Money-Changers in the Temple: Evil Bankers in Literature and Film – By Tim Wenzell

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Image by Thiago Japyasso

 

“I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies” –Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to John Taylor, May 28, 1816.

“I have two enemies, the southern Army in front of me and the financial institutions in the rear. Of the two, the one in the rear is the greatest enemy.” –Abraham Lincoln, November 1864.

 

In 1946, Dr. Gustav M. Gilbert, an American psychologist fluent in German, was assigned by the U.S. Army to study the minds and motivations of the Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg tribunals. What was it that set into motion the wide-ranging extermination of Jews? Why did so many comply in this extermination? How could anyone be complicit in such terrible things and feel no remorse? The following year, Gilbert’s Nuremberg Diary was published, containing transcripts of his conversations with the German prisoners, including Rudolf Hess, Hermann Goering, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Alfred Rosenberg, and Franz von Papen, among many more. In his Epilogue, Gilbert concluded, “Most of the defendants acknowledged that there had been horrible crimes committed, but claimed that they had individually acted in good faith according to the standards of their respective positions and professions. The generals had only follow orders; the admirals had done no more than other admirals; the politicians had only worked for the Fatherland; the financiers had only attended to business” (429). And as Gilbert later concludes about Hermann Goering, “His own utterances, than and in his testimony, show his interest was primarily economic—how to get their property and how to force them out of the economic life of Europe….his guilt is unique in its enormity. The record discloses no excuses for this man” (437).

Gustav Gilbert’s character was played by Matt Craven in the 2000 film Nuremberg. In one key scene, he tells Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson (played by Alec Baldwin), “I was searching for the nature of evil and I think I’ve come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants: a genuine incapacity to feel for their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy” (Nuremberg).

Often, the causes of evil are raised when such horrific events as the Holocaust and other genocides, or events such as 9/11 or school shootings occur; how such atrocities toward humanity can be carried out on such a massive scale, what conditions are necessary in terms of cause and effect in order for these slaughters to unfold, how the acts can rise without detection, and how they can continue to go on, are all subject to scrutiny and debate. Violence, death, and murder, especially when it happens in the thousands or in the millions, is the place where the nature of evil is studied most intently.

Of course, lack of empathy (or eroded empathy) does not always reveal itself through violence and mass murder. It resides too in the more subtle and often overlooked use of deliberate deception of the masses for individual gain, namely in the world of money and finance. When the making of profit leads to a lack of empathy, when there is no concern for another’s misfortune over one’s own gain, the perpetrator falls squarely under Gilbert’s definition of evil. The incapacity by some bankers and investors to feel for their fellow man, in a place absent of empathy and filled with the possibility of profit, becomes fertile ground on which to study the nature of evil. For the profit-driven, me-first mindset, money becomes more important than people. This is the common conclusion in understanding the lack of empathy in the world of finance and the motivation toward maximizing profit and its disregard for the members of the community. This theme is abundant in literature and film, and the story is always the same: greed, emboldened by a complete lack of concern for anyone other than the perpetrator, allows the antagonist to commit monetary crimes against humanity.

It is interesting to trace the long, deep literary path of this root of all evil. In some of the earliest literary references, the abuse of money at the expense of the people came with usury—that is, the practice of making unethical or immoral monetary loans through the use of excessive or abusive interest rates. Aristotle, in Politics, Book I, Part 10, states, “The most hated sort, and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest,” and “of any modes of getting wealth, this is the most unnatural.” Aristotle’s voice had a profound impact on the society of his time and well into the Middle Ages. As Murray N. Rothbard notes in Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, “The views of Aristotle are particularly important because the entire structure of his thought had an enormous and even dominant influence on the economic and social thought of the high and late Middle Ages, which considered itself Artistotelian.”

