Life Before Relationship Banking

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The following is an excerpt from Linda McQuaig’s new book, All You Can Eat: Greed, Lust and the New Capitalism.

It’s hard to remember life before Relationship Banking. But I think it went roughly like this: you went to the bank, put money in or took money out, occasionally bought traveller’s cheques or money orders, and very occasionally applied for a mortgage or a car loan. With Relationship Banking, however, you now have a Personal Banker who, as the relationship develops, will tailor things to your individual situation, a letter from the bank informs me, with these key words in boldface type. To think that, only a few years ago, I went to the bank and simply did my banking, and now when I go there, I have an individual situation. It’s enough to give me a swelled head. Life doesn’t revolve around me, but they’re working on it.

More and more, we are presented with what Ellen Ullman has called the “ultimate baby-world of narcissism” a consumer world where everything is supposedly catered to you as an individual, a world where you can apparently have whatever you want. If this sort of thing isn’t enough to make you feel empowered, Dinesh D’Souza points out that we now have “unprecedented power” and the “ability to will our future.” He has in mind the technological advances of robotics and biotechnology, which will allow humans to alter the genetic makeup of future generations, but you could probably also include Relationship Banking in that. It’s all part of the new empowerment. It’s about you, or rather, it’s about you.

Certainly there does appear to be a vast consumer world out there, where you can feel powerful, indulged and important. And the computer now allows us to plug into this world without even having to deal with the rest of society. A TV advertisement for Intel starts with a surrealistic image of a broken-down, dysfunctional city of the future, where buildings are mostly in ruins, lineups are endless and people treat each other with suspicion and contempt. Then it cuts to an idyllic scene of a lovely Victorian house surrounded by green grass and a picket fence. Magically, the door to the house opens for us, beckoning us into a cheerful room with a large computer screen full of icons that give us access to anything, anywhere in the world. The window in the room is open, with the curtain gently billowing in the breeze, like the drawing on the front of a grade-school textbook I remember called Wide-Open Windows. Except there it meant “Let’s go outside and explore!” Here the message is the opposite: “let’s stay inside, where it’s comfortable and safe.” With the computer, you can get anything you want from that outside world, without actually having to go there.

Or can you? If what you want is silk pyjamas, a cocktail dress or an exquisite watch, the possibilities are endless. But there’s no icon to click on if you want a clean environment, to save an endangered species, streets that are safe to walk on, a public education system so your children can go a decent school, a public transit system that will take you where you want to go. These sorts of things require some kind of collective action, and increasingly collective action seems to be out of reach. In fact, the flip side of all this focus on personal empowerment is a focus on disempowering us collectively. All our public systems — public health care, public education, public pensions, public transit — are underfunded and under attack. Although we are richer in terms of GDP than we’ve ever been before, we are told we can’t afford the level of spending on public programs that we managed to afford in the past. Besides, we’re told, there’s no point in having public programs with ambitious social goals because government will only screw them up. All our confidence in our ability to act collectively is being undermined, with the subtext message Whatever it is, the private sector can do it better.

Never mind that there’s no evidence to prove this. Never mind, for instance, that the private U.S. health-care system is 40 percent more expensive per capita than the Canadian public system, even though the Canadian system provides full medical coverage for all Canadians and the American system leaves some forty-three million without any coverage at all. This isn’t because Canadians are smarter than Americans — it’s because we have a public system and they don’t. The simple truth is that by pooling resources through our national tax system, Canada has been able to build a public health-care system that takes care of all its citizens — an impressive achievement, when you think about it. One of the reasons we’ve been able to do this is that a public system is less expensive than a private system — not because the services are inferior, but because the enormous overhead costs of private insurance are eliminated and also because health problems tend to be diagnosed at an earlier stage, before they become more serious and more costly. When you leave health care to the market, it ends up being dished out like every other consumer good: to those who have the means to pay. So some end up with great care, and some end up with no care.

The attempt to discredit public health care — the crowning jewel of the social programs created in the early post-war era — shows the determination on the part of pro-market forces to undermine our confidence in our ability to act collectively. All this is part of an attempt to reshape society, and indeed, to reshape us — to make us more focused on being consumers, and less focused on being citizens. As consumers, we are being offered a world of dizzying possibilities; as citizens, we are being offered a world of shrinking possibilities. If we would all just be like Homo Economicus, we could adjust perfectly to the change. After all, the consumer world is a world designed for Homo Economicus. It is a world where nothing exists but material possessions — a perfect fit for a person who has nothing but material desires. And it all fits perfectly with the business plans of the corporations that want to sell us those material possessions and not be bothered by our collective impulse to do things like tax them or regulate them or restrict them from dumping their waste wherever they find convenient.

Of course, there are a few problems. Like Homo Economicus, this consumer dream world is awfully one-dimensional; it provides for endless personal material indulgence, but it doesn’t really deal with a whole range of other human needs and aspirations. Specifically, it doesn’t allow us to satisfy some very important needs that require collective solutions, like ensuring that all members of society have access to certain basic things — both for their sake and for overall social cohesiveness — and ensuring that the environment, which we all must ultimately share, will be protected. Without collective solutions for these needs, the world will almost certainly end up an uglier place, a crummier place to live. Thomas Homer-Dixon paints a vivid image of a world of deteriorating environmental and social conditions, where the privileged few drive in an air-conditioned stretch limo through potholed streets lined with homeless beggars. David Quammen imagines that things could break down further, with those inside the limo “drinking bottled water and breathing bottled air and eating reasonably healthy food that has become incredibly precious, while the potholes on the road outside grow ever deeper. Eventually the limo will look more like a lunar rover.” And, it could be added, there will be no curtains billowing gently in the breeze on the lunar rover. Sealed portholes, with the faces of a desperate humanity pressed up against the bulletproof glass, will be the closest thing to wide-open windows.

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