Saturday, February 7, 2015

Inside Job and the problem of capitalism

I saw the previews for Inside Job before it was released and was of course interested, but somehow didn’t watch it until now. The 2010 Oscar winner for Best Documentary, Inside Job is easily the best of the films about recent financial crimes and the global crisis beginning in 2008.*

It tells the story in a clear way that can be understood by most people even if they have little previous knowledge of the subject. Matt Damon is an outstanding narrator, and when a weariness creeps into his voice, it seems genuine and appropriate. Perhaps my favorite aspect is that the film includes among its subjects the academic economists who are nothing but the courtiers of the finance Caligulas.

As impressed as I am with Inside Job as a documentary and political artwork, I have the same difficulties with it as I do with most work on the history and politics of capitalism. (For what it’s worth, I think Marx often had the same difficulties.) On the one hand, to focus on the decisions and acts of individual CEOs, politicians, economists, and government officials to some extent distracts from the inherent and powerful systemic tendencies of capitalism. The claim made in the film’s trailer and underpinning its entire argument is that the 2008 meltdown was “avoidable.” If people, especially politicians and government regulators, had chosen to behave otherwise, so the narrative goes, things would have gone very differently. This is related to a presentation of the decades following World War II as an era of great stability due to tight regulation of banking. The correlate is that we can “return” to prosperous, stable era through reregulation, criminal prosecutions, and renewed government oversight and responsible corporate ethics.

But these claims are highly questionable. I remember, back in the 1990s, becoming increasingly angry as I read yet another book on the history of finance (I think it was Eric Helleiner’s States and the Reemergence of Global Finance, but it could have been any number of others) suggesting that this history was largely driven by political choices which could conceivably have gone otherwise. Even in these narratives, it was clear that the allegedly stable Cold War system was already being chipped away at in the 1950s, and that governments, whatever their political orientation and whatever direction they were otherwise inclined to take, faced overwhelming pressures to comply with the demands of finance capital.

It’s true that neoliberalism is a political movement and that its representatives – Ronald Reagan and so many others – actively and explicitly made choices and policy contributing to the process, but it’s not a coincidence that these developments matched the predictions of Marx, Lenin, and others more than a century ago based on the analysis of how capitalism works. And it’s important to recognize that the attempts to rein in capitalism to save it from itself, even after the Great Depression and during the Cold War when capitalism’s defenders were concerned with avoiding crises that would help the Communists, weren’t successful. The stability of the postwar system, itself greatly exaggerated, was short-lived and always precarious. The claim that the return of the pattern of recurrent crises, growing ever larger and contributing to expanding inequality and the increasing concentration of wealth and power, was avoidable or the result of improvident or irresponsible choices is simply not supported by the evidence of the basic structure and tendencies of capitalism or the history of the past two centuries.

The suggestion that capitalist governments will now somehow turn around and successfully reform capitalism, prosecute bankers en masse, or return the stolen wealth is naïve and untenable. Finance capital, combining absolute vice with extraordinary power, is as strong as ever and continues to push further. I’m happy in a way that I didn’t see Inside Job until now, because the events of the intervening years make the case as strongly as any argument I could have put forward then that substantive reform and accountability aren’t possible within the capitalist system.

The same is true of presentations of the political class in terms of corruption, incompetence, and failed policies. They are capitalists and their representatives. The ideas they champion are those of the ruling class. Those who criticize the system from within or attempt to institute reforms that interfere in any meaningful way with the amassing of wealth and power are summarily pushed and shut out or simply ignored. Even if some minds could be changed, others will be happy to take their place. The government agencies involved aren’t going to change their ways or bring an end to crises through lasting reforms – these wouldn’t be effective if they were implemented and, more to the point, they’re not going to be implemented.

But at the same time I’m generally frustrated by analyses of capitalism that speak in abstractions and not about people. I’m pleased that the film focused on the people most involved and their actions and attitudes. Not because I think prosecuting them will happen or have any meaningful effect or because focusing anger on them as individuals, as despicable as their actions are, will do much good; but because in many cases they continue to have an aura or respectability and responsibility that prevents people from seeing them for what they are: the grasping, callous, shameless, obsequious protectors of their class and servants of an antihuman and absurdly destructive system.

So it’s worthwhile, I think, to show someone like Glenn Hubbard in all of his bad-faith glory:

Evidently, the embarrassment to Columbia of having their professors and deans so plainly and publicly revealed in the film not just as neoliberal ideologues but neoliberal stooges well remunerated for their services by investment banks led in 2011 to some cosmetic changes in the business school’s “transparency” policy. That should take care of the problem.

* To be sure, the competition hasn’t been too stiff. Some of the documentaries about Bernie Madoff, for example, have been, well, odd, and not in a good way.

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