Beware the Freds under the bed!

The attack on Fred Goodwin’s home is the result of an out-of-control anti-banker witch hunt that was cynically kickstarted by the elite.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

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Did you secretly cheer yesterday when Fred Goodwin, the disgraced British banker, had his windows smashed by alleged anti-capitalists who later issued a statement saying: ‘This is just the beginning…’?

I didn’t. Goodwin, the former head of the troubled Royal Bank of Scotland who has caused a stink by refusing to give up his £700,000-a-year pension, is not spiked’s idea of a nice guy; we’re no fan of fat cats. But the attack on his home and his Mercedes S600 is the product of a top-down, officially-sanctioned scapegoating of bankers that is fatally distracting us from getting to grips with the economic crisis, far less finding a way out of it.

The anti-banker fervour, stoked by government ministers keen to avoid blame for the recession and by respectable journalists who like nothing better than having a hate figure, has reached hysterical levels. Perhaps the most shocking thing about yesterday’s assault on Goodwin’s property was not the Baader-Meinhof style use of violence by individuals who are ‘angry’ at ‘rich people’ (1), but the fact that some of Goodwin’s neighbours reportedly said he deserved it.

His home is in the leafiest bit of leafy Edinburgh, the most cloyingly middle-class city in the UK; even there, anti-banker sentiments run riot.

The attack on Goodwin’s property, like the promised protest against the Bank of England during the G20 conference next week, was a physical manifestation of an elite-driven hysteria. In recent months bankers have been demonised, even subjected to a kind of witch hunting, by the powers-that-be. The grilling of four senior bankers by the House of Commons treasury select committee last month turned into a kind of two-minute hate, as bank bosses were given ‘a kicking’ by MPs, were forced to apologise, and were roundly denounced by reporters as ‘sociopaths’ who represented everything ‘rotten’ about greedy modern Britain (2).

Conservative leader David Cameron said it wasn’t enough to make the bankers apologise – some of them should be ‘sent to prison’ (3). A New Labour minister proposed introducing a new law specifically to take back Goodwin’s massive pension, only to backtrack later. Top journalists have become salivatingly obsessed with the bankers’ avarice. Robert Peston, the business reporter for BBC News who broke many of the stories about Goodwin’s pension, says it is ‘wholly plausible’ that ‘top bankers’ greed… has brought the economy to its knees and is causing misery to millions’ (4), as if bankers’ personal desires provoked international recession. Meanwhile, Goodwin’s face has been splashed across the front pages of the tabloids: ‘WE HUNT DOWN FRED’, declared the Sun (5).

The Sun hunted him in order to give him a readers’ petition that said, ‘Dear Fred The Shred, I am in the red so I want back my bread, surely you can get by on less instead’. Now so-called anti-capitalists have hunted his home in order to say, ‘We are angry that rich people, like him, are paying themselves a huge amount of money, and living in luxury, while ordinary people are made unemployed, destitute and homeless. This is a crime. Bank bosses should be jailed.’ That a Sun campaign should have so much in common with an ‘anti-capitalist’ act of violence should surely make some alarm bells ring.

Of course bankers bear much responsibility for the economic crisis, and it is galling that some of them were effectively rewarded for failing. But simply blaming bankers, simply hating on greedy individuals and their fat pay packets, is wilfully to ignore the larger systemic forces at work in the recession. Government ministers and officials in particular played a key role in encouraging the new systems of financial speculation as a way of generating economic growth and sustaining key areas of public life; indeed, the increasing role of finance in Western economies, from the 1980s to today, has expressed the underlying stagnation of the productive economy. Yet the role of the government and the deeper economic malaise have been largely ignored in public debate, in favour of creating a figure of evil who can be blamed for the financial and moral collapse of modern Britain: the banker.

From Whitehall to White City, from Wapping to some rundown bedsit in Wandsworth inhabited by has-been anarchists, the attacks on bankers have nothing whatever to do with honestly appraising the economic crisis or coming up with some tough solutions or big ideas for overcoming it. Instead this represents a shameless reneging of responsibility by ministers, a populist crusade against evil by respectable journalists, and an opportunistic attack on the rich by the somewhat re-energised rump of the radical left, who cravenly cling to the coat-tails of the elite campaign against ‘sociopaths’ like Goodwin.

There is something almost McCarthyite in this. Of course the scale is different, the victims are different (they’re capitalists rather than communists), and this is no ideological witch hunt but rather an opportunistic scapegoating. But in its creation of caricatured evil men who are held responsible for every wrong in British society and for the ‘misery of millions’ (6), the fingering of bankers echoes earlier attacks on small groups of wicked people. ‘Social disorder in any age breeds mystical suspicion’, said Arthur Miller, whose 1953 play The Crucible compared the Salem witch hunts of the seventeenth century to the McCarthyite anti-communist witch hunts of the time. He argued that during periods of political and social disorientation society will always seek ‘convenient scapegoats’ (7). So it is today. The end result of Brown, the BBC and other bigwigs cynically demonising bankers is physical violence in Edinburgh.

The attack on Goodwin’s home reveals much about the nature of ‘anti-capitalist’ protest today. In physically acting out the disdain for bankers that was first generated by politicians, Britain’s state broadcaster and right-wing tabloids, the stone-throwers unwittingly reveal that ‘anti-capitalist’ agitation these days is little more than an external, physical expression of capitalist society’s own self-loathing. This is not a properly radical or truly independent movement for progress; it is not about understanding contemporary capitalist society in order that we might improve it or change it. Rather it is a screech of rage legitimised by mainstream society’s own discomfort with its creaking economic system. Even worse, the anti-banker sentiment can easily translate into an attack on aspiration itself, as witnessed in many observers’ frequent slips between attacking ‘greedy’ bankers and attacking ‘greedy’ mortgage-grabbing, credit-card-zapping members of the public. With their propagandising and action against ‘the greedy’, ‘anti-capitalists’ merely make a forceful display of the elite’s own loss of faith in wealth and ambition.

We can look forward to more phoney wars between ‘capitalists’ and ‘anti-capitalists’ at next week’s protests around the G20 in London, when bankers have been advised not to wear pinstripe suits in order to avoid being attacked and ‘anti-capitalists’, that dreadlocked militant wing of the Sun, will be demanding that bank bosses be arrested and imprisoned – echoing not Karl Marx but David Cameron. There are far more important things to get angry about than a few individuals’ big bonuses, and far better ways to do something about the capitalist crisis than chasing after former bankers turned pariahs. Forget the phoney war against Goodwin – let’s have a proper war against the cynical blame-avoidance of our rulers and the low horizons of their alleged critics.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Sir Fred Goodwin attack: Bank Bosses Are Criminals group claims responsbility, Daily Telegraph, 25 March 2009

(2) Treasury Select Committee MPs don’t have a clue, London Evening Standard, 12 February 2009

(3) Cameron: ‘Send bankers to prison’, Channel 4 News, 15 December 2008

(4) Time to hug a banker?, BBC News, 17 March 2009

(5) We hunt down Fred, Sun, 28 February 2009

(6) Time to hug a banker?, BBC News, 17 March 2009

(7) The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts, Arthur Miller and Maureen Blakesley, Heinemann, 1992

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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