Bankers – the new daleks?

Posted: March 14, 2014 in reading, watching
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Doctor Who is going to face a villainous banker. Of course he is. Since the financial crash bankers have become a pop culture pariah, a go to baddie that guarantees an audience reaction. It’s fair enough – the creators of our culture have a duty to address current concerns, both for the good of public discourse and for the good of their own income. But are we really handling this issue right, in science fiction, fantasy and beyond?

Doctor Who

A villain as old as pantomime

Lets face it, the banker villain isn’t a new trope. Despite the efforts of It’s A Wonderful Life, bankers have turned up as bad characters more often than good, whether they’re foreclosing on the hero’s house or corrupting the values of the young with their materialistic ways. Even Mary Poppins, that childishly bonkers work of fabulous fantasy, has banker villains and a character whose arc is about learning not to be such a banker.


If Mary Poppins thinks you’re a bad egg then you really are in trouble. But bankers have hit a new cultural low in recent years, and that raises some complicated questions.

Not all banks are made equal

The cultural slum status of bankers undoubtedly has a lot to do with the financial crisis and the mechanisms that brought it about. The increasingly complicated and dubious techniques being used by hedge fund managers have rightly drawn criticism. When men in skyline offices are profiting from mechanisms that destroy years others’ hard work then something is amiss. Some of these people were literally living off the misery of others.

This is the image of banking picked up on by Joe Abercrombie‘s Valint and Balk, the shadowy, manipulative bankers who occasional peak out from behind the scenes of his fantasy world. Even in a world where banking is far less commonplace, the bankers have managed to make themselves villains.

Just before the crisis I worked in a company that published data on investment funds. It was a spirit crushing job, our work completely divorced from the real, productive world. I didn’t stay there long, but I have to keep reminding myself that a lot of banking isn’t about those funds. There’s a wide spectrum from the micro-finance idealists bringing money to poor Indian villagers, through the helpful mechanism of high street banking, to the bloated leviathan of high stakes investment banking.

The problem is that our culture seldom reflects that variety or that nuance. The grasping investment bankers are a minority, but they dominate the way we portray modern finance, and that’s starting to undermine those portrayals. The banker as villain is becoming a cartoonish cliché, and much as I love Doctor Who I doubt it will avoid that trap.

The pantomime villainy is making the message less powerful, causing people to react against the demonisation of bankers and forget that there is a real problem here.

Money is power

It’s a cliché but it’s true – money is power. And right now that form of power is in conflict with political power. The power of finance is eroding state institutions, investment bankers taking over from the politicians. It is, in my opinion at least, a profoundly undemocratic trend. At the ballot box we all have equal power, in the market place our power depends on our wealth, whether earned, inherited, stolen, or otherwise acquired.

This is an issue that science fiction in particular is well placed to address. It’s a big feature of Richard Morgan’s excellent Market Forces. Whatever your views on this change, it’s one worth exploring, and science fiction’s capacity to look to the future is a great way to do that.

More variety please

If that exploration is to have any impact then we need a more nuanced approach to portraying bankers and finance, one that acknowledges and explores the difference between the helpful little guy and the huge corporate villain. Literature, TV, films, games – these all have the power to change views and so shape the world.

Even an episode of Doctor Who.

  1. glenatron says:

    It is also historically tricky ground. You don’t have to go very far back to hit a time when the outcome of anger at bankers resulted in ghettos, pogroms and blood libel.

    My favourite heroic banker is Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo. He’s a great character doing interesting things at an interesting juncture in history. Obviously with banks being a big part of that world there are other more sinister banks and they are constantly pitted against the Genoese and other trader city states, but banks in those novels are – just as in real life – merely part of the world. There is no evil in banking, save that which men bring with them. But maybe people interested in doing good are attracted more directly to other avenues.

    • I hadn’t even thought that much about the scapegoating element of this, or that particular historical angle, but of course you’re right – it’s not a big step from blaming a profession to blaming the people associated with it, and like any such generalisation that can lead to some dark places.

      It’s scary how many issues in modern politics and society bear close comparison with Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Mights be time to dig out my old textbooks on the rise of those far right governments, give myself a timely scare.

      • glenatron says:

        If you want a bit of a shudder I heartily recommend looking at the approach, philosophy and behaviour of the brownshirts and comparing it with the Tea Party. See also the Mussolini view of fascism as corporatism, with the functions of the state handed out to the private sector. I know the whole boiling frog thing is a bit of an urban myth, but that progressive desensitisation is something that can happen both personally and culturally, I fear.

        • I fear that you’re right. And so many people have made spurious comparisons of things they don’t like with Fascism that it’s now hard to point out when there really is a similarity.

          Favouring big business wasn’t limited to Mussolini and his corporatism of course. The Nazis also tended to favour big business in practice, as did many of the other far right governments of the period. While they combined conservatism with business interests, conservatism actually tended to lose out behind the scenes while conservatism and tradition got bigged up in public.

          On a side note, I try to avoid using ‘fascism’ as a catch-all term for these sorts of far right movements. I know it’s taken on that meaning, but Mussolini’s fascism was only one of many similar far right movements in different European countries of the time, and it’s important to be aware of their differences as well as their similarities.

  2. […] Bankers – the new daleks? […]

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