Posts Tagged ‘economics’

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.

Michael J. Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets might sound like an unlikely source of inspiration for a fiction writer. It’s a book about the influence of market values as they intrude into every corner of our lives, a challenge to accepted truths on the subject. There are no exotic locations or exciting events as you would get reading a book on history or mythology. And yet, having finished it this morning, I’ve found that it’s given me much to work with when writing.

Images of Money 2

 

The way we assign value

Often in books, especially those focused on action and adventure, objects and events are given much the same value by all involved. The Holy Grail is a thing of huge importance to all who encounter it because of its power. Not everyone might care about the core maguffin for the same reasons, but they value it in much the same way, and its value remains the same no matter their reasons for valuing it.

But something Sandel draws attention to is that the way we value objects changes their value. Once corporate boxes were put into football grounds they became less egalitarian places. High and low alike weren’t crammed together on the terraces, and the wealthy looked down on the masses from behind protective glass. People were attending who valued their status above the sport, and that changed the place.

The way we assign value changes our behaviour, and that can change our world.

Hidden ideologies

Sandel, like many other commentators, challenges the neutrality of certain assumptions. He argues that using market forces to assign services and goods changes those things. Modern economic assumptions aren’t the universal truths many treat them as – they are ideological assumptions.

Whether or not you agree with Sandel it gives you something interesting to ponder when creating a fictional world. What are the assumptions its inhabitants take for granted? What are the religious, social, political and economic ideas they never even mention because they are so fundamental to their lives? Taking that in new directions has potential for creating unusual fantasy and science fictional societies, like Iain M. Banks’s Culture.

The Dan Brown effect

There’s also an interesting lesson for those of us trying to work within creative industries. Sandel argues that placing a commercial value on something can squeeze out its other values in our minds. So a work of art with great merit might be far less successful than a mediocre one if the mediocre one is seen as easier route to profit and so pushed by big companies. This can warp our culture, and raises a challenge for both writers and readers in cutting through the business to put cultural value first.

Looking for the unexpected

As writers we need to be eclectic, to take lessons from all fields, to give our worlds depth. Sometimes that’s about basing a character on a real person or gaining inspiration from a painting. But sometimes it’s about reading books on economics.

So, any thoughts on this? Have any of you read books that became surprising sources of inspiration? Where have you got good ideas and new perspectives from? Leave a comment, let me know.

 

Picture by Images of Money via Flickr creative commons