Patrick Bateman: “I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust…I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.”
— ‘American Psycho’ (film)
“FIGHT CORPORATE GREED!” is a popular slogan of the ‘We Are The 99%’ movement that began a month ago in New York’s financial district and is now popping up in hundreds of cities everywhere. For moral clarity and sheer zip-and-bounce there’s nothing to beat it. The lively, drum-beating encampments validate a classic anarchist principle: it’s spontaneous, consensual, leaderless, non-violent. With luck the movement will grow without the fatal burden of takeover specialists a.k.a. ‘leaders’.
But fight corporate greed? Just as easily resist the sun rising in the east. Wall Street without its gut-instinct for cannibalizing is Abbott without Costello, a tarantula without its sting. Top-level financial executives, traders, hedge-funders and bank directors can’t help themselves, it’s like their Tourette’s syndrome, you might as well cut off their oxygen supply, the harm they do us is built into the profit-at-any-cost system itself.
Absent enforced regulation, from such feeble money cops as the Securities Exchange Commission – which won’t happen soon – they simply do what comes naturally, take death-defying leaps with other people’s money and our lives. We’ve come a long, long way since the original 17th century Dutch traders on ‘de Waal Straat’ made handshake deals under the Buttonwood Tree.
No surprise then, as reported in Der Spiegel, that two researchers at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland, in comparing the profiles of 28 successful stock traders with an equal number of diagnosed psychopaths, found that the brokers easily “outperformed” the crazies in terms of “reckless manipulation”. Even at the risk of hurting their own profit margins, according to Dr Thomas Noll, a prison administrator, “they spent a lot of energy trying to damage their opponents.”
Movies show this best, like Oliver Stone’s ‘Wall Street’ and Mary Harron’s spectacularly on-target ‘American Psycho’ from the Brett Easton Ellis novel. Its main character, the young Wall Street broker ‘Patrick Bateman’, as brilliantly played by Christian Bale, is a Frankenstein for our time, sadistically murdering innocents as a fashion statement but also as an logical extension of his daily, normal stock-trading practice.
“Greed is good!” Gordon Gekko famously declared in ‘Wall Street’. Wrong. He should have said, “Greed is necessary.”
Before Bill Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act which had prohibited savings banks from recklessly gambling in investments and insurance, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, from the 1890s Gilded Age on, Washington seemed to understand, and try to wrestle down, the systemic nature of Wall Street rapacity. Hence, the Sherman and Clayton anti-trust laws. And FDR blistering his own class of capitalists as “economic royalists” and “new mercenaries”.
Despite their public arrogance – Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs insists he’s “doing God’s work” – Wall Streeters are nervous nellies, forever crying wolf and prophesying doom at the merest suggestion of a regulatory law. Obama’s mild endorsement of the ‘Volcker rule’, whereby banks must limit speculative investment, caused money men to go bananas. Obama was the Devil’s spawn, a “socialist”, a secret Maoist.
Now, faced by OWS, Wall Street’s id, Glenn Beck, goes totally ape, warning “Capitalists!…they (the protestors) will drag us out into the streets and kill us.” History tells us, never underestimate a money person’s capacity for violent self-delusion. It’s a tradition.
In 1933, in an episode that’s faded into the haze of unproven conspiracy – but actually happened – Wall Street’s “princes of privilege”, as FDR called them, panicked at the prospect of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first election. The country was mired in a Great Depression in no small measure created by Wall Street speculation. A plague of joblessness, foreclosures, bankruptcies followed the ’29 stock market crash. World War One veterans angrily marched on the Capitol demanding their promised bonuses. Radicals of left and right were gaining huge, restless audiences. In the eyes of the rich the country teetered on the edge of, gulp, revolution. Worse from a rich man’s point of view, FDR took us off the sacred gold standard and began redistributing income to the poor via such “socialist” measures as the Reconstruction Finance Act and unemployment insurance.
At 23 Wall Street, then the headquarters of J.P. Morgan, a small elite group of over-exciteable “sound money men” conspired to bring down FDR and install a military dictatorship. (This may be the basis of John Frankenheimer’s film ‘Seven Days in May.) The intriguers were not fringe nutcases but ultra-respectable capitalists and, taken together, controlled more power and money than the U.S. treasury. They included the heads of Du Pont, Morgan, Singer Sewing Machine, Baldwin Locomotive, Bethlehem Steel, the American Legion, a former presidential candidate, various admirals and generals, etc.
Their scheme made some sense. They’d done research by dispatching a trusted employee, Gerald MacGuire, a J.P. Morgan bond salesman, to go to Europe and size up rising fascist movements with an eye to imposing such rule in America. MacGuire reported back that the key to Nazi and Fascist success was their ability to recruit disgruntled war veterans. Super idea, thought the men at 23 Wall Street. Let’s get an American Hitler or Mussolini, with a charismatic war record, to organize veterans into a half-million-man ‘Khaki Shirts’ and march them down Pennsylvania Avenue and oust the Bolshevik in the Oval Office.
General Douglas MacArthur was the plotters’ first choice but he was loathed by ex-servicemen for leading a cavalry charge against the hungry Bonus Army and torching their families’ makeshift hovels at Washington’s Anacostia river. So the J.P. Morgan fantasists – was it really a fantasy? – selected a real combat hero, Marine general Smedley Butler, twice winner of the Medal of Honor and much loved by the rank and file.
Big mistake. Under his spit-and-shine Butler was a small d democrat with antifascist instincts (he’d almost been court-martialled for dropping an anti-Mussolini remark). He went along halfway with the plot then got on a national radio hookup to denounce the conspiracy. Scandal! Outrage! Page One New York Times. A Congressional McCormick-Dickstein committee subpoened key players who fled the country rather than face questions.
Then the story vanished, overnight. The best theory is that FDR, in the middle of a Depression crisis, figured that he needed his disloyal capitalists more than he wanted to prosecute them for treason. The matter was dropped, squashed, covered up by its intended victim.
It’s often said that FDR saved capitalism from itself. But today in the Marine Corps museum at Quantico, Virginia in a place of honor there rests the ceremonial sword of Smedley Butler who helped his commander in chief scatter the stinging tarantulas.
Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org