, they are explicitly and deliberately excluded from the social order, and punished and mocked for their alien nature. Their chance of receiving grace is dependent on their religion and their race. This is ridicule at the service of the status quo. Maintained as separate and other, the unseemly agents of capital are at best a necessary evil, and at worst a perverse threat to society itself.
Yet satire also played its part in paving the long, slow path to liberalisation. Punch and the other great satirical organs of the 19th century fought the corn laws and the mercantilists, alongside the great liberal reformers of the age.
Modernity brought introspection and then conformity, once the great “isms” of the era had torn themselves to pieces in foreign fields. Among other luminaries, T.S. Eliot of Lloyds Bank, and Wallace Stevens of The Hartford both won Pulitzers. On the continent, Franz Kafka’s masterpieces The Metamorphosis and The Trial, have since overshadowed his earlier, well regarded work in insurance. For these individuals, their day jobs tended to be expressed thematically, as frustrations with the bureaucratic and the inert. The minutiae of balance sheets and account books does not surface consequentially in their works, although saying this, TS Eliot has not proved the last to dwell on the nature of mortality when attempting the City commute; “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many/ I had not thought death had undone so many”.
The degree to which parody and scorn can effectively hold society to account is an old question. Peter Cook quipped on founding “The Establishment” club, the launch-pad for the British political satire boom of the Sixties, that he hoped it’d be like “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to prevent the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Second World War”.
Cook is correct; the medium has its limitations. But, there is a warning in the joke for those looking to record the latest backlash to a breakdown in the prevailing economic system. Satire has a particular obligation not just to observe society, but to hold a mirror to it. Whether the Berlin Cabaret achieved success even on these terms, or provided a locus for escapism rather than resistance and criticism, is open to question:
Leave your troubles outside!
So – life is disappointing? Forget it!
We have no troubles here! Here life is beautiful…
Christopher Isherwood, foremost chronicler of the Weimar Kabarett, is guilty of “recording, not thinking” (his own words), but does identify the denial and the dissimulation of the time in Goodbye to Berlin. Sally Bowles lies in bed, lying to herself. To “everyone in Berlin” the political situation is “quite unreal”.
“Unreal” is an idea that echoes often at the crisis points of modernity, from the “Unreal City” of Elliot’s London in The Wasteland, to Jay McInerny’s “dwindling trails of images and emotions” in Bright Lights, Big City. The satirist, however, must take things a step further. It is not enough for them merely to notice that the world is obscure and perverse, nor to point to the vagaries of post-modernity – they must question. In times of great complexity, the simple answers are almost certainly wrong. Satire cannot be complicit in leaving them unchallenged.
Cash Rules Everything Around Me
It was not until the post-war consensus finally ended that finance capital was thrust into the mainstream spotlight. And it loved it. Yes there were scandals, crises, and near misses aplenty. But the real conflict at hand was cultural, as the the Mr Banks’ of the Square Mile were swept away by the Gordon Gekkos of Manhattan and Canary Wharf.
That Amis’ Guy Clinch is a banker, Thomas Wolfe’s Sherman McCoy sells bonds, or Brett Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman is in M&A, is incidental. It’s what they represented culturally rather than commercially that mattered. These are morality tales, stories of greed, excess, hubris, and hyper-stylised masculinity. Wall Street won an Oscar. Glengarry Glen Ross, won a Pulitzer. Arturo di Modica dumped a three-ton bronze statue of a Charging Bull, replete with giant testicles, in front of the New York Stock Exchange.
In Britain, 15 million people tuned in weekly to watch a rubberized puppet of the Chancellor of the Exchequer squabble with his Prime Minister on the poll tax. In World Championship Wrestling, Michael Wallstreet, a combination of Michael Douglas, Michael Malkin and a bench press, took a quantitative approach to combat, feeding his opponents’ profiles into a computer before felling them in the ring with his patented “Wall Street Crash”. In this context, the Black Monday and the S&L crisis made easy narrative sense. They were the inevitable consequences of a moral failure. A bonfire, not of a restructuring economy, but of vanity.