Nevertheless, usury continued unabated. Thomas Aquinas, drawing from Aristotle’s teachings, considered usury to be contrary to nature because “it is in accordance with nature that money should increase from natural goods and not from money itself.” Aquinas emphasized usury as a sin of violence—performed openly (manifeste), and unlike the crime of fraud, which is performed by deception (occulte). As Ambrose observed, “Usury is whatever is added to the capital.” Likewise, St. Jerome held all profit unjust and considered business as “evil,” as “turning men from seeking true rest, which is God” (Durant 630). And of course Jesus Christ’s rebellion against another form of usurers, the money-changers in the temple: “Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves…my house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21: 12). The emphasis of the selling of doves–a symbol of peace and divinity and objects taken from the natural world–shows a particular lack of empathy and perhaps explains what drove Christ to His rare burst of anger, anchored by his proclamations that “love of money is the root of all evil,” “lend, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35) and that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). In Jesus’ references to the use/misuse of money throughout the New Testament, it is clear that the preoccupation with investing money and wealth for personal gain are spiritually draining on a community and its connection to God…and that money as a resource should be utilized to give away to those who are in need, so that it becomes a spiritually invigorating commodity for the community: to help the poor. As O’Callahan notes, “The practice of usury or interest strikes at the very root of Christian religion, whose life consists in charity and works of mercy” (107). Further, O’Callahan notes that Ezekiel “declares that oppression of the poor and stranger, and the execution of usury…was one of the hideous crimes that brought down the wrath of God upon the ancient Israelites…and moved him to disperse them among the nations” (106).

This vein on the dangers of money and profit in society runs throughout the Bible and in many other religious texts as well, including the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the analects of Confucius , the Talmud, and the Tao te Ching. As Durant notes in The History of Civilization, the greatest obstacle to the development of banking was the ecclesiastical doctrine of interest: Aristotle’s condemnation of interest as an unnatural breeding of money by money, Christ’s condemnation of interest, and the reaction of the church against commercialism and usury in Rome (630). “The use of all that is in the world,” said Clement of Alexandria, “ought to be common to all men. But by injustice, one man has called that his own, another that; and so has come a division among men” (Durant 630).

Aquinas’ contention that usury was a sin of violence was particularly relevant for Dante, who collected the usurers and placed them, in his Inferno, into the seventh (and lowest) circle of hell. This was an emphatic point for Dante in his composition of the Inferno: the usurers, wholly unnatural and harmful to society, will play out eternity in the third ring of the seventh circle, on a barren plain of sand ignited by flakes of fire, eternally damned to feel the pain of burning flesh. Usurers, for Dante, were sinners against nature, those who harm the natural order of industry and economy. Dante is more obvious in his disgust with the usurers than in any comment on his last circle: “From art and nature, if you will recall/the opening of Genesis, man is meant/ to earn his way and further humankind/But still the usurer takes another way: /He scorns nature and her follower, art,/Because he puts his hope in something else” (71). Dante’s “something else” is the wholly unnatural act that infects society, the self ahead of all others, money over people, profit over good; usury erodes the foundation of human civilization. Thus, the punishment of usurers at this lowest level is a just one.

For Ezra Pound, banking institutions were the major threat to European society. As Froula notes, “the creation of money out of nothing by the banks was the outrage against which Pound’s entire effort at economic reform was aimed” (“On Canto 45”). In Canto XLV, Pound weighs in on the issue of usury: “With usura hath no man a house of good stone/each block cut smooth and well- fitting/that design might cover their face” (23). Here is the anonymity of a faceless evil entity, whereby the institution “covers the face” in order that each may not see and that it may go on about its business. Later in the canto, Pound states, “no picture is made to endure nor to live with/but it is made to sell and sell quickly/with usura, sin against nature” (23). Dante sees occupations infected by the disease of the need for profit, for “with usura the line grows thick/with usura is no clear demarcation/and no man can find site for his dwelling” (23). And then in the concluding lines of the canto, “Usura slayeth the child in the womb….it hath brought palsey to bed, lyeth/between the young bride and her bridegroom/CONTRA NATURAM/They have brought whores for Eleusis/Corpses are set to banquet/at behest of usura” (24). “CONTRA NATURAM,” highlighted by Pound in capital letters, emphasizes the unnatural act imposed by banks on the people (and a burst of anger from the pen of Dante).

As Robert Casillo notes, although usury seems only an economic evil, Pound reaches the conclusion that economics is the key to a well-ordered society, and that cultural vitality depends on the proper use of money. As for misuse, as Froula contends, “Pound saw the prime offenders against this principle as private banks, which are empowered to create money, or credit, out of nothing…” And to draw the connection between violence and usury, Pound himself states, “Wars in old times were made to get slaves. The modern implement of imposing slavery is debt” (“On Canto 45”).

