Blaming the "culture" is no excuse for what happened at Barclays

The dreaded "c-word" has become an excuse to say banal but unpalatable things.

In the past few weeks I have been to half a dozen events where the aim was to discuss the role of culture. In the European crisis, in the financial crisis, in the banking crisis, in populist politics, in shaping anti-immigration views. You name it – if it's in crisis (and quite a few things are), then it is giving rise to the kind of soul-searching that those of us who have been using the 'C' word for decades could only dream about a few years ago. I run a research group that encourages organisations to be more aware of the role that cultural dynamics play — in politics, business, finance, so I should be delirious with joy.

Could it be that we’ve been heard? I’m not so sure. For every brilliant analysis by Gillian Tett, there are a dozen wannabe anthropologist spewing - at best - wishy-washy banalities.

The evocation of ‘culture’ is becoming incantatory– a panacea explanation for almost all forms of abuse, cheating, poor decision-making and dodgy politics, and it leaves me wondering what everyone means when they say ‘culture’. Developing a better understanding of the role of culture and the ways in which it shapes our perceptions of risk and opportunities is crucial—but the next few years will tell which organisations are truly willing to take this on board and do the hard analytical work and which are simply kicking reform in the long-grass.

For years now we have been awash in 'cultural' explanations for the financial crisis: young, aggressive traders, swimming in pools of testosterone and cash could not see a world beyond their flashing screens because, hey, this was the ‘culture of finance’. Hedge fund managers, steeped in chess, equations and modeling were just victims of their life-styles: they hung out together and had no other reference points. Playing with numbers, regardless of human consequences, became 'their culture'.

But this is reaching new heights: now, Barclays - much as other large banks - is being discussed as a galaxy so culturally distant that no light from the mainstream planet ever reached it. To the extent that they didn't realise it was wrong to fiddle Libor. It was their culture, you see.

So what in fact is being said in this context? A real cultural explanation might take into account a society’s relationship to capitalism and its attendant institutions. It might examine its relationship to money and credit; to consumerism, property and comfort and perhaps delve into the origins of a few myths and conventions and how these can shape but also distort the purpose of institutions and organisations. In this case, however, the reference to culture is a convenient way of saying a few banal but unpalatable things.

First, it paints banking behaviour as beyond the reach of normal policy-making and regulation. Because it’s cultural you see. You understand culture don't you? I mean, we all have it. We're sorry, we got a bit carried away with our culture (which happens to be all about trashing your culture), but you know how it is: some of us cook a favourite dish, some of us paint, some of us fiddle the books and bleed you dry. Hey, swings and roundabouts. Let he who has no culture throw the first stone of reform.

Second, it’s a very effective way of getting quite a few people off the hook – bar a few heads that will be made to roll symbolically and painlessly. Those resignations (and perhaps a nice long investigation) will be the only authentic nod to culture and in the most cynical and manipulative way: the acknowledgment that our (mainstream) culture demands such symbols and forms of appeasement. For the rest there floats a strong whiff of the demagogue’s ‘it's got very deep roots and there's not much we can (and want) to do about it’.

Bob Diamond has resigned as CEO of Barclays, and Monday claimed the head of its Chair Marcus Agius (promptly re-appointed in a new function) as well as its COO, Jerry del Missier. But even as the news flashes across the world's screens, Bob and Marcus are already being absolved by the ‘cultural’ reference: To tame the monstrous culture that reigned at Barclays - and its capricious, unknowable gods – we’ll make a few sacrifices (no one would go as far as referring to these men as ‘virgins’). What should be an act recognizing individual responsibility is immediately wrapped in the language of cultural absolution. 

Interestingly, Diamond himself seems to give short shrift to the cultural explanation and going straight for a rather more, shall we say, ‘personalised’ approach. Or are we talking about a culture of passing the buck?

The irony is that the word culture here is used to refer to the very opposite of culture—an old-fashioned, conservative view of human nature. It is code for ‘nought so queer as (banking) folk’.

In the context of the debate on populism and anti-immigration, the discussion takes on another tone. But here too there is a marked turn to ‘culture’ that, although more authentically motivated, leaves me a little pensive. The aims though are generally more laudable: to address the rising tide of anti-immigrant attitudes.

While the right in the UK – and elsewehere – has always been more comfortable with the evocation of culture as an explanatory variable for anti-immigrant attitudes; for progressives the conventional wisdom was that if economic security triumphed, xenophobic attitudes would be vanquished. The fact is that we can't tell whether this is true, because economic security has not triumphed.

