I had an argument with somebody in college yesterday. A group of my friends and I were sitting in the Graduate Common Room after dinner and we were chatting amongst ourselves when we were joined by another grad – someone who I’ve only spoken to in passing before, whose name I (still) don’t know. She engaged us in conversation as she made some tea, and after a while conversation touched on a topic that has become increasingly popular recently – banking. I took the view that banking was, and I use this word carefully, “evil”. By that, I don’t mean that bankers are cruel, heartless individuals with no moral or ethical compass – far from it. I know people who either have or intend on going into banking, and like everybody else, some of them are warm, friendly, moral people, while some of them aren’t. For me, the good vs. evil dichotomy isn’t a commentary on personal behaviour – it’s about social structure.
Let me explain. It’s a ridiculous Hollywood stereotype of morality that all evil is perpetuated by cruel, heartless, WASPish men in velvet cloaks or black fedoras. Of course, it’s nice and tidy that way. All the people you’d like to be friends with in life can’t possibly be involved in anything morally reprehensible – after all, you like them, but you dislike things like fundamentalism, genocide and poverty. The circles of the venn diagram of your moral universe are kept thoroughly seperate. But the problem is, that history (and life) tell us that good (read “nice”) people do evil things all the time. The majority of the population of Germany were complicit, to varying degrees, in the excesses of Nazism, but that doesn’t mean that Germans have some intrinsic personality flaw.
JRR Tolkein had quite a bit to say on precisely this topic. When you look at most of the “bad” characters in his fiction, they actually started off as perfectly nice people. Smeagol was a fisherman. The Ringwraiths were kings of men. Sauron was a minor deity. All of them assuredly had friends, pets, children, doting mothers and primary school teachers who loved them as dearly as anyone. But, and here’s the thing, they were caught up in affairs beyond their control. All of them were ensnared in wider, structural factors in their universe, that forced them to behave in ways that were aligned with a deeper darkness, until, eventually, that darkness consumed them. Now of course, in real life the darkness doesn’t consume people utterly. Most people, even the worst, remain “nice enough” despite their involvement in bigger, badder things – as illustrated by an incredible documentary by the BBC. In it, a young man visits his brother who has converted to an extreme version of Islam. Despite his odious views, there are several touching scenes where it is clear that, despite everything, these fundamentalist bullies are still human beings. They eat, they joke, they laugh. Even Hitler was a vegetarian.
Which brings us back to bankers. I stand by my assertion that banking is “evil”. Bankers, however, are not. The world financial system as it currently stands breeds as much want, suffering and exploitation as any evil empire. By working in a merchant bank, or indeed, by working anywhere, you are unfortunately contributing to that system. On a personal level, implication is therefore almost unavoidable. But you can, however, make sure your personal subjectivity is not complicit with that system. You can construct your subjectivity in a way that doesn’t “let you off the hook” and permit you to lead your own little life, without opposing the wider structural inequalities that situate it. You can either be Faramir or Boromir.