Bankers on trial – why and how?

March 16, 2009

The old adage about those who own banks being worse criminals than bank robbers is one that has been increasingly voiced, either in jest or in seriousness, by respectable capitalist apologists over the last year or so.  There certainly seems to be some fervour, not just among the left but also establishment commentators, for the indictment of the former masters of the universe, whose actions have made this crisis much more severe than it otherwise might have been without their clever ruses.

Why are these voices calling for these parasites to be held to account?  Mainly to restore confidence in their sick and rotten system by identifying the crisis publicly with the craven greed of a smattering of reviled and discredited figures.  While more honest capitalist commentators have admitted faults in the system, and identified Marx as someone with important and relevant ideas, the general propaganda effort has been to shine the light towards spivs of the calibre of Madoff and Stanford, the better to cast darkness on the workings of the capitalist system which brought about this mess.  The message they want to avoid anyone getting is that the economic crisis is not as a result of the capitalist system failing or misfiring, but working precisely as it is always has.

The failure is not one of regulation, in not sufficiently reining in the excesses of particularly greedy individuals, or even in the type of capitalism – free market Washington Consensus rather than a post-war upswing style ‘social capitalism’.  To see things that way is to put the oak before the acorn.  The (legal and illegal) actions of the bankers (which I use as a catch-all term for general financial services ne’er do well) were shaped by the material economic circumstances, that is super profits generated as a result of a restructuring of capitalism that began 30 odd years ago, itself generated by the end of the post-war upswing which was only ever a temporary aberration brought about by remarkable circumstances.  The logic of the system is to re-invest the super profits in the most profitable way – this turned out to be credit and the complex repackaging of debt.

Capitalist apologists would like to see the criminal bankers on trial to demonstrate three things.  One, that this was a crisis made by flawed individuals and not a flawed system.  Two, to allow anger and vengeance to be focussed and dissipated on these individuals.  Three, to purify the system and return to business as usual by demonstrating that it can rid itself of diseased elements and return to function in the way they claim it to function, all using bourgeois laws and regulations.

Many on the left would like to see these bankers on trial also, for reasons more to do with justice, or its closely related cousin, revenge.  The last 25-30 years have seen a regression in the workers movement and the triumphalism of capitalists and their cheerleaders.  To see some of these sent down does warm the cockles, and is just.  It isn’t very effective though in achieving our stated aims.  It won’t keep a family in the home with a mortgage they can’t afford to pay, it won’t make sure the capitalists pay for the crisis rather than workers, and it won’t guarantee that this won’t happen again.  Only an end to the capitalist system will ensure that.

Should we just leave the bankers alone then?  Under capitalism it does actually seem that maintaining a focus on bankers is counterproductive.  This does not mean that they should escape justice, merely that the justice will have to wait until an international workers authority presides over it, purely for the reason of justice.  This justice is necessary not only in itself, but to catalogue the crimes of the capitalist system and the individual actors within it.  The justice will not entail trying those merely guilty of bourgeois crimes, but will entail trial under offences created by the new society which will necessarily be retrospective in nature.  To be bound by the laws of the previous class society would be to continue its oppression.  There is a good precedent for this in the trial of Charles Stuart, who was tried for the novel offence of ‘tyranny’ alongside the more straightforward ‘treason’ and ‘murder’.  Punishment would not be in the usual fruitless imprisonment, but in active restitution for the victims of the ‘economic mischief and recklessness’ they were joint authors of.