by Hannah Rose
On the 1st January 2008, a young woman called Eva walked along the promenade in Reykjavik with her grandfather. The sun barely saw the day as the rain came lashing in. It was the day that banks across the world would crash as phenomenally as the waves which battered the Icelandic coastline.
This is the story that Proto-type theater opens with in their new performance, The Audit at the Norwich Arts Centre. An impressive archive of black and white photographs and soundscapes create a doom-laden scene as the story, told by two narrators, unfolds. The Audit tells of how the major world banks buckled, causing economic chaos across the globe and millions of individuals and families to lose their homes, pensions and savings. Gone, just like that. Were it not for central governments bailing out the banks, there would have been scenes akin to the Great Depression in the 1930s, when Americans queued in breadlines, shanty towns appeared on the fringes of cities and families lost their entire incomes overnight. There was mass starvation and one in four children were malnourished. The effects of the 2008 crash were not nearly as visually demonstrable as eighty years previous, but it did reset the financial boundaries of how money moves around the globe, in and out of our pockets. The narrative is that ‘bad mortgages’ and and reckless spending caused the crash. This begs the question; what kind of society is structured so that this can happen? Who let this happen?
The blame was put at the consumers’ doorstep. We were greedy, we should be sorry…
Iceland, a country with a population of just 300,000, had three major banks holding the nation’s capital: Kaupthing, Glitnir and Landsbankinn. The people trusted them, their managers were deemed national heroes for keeping country’s assets safe. But like the managers of the other major banks, they were playing Russian roulette with their customers’ money. Lending to those who couldn’t pay didn’t really matter, because insurance companies were willing to take the risk on the banks. Insurance companies didn’t fret too much about the risk because they could charge massive fees. Accountability was buried so far within a financial system which allowed it, that those who were lending stopped caring about the consequences. Until the consequences came crashing in. The 2008 crash hit Iceland hard: the króna plummeted, unemployment rocketed and the stock market was obliterated.
We were always told that the crash was our fault; for borrowing when we knew we couldn’t pay it back, for buying that new car, for taking the kids on another holiday. The blame was put at the consumers’ doorstep. We were greedy, we should be sorry, so it’s the people who should pay. It is Eva and her grandfather who should pay
The Audit interrogates this widely accepted narrative, flips it on its head.
Banks were willing to lend to anyone who needed it—it wasn’t greed which bought a mortgage, a car, a holiday for the kids. These were things that people needed. This is the most apposite statement The Audit makes, alongside the repeated refrain: “It wasn’t my fault.” It wasn’t Eva’s fault.
Economics is a science fiercely protected by its experts, its scientists. Dress it up in complexity and it is far easier to manipulate people with it. Proto-type theater, however, undresses the economics which brought the world to a standstill in 2008, and reveals where the real greed lay: at the doorstep of the rich white men who ran the banks, who made shady and reckless deals behind those closed doors, where those who trusted them couldn’t see them. “They played the money markets like a casino.”
TOURING NOW: Proto-type Theater’s The Audit (or Iceland, a modern myth) from Proto-type Theater on Vimeo.
But how did this happen again? Is the question which keeps rising to the top as The Audit talks us through the story of how we came to 2008. The answer is both astounding and galling.
After the Great Depression, the Banking Act of 1933 (which came to be known as the Glass-Steagall Legislation) separated commercial and investment banking—meaning banks could no longer use people’s money to ‘play’ the stock market, which essentially caused the suffering of millions during of the Great Depression. Risk-taking with other people’s money would be no more.
Until 1999 that is….
The repeal of the 1933 Banking Act opened up the pandora’s box again. The rich white men sat around a table and signed the papers. And so the roulette wheel would spin once more.
There is one photograph which flashes up on the screen behind play’s narrators which reveals a shocking truth. One of the men present and signing the papers is someone the world thought they trusted for a moment. It’s Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton repealed the Banking Act which was designed to protect people from never having to experience the abject poverty of the 1930s. Bill Clinton? Another question hovers: how many other world politicians sat there and signed people’s livelihoods away?
February 2009: Eva goes to visit her grandfather on one of her walks around the city. He’s not there. She finds a note, it says to meet him in the main square in the city. She finds her grandfather alongside thousands of other protestors. They are using anything that will make a noise—saucepans, kitchenware, wooden utensils—to broadcast their anger to those in power who gambled the nations’ money away—their money. The regular protests came to be called the ‘Pots and Pans Revolution’. The protesters demanded new elections and the incumbent right-wing government was forced to resign. A new left-wing government was elected which promised banking reform. The most senior bank managers of Kaupthing, Glitnir and Landsbankinn banks were taken to court on charges of fraud, embezzlement and money laundering, and between them they served prison sentences of 74 years.
We now live in a false narrative spinning off an austerity ideology—schools, hospitals and social services are on their knees
Audiences are left with another question as the The Audit closes. Where are we now? The world is still recovering from 2008. The UK government at the time was forced to bail out the banks which crashed—Merril lynch, Lehemen Brothers, The Royal Bank of Scotland to name but a few. If Gordon Brown had not done this and allowed quantitative easing to take place—the printing of new money into the Bank of England which effectively devalued the pound—then scenes reminiscent of the 1930s might have been our reality. People did lose their homes however, and many families are still struggling. This is not to say the New Labour government acted heroically, along with their predecessors, they played a part in allowing this mess to unfold. But what would you have done? We now live in a false narrative spinning off an austerity ideology—schools, hospitals and social services are on their knees and it’s young people and those who need them most who are suffering. This is not a myth, this is a true story. This is Eva’s story.
Written and directed by Andrew Westerside
Devised and performed by Rachel Baynton and Gillian Lees
Digital design and artwork by Adam York Gregory
Original music and sound design by Paul J. Rogers
Catch it on Friday 8 June at Pulse Festival, 2018, New Wolsey, Ipswich
Featured images © Adam York Gregory and Proto-type
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