Pound understood that money from interest was nothing more than a symbolic designation of credit, “which by rights belongs to the people of a society, and not to private banks” (Froula). The rising power of the banks and the subsequent rising interest rates imposed on the people greatly concerned Pound in the early 20th century, as it did for John Steinbeck. In fact, the power and lack of empathy of private banks was evident in the Joads eviction from their land in The Grapes of Wrath, where, in Chapter 5, representatives of the bank come to tell the tenants they must get off the land. As Tom Fensch points out in Steinbeck’s bitter fruit, “Indeed, the Joads could not really comprehend why they were thrown off their Oklahoma farm. Even as meager as the topsoil was, it was their land—their dirt—their soil. Except it wasn’t—it belonged to the bank…” (ii).

For the banks, sharecropping would no longer be a profitable pursuit; the land was worthless, as were the men and women who farmed it. The men who arrive and represent the banks, whose empathy had been efficiently decayed, take no responsibility for what they are doing: it is the bank, a non-human entity, which is to blame. “The bank,” Steinbeck writes in Chapter 5, “is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it” (45).

When the tractor arrives to plough over homes and land, it is clear that the driver is merely an instrument for the banks, drained of a morally proper conscience, despite the fact that the tenants recognize him as the son of a neighbor. He is dressed to represent the faceless figure of the bank itself, an entity without empathy and monstrous in his appearance: “The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was part of a monster, a robot in the seat” (Steinbeck 48).

To illustrate the wholly unnatural actions of the bank, Steinbeck established a difference between what the farmers wanted to do with the land (natural) and what they were forced to do by the landowners and banks (unnatural). Then the drought struck and stretched across most of the decade, creating out of the ruined topsoil an unnatural, man-made entity with no mercy. By 1938, 80% of the Great Plains had been decimated by wind erosion, mainly because farmers on small farms didn’t properly rotate their crops to maintain the nutrients in the soil. Because most of them were deeply indebted to banks, they were forced to abuse the very soil over which they lived, abusing nature to stave off a financial collapse brought upon them by unnatural means (Ken Burns). The Dust Bowl was avoidable: by consequence, the lifeless topsoil was carried away by the wind in massive black clouds that covered thousands of miles; indeed, dust from the Great Plains covered all of the cities and towns across the Eastern seaboard and was even deposited on ships in the Atlantic Ocean. The sharecroppers and farmers who knew nature and how to properly tend the land were powerless to stop it (Ken Burns). As Steinbeck writes in Chapter 5, “The squatters nodded—they knew, God knew. If they could only rotate the crops they might pump blood back into the land. Well, it’s too late. And the owner men explained the workings and the thinking of the monster that was stronger than they were” (Steinbeck 43). As Thomas Fensch notes, “Steinbeck understood the interlocking nature of the banks and the large-scale farmers: how they could destroy the small farmer who didn’t comply with the migrant farmer policies imposed by the farmers’ associations and banks” (26). Landless and without homes, many of the farmers were forced to leave.

As in many of his other works, Steinbeck criticized the consequences of unchecked capitalism and emphasized action and change. Though The Grapes of Wrath was attacked by some critics for promoting socialism and communism with its inferences to sharing the wealth and its portrayal of the bank as monster, its influence had a positive impact on society during the Depression. Like Upton Sinclair’s political influence of The Jungle on Teddy Roosevelt, whose changes to the terrible working conditions of the meat-packing industry included the busting of the beef trusts and the rise of labor unions to protect workers, one of the most significant results of Steinbeck’s influences on American society was the creation of the New Deal by FDR in 1933. Inspired by the plight of the Joads, the first phase of Roosevelt’s New Deal provided recovery and relief from the Great Depression with programs of agricultural and business regulation, inflation, price stabilization, and public works, followed by the social security system in 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. Indeed, in both the works of Sinclair and Steinbeck, literature was the catalyst for social reform.

Despite these changes to society as a result of literary influence, however, little has changed. Banks wield their power now more than ever, and the evil banker, the banker without empathy, is still very much present in literature and film. In the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, three veterans from World War II are examined as they make the difficult transitions back into civilian life. One of the veterans, an upper-class banker named Al Stephenson (played by Frederick March) has little difficulty returning to his job; in fact, the bank president, wanting to take advantage of Stephenson’s veteran status, promotes him to Vice-President of Small Loans to administer the new GI Bill of Rights for veterans. Stephenson clearly sees the moral implications, as the profit to be made on these loans by the bank is more important than the lives of the soldiers. In one scene, a veteran tells Stephenson that he wants a loan in order to buy a farm to fight the global food shortage. Fighting world hunger, the veteran tells Stephenson “is the most important thing there is” (The Best Years of Our Lives). Filled with empathy, Stephenson approves the loan. However, when Stephenson tells the president that he gave a loan to a veteran without collateral on the basis of the young man’s integrity is in “his collateral is in his heart and his hands and his guts.” Stephenson’s decision to grant the veteran the loan stems from an intuition he developed as an Army Sergeant by reading his men in battle. However, the president warns him never to make a loan again without receiving collateral. The callousness and coldness of a money-driven, profit-driven society is brought home as Stephenson sees that he must lose his empathy to become a successful bank partner (The Best Years of Our Lives).