But in the face of a hardening of public attitudes toward immigration, progressives are turning to culture too (with a cheap bit of mea culpa-ing thrown in). The story goes something like this: we've discovered people care about more than money; they care about culture and values. They want to protect their way of life and that is about more than protecting their livelihood.

Well yes. But let’s be fair, progressives aren’t just discovering that culture matters. In fact, some would argue that an emphasis on culture is the reason behind the Left's current challenges. The rhetoric over the past few years hasn’t been that there wasn't enough cultural emphasis, but there was too much through multicultural policies. Here the – barely veiled - accusation is that the Left's mistake was to privilege minority cultures over the majority culture. Hence the, now widely accepted, mantra that ‘multiculturalism has failed’ (the fact that Canada - where multiculturalism was most vigorously pursued and implemented – is just about the only advanced democracy that exhibits high levels of tolerance, seems not to dent this dubious line of reasoning at all).

But this current ‘turn to culture’, unlike its multicultural predecessor (which saw a valuing of diversity as a way to familiarise people with difference in order to forge new institutions to live and work together – thereby simultaneously addressing social and economic exclusion), tends to depict people's anxieties and resentments as something fixed, unchanging, rigid. Here too, we are turning to something that is more akin to a conservative view of human nature, than a progressive view of culture.

This must be a sign of the times – across political divisions and across sectors, the same logic is being applied. And it is a dangerous one because, everywhere, it reaches for a ‘people like us’ kind of reasoning. People like us have our ways. It’s cultural.

But cultures are not islands of meaning – they are collections of people who make choices, change their minds, have new ideas and create institutions. Institutions that, in turn, shape them and their cultures. The sociologist Claus Offe argues that institutions are crucial because they create the illusion that we know the strangers with whom we share a political and social space. It’s another way of saying that institutions create cultures: they create routines that allow us to recognise eachother. In this respect we have power over our cultures; the power to shape them, change them, and regulate them. They are as much what frees us as what constrains us, and should never be cast as immutable or deterministic. Cultures are places of conflict, where values of fairness and generosity, come up against ruthlessness and greed. What makes one triumph over the other? Leaders and institutions. We call on those leaders – in every sector - who are serious about reform to take the cultural work seriously, but the opposite applies in equal measure. If you’re serious about culture, you need to be serious about reform.

Catherine Fieschi is the director of Counterpoint, a research and advisory group that provides governments, businesses and NGOs with analysis on how culture affects politics and markets.

Barclays: can't be blamed on "banking culture". Photograph: Getty Images
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In the chaos of the Middle East, the world must stand behind the Kurds

The Kurdish people have shown themselves to be a small beacon of light in a sea of darkness.

It is one year since the lifting of the Siege of Kobanî. Many of us can recall harrowing images of the black flags of Isis flying threateningly from the surrounding hills, of car bombs being driven into the city’s defences, and of heroic citizens defending their houses and families from the despotic invaders intent on killing them. The Siege of Kobanî was the Stalingrad of the Syrian civil war – a true turning point in the battle against Isis.

Since then, we have seen a significant escalation in the involvement of the international community in Syria and Iraq. But to what end? Syria remains divided between various competing forces; Iraq is a half-governed country with declining influence over its populace. Foreign governments play power games across international boundaries which have long-since ceased to be relevant, least of all to those wishing to establish an Islamist caliphate.

Beheadings, suicide bombings, barrel bombs, religious extremism, violent intolerance, mass movements of people – these are just a few terms most associated with the Middle East today. To say the region is complex is an understatement bordering on ignorance.

In a recent PBS documentary, Inside Assad’s Syria, a television crew was sent to Damascus to cover its sectarian, religious and ideological divides. It showed us two halves to the city: one which lives in liberty and security; and another which resides in barrel-bombed apartment blocks and streets overrun with groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad.

In the southwest of Syria, pro-democratic force control pockets of land and fight Assad’s forces. In the northwest, Hezbollah works with Assad’s army to fight Islamist groups. Further north are areas ruled by groups with affiliations to Al Qaeda, such as the powerful al-Nusra Front. In the east, highways and cities have fallen to the apocalyptic regime of Isis, which stretches far across the old border into Iraq. What future does the Middle East have with such contrasting ideological and religious divides? It is near-impossible to offer a positive view for the future.

Resolving these issues will only be achieved in the long term and through a combination of local agreements (and perhaps the portioning of areas) of international oversight. In the short term, what can we do as citizens of a country with vested interests but limited power?

One of the problems of Western coverage and commentary is that we rarely view the Middle East in any way except through the prism of war. Debate is focused narrowly on the issues of intervention, extremism and migration. People are commonly talked about in derogatory terms with most mistakenly referred to as migrants, when many are fleeing from death and destruction.

