What can be said about the Anglo Tapes?  That conversations such as those between John Bowe, Peter Fitzgerald and David Drumm, which seem to suggest a concerted attempt to mislead the Government regarding the bank’s levels of debt (an allegation that both Fitzgerald and Bowe deny), must have been happening at Anglo during this period is something most of us had already expected.  In this sense, the revelations of the tapes are perhaps unsurprising.  But should this placate us?

© Eoin O’Mahony 2012

© Eoin O’Mahony 2012

The reaction has been ambivalent.  On the one hand, the aforementioned lack of surprise has left many people slightly cynical about the level of media attention being afforded to the affair, and particularly the Independent’s handling the story as an unfolding soap-opera.  On the other hand, there is understandable shock and outrage regarding the content and tone of these conversations.  One point that has been returned to on a number of occasions is the perceived tone of frivolity with which these men discuss a strategy to get the Government to commit €7 billion of taxpayer’s money to a bank that, at the very least, knew they would need much more than that to stay afloat.  As Bowe describes it:

That number is seven but the reality is we need more than that. But you know, the strategy here is you pull them [the Central Bank] in, you get them to write a big cheque and they have to keep, they have to support their money, you know.

Writing in September 2010, Vincent Brown suggested that the forces that shaped white collar crime in Ireland lay in the “socially illiterate” ethos of the “posh” schools.

“Just think of the thousands of lawyers, accountants, bankers, stockbrokers and others who must have colluded in criminality over the last decade or so… These people didn’t come from nowhere. They came out of our schools, most of them Catholic schools and they came out not just theologically illiterate but socially illiterate as well. Most of them are without any sense of being part of a society; they have no sense or little sense of being social beings, of having responsibilities to others. No sense of sharing or wanting to share. Instead they have a highly individuated sense of themselves, out for their own advancement and enrichment and, if society suffered as a consequence, nothing to do with them… [These schools] went on a lot about character, character formation, that sort of stuff…That Kipling If palaver:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute /With sixty seconds worth of distance run,/Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, / And which is more you’ll be a Man, my son!

Yeah? What is more you’ll be a sociopath, my son! Not a single whisper in the poem about anything to do with social responsibility, just character stuff; and that was (is?) the ethos of the posh schools that brought us the criminal generation.”

The lack of social responsibility of which Brown writes is clearly evident in the taped conversations of the Anglo executives.  Nobody here expresses concern over the level of debt they are about to plunge Irish taxpayers into, other than the concern that if the Central bank “saw the enormity of it [Anglo’s debts] upfront they might decide… the cost to the taxpayer is too high”.  But this is also hardly surprising. Studies have shown that psychopaths often make good CEOs precisely because they lack empathy and a sense of social responsibility, traits which allow them to make ‘ruthless’ decisions in the pursuit of profit.  The neoliberal capitalist system prizes these traits.

But this is just one aspect of the troubling liminal zone between capitalism and criminality.  Much of what constitutes legitimate business is not far from a form of sanctioned criminal activity.  The recent controversy over Apple’s tax record offers a clear case in point.  Whilst applying the letter of the law to their payment of corporate tax, Apple’s position as a transnational company with operations across several countries has allowed it to avail of loopholes to avoid paying tax on profits.  Although this does not constitute ‘illegal’ activity, it very clearly puts the accumulation of wealth ahead of any perceived social responsibility to the countries they operate in, and is obviously part of a well though-out tax strategy.  This is what Bono, in a recent interview with Gay Byrne, referred to as being “tax sensible”.

Gay Byrne: “If I don’t ask you this, I’ll be criticised and if I do ask you this I’ll be criticised but since you’ve touched on the subject now. The subject of U2′s taxation arrangements, whereby people are expressing their wonder at what they call your hypocrisy, not my word, their word, hypocrisy of haranguing us all and asking us to pay for more international aid, at the same time as you shift your company overseas in order to save taxation.”

Bono: “Yeah, but it’s [unintelligible] of Irish people to be critical of this is because the shock horror moment here is U2 behaving like a business. (Fake shock facial and gasp expression). And I mean our, we live in a small rock in the North Atlantic and we would be under water were it not for very clever people working in Government and in the Revenue who made tax competitiveness a central part of Irish economic life.