War and its aftermath had changed society as America moved out of the Depression and into an era of greed and excessive capitalism; a war veteran who came back to the bank after an absence of four years could clearly see the change; the bank was now driven harder by greed and unmoved by empathy. Though Stephenson is promoted upon his return home, his conscience pulls him down because of this promotion. His position at the bank and his subsequent guilt turns him into an alcoholic; this is evident when he attends a banquet for the employees of the bank. In a drunken address to his co-workers and wife, Stephenson satirizes the bank’s collateral policy with a war story, then concludes his speech with an assurance that the bank will do all it can to help veterans, and all those in need: “I love the Cornbelt Loan and Trust Company. There are some who say that the old bank is suffering from hardening of the arteries and of the heart. I refuse to listen to such radical talk. I say that our bank is alive, it’s generous, it’s human, and we’re going to have such a line of customers seeking and getting small loans that people will think we’re gambling with the depositors’ money. And we will be. We will be gambling on the future of this country” (The Best Years of Our Lives). The returning war hero re-establishes his humanity and points out the greedy underbelly of the bank, and American values are presumably restored.

American values are also questioned by the role of the bank in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, released in 1946, the same year as The Best Years of Our Lives. In Capra’s film, Henry F. Potter uses his authority as banker, with his wealth and lack of empathy, to run Bedford Falls; this power ultimately drives George Bailey to the point of desperation and financial ruin and to the economic collapse of the town. Bailey, a banker like Al Stephenson who is still holding on to his empathy, sees this destruction through the ascendance of Potter, as he pleads to the townspeople, “If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan, there’ll never be another decent house built in this town. He’s already got charge of the bank. He’s got the bus line. He got the department stores. And now he’s after us. Why? Well, it’s very simple. Because we’re cutting in on his business, that’s why. And because he wants to keep you living in his slums and paying the kind of rent he decides” (It’s a Wonderful Life). Potter is the prototypical capitalist, consuming all around him in a rush devoid of empathy. He is the monster, embodied here in this film, of which Steinbeck warns.

As David Mamet observes in his article “It’s a Conservative Life,” the character of the good banker is seen much more often in fiction rather than in reality. “George Bailey….is a banker. Like Scrooge, he handles money. Unlike Scrooge, he takes none for himself. He is a banker-altruist, dedicated to the community. Now, no doubt, and thank God, such people exist. But why do we discover them in myth?” Later in the article, Mamet weighs in on Bailey’s full-blown empathy as this “banker-altruist,” a man of noble conscience who approves loans based on the content of a person’s character over any financial instability. George Bailey is a man filled with integrity, but as Mamet notes, “This is, of course, the fantasy of any who have ever applied for a loan. But who has encountered it other than in the movies?”

The American Film Institute, in its listing of the top ten fantasy films, placed It’s a Wonderful Life at number 3, presumably because of the presence of Clarence the angel and George Bailey’s subsequent ability to foresee a life he hasn’t lived and what the world would become without him. But the real fantasy, in retrospect, is Bedford Falls itself, that idealistic town that is not run by Potter but by its citizens, where integrity and honesty are driving forces regulating their small and efficient economy. In the 21st century, Bedford Falls does not exist. That unlived life George Bailey foresaw in his suspended state, that fantasy that forms the core narrative of the film, has become the reality of Pottersville. In short, the reality in which we live is the reality in which George Bailey has died.

