Don’t blame the bankers!

by Daniel Hartley

For months now we have been inundated by articles and opinion pieces which condemn greedy bankers. Even such Establishment stalwarts as The Times, The Telegraph, and The Financial Times have been forced to concede that the Old Boys may have gone too far this time. Not a day goes by when someone somewhere isn’t calling for a banker’s head to roll (usually in The Guardian).

Now, on the surface, this seems sensible. Those in charge of a bloated financial system fuelled by high-risk short-term profit, rather than low-risk long-term investment, have indeed been greedy and have indeed done wrong. I don’t think anyone can doubt the validity of this moral argument.

The problem is that the capitalist system is neither moral nor immoral: it is amoral. To condemn a greedy banker is to assume that the nature of the capitalist system is a subjective lust for profit. But this is precisely what it is not. As Marx reminds us time and again,[1] the objective basis of capitalism is the circulation ‘M-C-M’ (money-commodities-money), which is the expansion of value. Now, on the one hand, we can imagine what we might call a ‘needs-based economy’ (C-M-C) in which the aim would be to produce and sell certain commodities (C-M) so as to buy other commodities (C) which meet particular needs – in other words, the simple circulation of commodities would be unrelated to circulation itself, but would rather attempt to satisfy wants. On the other hand, there is our capitalist economy (M-C-M), in which the circulation of money as capital is an end in itself, and it is only within this ceaseless movement that the expansion of value can be achieved. The former could be described as ‘selling in order to buy’; the latter – ours – as ‘buying in order to sell’, and thereby to expand value.

Marx’s gloss on this is ingenious (though I’m no doubt travestying the true complexity of his argument by greatly simplifying it). The capitalist (read ‘banker’) acts of his own will and volition to make more and more profit in the abstract; he is subjectively greedy. But the truth of his acts lies at the objective level of capital: his greed is merely the subjective obverse of the expansion of value, which is the objective basis of the circulation M-C-M. On one level, a banker is indeed being voluntarily greedy, but what he is really doing is acting as a wilful, conscious automaton of the circulation of capital.

If people are serious about overcoming such financial crises, it is not only the moral vices of bankers which must be transformed: it is the nature of the entire economic system on which our society is founded. There is a name for such a transformation, and workers for hundreds of years have called it ‘revolution’.


[1] For this article I’ve drawn on the following: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch04.htm and http://www.marxists.org/archive/dunayevskaya/works/1979/outline-capital/ch04.htm Before economists start writing angry replies, I may as well admit my almost absolute ignorance of economics. In my defence, this part of the argument seems fairly obvious.