There is something vaguely unreal about the unfolding global crisis. We are at ground level watching mighty towers fall at a distance. We know that the debris is spreading and the dust may smother us. But we do not feel it – yet. But when taxes start shooting through the roof, public services suffer swingeing cuts, unemployment jags upwards and collapsing house prices result in a wave of repossessions, the search will be on for someone's blood. For history tells us that the most predictable response to disaster is a need for expiation and revenge.
For Lenin in 1917 it was the international bourgeoisie – and of course, the iron law of history – that was responsible for the collapse of the Russian state. For America after 1929, it was the Wall Street bankers who were the guilty parties. For Hitler in the 1930s, it was the Jews and the Bolsheviks who were responsible for the Versailles Treaty and the crippling of the German economy. For George W Bush the popular demand for vengeance meant it was Saddam Hussein who had to pay the price of 9/11.
Some of these may have had a degree of accuracy. Most didn't. The point is, a clear-cut villain is demanded by injured parties. A political and economic crisis of this magnitude demands it.
The qualifying heats in the blame game are already well under way. At the moment the favourite villains are, as in 1929, the bankers on Wall Street. In their dark penumbra lie the big corporations (remember Enron?) and the whole financial services industry with their culture of greed and irresponsibility.
We ache for heads to roll. And it was certainly satisfying to watch Richard Fuld, chief executive of the doomed Lehman Brothers, squirm abjectly before Congressional hearings last week. But it was a pleasure somewhat mitigated by the continued safe existence of his vast personal fortune. The Fuld case is instructive. The truth is, the barracking of the bankers is going to provide limited satisfaction. It would be nice if a few of them would throw themselves out of the windows of Wall Street office blocks, but that doesn't seem likely. In the meantime, the free-floating anger and fear is going to seek to attach itself to something. And if it can't get any purchase on the bankers – for, as Bill Clinton said recently, the Wall Street that everyone is railing against has vanished – where will it look?
Republicans, politicians in general, "The System", Margaret Thatcher's legacy, Japan's zero-rate interest policy, Iceland's banking profligacy and the narrow focus of the major pension funds have been gaining popularity in the scapegoat sweepstake.
But the one group of possible villains that seem to have escaped our notice are staring at us in the mirror – ourselves. And as David Cameron recently pointed out, perhaps it is time for us to think about taking responsibility (although of course he was talking about the poor, fat and drunken, not the great British middle classes).
Can it be that there is a connecting line between the current chaos and all the people who endlessly traded up their houses in the absurd belief that this could go on for ever, bought flats to let, snapped up second and third holiday properties? Is there any scintilla of blame to be attached to those who borrowed thousands to buy that new handbag? Who, with their votes, implicitly agreed to a low-regulation regime of the financial system, so long as it appeared to line their pockets. The people who lost their heads, who lost their wits, who lost their common sense and got tangled up in fairy tales. Aren't they to blame too?
You could say that everyone who could got involved, so it was only common sense, and we can't blame those sacred collective individuals "The People". Except that I know there were some people who, although they had the opportunity, didn't buy shares willy-nilly, didn't speculate, didn't trust the financial wizards, didn't even buy pensions or ISAs, didn't buy into the whole gimme gimme gimme culture.
I know because I was one of them, and so were many of my friends. I don't actually think the British are traditionally greedy people and a lot of them/us kept the whole zeitgeist of popular capitalism at arm's length. I don't think any of us are feeling smug – I'm certainly not, and I think the horrible times that may be coming will give no satisfaction to anyone. But I also think we have to recognise that the voters did have a choice.
Many people who are now calling for blood wanted what they could deliver – just as in the Thatcherite Eighties many voters welcomed the tax cuts paid for by the North Sea oil which might otherwise have developed our infrastructure, and bought the shares in the privatised power and transport corporations which later enthusiastically ripped us off. Perhaps it's not only the bankers who have been greedy and stupid.
But nothing has a single cause. The situation we are in now has many causes. The only trouble is the human mind can't deal with complexity as it confronts chaos. And this is what is most frightening about the current situation: however grave, sensible and knowing all those expert voices you hear on the radio and TV sound, no one has a clue what is going to happen next. Fear and panic, as recent events prove, can summon what at the time seem to be hugely improbable events the "Black Swans" that Nassim Nicholas Taleb so prophetically wrote about in his eponymous book on the fundamental unpredictability of historical phenomena.
If political systems follow economic systems into chaos, tax rises, unemployment and falling house prices may come to seem the least of our problems.
And in seeking hysterically for someone to blame, we must guard ourselves against becoming the most blameworthy actors of all.Reuse content