The Strain of Being Evil

demon mask

On my wall hangs a Japanese carving

The mask of an evil demon, smeared with opulent gold

In sympathy I see —

Bulging veins on the forehead, expressing

the strain it is to be evil.

-Bertolt Brecht

Sympathy strains to find anything of character at all in the vilified Banksters, let alone evil. Pace the moral outrage, one strains to find some worthy scapegoat amongst the Dramatis Personae of the Great Financial Crisis. They are all pygmies. The robber barons of yore have shrunk in to little warts, wens, and gnomes. Where on their faces, where in their physiognomies are the equivalents of bulging veins, of spiritual and moral stress and strain?

not quite the vampire squidBlankfein pantomimes the gestures of moral strain, but he gives evidence only to moral weakness and lack of character. He is a stand-in for a figure that in an earlier era might have been ruthless but has now become wholly routinized. Blankfein as the paradigmatic pygmy is evidence even of a kind of progress, of the moderation and the cultural inflation that attends a great growth in the money supply and the advancement of globalization and industrial consolidation. Else why could such a gnome as this mock the ages by standing in as a representative of the power of financial capital?

I’m not the first to point out how our era of diffuse fraud and diffuse cynicism is not an era of an overall decay in morality or even literacy but a decay in something else.  One might call it the Decay of Evil. Each crisis seems to be the occasion for further routinization, growth and consolidation of Too Big and Too Bland to Fail. The TBTF Banksters have positioned themselves as indispensable parts of the financial infrastructure. Whence comes the scandalous subsidy and backstop that is their haven during times of crisis.

Too much ruthlessness and an excess of risk taking without also serving as an indispensable part of “our” financial system and a firm runs the risk of not getting a backstop or a bailout when the tide turns.

In our own great crisis, the last of the raptors amongst the pygmies, Dick Fuld, a kind of shadow of the beasts of prey of times long past when Bankers took real risks with real money, went down. The scandal here was that the implicit backstop and saftey net for the Banker as too big to fail was pulled away at the last moment, and Fuld was actually, gasp, sacrified.

Fuld at least had something of the physiognomy of the raptor, of the beast of prey, a kind of last remnant of aggressive character. And his firm was aggressive in its pursuit of risk, balance sheet adventuring, and even dare I say it, innovative in its pursuit of profits at the heights of leverage and Ponzi finance.  In the new normal of even greater consolidation and the merging of commercial and investment banking, Fuld is a gorilla left behind on an evolutionary tree that ends only in the pygmy.

I don’t want to tax reader patience by delivering another routinized harangue on routinization and consolidation in the tails I win heads you lose, world of big banking with a sovereign safety net. Suffice to say that character itself has become superfluous.

Observers have had to become wicked to render the irony of an advance in industry and state that is marked by the rise of the pygmy leader, the sovereign as dolt, the CEO as figurehead that knows little, and has no real need of knowing. It is in this gimlet eyed tone that Hegel should be read when he says that “no reference to particularity of character” is necessary in the leader of an advanced state or in this case, large bank in an advanced money economy. Hegel continues:

In a completed organization we have to do with nothing butthe extreme of formal decision, and that for this office is needed only a man who says “Yes,” and so puts the dot upon the “i.” The pinnacle of state must be such that the private character of its occupant shall be of no significance. What beyond this final judgment belongs to the monarch devolves upon particularity, with which we have no concern. There may indeed arise circumstances, in which this particularity alone has prominence, but in that case the state is not yet fully, or else badly constructed. In a well-ordered monarchy only the objective side of law comes to hand, and to this the monarch subjoins merely the subjective “I will.”[1]

What is known in the literature as “moral hazard” creates an ecology that results in moral lassitude rather than evil. These our banksters are no robber barons, no blood suckers, but rather dot the i dolts, and at their best, their very best they are performers who pantomime what a leader should look like in order to dot the i or appear to. Think of Jamie Dimon here.

Evil in the good old sense of character or daimon is not to be found in the hothouse of our mature Big Banking industry, especially not an industry gone soft through safety net and subsidy. Even if I thought outrage and vilification were called for, I’d have a hell of a time finding a target for it amongst the pygmies. Perhaps that is why those prone to outrage seem so confused and why they seem to always miss their targets. Perhaps they are looking for evil in all the wrong places.

As the pygmies shrink more and more, the sheer scale of the numbers at play and the scale of the system itself grows more and more vast and sublime. The figures and the scale of enterprise are worthy of awe and terror or at least the respect that the Banksters have forfeited. A gap between the scale of industry and the bathetic figure of the Bankster appears, a gap in which the Bankster is smaller and more ridiculous at every turn.

The observer outside of the bloated and coddled Big Banks appears in the “high spirit of a kindness that looks like malice.”  A thinker or an innovator in this climate has a “right to a ‘bad character’ and a duty to suspicion.”[2].

Something of an aggressive character is necessary in any observer who would see behind the Kabuki theater, who would envision what an entrepreneur or innovator might do or think in this environment. And here intemperance or outrage are barriers to thought. Anyone who needs to shout or to write in all caps is not aggressive enough. In this environment the qualities that once made for a successful Banker, such as reason, are anathema to the official voices of the Big Banks. Reason, aggressive realism without indignance or outrage, is evil in this light.



1.GW Hegel, Philosophy of Right, p. 167.

2. A shameless steal from Walter Kaufmann and that intrepid soul whose wickedness was a form of kindness. Jenseits von Gut und Bose, aph. 34.


About Ed Phillips

Rigor in whimsy
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One Response to The Strain of Being Evil

  1. Pingback: Fraud and complicity, lifeblood of the status quo, entirely dependent upon fraud. Business as usual, foeclosure crisis, political class, | What Am I Missing Here?

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