In sharp contrast, the end of the twentieth century and the new millennium, heralded a wave of triumphalist writers, intent on owning and appropriating the celebrity status accorded to the fictional, and defiantly financial, anti-heroes of the eighties and early nineties. The video game enthusiast could take work home, and perhaps do a better job of it, in Capitalism, Industry Giant, or The Corporate Tycoon. Reality television, and the age of the semi-fictionalised auto-biography had arrived. It was time to glory in the caricature. The subtitles tell the story; Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile; Overpaid, Oversexed and Over There; The Devil Wears Pinstripes.
Keen not be left out of the action, the City of London Corporation erected a statue of a smirking LIFFE Trader opposite Cannon Street Station.
In the face of this wall of certainty and self-confidence, satirists did what they could. In retrospect, the smirking nihilism of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, a Great Gatsby for the sarcastic age, has proven a better bellwether of the popular response to the crisis of capitalism than many of the books written after 2008.
Part of satire’s power is in its ability to puncture and to diminish; to pluck the hypocrite, the sycophant, and the narcissist from their pulpits and thrust them back among the common swirl. Yet, this strength can prove a weakness when confronted with issues that are genuinely systematic.
Faced with an occurrence as all-encompassing as the global financial crisis, in all but the most expert hands, the reductive power of satire becomes a mechanism that serves not to critique, but to diminish the magnitude of events. By making its subject inconsequential, satire becomes conciliatory, a force for stasis.
This fate befell otherwise the most successful attempt to grapple with the drama of 2007-2008, Adam McKay’s screen adaptation of Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short”. Film as a medium demands certain things – narrative structure, visualisation, brevity – that are not the natural bedfellows of a multi-layered interrogation of everything from the working of Collateralised Debt Obligations to the political pressures impacting housing policy in the nineties.
To bridge the gap, McKay reaches for the post-modern and the satiric. Margot Robbie explains mortgage backed securities from a bath tub. The camera hops from dramatizing metaphors (debt tranches as a literal Jenga set), to trying to faithfully chronicle the absurdity of real events. Necessarily, characters are required to break out the narrative and reassure the viewer which parts really happened. The result is that a genuine attempt to grapple with perhaps the most consequential event of its era is nominated for “Best Musical or Comedy” at the Golden Globes. Hollywood’s capacity for self-satire at least, remains undimmed.
Still, McKay is not entirely unsuccessful, and he does deserve credit for trying to meet his challenge head on. In general, his peers shirked this responsibility. They reached back instead to easier, simpler stories. Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese reanimated monsters from decades’ past in Wall Street Two: Money Never Sleeps, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Baz Lurhmann went further, resurrecting Jay Gatsby, this time to a soundtrack by Jay-Z. On the stage, Lucy Prebble’s Enron raked over old embers, and Carol Churchill’s 80’s play-poem Serious Money got a revival. American Psycho became a stage musical. Dickens provides the template for John Lanchester’s Capital, as to a lesser extent he does for Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December.
Not all this effort was without artistic merit, but if the global financial crisis is to be regarded as one of the great social, political and moral crucibles of the 21st century, then the cultural response can only be deemed inadequate.
The orgastic future
It has now been a decade since the GFC, and although its ructions are only beginning to be felt, the world has kept itself busy, spinning through new news cycles, and flirting with younger, more nubile disasters.
Satire has received an unexpected stimulus in the latest re-ascension of Donald J. Trump. The President’s personal, and oft expressed dislike for being lampooned is matched, only and inevitably, by his frequency as a target. The boyish sensitivity, the grease paint, and that unmistakable mosaic profile, a tile of gold atop a tile of bronze, have in their time launched a thousand parodies.
Phil Hartmann first donned the gilded wig for Saturday Night Live in 1988. The titular sociopath, narcissist and fabulist in American Psycho (1991), spends his spare time reading The Art of the Deal. Yet, thirty years later and the Donald continues to abide.
Much has been made about the fusion of political and corporate interest within the new administration, not to mention the influx of Wall Street grandees into positions of power.
