HSBC now looks to be heading for the biggest fine ever for Europe’s biggest bank. It stands accused of failing to properly implement money-laundering controls designed to prevent terrorists and others from using its services to advance their criminal ends.
Two facts stand out from this case. One is that HSBC is a British bank, but the case is being brought in the US, just as the case against Barclays for interest rate fixing (Libor and Euribor) was also brought in the US. Why are the British authorities so asleep at the wheel? Second, why has it taken so long for this financial malfeasance on such an industrial scale to come to light since both the Libor scandal and the failure of anti-money-laundering controls have been in play since 2004-5?
There is a wider pattern here. The culture of de-regulation, let the markets rip and governments retreat, together with massive enrichment by any means legal or illegal that can be devised, has taken root across the board under the toxic influence of neoliberal capitalism over the last 3 decades. Whether it’s the manipulation of markets, defrauding of taxpayers by innumerable petty scams, cheating on expenses, corruption of public officials, glorification of tax dodging, the exploitative culture of spin and deception, or media threats to extort influence – all of these exemplify the abuse of power which has become commonplace.
It isn’t just that bankers are greedy, politicians are venal, police are corrupt, or the media untrustworthy. The malaise goes deeper than merely personal failings in institutions we trusted. The promotion of aggressive, self-interested individualism (Thatcher’s No such things as society and Mandelson’s Intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich) has unleashed such a depth of selfishness everywhere as to bury the real motivators – pride in work, the desire to be useful, self-expression, concern for others, a sense of belonging, as well as the ethical principles of professionalism.
Neo-liberal ‘modernisation’ created unaccountable monopolies of capital, along with a centralising, micro-managing and increasingly authoritarian State. Its ruthlessly self-seeking norms, exposed labour markets and marketised welfare reform all generated insecurity, anxiety and isolation. Turning that around requires both deep moral conviction and intense political determination to engineer a series of profound far-reaching reforms in financial and corporate governance, the balance between markets and the State, company ownership, remuneration systems, and worker representation. That is a mountain that the Labour Party has not yet begun to climb.