Blaming the bankers? Understanding mass perceptions and mass emotions

“Blame is just a lazy person’s way of making sense of chaos.” Doug Coupland

This article is not primarily about economics. It is meant to be more philosophical, but philosophical in a sense that has political and economic implications for action. As the markets plunge and economic turmoil engulfs the global economy I’ve noticed that amid the many interpretations, there are quite different attitudes to what is going on in regard to the propensity to explain or to blame. I have described these two attitudes below perhaps in an exaggerated form to bring out their differences.

Two counterposed views on “Banker bashing”

Among many people, and among the public and in the mass media there is a strong tendency to “bash bankers”. Their reckless behaviour, their greed, their gambling is seen by many as the root of the crisis. The sheer unfairness in the way that they get bailed out, while ordinary people do not, is the source of a lot of outrage – particularly when bonuses continue to be awarded while public expenditure on social welfare is cut, largely as a result of the fall-out created by the financial and then the economic crisis.

The fury on the streets of Athens for example, the can’t pay/won’t pay movements, the occupations of banks and shops to protest their operation from tax havens, also represent an upswell of mass emotion based on a burning sense of injustice. Indeed, at the time of writing this article we can see a reflection of this mass emotion on the UK streets. I dare say that the roots of this violence are complex but it cannot be an accident that this occurs at the same time as high youth unemployment and austerity, nor that it is in the holiday period. At least in part the young people involved have absorbed the relentless mass media messages that happiness lies in shopping but have then found it impossible to get a job and purchasing power to do that shopping. While the elite were away on holiday abroad, in Tuscany, in California, on their yachts in the Caribbean – they are stuck at home in the urban sink estates and the frustration boiled over.

A contrasting viewpoint – “It’s the system”

Among others, by contrast, there is an attitude that this is a system crisis and, because it is the crisis of a system it’s wrong to point the finger of blame. The crisis cannot really be understood as being caused by people acting irresponsibly and greedily – that is the way the people who manage this system have to operate. Legally, corporations have to be run totally in the interests of shareholders, the argument goes, so if companies are not making the maximum amount of money they are not doing the job they are supposed to. We have a debt based money system that requires continual growth to be stable and continual growth is not possible on a finite planet.

Particularly at the present time, with problems of peak oil and other depleting resources, the economy is hitting physical limits so it is inevitable that there will be a system crisis and this is so much bigger than the actions and greedy motivations of individuals. The personal attributes of individuals cannot account for the crisis in this way of thinking – because the very purpose of the economic system is to make as much money as possible – and, as one bank CEO put it, while the music is playing, they have to dance.

In this way of thinking, focusing on who is “to blame” might lead to unhelpful conclusions. It might lead to the idea that if those responsible only changed their ways, or were punished and replaced, then the problems could be resolved – and that is clearly not how things are. Moreover, among the people who are uncomfortable with the mass anger and who want to focus on the systemic issues there is sometimes a view that the anger is not helpful and that seeming to stoke it is playing with fire.

Playing with mass emotion in this way is seen as dangerous even within the more coherent movements of protest, the ones organised by the left wing groups, because such protests often appear to have an unreasonable and unrealistic aspiration that things can be maintained as they have been up to now. Given a future of energy descent that is not true. Meanwhile the less coherent mobilisations on the streets, the ones that have been rioting and looting are even more dangerous. The primal nature of their response has no clear link to the kinds of positive adjustments to living arrangements that will be needed in response to peak oil and energy descent. Rather the mass emotion derives from a sense of entitlement to participation in a consumer society – a society which on our perception is on its way out anyway.

Compared to the mob at least the officials and politicians are rational. It is understandable that among those or us who see the future of the system under threat and social cohesion breaking down there should be a craving for a government that will act for all of society. At least…so the hope goes….one can talk with politicians and officials who thus come to be seen as our closest natural allies in a time of turmoil – whereas playing the ‘blame game’ shifts the focus from the complexities of “what” to the simplicity of “who” and then channels fear and rage, with the risk of a loss of control in the process which has already been visible – not just as political mobilisations in Athens, but as looting in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol….

