Rather late in the day, this article by Aditya Chakraborrty runs a serious chance of being my favourite of 2009.
It scratches a major itch of mine, one that I utterly failed to deal with when criticizing the BBC’s attempt on Lehmans*: how artists attempt – and fail – to portray finance and explain the crisis, which they do while managing to be utterly sanctimonious and moralistic at the same time.
Faced with a catastrophe that has ruined everyone from sub-prime homeowners in San Diego to venerable Swiss bankers, nearly all the crisis literature falls back on portraits of cosy elites. Marking the first anniversary of the banking crisis this September, the BBC drama The Last Days of Lehman Brothers should have been titled Men on the Verge of a Systemic Breakdown. It can be summarised thus: alpha males squabble around a table; alpha males fail to strike a deal; Christendom goes bust. Meanwhile, Dick Fuld, boss of the soon to be ex-bank, broods in his office, less King Lear than Blofeld in a business suit. . . This is banking as a boys’ club: decisions made in boardrooms that somehow affect the rest of the world. It takes no account of the expansion of wholesale finance since the late 80s, nor of the fact that Fuld and other executives had little idea of the balance sheet explosives traded by their underlings.
The ‘heroic’ interpretation of history – that you can blame mighty events on particular people, like the stale old Kings’nQueens stories – is dreadful for explaining large systemic events. Aditya, despite being no cosy chum of capitalism, gets this:
The challenge for writers, then, is to show markets as things of monstrous scale and volatility, with workers bombarded by information and demands from the boss, clients and colleagues; more The Wire with its minor characters trapped in failing systems than the charismatic evil of Gordon Gekko.
This topic matters. The political fallout from the Crisis will be influenced by the occasional half-baked thoughts of the artists who try to represent it to the wider public – who then put pressure upon the politicians, who then try to craft laws to Fix It So It Can’t Happen. If they are told it is about a few villains being Auguste Melmotte all over again, then the wrong solutions will come forth.
Read the article, particularly you, Rowan Williams.
UPDATE: Edmund Conway of the Telegraph covered this ground in October, in a post that is fairly unforgiving of the Hare play, and calling for Economics to get its equivalent of “The Wire”. ** He writes:
The play isn’t really a play, but sits somewhere between a “story” (as one character describes it at the start) and a lecture. It is rather like having someone stand up in front of you and read you a selection of features from the financial press over the past year.
*While it is likely to take PWC half a million man hours to get through the bank’s books, the BBC are confident that the whole thing can be explained as a sort of morality tale.
**Note: not its own equivalent of Doctor Who . . .