These are people who, like us, desire to live in peace and security. They want to raise families and contribute to their communities. Although there are theological differences between Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Jews and various minorities, for centuries these groups have lived alongside each other with general tolerance and respect. Churches have existed in the same cities as mosques. Yet the internecine conflicts have ruined the multiculturalism balances in Syria and Iraq. Communities have been divided against each other, sometimes on pain of death. The region is overrun with regressive forces.

Here in the UK, our view of foreign policy is shaped by the forming of alliances with progressive forces – that is those countries, governments and parties committed to values similar to our own. With the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as they are, dominated by regressive forces, our foreign policy is in disrepute. Who should we support in Syria? How can we continue to support Iraq’s army if it is being led on the ground by Iranian generals?

There is one force within the region that is progressive. They share our commitment to democracy, the rule of law and liberty. They have cohesive, well-led armed forces which not only protect their peoples, but also others in fear of persecution. Their women fight alongside their men, often in leadership positions. They have been the bulwark against Isis advances in both Iraq and Syria. They liberated Kobanî from oppression in tandem with US forces.

The Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and the Peshmerga in Iraq have proved their strength and longevity in the face of enormous challenges. Lacking the weaponry appropriated by Isis, they have fought bravely and slowly liberated areas from tyranny. In doing so, they have treated non-Kurdish citizens well and protected them as they would wish to be protected by others. They have put their lives on the line for the common good, such as the taking of towns and cities outside of Kurdish areas. In doing so, they have refrained from declaring an expansion of Kurdish territory, instead stating that such lands will be handed over to local progressive groups when it is ready to do so.

Perversely, Western governments depend on Peshmerga and YPG forces to fight without adequately arming them. In Turkey, the same Kurdish citizens who would fight for the YPG against Isis are prosecuted and sometimes killed during clashes for protesting in favour of devolution. Turkey’s Kurdish populations in towns like Sur, Cizre, Nusaybin and many others are living under curfew. Yet we do nothing to raise this an issue.

Yet is it the Kurdish people that will be the first army to defeat the ideology of Isis. And because of this they are the biggest target. Their men and women are free. They live in lands governed by democracy, social justice and equality. They hold values in direct opposition to Isis but living in cities just miles apart. The Kurds are the only progressive force in the region which shares our values, has a commitment to democracy and has armies strong enough to protect its peoples.

If we believe in supporting those who share our values, we must show them our solidarity. Our support must go to Kurds as a whole not just those who fight for our interests, because the challenges Kurds face go beyond the borders set by the UK and France in 1920. These borders have been disregarded not only by Isis and al-Qaeda but also by Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have each ignored international boundaries in pursuit of their interests.

It is fair to say that this simple notion of solidarity leads us to certain complications. Kurdistan is an ancient region divided up by imperial powers between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. How do we support the Kurds without alienating our allies in Ankara and Baghdad?

During the 1991 Gulf War, the US, UK and France established a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan to protect Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s air force. A year later, the first free and fair elections were held in Kurdistan. It was also the first such election in the whole of Iraq. A decade on, whatever the merits of the conflict, the Peshmerga were allies of the Coalition during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Since then, Kurdistan has remained steadfast in its commitment to a democratic future.

In Iraq, there is already a functioning Kurdish state in all but name. It is a pioneering force for democracy in the Middle East. In Iraqi Kurdistan there is a core set of values based on tolerance, respect and freedom of expression. Inclusiveness is enshrined in law. Women are recognised as equal citizens, with a law requiring that a minimum of 30 per cent of National Assembly seats must be taken by women. Furthermore, seats are also reserved for minority communities, with the Christian and Turkmen communities guaranteed at least five seats each. These values mirror our values.

We should adequately arm the Kurdish forces of the YPG and Peshmerga to adequately protect their lands. We must do whatever it takes to ensure Isis is restricted from further post-liberation resurgences, as was seen in the Kobanî region following the redeployment of Kurdish forces to Iraq. Over 350 were killed or injured in that resurgence, simply because YPG and Peshmerga forces are overstretched.

We should also seriously consider supporting Iraqi Kurdistan in its long-term ambition to be an independent state – when the time is right. No other people deserves it as do the Kurds. It is the largest homogenous nation on earth not represented by a unified state. They have a right to determine their own future. True, there are major issues to contend with – most notably corruption, political infighting and the continued presidency of Masoud Barzani beyond his legal mandate – however these issues can be overcome with the close help and guidance of the international community.