For Potter, the bottom line is paramount, religious as a point of worship. Similarly, George Banks, the empathy-challenged banker father in Mary Poppins, sees the institution of the bank in religious terms; when entering the bank, his church, he solemnly whispers to his children, “Remember that the bank is a quiet and decorous place, and we must be on our best behavior” (Mary Poppins). George Banks opens the film with song, proclaiming his ordered world-view and his controlling nature, made possible only by his lack of empathy; thus he becomes a distant father to his children, and in his conservative mindset he disapproves of his wife’s involvement in the “Votes for Women” movement. But his structured life ironically turns against him, as a run on his bank leads to his downfall. The bank’s senior officers blame him for the bank’s greatest money loss “since we financed that tea shipment to the American Colonies that got ruined by those rebels” (Mary Poppins). Mr. Banks is promptly fired, and to make things more humiliating for hissacrilege against the great and powerful institution of the bank, his bowler hat is torn and his umbrella is pulled inside out. Out of the cold, remorseless prison of the bank, Banks escapes from a world where empathy has been summarily denied. His sense of humanity is restored, and he is allowed finally to develop a closer relationship with his family. As Charlotte Cameron notes, “the cold and absent George Banks has to be ruined by a run on his bank before he can become a real father” (Cameron).

In Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), Gordon Gekko’s mantra “Greed is good” illustrates that a concern for money had clearly overtaken a concern for people during the profit-driven eighties, where money replaced God at the altar of worship. As Gekko tells the stockholders of Teldar Paper, “Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind” (Wall Street). The character, ordered and without empathy, is a representation of the investment bankers growing power in the profit-driven, at- all-costs 1980’s. According to Edward R. Pressman, producer of the film, “Originally, there was no one individual who Gekko was modeled on… but Gekko was partly Milken, who was the ‘Junk Bond King’ of the 1980s, and indicted on 98 counts of racketeering and fraud in 1989” (Goodley).

Gekko is driven by greed; like Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, he is structured and disciplined in his desire and approach for more, as his lust for money takes him into the worlds of corporate raiding and insider trading. Like Banks, he is doomed to fail, as his protégé, Bud Fox, is arrested for his role in their illegal trades; he agrees to turn state’s evidence against Gekko in return for a lighter sentence. Gekko is convicted of insider trading and multiple securities violations, and all ends well for Bud, who ruminates on his bad decisions and the lessons that unchecked capitalism has taught him (Wall Street).

Michael Douglas, in an interview, related his shock at the public response to his character of Gordon Gekko in the film: “We just never anticipated that all these people in business school would be ranting and raving that this was the person they wanted to be” (Goodley). Perhaps out of a sense of guilt that he had some culpability in creating Wall Street monsters through his portrayal of Gekko, Douglas stated in a later interview in 2007 (with the release of the sequel Money Never Sleeps)“. A lot of those business school students are the leaders of these investment banks, hedge funds now where we’re seeing all this incredible corruption” (Gormon).

The film Boiler Room (2000) follows a team of investment bankers, a generation after Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, who transform from business school students into fraudulent men devoid of empathy. They recite the Gordon Gekko mantra verbatim, driven without conscience by love of money through the hard sell and high commission. Jim Young, imploring his protégés in the same guise as Gekko, proclaims of the hard sell, “There is no such thing as a no-sell call. A sell is made on every call you make. Either you sell the client some stock, or he sells you on a reason he can’t. Either way, a sell is made. The only question is: who’s gonna close? You or him?! Now be relentless” (Boiler Room), and then, in a show of arrogance, “anybody who tells you money is the root of all evil doesn’t have any” (Boiler Room).

The central character of Boiler Room, an investment banker by the name of Seth Davis, is acutely aware of his lack of empathy and greed, driven into him effectively by Jim’s persuasive speech–but not so permanent that he is able to retain a semblance of his humanity. Even though Seth is well on his way to becoming a millionaire and fulfilling his life-long dream of being filthy rich and earning the respect of his father, he sees the corruption and lack of empathy all around him; he is able to break free when he is able to empathize, when he realizes he is cheating hard-working families out of their life’s savings just to earn himself a few thousand dollars in commissions. Says Seth in retrospect, “I had a very strong work ethic. The problem was my ethics in work” (Boiler Room). The story ends well for Seth; like George Banks and Bud Fox, he finds his humanity, and although Seth is arrested by the FBI for the violation of SEC regulations, and he is taken into custody by the FBI along with his father, who was arrested for attempting to conceal his son, he is able to walk free after he gathers evidence to implicate J.T. Martin, the investment firm overrun with empathy-devoid bankers (Boiler Room). The firm is brought down, and all is once again right with the world.

