Organisation - February 4, 2016

Luyendijk hit The Spot

Koen Guiking

Joris Luyendijk managed to fill The Spot in Orion on Wednesday with his lecture on the banking sector. Due to the massive attendance there was little interaction with the public. Nevertheless, the audience was captivated for two full hours by this one man show.

Luyendijk in an overcrowded The Spot. Photo: Aart-Jan van de Glind.

The eloquent Luyendijk was invited by Studium Generale to talk about the interviews that he held for The Guardian with bankers in ‘The City’ in London. He explained how he had tried, as complete outsider, to understand the bankers. As a ‘dumb’ Dutchman, with no understanding of the complicated British social structures related to ranks and positions and not burdened with any understanding of the financial sector, maybe he could penetrate to the psyche of the bankers, who normally do not speak openly about the things going on behind the banks’ doors.

His first, not very surprising conclusion about bankers was: they are strikingly ordinary people. The anthropologist Luyendijk of course knew this before he started his interviews, but by stating that most people see bankers as either ‘masters of the universe’ or ‘the biggest villains on earth’ he was able to present his nuanced conclusions as if it were shocking eye openers. He told the audience that his main question to the bankers was: ‘How can you live with yourself? You, as a bankers, have wrecked the world, got saved by us, taxpayers, and now you are going back to your old ways.’ But gradually, Luyendijk told his audience, he found out that 98 percent of the bankers work really hard and do not even earn that much, these people were actually not responsible for the crash and they are shockingly like us. ‘That made it complicated. It is so much easier to hate bankers.’ Luyendijk said many readers of left angry comments on his interviews. ‘I made them look like human. That was against the people’s perceptions of bankers.’

After that introduction you could discern some scepticisms about Luyendijk’s dramatic description of the ‘power gap’ between the small groups of ‘big swinging dicks’ that take too many risks with other people’s money and the much larger group of toothless, timid bankers, the ‘business blockers’, who were there to check if their colleagues did not take too large risks. And with how many pinches of salt did the audience have to take the stories about ‘the cull’? Luyendijk described that bankers constantly live in fear because they could be fired any moment. In fact, according to Luyendijk, banks fire two to three percent of their staff every year. Just because they can. One by one colleagues are asked to see management and they never return to their desks. Whether this is true or a slightly dramatized version of the truth did not matter. It was interesting and entertaining. As was the way Luyendijk answered the questions from the audience, which were submitted on pieces of paper and bundled, because it was far too busy to handle all questions one by one. The core message of his story was loud and clear: perverse incentives are destructive for each and every system. To make matters worse, this culture was not exclusive to financial institutions, it has permeated into many other sectors, Luyendijk noted. The crowd made it clear they shared his criticism of the neoliberal thinking also being adopted by universities.

On the 16th of February Studium Generale will organize part two in the series Following the money, with Dirk Bezemer.