Monday, October 3, 2011

The Field of Miracles

They had gone nearly half-way towards Pinocchio’s home, when the fox suddenly stopped and said, “Would you like to double your fortune?”
“How do you mean?”
“Would you like to multiply those miserable five gold pieces into a hundred, a thousand, two thousand times?”
“Who wouldn’t! But how?”
“That’s very easy. But instead of going home, you must come with us.”

(Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio)

There are a number of remarkable things about last week’s BBC News 24 interview with trader Alessio Rastani, but his claims that Goldman Sachs rules the world, or that we should brace for the worst and that within 12 months the savings of millions of people worldwide will vanish are not amongst them. Those parts are about as newsworthy – possibly less so – as any one of the items in the ticker that scrolled at the bottom of the screen throughout the three-and-a-half minute interview: say, the fact that Queens Park Rangers manager Neil Warnock was disgusted at the manner of Armand Traore’s dismissal in the previous Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Aston Villa. That the news service saw fit to inform of us of those other things at the same time is in fact enough to suggest that the content of Rastani’s carefully rehearsed opinion was not very important. What mattered was the theatre. And as a piece of news theatre, Rastani’s performance was quite extraordinary.

First of all, there is the question of how he got the part in the first place. One week, nearly two million views on YouTube, a CNN interview and dozens of articles later, we still don’t know if Rastani is in fact even a financial trader. Forbes' Emily Lambert phoned him and tried to sniff him out with a series of telling questions, then posted the resulting interview without comment or judgment, leaving it up to her readers to sort it out. In a similarly non-committal move, CNN downgraded him from ‘independent trader’ (the BBC title) to ‘amateur trader’. Clearly the expectation that major news organisations might be able to establish the credentials of their interview subjects is entirely unreasonable. For the record, I’m leaning towards ‘not a trader’. Certainly not in the sense of a professional, full-time trader with extensive knowledge of the industry and how the major firms operate – this much he freely admits. He may be a guy who dabbles, possibly not even that. So even the best-case scenario begs the question of why the BBC addressed a work-from-home part-time trader on the Eurozone troubles and the future of the global economy as if he were some kind of oracle.

For that was the truly remarkable part: when Rastani declared that the Greek rescue package would fail and that the stock market was finished, the BBC newsroom staff on duty took him at his word and reacted with genuine dismay. ‘If you could see the people around me,’ squeaked Martine Croxall, the interviewer, ‘jaws have collectively dropped at what you just said.’ Clearly Rastani was there to inform the BBC and its viewers, and not be questioned about his judgment. And since he was an authority, it made perfect sense for Croxall to ask him, with more than a hint of desperation in her voice: ‘Can you pin down exactly what would make investors happy?’

So it has come to this: the most prestigious state broadcaster in the world asking an investor who has just admitted to looking at the immiseration of millions as an opportunity to make money what it is that will make him happy, with the unequivocal implication that if only we knew what it was, we’d do it. Please, we beg of you: just tell us.

The chapters in Collodi’s Pinocchio that are most often left out or abridged in modern versions and adaptations are the ones centred around the Field of Miracles. This is the invention of two con-artists, the fox and the cat, who wish to lay their hands on the five gold sequins that Pinocchio received from the Fire-eater, and that he is planning to use to purchase a coat for his father and a school primer for himself. The fox explains:
You must know that in Dupeland there is a sacred field called the Field of Miracles. You dig a little hole in this field, and you put in it, let’s say, a gold piece. Then you cover it with earth, water it from the spring with two buckets of water, sprinkle two pinches of salt over it, and go quietly to bed. During the night the gold pieces will grow and blossom; and the next morning, when you get up and go back to the field, what do you find? You find a marvellous tree, laden with as many gold pieces as an ear of corn has grains at harvest-time.

Now if you’re not familiar with Collodi’s original, you might guess that the scenario will develop more or less as follows:

Pinocchio believes the story, and goes to bury his precious gold coins. The fox and the cat figure out the spot, either by spying on him or some other stratagem, and steal the money as soon as he has left. When he returns the next day to look for the money-bearing tree, the coins are gone.

But that’s not how it goes. After scrounging one last meal off Pinocchio at the Inn of the Red Lobster, the fox and the cat leave the establishment ahead of Pinocchio and go to await him in disguise near the location of the field. But when he shows up with the money, they don’t let him deposit it in the ground, but rather jump out and try to kill him. In one of the book’s many plays with generic convention, the two comical, almost amiable con-artists have turned out to be cold-blooded murderers.

The storyline occupies six whole chapters that are amongst the book’s darkest and most embittered. Having tried to stab Pinocchio in the back only to see their knives shatter against the puppet’s hardwood flesh, the cat and the fox resolve to hang him and leave him to die. Just as he is about to finally slip into unconsciousness, Pinocchio is rescued by the ghost of a blue-haired child and gradually restored to health (in circumstances that are themselves more than a little macabre). On his way back to his father’s, he encounters the fox and the cat – this time sans disguise – who convince him again to ‘sow’ his money, which they then proceed to steal in his absence. Finally Pinocchio makes it back to the city and goes to a magistrate to denounce the theft.
The judge, as he was very much interested in the story, listened to him with goodwill, and was extremely sorry for him. When the puppet had told everything, he stretched out his hand and rang a bell.
At the sound, two mastiffs appeared, dressed like policemen.
The judge pointed to Pinocchio and said, “This poor fellow has been robbed of four gold pieces. Take him to prison immediately.”