Perhaps the most notable evil banker is the one who melds the evil world of finance with the evil world of violence, where the rapists, murderers, and usurers of Dante’s seventh circle meld into one amorphous form: Patrick Bateman in Bret Ellis’s American Psycho. Set in the late 1980’s in the early years of Reagan’s de-regulation of the banks, Ellis’s novel opens with a clear reference to Dante’s hell and the seventh circle of usurers, as the novel begins, in capital letters (like Pound’s CONTRA NATURAM), “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE,” and then, “is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen in the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street” (3). Like Steinbeck’s monster, Patrick Bateman is not human; he sees himself existing in an amorphous state siphoned of empathy: “There is an idea of Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are comparable: I am simply not there” (Ellis 376). He is the faceless monster, or the face covered and riding the iron seat of Steinbeck’s proverbial tractor. Ellis wants to make this monster surreal, though, to illustrate the horrific crimes perpetrated from the lair of Wall Street; he provides the shock value by linking Wall Street debauchery to horrific physical violence, an allegory of the terror that the banking institution inflicts on the families, on the communities, that Seth Davis of Boiler Room chose to avoid. Instead, Patrick Bateman is an investment banker/serial killer of the most graphically violent kind: people are beheaded, gutted, chopped up, drilled into, nailed to the floor, burned, maced, and dissected alive. Through all of this, from a first-person perspective, Bateman delivers his utter lack of empathy to an audience unaware of his presence: “I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that my normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning” (282).

Bateman revels in the materialism and shallowness all around him; the novel is saturated with references to brand names and material culture, in a decade where the saying became “whoever dies with the most toys wins.” The novel’s use of present tense affirms the inherent selfishness of living for the present, without any concern for the future, and a shedding of value systems and ethics rooted in an understanding of a past and for a stable future that has vanished. Ellis noted that his creation of American Psycho was really an indictment of this materialist culture that went into overdrive in the 1980’s. “I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself” (Baker). So more and more and more; there is never enough as more and more profit is demanded. And to return to Steinbeck on this consuming greed, he writes in Chapter 5 in The Grapes of Wrath, “The bank—the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait, it’ll die..when the monster stops growing, it’ll die. It can’t stay one size” (Steinbeck 44).

So the horrific effects of bank- as-monster continue into the 21st century. But what is to be done about the limitless greed and the role of banks? How to stop the ramped-up capitalism that led to the financial collapse of 2008? The documentary Inside Job (2010) was the first film to expose the shocking truth behind the economic crisis of 2008, a global meltdown on the order of 20 trillion dollars, causing millions to lose their jobs and homes. The documentary includes interviews with major financial insiders and chronicles the rise of a rogue industry, unveiling the corrosive relationships on Wall Street that have corrupted politics, regulation, and academia. In the 1980’s the financial industry exploded and investment banks went public, bringing them huge amounts of investor money; people started getting rich. The Reagan administration, supported by economists and financial lobbyists, allowed for deregulation of savings and loans in 1982 and risky investments with depositor’s money; by the end of the decade, hundreds of savings and loan companies had failed. One of the safeguards following the Depression was the formation of the Glass-Steagle Act, which prevented banks from using consumer deposits to invest in risky business activities; in 1999, Congress passed the Gramm- Leach-Bliley Act, which effectively overturned Glass-Steagle and paved the way for future mergers. Perhaps the biggest indictment of Steinbeck’s proclamation that the bank “can’t stay one size,” however, arrived with subprime loans, which led to a massive increase in predatory lending. Borrowers were needlessly burdened with expensive subprime loans, and many of these loans were given out to people who could not repay them. It was the hard sell of Boiler Room, convincing the buyer who didn’t have the capital to sustain a mortgage that he or she could sustain a mortgage. Indeed, the banks made more profit through subprime loans, growing proportionally larger in size. Countrywide Financial, the largest subprime lender, issued $97 million in loans and made $11 billion in profits (Inside Job).

Then it all fell through: home foreclosures skyrocketed and lenders could no longer sell loans to investment banks; loans went bad, leaving investment banks with loans and real estate they couldn’t sell: the collapse of Bear-Stearns in March 2008, the collapse of Lehman stock in September 2008, and AIG’s 700 billion dollar bailout, which cost taxpayers over $150 billion, among many others. World stock markets fell and unemployment rose. Despite all this, in the United States, banks are now bigger and more powerful than ever before because of fewer competitors, such as JP Morgan and Bank of America. After the ‘08 crisis, the financial industry, with more lobbyists than members of Congress, fought hard and successfully to stop reform (Inside Job).

