Literary responses to the Global Financial Crisis, 2007-09

Literary responses to the Global Financial Crisis, 2007-09

Raj Khan

Capitalism came to a grinding halt as the financial firm Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy during September 2008. Stock market prices imploded, banks stopped lending to each other, and banks tried to sell off their assets, which depressed prices. But other financial institutions were bailed out by several governments, including Hypo Real Estate in Germany, Dexia in Belgium and France, and UBS in Switzerland.  The Irish and Spanish governments had to ask for support from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union to avoid further economic disarray.

Since the 1980s, capitalist revolutions occurred under leaders such as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, America’s Ronald Reagan, China’s Deng Xiaoping, India’s Manmohan Singh, Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev, Canada’s Brian Mulroney, Ireland’s Bertie Ahern, Mexico’s Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Brazil’s Fernando Henriques Cardoso and Argentina’s Carlos Menem. The ideology of privatising public services, deregulating the financial markets and prioritising profit over regulating markets became a transnational phenomenon. Light-touch regulation became the predominant economic approach across the globe and is one factor that led to the 2008 financial crisis.

A plethora of books, academic journals and newspaper articles have been written in response to the economic implications of the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-09. However, there has not been a focus on literary responses to the financial crisis. Its consequences still affect us in our personal and public life. Throughout my six-week project for the University Research Opportunities Programme, I analysed how the crisis has been represented and responded to within various literary forms such as prose, poetry and drama. I read financial literature and views from literary critics to help me understand the financial jargon within the literary texts and to contextualise the situation of the recession within the stories I studied.

One novel I analysed was Michael Lewis’ 2015 text The Big Short, which focused on the protagonist Steve Eisman. As an outspoken hedge fund manager, Eisman predicted the subprime lending market was going to collapse. He saw investment banks such as Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs as part of the engine of exploitation – the subprime mortgage market. The novel critiques the belief in self-regulated markets and how financial institutions use fancy jargon to reduce criticism of corruption from the general public. The novel also explains how success was an individual achievement and failure was a social problem, which means the ruling elite could abuse their power and ordinary people would suffer the consequences.

Mental health illness and financial instability are inextricably linked to each other. Jess Walter’s 2010 novel The Financial Lives of the Poets explores this issue with the flawed protagonist Matthew Prior. He is a reporter who gambles everything on an idea: a website devoted to financial journalism in the form of blank verse called; the site features poetry on financial news. Due to the website doing poorly in generating revenue, Prior goes through financial stress and suspects his wife Lisa of cheating on him with her former partner Chuck. Towards the end of the story, Matthew’s family house is taken away from them because of his illegal behaviour of getting involved in drug dealing. This causes a rift between Matthew and Lisa but the final chapter shows them forgiving each other; the final chapter shows them accepting the reality that they have lost their material wealth but they will be fine because they have each other and their children, Teddy and Franklin. A common theme within the novel is the emphasis of crises such as Matthew and Lisa’s marriage, bad finances, and drug dealing to be interrelated.

I studied David Hare’s 2009 play called The Power of Yes: A Dramatist Sees to Understand the Financial Crisis. Hare uses verbatim theatre to give the audience a lesson on the causes of the crisis. Scott Rudmann, a private equity investor, argues that the United States and the United Kingdom went from being nations of producers to being nations of borrowers. The play is more of a history lesson than a theatrical performance because the audience learns about the Financial Services Authority, the negative consequences of deregulation, the growth of the British financial sector, and the American subprime crisis where million-dollar mortgages were given to people with no income. Hare helps contextualise the crisis for a general audience with no expertise on finance and economics.

Another play I analysed was Lucy Prebble’s 2009 Enron, which explores the rise and fall of the American energy company Enron, which was based in Houston, Texas. The three main characters are Enron’s founder Kenneth Lay, who represents an ignorant leader with minimal awareness of the corruption within the company; Enron’s main CEO Jeffrey Skilling dominates his employees with a focus on the upward trajectory of the company’s stock prices; and the company’s CFO Andrew Fastow who supported American markets being deregulated. They filed for bankruptcy in December 2001 due to their finances being sustained by creatively planned, institutionalised and systemic accounting fraud. In one section of the play, Skilling argues that within business, people are motivated to succeed by competition, self-interest, money and sex. Skilling, Fastow and Lay all wanted George W. Bush to win the 2000 presidential election in order to have a deregulated state they could play with. Prebble’s play emphasises how financial corruption is a product of systemic and institutional manoeuvring and mismanagement.

A flaw I found throughout my research was the lack of narratives from Africa, South America, Asia and the Middle East. Within the era of globalisation, literary responses to the global financial recession should not prioritise a North American and Eurocentric view of the world. Despite the lack of diverse views in my reading list, I found an anthology of poetry edited by Karen van Dyck in 2016 called Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry. The anthology includes poems by authors from Greece and Middle Eastern nations; one example is Jazra Khaleed, who was born in Chechnya in 1979 and lives In Greece. Khaleed is linked to the Greek anti-fascist rap scene and has written on issues such as racism and xenophobia, hip hop, protests and police violence. His poem ‘Words’ explains how power is within language and how his identity is rooted in transnationalism. He has a hybrid identity that is affected by the financial crisis: hunger, unemployment, slashed pensions and ruined businesses are linked to the global recession. Another example is the Turkish-Cypriot poet Mehmet Yasin’s ‘The Bitter Loss’ where he has a feeling of loss because he was exiled from his Cypriot home during 1974. He shows how financial instability affects all aspects of life on a global scale.

There were plenty of other texts I had read for the project and I found three common themes in most of the stories. One of them was how mental health problems and financial instability are interconnected; the second theme was the marginalisation of women within financial cultures and in the workplace, and the third was that the crisis did not occur because of a few individuals misused their power and influence. The global financial crisis of 2007-09 was the product of structural and systemic failures within financial institutions and banks. Literary responses to the crisis should teach us that in order to counteract the negative consequences of the 2008 recession, we need to address it with a holistic approach.