Yet, Trump is an icon of triumphant consumerism, not finance capitalism. He may be enabled by financiers, but he doesn’t represent, and isn’t defined by them. That’s the whole point of the gimmick. The heads in the air elites, with their equations and MBAs are the ones that have often been left picking up the tab for his preening, mirrored towers. He has sailed on, a dealer in the tactless and the tangible, a throwback to the hucksters and hustlers of the elusive, undefinable American golden age he seeks to restore. American society would not be the first to allow for mischief, wealth, and even cruelty, in its folk heroes.
Indeed, in the decades long fracturing of the old establishment, global finance and the bulk of political and socially inspired comedians have found themselves increasingly with more in common than not, whether they like it or not.
It should always have been expected. Competition, and yes, criticism have ushered in an era of the corporate. Life amid the titans of finance is not without its Bacchic moments, but it is increasingly a world of compliance training, personal development plans, diversity sessions, and leadership seminars. Like it’s articulate detractors on print, stage, and screen, finance is metropolitan and global. In Britain, the City was a prominent voice for the “In” Campaign”. In the United States, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Dallas went heavily to Clinton.
Many comics and critics have refused to recognise this development, preferring to tilt at ancient windmills. But old jokes hurt only their tellers. For satire to serve its purpose, it too must identify and respond to change. It must run faster, reach its arms out further, if it is to hold to account a world being recast.
So, while the President will continue to attract slings and arrows, his outrageous fortune will not be concomitant with that of global capital. Instead it’s future and reputation lie with factors outside the ability of the world’s most powerful man to command. Technology and demographics march to a ceaseless beat.
The “supermarket moment” for financial services has taken long enough to arrive, but now it is the giants of digital retail on which the old guard keep a wary eye. Amazon and Google may yet wish to remain above the fiscal fray, but their customers bring with them new expectations for the conduct of commerce, centred around accessibility, transparency, and cost. The retailisation of finance may finally be making headway.
If finance does consequently become more relatable, its mechanics and mechanisms may in turn find themselves fading from the cultural limelight – off the silver screen and back in to the more neglected chapters of critical-theory textbooks. For the industry itself, and more importantly for its customers, cultural obscurity might be rather a good sign. Charles Dickens wrote frequently of the filth and squalor of Victorian London. The communal interest in public sanitation has rather decreased since, as the population’s experience of it has improved.
Regulators wielding capital ratios are already threatening to Make Banks Boring Again, and in fund management the purveyors of index funds, ETFs and Robo-advice, in general, offer rather less of the ingredients for drama than the superstar managers they are gradually replacing.
This does not necessarily mean financial figures resuming a status as symbols of middling tedium. On the other side of the aisle from the indexers, the Quants are also enjoying their time back in the sun. Theirs’ is a world filled with character, ego, competition, and impenetrable mathematics – all promising creative fuel. In Billions, those with a subscription to Showtime can already see Paul Giamatti gurning furiously at Damian Lewis’ hedge fund boss, on demand.
Reputability invites its own soft ridicule, but this is better long term than glamour, especially for an industry that claims, justly, to have a role in the infrastructure of public life. Let the rock stars be Rock Stars.
In turn, satirists are not lacking in numbers nor material. They must, however, rediscover their curiosity and raise the scale of their ambitions. This may involve unlearning some old habits.
Technology will lend a hand. For satire as a form, topicality is far more important than longevity. This is an advantage, when simplicity and snappiness can send a soundbite whispering around the web in hours, even if it is forgotten almost as quickly. We will see whether The Onion, The Daily Mash, and the amateur anarchism of the internet will be able to translate opportunity into impact.
Another path is suggested by John Oliver, the latest emigre Footlight off the Cambridge factory line. Faced with an unpromising Sunday night slot on Cable TV, he has built a cult following around long-form, irony-laced investigations of topics as unglamorous as retirement plans, debt markets, and infrastructure finance. This is the grind of satire in action. The desire or need to find what is important, then to find humour to illuminate and to challenge it.
There is another Greek parable that feels older than that of Momus. Athena springs fully formed, and fully armoured, from the forehead of her father, Zeus. The all-powerful gives birth to the divinely wise and sceptical. While remaining firmly focused on the future, perhaps we can take encouragement from precedence after all.