A false counterposition

I have argued two points of view here which are, I think, false counterpositions. In fact both arguments have their truth. There is a “what” dimension to this crisis and there is also a “who” dimension. You do not need to be a Marxist to agree with the truth of the statement of Karl Marx that people make their own history, but not in conditions of our own choosing. What happens in the world of economics, politics and society takes place through the actions that people decide to take – but these people act within the context of systems and their relationships. Some people act in conditions very favourable to them and some act in conditions which give them virtually no freedom at all – for example, pushing them into debt slavery.

Both need to be dealt with. To change “the system” (the “what” dimension, the conditions of our existence) we have to deal with people (the “who” dimension). We will need to deal with some people because they are the beneficiaries of the system and its entrenched defenders – and we will need to deal with other people because we will need their support and we have a chance of getting it because they are angry and distressed about the way the system is affecting them.

Of course, because one cannot work with an incoherent mob, it is important that the people who are victims of the system become well informed in how the system works and highly motivated to achieve positive change which they understand clearly. We want their passionate involvement because without the passions generated by the depth of the crisis, there will not be the energy to make the increasingly discredited old forces yield, even if we are convinced that they have lost the argument. But we do want passion to be informed with the clarity of productive purposes.

Disaster capitalism – feeding on its own destructiveness

After the collapse of Lehmann Brothers and the resulting recession it should have been clear to all who have eyes that neoliberalism had been discredited – but the system itself is still here. In fact, it is stronger than ever – because it is able to feed on its own destructive effects. Money can be made by shorting falling markets thus driving the downward process even faster. Also, in a more general sense, money can be made from social and economic chaos – for example there’s rich pickings for the security industry, for people running prisons, for insolvency administrators. Indeed, if states cannot pay up on their debts then a lot of public assets can be picked up for a song in enforced privatisations – which is the attitude of the money men to Greece and other debtor countries. So, the idea that the crisis alone, even if negatively affecting millions of people, is argument enough for change to occur is not true. Naomi Klein has a description which she calls “Disaster Capitalism” and “Disaster Capitalism” makes money and can thrive out of its own destructiveness.


None of this invalidates the more abstract argumentation about the nature of systems. What characterises complex situations is that very many interconnected elements are at play – energy supply interacts with global demand to affect energy prices and energy prices become a major influence on economic activity, the flow of money associated with oil, gas and coal affects international financial flows, international financial imbalances affect exchange rates, exchange rates affect trade, all of these affect borrowing and lending, borrowing and lending are related to the stability of state finances and structure of the financial system, including the way it copes with risk….

Note, I’m not making a theory of anything here – I’m just saying that there is an incredibly complex mass of interdependencies expressed every day in millions of transactions. So what do our human minds do when they are faced with a complex web of interconnecting elements as we struggle to get an understanding of what it going on, as we struggle to find a sense of orientation? I think the answer is that every observer of events seeks to identify key interdependencies which, to that individual observer, seem to be the most explanatory connections – and then describe the interaction of these key interdependencies in the evolving network of events.

Simple worlds, complex worlds and predictability

For example consider these two diagrams that represent this idea very abstractly.
The dots in the two diagrams are meant to represents “events” or processes which are related or connected (“caused by” and “causing”) other events – other blue dots. (By convention I am assuming that events are moving through time in this diagram from left to right.) The dark blue dot is meant to represent a significant particular event which we are focused on and which we want to “explain”. When we “explain” things, events or processes we are typically describing and quantifying the other things, events or processes to which they are connected and which influence them.

Now in a “simple world” – e.g. a small self sufficient village economy – it is much simpler to explain what is happening because the number of connections for any event is relatively small. With less complexity we tend to get greater predictability – there are a smaller number of connected events/processes to explain why any other event or process has happened and what its knock-on consequences will be. This is illustrated in the upper diagram.

In the lower diagram however there are many more interconnections and it is actually very difficult, if not impossible to explain why something happened or what its knock-on consequences will be. Complex systems tend to be more volatile and unpredictable. The complex system that we are living in is intrinsically one of surprises.