It is the reason we have companies like, you know, Google and Facebook and, indeed, I helped bring those companies to Ireland. So it’s more than churlish for Irish people to say well we don’t want an Irish company involved in that stuff that we do want everyone else. I mean we do pay a lot of, I want to say, we pay a lot of tax and…but we are, you know, tax sensible. But, as every business is. And why is it because I’m involved in these…some people think as idealistic things but I think as pragmatic things, why can’t U2 be tough in business? This thing of the warm, fuzzy feeling, you know we want you know this…I’d like people to get over that. Because that’s not who I am. I am tough and I may have, you know, I may sing from a very private and intimate place and I make art. But I’m tough-minded and I’m intellectually rigorous, I hope. And, I think U2′s tax business is our own business and I think it’s not just to the letter of the law, it is to the spirit of the law.”

Bono’s line of argumentation here is interesting.  He appears to suggest that the “spirit” of the Irish law is tax avoidance, or to coat this in Bono’s cuddly neoliberal veneer, “tax competitiveness”.  Bono’s broader ideological position is also explicated here.  Bono believes in neoliberal solutions – or at the least he sees this kind of brokerage to be the only pragmatic way to operate in the world, whether that is addressing global inequalities through aid or handling U2 like a business.  Such a position is dependent on the partitioning of the ‘private’ sphere (where the sole objective is the pursuit of profit) from the ‘public’ sphere (where the responsibility for redistribution takes place), the only problem being that ‘private’ sector tax avoidance tends to severely deplete the ‘public’ resources that are meant to be redistributed.  Bono would seek to mitigate the inequalities that this partitioning produces through aid.  While Bono’s work in Africa has undoubtedly materially improved the lives of many people, as Slavoj Zizek argues, charity can also act as a way of easing inequalities while allowing the system that creates these very inequalities to continue.  On this view, Bono is a champion of, and frontman for, neoliberal elites and his political work has, as Harry Browne argues, made the world “worse” [i].

I am not trying here to demonise Bono (who is a clearly complex character), but rather to highlight how the consensus viewing the operations of the ‘private’ sphere as inherently separate from that of the ‘public’ sphere is normalised.  I think that this separation is crucial to understanding our ambivalent attitudes to white collar crime.

In an intervention on the London Riots in 2011, David Harvey makes the argument that the rioters were simply re-appropriating the “feral capitalism” that has become the globally accepted norm.

“Feral politicians cheat on their expenses; feral bankers plunder the public purse for all it’s worth; CEOs, hedge fund operators, and private equity geniuses loot the world of wealth ; telephone and credit card companies load mysterious charges on everyone’s bills; corporations and the wealthy don’t pay taxes while they feed at the trough of public finance; shopkeepers price-gouge; and, at the drop of a hat swindlers and scam artists get to practice three-card monte right up into the highest echelons of the corporate and political world… [The rioters] mimic on the streets of London what corporate capital is doing to planet earth”.

While I don’t necessarily buy the direct line of causality that Harvey proposes, he hits upon an important distinction that is made between the ‘legitimate’ ‘business activity’ of the corporate world and the ‘criminality’ of the rioters.  Moreover, there is a clear class bias in this distinction.  This perspective is wonderfully satirised in a sketch on Chappell’s Show, which inverts the arrest and prosecution trajectories emanating from the investigations into criminal activities of a corporate executive and a cocaine dealer: the corporate executive is raided by an armed SWAT team while the cocaine dealer is phoned up by a police detective informing him of a warrant and politely asking him when would be convenient for him to turn himself in.

We can clearly see such distinctions being made in the discussions about the Anglo Tapes.  As well as the inherent class bias, this stems, I think, in large part from the nebulousness of the border between feral capitalism and crime.  In a world where private sphere companies can pursue the profit motive without recourse to any other considerations, and where global corporations can situate themselves in the interstitial terrain between different legal jurisdictions to minimise tax and maximise profit, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine where capitalism ends and crime begins.  In this sense, it is unsurprising that we are unsurprised by the Anglo Tapes – this is how we expect the corporate world to behave.

The more that the ‘private’ sphere (profit) is partitioned from ‘public’ sphere (society), and the more that this arrangement is rationalised through the kind of cosy neoliberal discourses espoused by Bono, the more that the ‘spirit of the law’ constitutive of each of these spheres diverges.  What is clearly demonstrated through the case of Anglo is that these spheres are not separate at all; the private pursuit of profit at any cost has had devastating impacts on Irish society.  Rather than accepting the inherent partitioning of these spheres, only paying attention when one very obviously bleeds into the other, we should seek to enlarge the public sphere in order to equalise the spirit of the law between the corporate world and that of society.

Cian O’Callaghan

[i] These aspects of Bono’s political work are unpacked by Harry Browne in his recently published The Frontman: Bono (In the name of power) (Verso).