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The Play of the Banker: Ten Years After Lehman's Downfall

4 minutes to read
Column
Daan Rutten
20/09/2018

Will bankers cause another financial crisis? Without a doubt, Daan Rutten predicts, when we try to turn them into ‘beautiful souls’. Banking is a game, and therefore a banker must be a player.

The banker as player

The banker or trader depicted as an immoral player is a popular figure in our cultural memory. Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko – ‘Greed is good’ – is the archetypical character taking pleasure in playing the game and gaming the system’. He phrased it explicitly like this: ‘It’s not about the money. It’s about the game.’

Notorious are also Don DeLillo’s protagonists, Eric Packer in Cosmopolis and Lyle in Players, icy manipulators who think they can manipulate the real world through financial formulas, like a theatremaker pulling the strings to stage reality:

“Lyle sometimes carried yellow teleprinter slips with him for days. He saw in the numbers and stock symbols an artful reduction of the external world to printed output, the machine’s coded model of exactitude.”  

Perhaps we could have found some comfort in the thought that players such as Gordon, Eric and Lyle only exist in works of fiction, but unfortunately: this is not the case 

For Lyle, finance is all about the ‘appeal of mazes and intricate techniques’. Getting to know ‘the nature of the game’ is not a way to earn more and more money as a goal-in-itself. What matters is the magic money is charged with. Money resembles mana, or Plato’s mystical ‘agalma’, the sacred prize which is for the taking if you complete the Game:

“Lyle thought of his money not as a medium of exchange but as something to be consigned to data storage, traceable only through magnetic flashes. Money was spiritual indemnity against some unspecifiable future loss. It existed in purest form in his mind, my money, a reinforcing source of meditation.”

Perhaps we could have found some comfort in the thought that players such as Gordon, Eric and Lyle only exist in works of fiction, but unfortunately: this is not the case. One only has to read Joris Luyendijk’s journalistic anthropology of the City (Swimming with the Sharks. My Journey into the World of the Bankers, 2015) to see how attractive the metaphor of gameplay is for professional bankers when they are asked to describe what exactly they are doing in the towers shaping the skyline of London.  

 

The game is real 

It cannot be seen as a coincidence that the group of five most important law firms supporting the City is also known as the ‘Magic Circle’ – exactly the same term Johan Huizinga used in his Homo Ludens (1938) to define the quasi-autonomy of the game: the moment you start playing, you enter a reality of ‘as-if’, with different rules than outside of the game.

My work is like a game or a puzzle’, many employees of the banking sector told Luyendijk. The bonuses as such, a trader said, are not even that important, at least not as a means of exchange which you can use to buy a yacht or a second or third house. First of all they have a symbolic meaning in the game. It is foremost ‘theatrical’, a ‘ritual’ to express power relations within the game called banking. And a specific species of bankers, the one who comes closest to ‘homo gordongekkoi’, talks about economy as a ‘league’, or a ‘tournament’. ‘Work hard, play hard’, is the adage of the banker labeled by Luyendijk as ‘Master of the Universe’.

A specific species of bankers, the one who comes closest to ‘homo gordongekkoi’, talks about economy as a ‘league’, or a ‘tournament’: ‘Work hard, play hard’ 

Especially these Masters of the Universe make it tempting to call for a more honest kind of banker. A trader who is less a player and more of a ‘civil servant’ who behaves transparently and ethically based on intrinsic motives, to speak with Jeroen Smit, a well-known Dutch commentator and journalist who wrote extensively on Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Fortis, Barclays and the downfall of ABN AMRO (De Prooi, 2008).

As sympathetic as this may sound, when we take into account the rich corpus of literature on the philosophy and sociology of play (from Friedrich von Schiller via Johan Huizinga and Menno ter Braak to Erving Goffman and Jacques Derrida, and plenty of others), one can only come to one conclusion: man is an insatiable player who only exists within the complexity of social games we call society. And if every part of society can be thought of as a game, this also has to be true for the playing field of banking and finance.

The players outside the game

Is this wrong? Not necessarily. A game creates order, installs rules, an equal playing field for the actors and positions for referees. One lesson some philosophers of play will tell you, is that precisely the desire for a ‘beautiful soul’, uncorrupted by the implicit customs and rules of the game, creates Masters of the Universe, who, in the end, are not all that greedy for money and wealth, but who like to think of themselves as being ‘outside’ the game, godlike figures ‘emptied of everything but a sense of surpassing stillness’ like Eric Packer in De Lillo’s Cosmopolis, who at the same time controls the game that others have to play, while remaining untouchable himself.

These are the beautiful souls who, dixit Joris Luyendijk, ‘play Russian roulette with someone else’s head’.