The stress of unpredictability

How unpredictable things are is very important when one considers that to cope in life, or to actually be able to manage a business or a government, one has to have a fair amount of routine and stable known effects from what one does. Indeed the thing that often drives the most powerful emotions of anxiety and fear and anger is insecurity – being outside of one’s zone of predictability or, even worse, being totally disorientated. In a deep economic crisis the practicalities of life – paying one’s mortgage, servicing one’s debts, being able to afford to put petrol in the car – become problematic and the knock-on consequences of failing to be able to do these things highly uncertain. Then it gets frightening. Thus, feeling that one does not understand what is going on, acknowledging to oneself that one has not a clue of what is happening is not something people like doing. In situations like this being told “who is to blame” not only simplifies the analysis it simplifies the apparent solution. But it is, of course, very dangerous.

Partial viewpoints on bigger pictures, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing…

So, at the moment we are living in a world of surprises. Yet our minds grasp for understanding, trying to “tie down” what is happening with “an” explanation. Inevitably what we do in these circumstances is privilege what we already know. By “privilege” I mean that we put a particular stress on particular elements and connections and we think of them as “the causes” of what has happened and as “the predictor causes” of what will happen. Thus, if we have spent several years specialising in energy economics we might tend to focus on how depletion and rising energy prices are de-stabilising the economic system and global finance. And if we have worked in a bank focusing on foreign exchange we would probably tend to focus on the competitive problems within the eurozone, on the dollar/yuan imbalances – looking at the evolution of events as being caused by our privileged variables which we will also see as causative of what happens next.

This is a variant of what is said in the Torah – we do not see things as they are – we see things as we are.

If I look across a table at a vase with flowers in it and you sit at the other side of the table also looking at the vase, we both see the same object but we might describe it very differently because there might be more red flowers on your side of the vase and more yellow on mine. The word “viewpoint” is very expressive but we often use it and forget its original meaning….

Thus it is not self evident that the narrative about the current crisis that most of us in Feasta have, will ever closely match the picture of the evolving crisis that the public gets from the mass media. It may seem self evident to us that we are witnessing a crisis at the limits to growth, that oil peak is creating the context for the debt crisis, that growth cannot continue. But that’s not how it appears on the television news or in the discussions among the “experts” that we hear on the radio or the commentators in the newspapers. They privilege other connections between events and describe the crisis in different ways. For example it is possible that the global financial system will collapse and most prevalent interpretation may privilege the tipping points in changing competitiveness within Europe while tied together by a single currency, as well as between the US, China and Europe. Other newspapers and media may stress the property and financial market bubbles and the instability of the derivatives markets. Meanwhile developments in the energy market may just be perceived as one of many things going on. The idea of “peak oil” may continue to struggle to get attention. Then as the collapse sets in the fall in the demand for oil and its price, may once again take the focus attention away from what is going on.

Hegemonic versus neglected viewpoints

It matters a great deal not only that there are different viewpoints but that some of these viewpoints are more influential than the others. For example, in today’s world the viewpoint of lenders is more influential than the viewpoint of borrowers. Lenders are concentrated and borrowers dispersed. Lenders tend to be wealthy while borrowers are poor. Lenders can buy the ownership of newpaper and media corporations, can pay lobbyists and stay in touch with the opinion formers in the mass media, while borrowers are struggling to get by each day.

Whoever’s viewpoint is the dominant one in society – whoever’s view is “hegemonic” – tends to shape the way of thinking that most people regard as sensible and obvious. The hegemonic viewpoint tends to become the “conventional wisdom” that drives policy. It is the right and proper view – it may even get a sort of mass support from people who uncritically parrot what they hear on the television as “self evidently true”. The representatives of this viewpoint can thus influence events in their own favour – until an entire society becomes unbalanced, until “the” conventional taken for granted viewpoint that we are all supposed to believe in becomes vulnerable to challenge. The hegemonic view may become challengeable when it is so grotesquely out of touch with everyone one elses sense of reality that it is finally possible to discredit it.

The creation and amplication of the hegemonic view

But working against spin is a slog. It is weary work to challenge the mainstream with rival interpretations – not because the nature of the arguments and the issues themselves, but because of the control of the means of communications (electronic and print) by the powers that be. Alternative interpretations and viewpoints can be presented in highly convincing and articulate ways – yet do not get heard. It is difficult to get much attention because that attention is all being devoted to the discourse presented as a mainstream consensus.