An image from the mass arrests of protesters in New York over the weekend. There has been the usual amount of sneering over the Occupy Wall Street movement, the customary uninformed bleating about confused demands and the ideological heterogeneity of the participants – as if the public square (or, in this case, the street) couldn’t be the place that people come to fill, to occupy also with discussion, different agendas and a simple desire to come together, to be there, as a concrete response to the absurdity that the street has come to signify (on this, see Glenn Greenwald, Rortybomb and Matt Stoller, all via Zunguzungu). Perhaps the occupiers are not just there to focus our attention but to figure something out, and let that be their defiance.

The theatre is elsewhere, and draws me again to the image of Alessio Rastani in that BBC studio: behind him, a vista of the City of London projected onto a green screen; around him, an electronic space festooned with attention-diverting crap about what Neil Warnock thinks of Armand Traore’s on-field antics and the rest of the news of the day in the form of headlines, most of which don’t even impress themselves onto memory, but operate rather like a buzz, a noise of pseudo-communication. Rastani himself is the absurd personified: a moderately articulate nobody whom the conventions of news media have turned into an expert – and indeed his mock expertise is the only kind of expertise that is allowed. The BBC would never interview a critic of capitalism on the topic of a financial crisis, except perhaps to balance a panel. But a professional trader is untainted by ideology by definition, so here comes this guy who fools them into thinking he speaks the truth of the market floor, and delivers the killer line – our governments are powerless, Goldman Sachs rules the world – which of course would sound shrill in the mouth of, say, a left-wing academic, but when Alessio Rastani says it, it's the naked truth and it's absolutely terrifying: the con-artist has turned out to be a murderer.

What I am getting at is that there is a darkness at the centre of this story, something other than naked greed or stupidity or criminal collusion, and more like a sardonic laughter somewhere in the heart of the machine. Besides Collodi, the Adam Curtis documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace perhaps captured it best, not least in its quirky, aestheticised excess, which conveyed both more and less than the remarkable clarity of Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job. This is the film that more than any other purports to tell the truth about the financial crisis, to point the finger to the individuals responsible, but is also a piece of theatre masquerading as investigative journalism, all sweeping establishing shots and beautifully composed talking-head vignettes, portentously narrated by the disembodied voice of Matt Damon – elsewhere an amnesiac assassin on the payroll of the CIA, but in real life a trusted voice of the liberal America that is disillusioned with Obama.

The moral of Inside Job, just like the moral of Robert Reich’s very popular video The Truth About the Economy in Two Minutes, is that you can pinpoint the exact moment when capitalism started to go bad, blame individuals for its failures, and, armed with that knowledge, undo the damage. But whether you take two minutes (Reich) or 108 (Ferguson), that is too much clarity, and far too simple a story – one that doesn’t account for how capitalism got to be that way, nor for the repression, the exploitation and the violence that are intrinsic to it. The reality is far murkier, and its everyman is Alessio Rastani: a man without qualities who can stop the news in its tracks and make the newsreader’s canned smile and scripted banter turn into a hollow wail.

Carlo Collodi. Pinocchio. Translated by E. Harden, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti. London: Jonathan Cape, 1988. (On which see also this post.)


Unknown said...

Stonking post, love the...come with us, quote. I am reminded of the book The March Of Folly by Barbara Tuchman,
Tuchman's Law

Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening, on a lucky day, without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman's Law, as follows: "The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold (or any figure the reader would care to supply)."[2]

Anonymous said...

Great post. Just makes me happy to be employed as I am.

Anonymous said...

He's an "investment speaker", not a trader:

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you for that, it's by far the most thorough look at who the guy actually is. (Not that I think it makes a very big difference - that the BBC accepted his statements so uncritically, and reacted with such whimpering despair, would be equally as telling even if he were who he said he was.)

George D said...

Does it matter who he is? It only matters who he was perceived to be in the minutes before he arrived on television, and the duration of the interview.

The idea of a field of miracles seems to follow/precede the idea of a 'field of dreams'. "Build it, and they will come": plant an investment in a field with no significance and you will be a rich man. On the face of it, planting coins and expecting them to grow without labour is a ridiculous thing. But that is exactly what the sharemarket demands of us - that we suspend our disbelief and plant them in financial instruments, and that when we extract them they will have grown bigger, with minimal tending. There is an element of this growth that is represented by improvements in productivity and demand (we can argue the share), but a very significant amount is the extracted labour of others. In the good times it's easy to pretend otherwise. It's taken two years of severe recession in the USA and the faltering realisation that the Democratic President and Machine are equally enamoured with its continuation to get to this point.

I keep pointing to the hole in the donut (the unquestioned assumptions that form the basis of 'debate') and the great space around it, so it's nice to see it finally expanding in size again. Who knows how long (weeks, probably) til the discursive frame gets shut down again...

Anonymous said...

that is exactly what the sharemarket demands of us - that we suspend our disbelief and plant them in financial instruments, and that when we extract them they will have grown bigger, with minimal tending.

Erm. I'd say that's what standard investment advice as presented in newspaper personal finance columns demands. Few people who take the trouble to study investment see it that way. The rort isn't so much the market -- the field in this metaphor -- as the brokers, advisors, and commentators (foxes and cats) who through ignorance or self-interest promote myths about how the share market works.