This weekend I watched on iTunes a good 2014 German documentary, “Master of the Universe,” which is a feature-length interview with Rainer Voss, a middle-aged former investment banker who lost his job in the restructuring after the global crash. In the film, he reflects on the world he loved but lost. It’s hard to figure out why he involved himself in this project, except perhaps as a form of unconscious confession. I say “unconscious,” because he talks like you would expect a German banker to talk: measured and unemotional. But clearly his conscience is bothering him, and the way the system chewed him up and spit him out caused him to reflect critically on its nature, and the role he played in it.
It turns out that the filmmaker, Marc Bauder, set out to interview a number of German investment bankers about their world, post-crash, but none would talk to him — none, other than Voss. The fact that Voss is unemotional about the things he discusses weirdly gives his words more power. He was a company man from the start, rising from fairly humble beginnings (his father was a heating engineer) to a position in which he was making around $1.5 million yearly (on the advice of his lawyer, Voss doesn’t mention the specific banks for which he worked). And from the beginning, the finance industry owned his soul.
He talks about how if you want to get ahead in high finance, you have to live for the company. Your family must come a distant second. The only time Voss gets visibly uncomfortable in the film is when the director presses him on his relationship to his children. Voss uses the classic self-justifying dodge of the high-flying workaholic: What matters is not the quantity of time I spend with my children, but the quality. You can tell that even he really doesn’t believe that anymore, but can’t bear the emotional consequences of calling it a lie.
He says that the industry changed dramatically with deregulation in the 1980s, when Americans with “strange suspenders” came over to teach the German bankers about all the fabulous new financial products they could be putting together and selling to clients. Voss says that he and his colleagues viewed the Americans “as gods.” And they learned. Voss says that one dirty little secret of the industry is that the only people who really make money are large institutional investors; private investors simply do not have the technical capability to know when they are being screwed over by investment bankers.
In fact — and this is the freakiest thing about the film — nobody knows anything. Voss says globalization and the technologization of trading has created a system so vast and complex that nobody can really master it. The system has mastered us all. Control is an illusion. Voss seems internally torn about all this. He will indicate his belief that what happens is unjust, but then he will say something along the lines of, “But it couldn’t have happened any other way.” And late in the film, he seems to retract somewhat his earlier statement that the imperatives of the system control individuals who serve it. He says that a lot of the damage could be mitigated if someone in authority would force the bankers to change, e.g., compel them to stop making money off the potential economic failure of certain countries. But nobody will.
The film is at its most penetrating when Voss talks about how much control the financial industry has over the lives of ordinary people, and even entire nations. He says that living and working at that level completely isolates one from the larger world. All the bankers who move at his level live in bubbles, unaffected, and even unaware, of how the decisions they make affect the lives of others. Voss speaks evenly and unaffectedly about how bankers at his level will speak openly to each other about making money at the expense of tearing other countries and societies apart. All that matters is making money on the market — and yet, he insists, the market is not an abstraction, but the creation of human beings and the decisions they make.
Voss says that this cannot go on forever, and everybody within the industry knows it. Something’s got to give. That something, he fears, is the bankruptcy of France, which he says has not and seemingly cannot deal with its own deep structural financial problems. If the contagion can be kept in Spain and Italy, things might be okay for a while. But if France falls, everything is over.
Wasn’t the crash of 2007 and beyond a wake-up call for the industry? Voss laughs at this idea. Nobody ever learns, he said. People in his business are going back to the very things that carried them and the entire globe to the edge of the abyss, and so are investors. “Lemmings,” he calls them.
Reflecting on his own sacking by his bank because he was too old (he’s in his fifties), Voss says he had thought by giving his life to the bank, he had a relationship to it like a man does to his “Fatherland.” In fact, says Voss, they considered him nothing but a mercenary. A gun for hire. It was only business. The system treated him the way he, from within the system, treated the rest of the world.
I was quite struck by the way Voss talked with wry cynicism about the way banks and corporations deploy philanthropy, and talking about their own philanthropy, and commitment to social justice and suchlike, as a way of covering their predatory, nihilistic behavior. Speaking of corporate propaganda, Voss says, “The thicker the brochure, the deeper the bullsh*t.”
From my weekend reading, this passage by anti-Bolshevik, Russian Orthodox dissident Nikolai Berdyaev, from his 1923 book The End of Our Time:
The whole economic system of Capitalism is an offshoot of a devouring and overwhelming lust, of a kind that can hold sway only in a society that has deliberately renounced the Christian asceticism and turned away from Heaven to give itself over to exclusively to earthly gratifications. It is quite obvious that Capitalism is unthinkable as a “sacred” economy. It is the results of a secularization of economic life, and by it the hierarchical subordination of the material to the spiritual is inverted. The autonomy of economics has ended in their dominating the whole life of human societies: the worship of Mammon has become the determining force of the age. And the worst of it is that this undisguised “mammonism” is regarded as a very good thing, an attainment to the knowledge of truth and a release from illusions. Economic materialism formulates this to perfection when it brands the whole spiritual life of man as a deception and a dream.
Socialism is only a more consistent development of this system, the definitive victory and diffusion of principals latent in it.
A have a friend, an American banker who was at Voss’s level. One year, at an overseas bank retreat for senior figures, my friend saw so much luxury everywhere that it occurred to him that money had made them all crazy. They had lost touch with reality. It scared him so badly that he returned home to New York and recommitted himself to his Judaism. Religion, he felt, was the only force strong enough to stop the madness.