In this sense power in what are called ‘democratic societies’ is not typically exercised by imposition or censorship – but rather through the allocation of media resources to what the most powerful interests in society considered worthy of a public presentation. One of the first to understand and theorise how this was done was Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, who wrote the seminal work called “Propaganda”, much admired by Dr Goebells.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …”(Propaganda”)

To be counter cultural, to have an alternative viewpoint, usually involves being ignored. It is to be considered a fringe viewpoint that is not usually worthy of attention in the mainstream media. If you come under attack in the mainstream media then you must be becoming a threat – you are now worthy of consideration.

The development of the internet and other electronic communications has, to a degree, altered this picture, because it has allowed critical voices to start their own channels of communication. The new channels are not so one way as television and newspapers. They involve a greater ideas exchange within an active group dialogue. The ideas exchanged are developed further. This is not only more democratic, it is more creative and dynamic. Whereas the mass media purport to tell us how things are – and are really giving us a view of the world that reflects the view of their sponsors – the electronic media of the internet and mobile communications increasingly gives us live perspectives from many different viewpoints and then exchanges and synthesises them.

These two very different kinds of windows and communications channels on the world are colliding just at the time that the economy is melting down. A world view that takes the debt based money system, economic growth, a consumer lifestyle and ever more energy for granted is not only in crisis – it is being questioned by groups developing their ideas in the internet and developing projects on the ground in local communities.

What we are doing on websites like this are making attempts to create a new common view that will allow us to go beyond the debt economy. Just as Feasta is a melting pot of ideas, there are encouraging signs that various movements around the world are similarly acting to created places where people with different perspectives are coming together – places of dialogue for ideas outside the political mainstream. ( For example, in many countries on the European mainland “attac” has played a prominent role bringing a wide variety of perspectives together and forging joint actions.)

It would be quite wrong, of course, to picture the creation of a new system as being purely a task involving the development of new ideas that contest the mainstream consensus – even if the ideas are promoted on street mobilisations and written into political programmes. Disaster capitalism is more resilient than that. More is needed than propoganda and agitation. There are tasks that must be fulfilled that are practical, organisational and entrepreneurial. What might be called “lifeboat” community economic arrangements are going to be needed (community gardens, community supported agriculture, community energy and transport projects etc) to protect against the destructive dymanic and we are not going to get very far merely by articles and slogans.

Taking our neglected view into the mass mobilisations to inform them

This is, I believe, something that we will need to have a dialogue about with the political left. Many left wing analysts are correctly see the huge social and economic disparities. They are often quite accurate in their perception about how economic and political power structures are being used against people in the interests of the wealthy in general. They have a “point of view” which should be recognised as having some validity – but they are also often weak in their understanding of the energy, climate and ecological issues, and weak, or even frankly wrong, in their understanding of the central questions of banking and finance, state budgetary crises and what might be done about them. Moreover their frequent failure to see the importance of grass roots practical projects (community gardens, energy projects, transport schemes etc) means that their mass mobilisations are often not sufficiently rooted in, and supportive of, the positive community responses that pre-figure the organisational arrangements of a community ecological economy.

The partial truths and weaknesses of the left wing viewpoint

Don’t get me wrong here – I was a left winger myself once and I have retained from that period of my life a feeling of the importance of social justice as crucial to social sustainability. There is likely to be little social cohesion while income and wealth inequalities become ever greater. The way that the financial elite have captured the apparatus of the state and use it to bail themselves out, while everyone else is ruined, is a formula for further bitterness, anger and seething social conflict. There is no way around this. The crisis has a physical dimension, rooted in the interaction between the economy and the carrying capacity of the planet, particularly around energy. But the crisis also has a distributive dimension. If “the cake” is to shrink then the size of the slices that each person gets will become the hottest of issues. And by hot, I mean the subject of mass emotion, because that is the way in which human relationships are mediated – through our emotions, through our sense of fairness and justice. To imagine that just because we have a system crisis, explanations will suffice, distorts the way our problems are presented. We are faced with a situation that requires more than technical and instrumental responses. The idea that we can do away with the emotions, including the anger, is a delusion.

In conclusion and to sum up

I remember Colin Campbell being interviewed, for example, and saying that people had to be told about peak oil, because if they came to the petrol pumps and could not get what they wanted they would get angry….as if with knowledge comes patience, understanding and calmed emotions….

