The Puzzle of Money: getting the economic story right
By Lee Salter.
Four years ago Michael Chanan and I embarked upon an ambitious project to tell the story of the Corporation of the City of London in our documentary film, Secret City. In the midst of the economic crisis, with the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in the UK demonstrating its commitment to “solving” the financial crisis by targeting the poor and vulnerable, it seemed to us that uncovering the role of the Corporation in the crisis was an urgent task.
It is almost in the nature of the story that Secret City could not be made with the backing of a production house or even – we are both academics – with academic funding. So we undertook a no-budget production process intended to ensure we had the freedom to tell the story we needed to tell in the way it needed to be told, eschewing the conventions of, say, BBC documentaries and even the formulae of Dogwoof. Money, or the lack of it, played a key role in ensuring this independence, and in the end, when it was completed, we got a small academic grant to cover archive rights and dissemination.
Money, as we know, is a form of power, and the ability to control money flows affords enormous influence over both the form and content of representations. There are almost no books written about the Corporation – with the notable exception of Nicolas Shaxton’s Treasure Islands (2011). Even Peter Ackroyd’s acclaimed biography of London spares only a few words for the Corporation. Indeed among politicians, financial journalists and in the minds of the public more generally the Corporation hardly figures.
However, the story told in Secret City has been seen by at least 70,000 people, finally shining a light on that dark corner. It has been screened abroad, in Europe and Latin America, won an award or two, and fed into the social movements opposing the dominion of unbridled capitalism.
Of course the crisis continues. We can see with the situation in Greece how political authorities are hell bent on preventing any sort of alternative to austerity gaining traction in the popular imagination. It’s a sobering thought to remember back to 2008 when even the corporate media were forced to admit that we were facing a crisis of international finance, the first glimpses of which were seen in the US sub-prime mortgage sector.
The recent election in the UK makes it ever more urgent to challenge the big lie promulgated by a compliant media, that the crash was caused by government overspending, which therefore has to be cut back. But the deficit wasn’t the problem, it was the solution, incurred to bail out banks too big to fail when the financial bubble burst. The punishment of austerity meted out on the poor and vulnerable is as economically illiterate as it is immoral. It is what Naomi Klein called the Shock Doctrine, wherein any given crisis is used as an opportunity for speculators and investors to impose political transformations in the interests of global capital.
And so we find ourselves in a situation in which the same economic interests that fund political parties are the same that own the media, and the same that dominate national and international financial institutions. It is therefore unsurprising that the vast majority of the corporate media cannot bring itself to admit the real causes of the crisis, therefore completely misdiagnose the problem and fail to comprehend any solutions. As veteran Tory Cecil Parkinson said of the crisis, “it’s like the capitalists seem determined to destroy capitalism […] and the politicians have to defend them”.
In the meantime it is, as always, the ordinary people who suffer. Since 2005 the poorest have seen their “wealth” decline by 57%, while the richest 20% have seen theirs increase by 64%. Moreover, whilst no serious discussion of the crisis can deny the role of financial deregulation in causing it, proposals for regulation have fallen on deaf ears.
The negotiations over the effects of the crisis in Greece have provided an opportunity to shine a light on the murky world of finance. But yet again, with some rare exceptions such as Channel 4’s Paul Mason, discussion revolves around myth and cliché. It’s not really in the interests of the corporate media to tell a different story. We hear much about how “the Greeks” have irresponsibly borrowed money from banks to fund their lazy lifestyles, almost nothing of how Greek oligarchs worked with financiers and banks (like Goldman Sachs) to destroy the Greek economy.
The corporate media is of course full of paradoxes and contradictions. We have heard much about how “we are all in it together,” and how “we” must tighten our belts for the good of all, as if the economy was like household budgeting. We hear less about how household debt is regularly written off by debt collection agencies. We certainly hear little about how the Greek government has undertaken a debt audit, finding that the debt built up by “the Greeks” is in fact illegitimate. We hear almost nothing about the principle of “odious debt,” a legal principle that allows for illegitimate debt to be written off.
Yet in order to do justice to democracy, in order to ensure people are aware of the whole range of policy options available to us, these ideas must be communicated. To this end we have now embarked upon the follow up Secret City, entitled Money Puzzles. This new project investigates what money is, how it works, what relation it has to debt, and how financialisation replaces human relations with monetary power.
Yet we are faced with our own paradox: how to make a film about money and debt with no money and without getting into debt. We cannot turn to major funders, lest we lose our independence and the ability to tell the story we need to tell in the way it needs to be told. So we now turn to crowdfunding, appealing to campaigners, activists, workers and all those with an interest in challenging the narrative of the billionaires and banks.
It is through this model that we will tell a more adequate story of money and debt, from beyond the restrictive and ultimately incorrect purview of classical economics. It is through this model that we will tell a more adequate story of the impact of austerity politics on the lives of ordinary people. It is through this model that we will explain how the economic crisis may provide for a new economics that puts human beings before capital and through which we may generate a society underpinned by positive money that just might help us avoid the victory of death.
Lee Salter is a Lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Sussex, and a film-maker. He wrote and co-produced Secret City with Michael Chanan and worker to help found the Bristol Radical Film Festival. He is the director of The Fourth Estate.