Sunday, November 20, 2011

2. The Banker in Gramsci's Pyjamas

This skinny volume by Pessoa called The Anarchist Banker sounds like a joke: the sly writer's version of a whoopie cushion shoved under our butts for the duration of the global economic meltdown.

But, it isn't. The story presents itself as a serious piece of dialog over supper between Pessoa the narrator and a successful banker who claims to be an anarchist. It is really more of a monolog, as the banker unfolds his life story to justify his claim, beginning with his humble beginnings as a son of the working class.

The idea of reading a banker's monolog sounds considerably more daunting than it actually is. The guy is intelligent and engaging, and he's a cigar smoker, which although I have had to give up cigars, makes him immediately sympathetic. His syllogisms are not as scrambled and perverse as I anticipated. In fact, he's considerably more analytically skilled than the persona offered by Pessoa as his sparring partner, who does little more than burble, bumble and but but but in response to his clever antagonist.

Of course, I have to remind myself that all Pessoa characters are autonomous aspect of his own self. And I have to bend myself at an inclination to suspend disbelief, as well, given that at this time bankers are on the shit and hit lists of everyone but other bankers (and even in that quarter they may not all have a card to pass Go on the big monopoly board), and are, more to the point, perceived to be the monster masters behind the monstrous Simon Legree that is government, regardless of which capitalist cockup country one chooses to examine and which presentation they put on it.

Synchronistically, with Billie Holiday on the sound system of this 8th-floor trendy rooftop hotel restaurant, the creme brulée I ordered arrives, not in its traditional rustic rectitude, but dumped like bechamel sauce down the side of a poached pear and joined on the plate by a sliced slarwberry and a mini-cognac glass of something pink and very mean looking. Fruits I am thankfully allergic to and an offensive bit of perverse creativity all round. Not unlike the banking system anywhere you sample it--no matter how it's sliced, diced and disguised, a capitalist cockup is simply that.

So I am on the alert right from the get-go for sneaky bits from the banker in Gramsci's pyjamas.

Finally a recognizably mediocre but traditionally presented creme brulée arrives at my table, and the sun sneaks behind a building across the avenida da Liberdade, leaving my eyes free to return to the banker's grubby origins that set him on the road to usury, success, skullduggery and self-satisfaction as a self-proclaimed authentic anarchist.

Before we are pulled into the troglodyte cave of his the banker's childhood, he takes the trouble to define what an anarchist actually IS:

"A man rebelling against the injustice of our being born socially unequal." (p. 25)

(Pessoa published The Anarchist Banker in the first issue of the magazine Contemporánea in 1922, well before the Gini Coefficient became the measure of social inequality and an efficient way to glimpse the headlights of genocide before its runs us over.)

The banker inhales deeply from his cigar, and proceeds to contextualize the need for anarchy:

"The real evil, the only evil, are the conventions and social fictions superimposed on natural realities; from family to money, from religion to the State: Everything. Why? Because they are fictions, they are not natural." (27)

When Pessoa's narrator asks him why he chose an extreme form of reacting, and not an intermediary form such as socialism, the banker explains:

"Because any system that is not pure anarchy, which is based on the abolition of all fictions, is equally a fiction. To use all our efforts, all our intelligence to implant one social fiction in place of another, is absurd, even a crime, because it produces a social disruption with the manifest goal of leaving everything as it is." (27)

Those of us who live in Latin America are all too painfully aware of the process known as Gatopardism. The term is taken from the Lampedusa novel, THE LEOPARD, which was made into a film in the 60s starring Burt Lancaster as a Sicilian prince who jumps on the bandwagon of inevitable revolution in order to control its outcome, to "change everything so that everything can remain the way it is", in his words.

In just one case, that of Mexico, there have been two revolutions--one starting in 1810 and another starting in 1910, and the same folks are in power that were in power during the so-called Colonial Period. That's how insidious Gatopardism is. The process is being tested now in several countries, most notably in Egypt, where yesterday 3 people were killed and almost 700 injured as the military tries to hang onto the control it had before the revolution in the spring and which it snatched from the hands of the revolutionaries. It's incipient in the U.S., where the titans of Wall Street appear to be undecided whether to foment the suppression of the Occupy movement by the police and the national guard, or to use their power to take over the movement so that everything seems to change and so that they, like Lampedusa's prince, can have everything just the way it is.