As Patrick Bateman continues to roam freely at the end of American Psycho, he states, “I feel naked, suddenly tiny. My mouth tastes metallic, then it gets worse…But I’m left with one comforting thought: I am rich—millions are not” (Ellis 392). Those responsible for this recent financial meltdown, the blatant fraud of trillions of dollars, were never punished and rarely even investigated. Like the monster that is Bateman, some of them walked away with hundreds of millions in bonuses while the public bailed out their companies. So it is difficult to solve such a problem when perpetrators are not punished and they feel no remorse, and when they walk invisible among us. As Bateman notes about his horrific actions, “My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago..if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed” (Ellis 377). And even if caught and prosecuted, what would it gain? Bateman answers, “there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing…” (Ellis 377).

As Chris Hedges notes in his superb book Empire of Illusion (“a trenchantly argued critique of the near destruction of the American Dream by unfettered capitalism,” as one reviewer puts it), the banker as entity without empathy has taken control. “The manipulative character has superb organizational skills yet is unable to have authentic human experiences. He or she is an emotional cripple and driven by an overvalued realism. He or she is exclusively trained to sustain the corporate structure, which is why our elites wasted mind-blowing amounts of our own money on corporations like Goldman Sachs and AIG” (112). Hedges quotes Theodor Adorno, a German sociologist and philosopher famous for his critical theory of society. Adorno might as well be describing Patrick Bateman when he says, “[the bank] is especially difficult to fight against…because those manipulative people, who actually are incapable of true experience, for that reason manifest an unresponsiveness that associates them with certain mentally ill psychotic characters, namely schizoids” (113).

What matters most now is fighting Steinbeck’s insatiable monster by carefully examining the economic climate in which it thrives, through critical thinking and moral autonomy. As Immanuel Kant made clear, this is only possible through reflection and the self-determination necessary to not cooperate with such an overwhelming force: to know wrong and to take steps to stop it. It is Emerson’s self-reliance to nonconformity, and John Stuart Mill’s rejection, in this age of materialism and the “more is better” mindset, of the tyranny of the majority (guided by the one percent). Sadly, what’s needed now, the critical thinking skills that come out of universities and especially humanities programs, have been severely diminished. In his book The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Frank Donahue writes that (as Hedges summarizes it), ”liberal arts education has been systematically dismantled for decades and any form of learning not strictly vocational has at best been marginalized and in many schools abolished” (108); and the author adds, “Students are steered away from asking broad, disturbing questions that challenge the assumptions of the power elite. They do not know how to interrupt or examine an economic system that serves the corporate state”(108).

The humanities and critical thinking skills pose threats to the sanctity of the corporate state. Without critical thinking skills and a knowledge of the past, without the ability to assess direction for the future, there is no fight, because the reasoning necessary to establish a criteria for even drawing a fight never materializes. Why? As Hedges explains, “The elite, and those who work for them, were never taught to question the assumptions of their age. The socially important knowledge and cultural ideas embodied in history, literature, philosophy, and religion, which are at their core subversive and threatening to authority, have been banished from public discourse” (113). Or, at best, the little public discourse on these matters that goes on is largely unnoticed, relegated to harmless journals such as this, or if noticed, castigated as left-wing rhetoric, with little or no action taken toward reform. In short, there are too few critical thinkers able to go up against the banks, even in such impressive numbers as the protestors of Occupy Wall Street. So the monster lives—living, breathing, growing. “Now—{75} years after Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath,” Fensch observes, “we have joblessness, homelessness, poverty in America…and the greed of the banks…all back with a vengeance” (iii). And the banks, more than ever before, despite their culpability in the financial meltdown, carry on, allowing a fertile breeding ground for the spawning of Patrick Batemans, who are trained to relieve themselves of empathy and to carry on toward the bottom line.

 

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About the author:

Dr. Tim Wenzell is published widely, including a novel, Absent Children, many short stories and poems in literary magazines, Emerald Green: An Ecocritical Study of Irish Literature, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2009, the forthcoming Woven Shades of Green: An Anthology of Irish Nature Literature with Bucknell University Press, and a number of essays on Irish ecocriticism and American literature. He is an Associate Professor at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia.

 

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