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Stop this primitive search for scapegoats

Everyone from ‘extreme capitalists’ to ‘the Jews’ is being blamed for the recession. This gets us nowhere.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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A major world event such as the current economic recession always creates a demand for explanations. Unfortunately, today the demand for answers quickly gives way to an obsessive desire to avoid taking responsibility. Public figures who tend to suffer from the disease of Responsibility Aversion continually assure us that ‘it wasn’t me’, before pointing the finger of blame at someone else.

So President George W Bush blamed easy credit for his America’s difficulties. President-elect Barack Obama denounced the economic policy of the Republicans for creating the mess. And his opponent in the elections earlier this month, John McCain, attacked the regulators for creating the crisis.

In Britain, Tory leader David Cameron never tires of denouncing Labour prime minister Gordon Brown for the country’s ‘broken economy’. But Brown is not having any of it. He has rounded on the irresponsibility of the financial sector. And like most national leaders, he insists that he is helpless in the face of external market forces. ‘It’s the global economy, stupid’, he remarked. Meanwhile, in Australia, Kevin Rudd has blamed global financial forces and ‘extreme capitalism’ for landing us all in this mess.

Responsibility Aversion often leads to an even more ominous tactic: searching for scapegoats. The leaders of France, Germany and Russia claim that America is responsible for the global recession. This is also the view of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who went a step further and recycled history’s favourite scapegoat. He stated that the financial crisis was the fault of a ‘small number of acquisitive and evasive people’. Which is another way of saying that behind the crisis lurks the greedy palm of Shylock.

Jews are not the only targets of racially motivated conspiracy theories. In the US, some hold ethnic minorities responsible for the sub-prime mortgage fiasco. They claim that misguided liberal policymakers encouraged easy credit to black and Hispanic borrowers, who then ended up with a disproportionate percentage of sub-prime loans.

At a time of economic uncertainty conspiracy theorists can readily draw on the historic repertoire of anti-Jewish fantasies. Did you know that just before its collapse, Lehman Brothers transferred $400billion to three Israeli banks? Such anti-Semitic stories about nefarious Jewish financial manipulation are widely promoted on white supremacist and jihadist websites.

Mustafa al-Fiqqi, head of the Egyptian parliamentary foreign liaison committee, is convinced that the economic crisis is a ‘new kind of conspiracy’. But as he develops his argument it is evident that, far from being new, this is the same old conspiracy fantasy. ‘It would be wrong to assume that the Jewish mind is not involved and implicated in these developments’, he notes. And it’s also the same old, same old as far as Umayma al-Jahama, a lecturer at King Faisal University in Saudi Arabia, is concerned. She sees history repeating itself. As in the past, so today the instigators of the financial collapse ‘remained hidden behind the scenes’. This Saudi academic detects the malevolent influence of the Rothschild family behind the crisis today, as in the past.

The desire to discover invisible scapegoats – to argue that complex realities are the fault of some malevolent actor – is motivated by a primitive search for simplistic answers. In the Dark Ages, people’s illnesses and epidemics of plague were blamed on evil witches who were often burned at the stake. In Stalinist Russia, the phrase ‘it is no accident’ was routinely used to imply that every negative event was really an act of carefully orchestrated collusion among hostile forces.

Conspiracy theory offers an explanation of the causes and motives for otherwise inexplicable developments. It is difficult to believe or accept that the decisions made by policymakers have consequences that are very different from their original intent. Even educated politicians find it difficult to acknowledge that they lack the policy instruments with which they can predict or control the workings of economic forces.

Conspiracy theories are appealing because they provide us with a semblance of control over powerful forces that influence our lives. Even before the present financial crisis, acts of misfortune were frequently associated with intentional malevolent behaviour. Nothing happens by accident, apparently. Human malevolence is suspected to be at work behind the death of Princess Diana in a car crash, or when there is a sudden electrical blackout. Unexplained illnesses or a spillage of chemicals are frequently blamed on the self-serving irresponsible acts of politicians, public and business figures, doctors, scientists; all kinds of professionals have been held responsible for all sorts of freak occurrences.

An economic crisis tends to fuel anxiety and fear about an uncertain future. In such circumstances people naturally attempt to make sense of the powerful destructive forces that affect their lives. One of the most important ways in which an absence of meaning is experienced is the feeling that the individual is manipulated and influenced by hidden powerful forces – not just by spin doctors, subliminal advertising and the media, but also by powers that have no name.

Life is interpreted through the prism of a Hollywood blockbuster, where powerful evil figures pull all the strings. That is why we frequently attribute unexplained physical and psychological symptoms to unspecific forces caused by the food we eat, the water we drink, an extending variety of pollutants and substances transmitted by new technologies, and other invisible processes. As a result, global warming is not simply a climatic phenomenon but an all-purpose evil that can account for a bewildering variety of destructive events.

Thankfully, at present, the insidious conspiracy fantasies have only a marginal influence over the public in Western societies. Which is why curbing our addiction to the blame game is so important. Public figures have a responsibility to own up to the fact they, too, along with the greedy bankers and narrow-minded market makers, were all too happy to go along with the regime of low interest rates and the ethos of easy money. They need to acknowledge their own shortsighted take on the economic cycle. Instead of avoiding it, they should take responsibility for the many difficult decisions that will have to be made in the years ahead. Having a grown-up conversation with the public is the best antidote to preventing an epidemic of conspiratorial fantasies.

Frank Furedi’s most recent book is Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here. An edited version of this article was first published in the Australian on 4 November 2008.

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Topics Politics

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