Those who have followed the furore over the Guardian’s publication of an anti-Semitic cartoon – subsequently withdrawn- may be puzzled by the “giant vampire squid” reference. The immediate reason is that Richard Sharp, drawn as a stereotypical Jewish figure in the cartoon, was shown holding a box carrying a squid. That was a nod to Goldman Sachs, an investment bank for which he used to work, which was once described as a “giant vampire squid”.
In this book review I wrote for the Financial Times in 2010, years before I launched this website, I explain the link to anti-Semitism. This is my original unedited version of the review. The Hitler reference was taken out by the editors in the published version.
The article was a review of Griftopia by Matt Taibbi.
It has to be said so best to get it out of the way first. The image for which Matt Taibbi is perhaps best-known is reminiscent of the classic Nazi depiction of Jews. In a 2009 article in Rolling Stone magazine, for which he is a contributing editor, he described Goldman Sachs as: “a giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.
The key point here is not that Taibbi is singling out Goldman Sachs because it was founded by Jews. It is that he identifies international finance, devoid of any loyalty to the nation states in which it operates, sucking the life from the rest of society. Similar imagery runs through Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf although in his case the alleged conspiracy of international finance is explicitly linked to an anti-semitic worldview. So, for example, the Nazi leader said of Jews that: “Like leeches, they were slowly sucking the blood from the pores of the national body”.
Of course – libel lawyers please note – Taibbi is not anti-semitic let alone a Nazi. No doubt he finds both sets of ideas repulsive. But at the very least his metaphor indicates a spectacular naivety; a quality apparently shared by the many who have uncritically referred to this imagery.
Unfortunately the vampire squid description is only an extreme example of what is contained in a terrible book. Griftopia is a coarse, superficial and one-sided rant. Worst of all it oozes contempt for humanity. Taibbi does not just hate the leaders of the tea party (“egregiously stupid morons”), Sarah Palin (a “dingbat”), Alan Greenspan (“a one-in-a billion asshole” and a “self-important pseudo intellectual”) or conservative journalists (he describes one as a “douchewad” and another as a “junior-Goebbels-in-heels”). By implication he also despises ordinary people, or “schmuck-citizens” as he calls them at one point, for their failure to see through the conspiracy. Only he, the great Taibbi, can penetrate the complexities of American finance to reveal The Truth.
Yet there is something genuinely interesting going on here. Not Griftopia but the Griftopia phenomenon. Why it is that Griftopia and similar works, usually lacking Taibbi’s bad language but sharing its general outlook, are taken so seriously. For that reason it is worth probing his argument more deeply.
Taibbi’s basic thesis is that a grifter class of financiers has taken over America. In a classic circular argument this is both the premise and the conclusion of the book. This power enabled Wall Street to create a massive Ponzi scheme which eventually burst and severely damaged the American economy. Goldman Sachs, a “company of criminals” by Taibbi’s description, is at the centre of this conspiracy.
In this account the tentacles of finance extend to corrupt the American political system. Not only have senior Goldman Sachs figures held senior roles in American public life but they were aided by a pernicious free market outlook. Alan Greenspan not only helped engineer the bubble in his role as chairman of the Federal Reserve but provided an ideological justification for it. In this he was articulating the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand; in another unfortunate phrase described by Taibbi as one of Greenspan’s “career rabbis”.
In Taibbi’s world there are two main reasons why the grifter class gets away with it. One is American politics and in particular the tea party. He argues that conservative politicians somehow manage to caricature attempts to curb the power of the financial oligarchy as attacks on ordinary people. Most notably they condemned Barack Obama, with his mild proposals for healthcare reform, as a socialist. The financiers are also aided by their second favourite weapon. Stooge media outlets such as CNBC and Fox News.
To be clear there is nothing inherently wrong with sketching the role of financial institutions in the creation of America’s mortgage bubble. Indeed the best chapter in Griftopia performs the difficult task of describing the workings of complex mortgage instruments reasonably well. Nor is it illegitimate to examine the relationship between Wall Street and American government.
The fundamental problem with Taibbi’s work is that it purports to explain the 2008 financial crash as well as its relationship to American politics. Yet any proper examination of these developments would need to be much broader, thorough and more open-minded than anything Taibbi attempts.
For instance, Taibbi dismisses any discussion of economics as unnecessary as the financial bubble was essentially created by a criminal conspiracy. Yet in reality it makes no sense to examine the mortgage boom in isolation from broader economic factors.
The American authorities helped created the conditions for the credit boom in several ways including liberalising lending rules, keeping interest rates low and maintaining high public spending. Their motivation was not free market ideology or manipulation by finance. Instead they pursued desperate measures in an attempt to compensate for the economy’s underlying sluggishness. Rather than tackle some of America’s chronic economic weaknesses they took the short-termist option of making credit easier
Ironically in missing the bigger picture in relation to the crash he shares key assumptions both with liberal commentators and many of the financial journalists he despises. The tendency to focus obsessively on Wall Street while missing the bigger picture is far from unique to Taibbi – although he does put his case with particular bile.
Griftopia is a graphic example of the failure of the critics of mainstream American society to present a convincing explanation of recent events. If the people Taibbi derides as “citizen schmuks” are not swayed by his superficial arguments he only has himself to blame.