Friday, 13 July 2012

Parasites and vampire squid ink

When Matt Taibbi called Goldman Sachs 'a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money' he was, of course, being grossly unfair to your actual Vampyroteuthis infernalis, which is small, shy, mostly harmless and isn't even a real vampire.The 'vampire squid' line is a great piece of hyperbolic outrage provoked by the hyperbolically outrageous behaviour of the Masters of the Financial Universe, but you wouldn't learn much about zoology from Taibbi's Nature Notes.

If we were looking for a more accurate analogy for the behaviour of ruthlessly manipulative and socially harmful financial institutions, perhaps a parasite like Toxoplasma gondii, which hijacks host organisms and manipulates their behaviour in order to thrive and survive, might be a better candidate. Or the crab parasite Sacculina that injects itself into its host, which it turns from an independent organism into a neutered zombie brood chamber for incubating Sacculina eggs. Or the parasitic ichneumon wasp, jamming its ovipositor into the flesh of its host, all the better to let its maggoty offspring eat the paralysed victim from inside, a process that fuelled Darwin's doubts about the benevolent, merciful entity that was allegedly in charge of things:

I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars...

Substitute 'the invisible hand' for 'God', 'financial institutions' for 'Ichneumonidae' and 'nations' for 'Caterpillars' and you've got a pretty neat summary of how parasitic financial institutions have been sucking the life blood out of economies. What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful blundering, low and horribly cruel works of Wall Street and the City of London.

So, on the whole, I'd say that Goldman Sachs and all those other delinquent financial institutions are more like manipulative parasites than squids. Where we do see squiddy behaviour, it comes from high profile politicians and thinkers who want to draw attention away from the misdeeds of the rich and powerful with a distracting smokescreen. Here, for example, is post-ideological ideologue and Reith lecturer Niall Ferguson, expending his store of squid ink to shift the blame from the reckless, too-big-to fail, mollycoddled, state-supported financial institutions on to the 'profligate' generation some of whom had the cheek to enjoy a comparatively decent standard of living and have a relatively comfortable retirement to look forward to:

It is perhaps not surprising that a majority of current voters should support policies of intergenerational inequity, especially when older voters are so much more likely to vote than younger voters. But what if the net result of passing the bill for baby-boomers’ profligacy is not just unfair to the young but economically deleterious for everyone?

Don't look at the banks, look at those selfish old hippies, what with their winter fuel allowances and refusal to die in the poorhouse, they're the ones who've been sucking us dry. Play one part of society off against another and watch the real perpetrators slip away in a cloud of ink. Fortunately, you can't fool all of the people all of the time:

The young need a start and wouldn't it be good if they too could look forward to some liberty at the end of their working lives or even that people should continue to work if they want to? If the problem is about how we enable the young to become the contributors they desperately want to be in a contracting economy, then the problem is the contracting economy, not pensioners. One generation doesn't have to be supported at the expense of the other. Of course, eventually they are the same people. The old were once young and the young, if they are lucky, will be old. And, if I remember correctly, there is something else that differentiates people and their life chances at the moment that seems to be a bit more permanent and pertinent. What is it again? Oh yes; class.

If you don't succeed in setting the old against the young, the squiddy apologists for the parasitic overclass have plenty more ink where that came from - set the employed against the unemployed, the able-bodied against the long-term sick, people who were born here against immigrants, private sector employees against public sector employees, home owners against council tenants, grammar-school/faith school /academy-loving middle-class parents against the disruptive kids in 'bog-standard' comprehensives ... The too-big-to-fail, too-convoluted-to-understand corporate leeches and their millionaire symbiotes in the political class disappear behind the inky haze of internecine resentment and live on to parasitise us another day.

The big fish will carry on getting away with it, so long as the little fish carry on fighting each other.