So, the banker appears to grab the moral high ground when he alerts us to the dangers of Gatopardism, and asks, further:

"Why should we dedicate our efforts to substituting one fiction for another, when we can dedicate our efforts to suppressing ALL the fictions?" (27)

He goes on to explain that "Either the natural society appears to be possible, and we will be defenders of anarchism, or it doesn't appear to be possible, and we will be defenders of the bourgeoise regime. There is no intermediate hypothesis." (29)

He asserts that there can be no gradual transition or adaptation to a more just system, as the only process of adaptation, by definition, implies adapating to a system that is already in place.

What then, of revolution? I mentioned earlier the case of Mexico, where two revolutions maintained the same folks in power. The banker claims that the only possible outcome of revolution is dictatorship of those who want to implant the free society and that "revolutionary regime means despotic miolitary regime, given that the state of war is imposed on the society by the part that has assumed the power through revolution." (30)

As examples he presents the military despotism of the Roman Empire, as well as the French Revolution:

"Something that will delay the realization of the free society for decades...and anyway, what could we expect from the nation of illiterates and mystics?" (32)

At this point the banker returns to describing his formation and that of his fellow workers--how they struggled for their anarchistic ideals the in the middle of difficulties, conflicts and even persecutions, only to arrive at the creation of tyranny within the group of approximately 40 comrades.

His hypothesis is that tyranny came about as a result of "the prolonged presence of humanity in the atmosphere of social fictions, all of them creators of tyranny and with the propensity, consequently, to the most natural use of the most natural qualities in an instinctively tyrannical process." (47)

His conclusion is that the only way to avoid creating some form of tyranny is to work for common goals, but separately. Unfortunately, his comrades were not in agreement with his recommendation, but he decided to fight the social fictions by himself.

As he was in no position to fight and successfully destroy any of those fictions by himself, he decided that what he could do was subjugate them so that they no longer controlled him, starting with money.

It seemed to him that the easiest way to neutralize the control money had over him was to "get away from the sphere of its influence, from civilization: go to the country and eat roots, drink water from springs, run around naked and live like an animal". (55)

Here I have to pause, as he is not only describing living like an animal, but also at least some aspects of the lives of indigenous peoples, who lived and live with considerably more freedom than so-called civilized peoples, and did not need to wear Gramsci's pyjamas (prison-issue or otherwise) to do so.

However, he rejects this option as mere flight, and comes to the conslusion that there was only one way to avoid being tyrannized by money without avoiding contact with it, and that that was to acquire it in sufficient quantity to not feel its oppressive influence:

"Given that my procedure was the right one, I have legitimately used, as an anarchist, every means to get rich. And today I have realized my limited dream of a practical and lucid anarchist. I am free...I have created freedom; I have freed myself. I have freed that which I could free." (58-59)

In a world in which bankers have even captured the high moral ground, what is finally left for the rest of us but to make known our preference for a bang, or a whimper?

As Jim Morrison sang, "This is the end, my friend".

The end of history and the end of capitalism, it appears, arrive when capital--which in its process of multiplication is constantly in flight, whether returning to its First World matrix from its Third World theater of exploitation, or fleeing to a fiscal paradise to escape taxation by absenting itself from the balance sheet--has become so fugitive that it can no longer be used.

In the situation that we have now, which Pessoa's story prefigures in its underpinnings, given that it was written and published a few years before the bubble of capitalilsm burst at the end of the 1920s, a time which contained many of the exact same anomalies prevailing today, capital is always absent, always in flux, and what is present are debts--debts that are constantly being wagered against their own impossibility of repayment.

In short, the end arrives when in the shell game, the pea is unable to be found under any of the shells on the table, but is in flight to the Cayman Islands--where, in fact, it may never arrive, and from which, therefore, its return is singularly unlikely.

A parallel irony, it seems, has recently reared its head. What for roughly 100 years has been regarded as a law of physics, that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, may well be revealing itself as nothing more than a rule of the game cooked up by the anarchist physicist, Albert Einstein, as ongoing experiments appear to indicate that at least one category of particles can travel faster than the speed of light.

If that does prove to be the case, can nearly-weightless capital, capable of turning itself from black to white in less than a billionth of a second, be anything but one more revolutionary proof?


Citations: Pessoa, Fernando. El banquero anarquista. Editorial Leviatán, Buenos Aires, Argentina. 2005.

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