It’s not like that. Once we know why the system is in serious trouble, it certainly helps to understand what is happening – because we regain a sense of orientation. When things go wrong but one can make sense of them then that is one thing – it is much more terrifying when things go wrong and one does not understand why. At the same time, the mere fact that I know why my money is no longer available at the bank, doesn’t stop it being a frightening experience – especially if I’m underprepared. Even if I have some level of orientation to what is happening, I don’t switch off the my emotions. That’s because like everyone else I am a human being.

These emotional responses are functional – they motivate, they give us the energy and the drive to act. That’s what the word means: e – motion. But we are not all equally well informed and nor are we emotionally calibrated in the same way – and the way we act can actually be highly destructive. In the 1930s there were millions who, in a state of great anger and fear, became attracted to movements that gave simple accounts of what is happening – and which channelled mass emotion onto superficially plausible but actually very misleading explanations of what was happening. It did not help that they were led by world war veterans brutalised and traumatised by their experiences in the trenches and inclined to see the world in a very specific way by that experience.

The simple message promoted by the fascist movements of the 1930s was that they had identified a conspiracy by groups in society who became the scapegoats for everyone else. This served to channel mass hatred against those who are held to be “to blame” for the crisis – and the expropriation of these groups then provided resources for everyone else.

After the riots and the looting in the UK it frightens me that things could go this way again and in my view we should be trying to channel mass emotion against something that is real. I am not against “banker bashing” if, by that phrase, we understand it to mean legal processes to root out an epidemic of financial fraud and use it to motivate genuine and rational reform. But we do have to try to make sure that “banker bashing” is given a practical and positive expression. Above all we have to mobilise support for the projects that help ordinary people as they struggle to survive in their everyday lives – and in this way build a new ecological and fairer society. 


Featured image: Dollars funnel. Author: Leonardini. Source:

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

4 Replies to “Blaming the bankers? Understanding mass perceptions and mass emotions”

  1. Picking up on your point about the influence of the hegemonic view and the difficultly in pushing a counter view.

    In our judgement of the quality of information, we are hugely biased by two factors. How recently we heard the information and how often we heard it. If we recently heard a headline on the radio that “Oranges are bad for you” then you see a tweet on the subject and then you overhear a conversation that refers to it, that is probably enough to make the information credible.

    Would we be more effective in encouraging a counter view if we put more effort into repeating and spreading messages rather than producing more messages in the hope that some will get through?

  2. I thought that was a perfectly reasonable article. The remarks about the value of a rational counterparty in a discussion about the crisis are well-made. That conversation with local government officials could be enriched beyond normal, pessimistic expectation. Under pressure, above-average players will emerge.

    It sounds crazy to hope for salvation through a cadre of lowly local government officials. If salvation is too much to expect, I think there may be positive surprises in store as things get more serious. In other word, I think there exist responsible people out there capable of … responding!

    It is also true that the rich, who’ve pursued money – very well-paid positions or “better” – all their lives, are not sufficiently in touch to offer this kind of responsibility.

    I think the commonly shared notion that if only “they’d leave us alone, we’d sort it out” has a grain or two of truth in it. But actually, those with at least some high-level leverage do have to follow the lead that I am hoping for from ordinary, informed interaction between people and their local government civil servants.

  3. Whilst I am highly sympathetic to the overall thesis presented here, I was reminded of the fact that (relatively) recent research has shown anger to be beneficial to decision making, in that it causes the person who is angry and presented to a choice of action to focus on the key areas and analyse appropriately, whereas someone who is not angry is more inclined to take in the minutiae of detail and essentially miss the main points by giving all the evidence presented equal weight.

    To take the case of Ireland where hospitals are being shut down due to a shortfall of of €10 million and yet €4.2 billion is being spent annually servicing the debt of Anglo Irish Bank and INBS (two institutions which are effectively extinct) what other rationale response is there but to be angry? What argument can possibly justify this? I would say (hesitantly and without wanting to condone violence) that one of the problems here is that people simply aren’t angry enough.

  4. Excellent, thought provoking article. It has made me realise I need to be more aware of my own world view and how it influences my understanding of the current crisis.

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