Outside of Kurdish controlled-areas lie lands ridden with conflict. We have seen our fellow citizens, friends and trading partners have their lives ruined by the twisted and hate-filled soldiers of Isis. In Syria, close to Kurdish cities, pro-democratic forces have been wiped out by Isis or other Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda. The rest of Syria is pock-marked with the barrel bombs dropped by Assad’s forces. Even within Kurdish-controlled areas, bombs have been dropped from Turkish planes on Kurdish YPG soldiers fighting for values which we would call our own. The region is highly complex and constantly changing.

Turkey is therefore a key player. Yet in recent years President Erdogan’s administration has escalated the conflict with the Kurdish citizens it represents. Peace talks between Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the Turkish government ended unsuccessfully in 2015. Erdogan appears determined to militarily crush the PKK before any negotiations around a lasting peace can recommence.

Turkey has refused to recognise either the YPG or the PYD – the main political party of Kurds in Syria – as a legitimate force on the ground, due to its concerns that any Kurdish autonomy in Syria may motivate Kurds in Turkey to demand similar rights. Before the Syrian civil war there were thought to be between 16-20 million Kurds resident in Turkey, in contrast to just two million in Syria.

For Erdogan, this issue is of greater importance than what is occurring in Syria and Iraq. During the Siege of Kobanî, Ankara refused Kurdish YPG fighters the right to travel across the border into Kobanî to fight Isis forces. Rather than allow them to protect their families and friends, Turkey sprayed them with tear gas and removed their weapons. Significant international pressure belatedly led to Ankara allowing Peshmerga Forces to travel from Iraqi Kurdistan and enter Kobanî through Turkey – and just in time to save the city from Isis. In the interim period, Isis recruits routinely crossed over the border with ease.

The Erdogan administration’s conflict with its own Kurdish citizens is undoubtedly complex. Many Kurds in Turkey want some level of recognition and autonomy but it is not known how many desire outright independence. A free and fair poll has never been carried out and would not be tolerated by Ankara. President Erdogan prefers to suppress opinion rather than encourage it. Where is our solidarity for people demanding human rights?

While Turkey’s air forces have been bombing the Kurdish-controlled Kandil mountainous areas in Iraq, often missing Kurdish forces, Ankara has remained a strong ally of the government in Iraqi Kurdistan, which it sees as a correcting force against the regional influences of Riyadh and Tehran. However, Ankara fears an independent Kurdistan and the effects this may have on the Kurdish populations of Turkey and Syria. Ankara fears the establishment of a Greater Kurdistan, an option which is not on the table and most Kurds do not think is achievable.

Each of these issues is interconnected. Though Kurds in Iraq may carry different passports to those in Syria and Turkey, they similarly identify as Kurdish peoples. They share a culture, a religion and a language. The challenges faced by Kurds in Syria are of utmost concern to Kurds in neighbouring countries. There is a fraternity that must not be dismissed.

The Kurdish question in Turkey is obviously complicated. Turkey remains a critical member for the NATO alliance with its landing strips used to carry out bombing raids on Isis. Therefore, keeping Ankara on side is important to Washington. This is why we in the West have been relatively silent on the Kurdish issue. Meanwhile, the international and national boundaries of Iraq and Syria are now so distorted to be almost beyond repair. Kurds control areas beyond that of Kurdistan, with no other force strong enough to protect people in those areas. In our determination not to ‘put boots on the ground’, we ask Peshmerga and YPG forces to do the heavy lifting and endure the casualties of a conflict we in part caused. This is unfair to the Kurdish people.

We must encourage Turkey to end the Kurdish conflict within its borders. Ankara must resume peace talks with Abdullah Ocalan and the HDP – now the third biggest group in the grand assembly of Turkey. Ankara should accept that the Kurdish question cannot be resolved by militarily means. The overarching issues of inequality, equal citizenship and minority rights are beyond the control of even the strongest of strongmen.

The UK can help resolve the Kurdish question. We have long been a supporter of Turkey’s aspiration to become an EU member. We should agree to accelerate that process in return for allowing the EU to broker a peace. We have a duty to the citizens of any state which harbours ambition to join us. We have a duty to protect people’s human rights.

At the same time, we should support the Peshmerga and YPG as they fight a common foe. Defeating Isis forces in Iraq and Syria would reduce the Islamists’ ability to train home-grown jihadists and send them back to European cities. We should support them with weapons and finances in return for guarantees over human rights and post-conflict governance of the areas they retake from Isis.

The Kurdish people have shown themselves to be a small beacon of light in a sea of darkness. If we believe in the values of democracy, tolerance and freedom of expression – we must support those peoples that practice them. There are small steps we can take to show them our solidarity. We must do what we can to support them.

Ibrahim Dogus is the Director of the Centre for Turkey Studies (www.ceftus.org) and the Director of the Centre for Kurdish Progress (www.kurdishprogress.org).