Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The New Radical Establishment

What the Left have always said about white-collar crime is now woven into the fabric of the establishment, hopefully this time for good

In a statement that buttresses so-called Tory “modernisation,” David Cameron recently called for the ‘day of reckoning’ against bankers who triggered the economic crisis, saying that the nation’s modest earners – “nurses and cleaners and [sic] teachers” – should not have to fund the “multi-billion pound taxpayer bail-out of the banks” adding "[t]here cannot be one law for the rich and another for everyone else."

Cameron had pledged support for a similar appropriation used by the Americans for those caught cheating the system – a prison sentence of up to 24 years in jail. “Justice” as Cameron was quoted as saying by the Evening Standard “is only effective when it is seen to be done — for the thug locked up for mugging people on the streets to the highest executive in the biggest firm who's been swindling the books.”

With its stylistic similarities to Woody Guthrie’s song Pretty Boy Floyd (“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men; some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen”) what Cameron’s message maintains is that the notion of ‘white-collar crime’ and economic determinism is now fully woven into the establishment after spending many years way out on the fringes.

What I mean by economic determinism is simply that the underpinnings of a working economy effects society as a whole. In this sense, it will not be unheard of, for example, that the economic crisis ‘see [a] rise in crime rates’. This might seem an obvious statement, but it does have its critics (and these critics would have traditionally found support from within the ranks of the Tory party). That the economy might be a factor towards the crime rate finds its critics waxing lyrical about genetic factors in crime development, crime occurring as a result of single parents or broken families, or even, in the spirit of Durkheim’s functionalist view of deviance, that crime is inevitable and even fairly beneficial for a society in small doses.

One other factor that obviously needs to be writ large in the assessment of crime is the neglected likeness of a “thug,” as Cameron describes, to a criminal banker. The obvious difference between the two criminals is that one performs a fairly evident crime, one in which has fairly accurate report figures. We see this type of criminality every night on the news, we know what it looks like and know the effects it has on society. Whereas on the other hand, a white-collar criminal is well concealed by the cover of an economy that, when at its best, fluctuates between high and low days.

Early in 2008, philosopher Slavoj Žižek published a book entitled Violence: Six Sideways Reflections in which he aims to describe the differences between the violence we see on the news in the form of thuggery and the violence incurred by the workings of the rogue bankers tweaking the economy. The difference, for Žižek, is the difference between “subjective” and “objective” violence. That is to say, “subjective” violence is the perceptibly obvious violence seen on the streets in the form of “crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict” whereas “objective” violence is the unseen form of violence that takes the form of either the “symbolic” (bound in language and its forms), or the “systemic” (the catastrophic consequences of our economy when it is functioning as normal). The very notion that this objective violence is unseen sustains the level with which we perceive something as subjectively violent.

Žižek readily points to the likes of Bill Gates and George Soros as figureheads of a new type of business ethic that implicitly incorporates objective violence. They create a philanthropic standard for themselves at which they desire to be perceived, when in fact the more appropriate standard to which one should perceive them is at the concealed level of their function in the economy, an economy that determines the fate of individuals and whole nations. For instance when their philanthropy is contrasted to a street robber it might seem obvious who the violent criminal is, but when we start to analyse that which may not be readily perceptible – objective violence - , we start to understand their violence at another level, which the philanthropy has been used to camouflage.

Incidentally, we should extend this level of objective violence to the way in which George Bush has dealt with the Iraqi journalist, Muntadhar al-Zeidi, who threw a shoe at him last week, by which I mean, although neither him nor Nouri al-Maliki have sought charges, Bush has not come out in protest against Judge Dhia al-Kinani who said he does not have the legal option to drop the case, nor has he criticised the handling of al-Zeidi who was beaten and tortured into apologising for the incident. The level at which Bush desires to be perceived is one of him not holding a grudge, and not callously calling for viscious beatings on the journalist (he told ABC’s Martha Raddatz that he actually thought the shoe-throwing incident was “amusing” and that it was “a sign of a free society.”). But that is simply because the cruel punishment was always going to work in the way Bush wanted it to, he needn’t call for al-Zeidi’s imprisonment and torture, it will happen regardless, and Bush’s lack of motivation behind curbing Iraqi brutality only demonstrates that he embraces it. Surely his excuse will not be that he did not feel obliged to interfere in Iraq’s political and judicial system? Is this same mode of public image not true, also, of Tony Blair’s outgoing messages on the Iraq war, where despite the speculation that he was firm and convicted about sending troops in to overthrow Saddam and to find the Weapon’s of Mass Destruction, his appearances on television depict him as someone who battled with his own morals, and that whether history proves him wrong, “Hand on [his] heart, [he] did what [he] thought was right.”

Žižek, as a commentator, is obviously quite radical, but his views on the level of violence are now being employed by the least likely members of the British establishment. David Cameron even called for a “massive state intervention” into curbing white-collar criminality and what he called Labour’s “inaction”. This doesn’t marry rebellious anti-capitalism to the Conservative Party, but rather to show that the economic crisis has aroused – on the left and the right – what commentators on the left have been saying all along, that crime levels are bound in a pool of cause and effect and maintained by the current economic system.

Further, and this brings us full circle on the specifics of what Cameron said when he referenced thugs, white-collar criminality is usually concealed by the level of criminality addressed on the news, and often interpreted as moderate in comparison, certainly nothing to concern benign politicians about. But this is all set to change in the run of British parliamentary politics, and hopefully for good because opinion on the contrary to it is an inestimable error.

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