Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bankers, bonuses and “brains”

While in no way endorsing all their views, SOYMB blog often come across writers who make many insightful observations about capitalist society. Mike Marqusee is one such writer as these extracts from an article published in the Indian newspaper The Hindu makes clear.

"At a fringe meeting at last month’s Conservative party conference, one of the speakers began a defence of British bankers’ bonuses (£7 billion this year) by observing that “When God gave out brains, he didn’t give them all out equally, and so we have to live in an unequal society.” The speaker in question was Stuart Fraser, a multi-millionaire stockbroker and leading light in the City of London Corporation, which governs the “square mile” of the financial district as an autonomous enclave within but separate from the Greater London Authority...

...Back in June 2008, Fraser described the gathering financial storm as a “phoney crisis”. But that’s not the only reason to wonder – if we are to accept Fraser’s coarse terminology – where he was “when God gave out brains”. Can he really believe that the distribution of wealth corresponds to the distribution of intelligence? Does he think that FTSE-100 chief executives – whose average reward last year was £3.2 million – are 741 times more intelligent than people living on a state pension and 277 more intelligent that those living on the minimum wage? Does he think that the richest 45,000 people, the 0.1% of the population who control one third of the country’s liquid assets, also possess one third of its collective intelligence?

Probably not. In the end Fraser’s comment is another illustration of one of the very few constants in human history: the beneficiaries of the social hierarchy always believe they are where they are by right – whether derived from God, heredity, hard work or “brains”. They believe they are entitled to their wealth and power, and that this wealth and power reflects their own superiority. In order to sustain this illusion, to bolster their sense of entitlement, they’ll buy into any theory and disregard any fact.

Fraser, like many others who consider themselves blessed with it, treats human intelligence as a uniform commodity that is “given out” in measurable quantities. But surely it’s clear that this protean capacity has many and varied manifestations and always exists, in any individual, in partial, selective forms. The world is not divided between the “brainy” (or as the Americans say the “smart”) and the “stupid”. There is no “intelligent” person who is not capable of the gravest stupidity.

One result of thirty years of neo-liberalism is the a widespread assumption that if you’re unhappy dominating or exploiting your fellow human beings it must be because you’re stupid or incapable. Since, according to Fraser, we are unequal economically because we are unequal intellectually, it follows that the only reason for failing to make tons of money is intellectual inadequacy...

...Of all those who had a hand in creating the financial crisis, not one has suffered a meaningful fall in his living standard because of it. The same cannot be said for the far greater numbers who neither promoted nor benefited from unregulated speculative accumulation but who have paid for it with jobs, wages and now vast reductions in social support. It’s often argued that those who take the greatest “risk” deserve the greatest reward. But as we’ve seen in recent years, the rich use their wealth and political clout to ensure they do not pay for their mistakes: the burden is shifted on to the wider public.

...It seems that what’s required for success in Fraser’s world is not so much “brains” as indifference to the consequences of one’s actions for other people.

Now the financial institutions whose solvency was propped up by government threaten Britain and other countries with a downgrading of their credit ratings should they fail to implement public spending cuts and privatisations. The result of these policies, should they run their course, will be that the top 20% will acquire control of a larger portion of national wealth while the bottom 50% lose out. I’m sure there will be no shortage of “intelligent” people telling us why this is the natural order of things."

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