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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Millennial Man: How Emmanuel Macron is charming France's globalised youth

At the French presidential candidate's London rally, supporters cheered for a reformist. 

If it weren’t for the flags – the blue, white and red of France, but also the European Union’s starred circle – the audience’s colourful signs and loud cheers could have been confused with those of a rock star’s concert. There even were VIP bracelets and queues outside Westminster Central Hall, of fans who waited hours but didn’t make it in. This wasn't a Beyonce concert, but a rally for France’s shiny political maverick, the centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. He arrived on stage under a thunder of applause, which lasted the full minute he took to salute the first rank.

Since he resigned from his position as François Hollande’s economy minister last August, the 39-year-old relative political newbie – he used to be a banker and only joined the French government in 2014 – has created his own movement, En Marche, and has been sailing in the polls. In this he has been helped by the fall from grace of Conservative candidate François Fillon. Macron, who can count on the support of several Socialists, the centrist François Bayrou and the unofficial backing of the Elysee palace, is seen as the favourite to face hard-right Marine Le Pen in the election’s run-off in May.

A screen displayed photos of supporters from around the world (Singapore, Morocco, United States, “We’re everywhere”) as well as the hashtags and Snapchat account for the event. Rihanna’s “Diamonds” played as a team of young “helpers”, en anglais dans le texte, were guiding the 3,000 French expatriates to their seats. “We’re about 90 helpers tonight,” said Pierre-Elie De Rohan, 23. A History student at University College London, he joined the youth branch of En Marche via a school group.

The movement has been very active among students: “We’re in all London universities, King’s, Imperial, UCL”, he said. “It’s exciting”, echoed fellow helped Arcady Dmitrieff, 18, from UCL too. “We feel like we’re taking part in something bigger than us.”

Hopeful millennials are flowing to En Marche en masse. Macron is young, attractive, and though, like most French politicians, he is a graduate of the elite École Nationale d'Administration school, voters still see in him a breath of fresh air. “He’s neither left-wing nor right-wing," praised helper 18-year-old Victoria Tran. Her friend Adele Francey, 18, agreed. “He transcends the political divides that have confined us for the past thirty years," she said. “And he looks sincere," added Lena Katz, 18. “He really believes he can make a change.” The Macron brand, a mix of smart marketing, cult figure (the first letters of En Marche are Macron’s initials) and genuine enthusiasm previously unseen on the French campaign trail, has given him momentum in a political system highly based on the leader’s personality.

For Katz, Tran and many of their friends, France’s 2017 presidential race is their first election. “I want to be invested and to vote for someone I like," Tran said. “More than the others, Macron represents our generation.” Their close elders are hoping for a political renaissance, too – perhaps the one that was supposed to come with François Hollande in 2012. “I really believe he can make it," said Aurelie Diedhou, 29, a wholesale manager who has lived in London for two years. “On many topics, he’s more advanced than his rivals, a bit like Barack Obama in 2008. In France, when a politician has the pretention not to be corrupt, or to have held a job before entering politics, they’re accused of marketing themselves. But it’s just true.”

Macron occupied the stage for a good hour and a half – during which his supporters never failed to cheer, even for boring declarations such as “I want more management autonomy”. He passionately defended the European Union, and pleaded for its reform: “I am European, and I want to change Europe with you.”

Such words were welcomed by French expatriates, many of whom have feared that their life in the UK may be turned upside down by the consequences of the Brexit vote. “Britain has made a choice, which I think is a bad choice, because the middle classes have lacked perspectives, and have had doubts," Macron said. He promised to stand for the rights of the French people who “have made their life choice to settle in Britain”.

As far as Macron's UK co-ordinator, Ygal El-Harra, 40, was concerned, that the candidate would make a trip across the Channel was self evident: “We’ve got people in Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, in Cornwall. And they’re not just bankers and traders: some work in delivery, restaurants, many are students... They perfectly represent French society, and we want to keep in touch with them.”

In 2012, London’s French community opted for Nicolas Sarkozy over Hollande, but the vote was very close (48 per cent to 52 per cent). Just as within France, where he appeals to both left and right-wingers, Macron’s internationally-minded liberalism, coupled with his fluent, fairly well-accented English, could win big among the expat. And they matter - there are about 100,000 votes to grab. “For us who are in London, it’s important to have an open-minded, international candidate," the teenager Tran said.

Rosa Mancer, a 45-year-old strategist who has lived in London for 20 years, agreed. “I loved what he said about Europe. We must reform it from the inside," she said. But she admitted her support for Macron was “a choice by elimination”, due to the threat of the far-right Front National and the corruption case surrounding Fillon. “He’s got no scandal behind him," she said. Unlike their younger peers, voters with more experience in French politics tended to choose the dynamic Macron because he was the least compromised of the lot. “It’s certainly not Marine Le Pen, nor Benoît Hamon, the sectarist Fillon or the Stalinist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who will rebuild our fossilised France”, said Roland Stern, a Frenchman in his sixties. “In 1974, Giscard D’Estaing didn’t have a party, either. But once he had won, the others followed him.”

British politicians had come to see the French phenomenon, too. Labour’s Denis MacShane and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg sat among the VIPs. For the latter, the enthusiasm around a promising and brilliant politician rang a bell. Looking back on the 2010 general election, the former Liberal Democrat leader reflected: “Although my platform was very different at the time, the basis was that the status quo was letting people down and that we needed something different.” Clegg’s advice to Macron? “Make sure you seek to set and manage people’s expectations.”

As Clegg knows too well, there is a danger in bringing everyone together, and that is keeping everyone together without disappointing them all. If his name comes first on the evening of May 7, Macron’s real challenge will begin: forming a government with his supports for a broad political spectrum, and dropping vague pledges and marketing slogans to map out a clear way ahead.

In Westminster, hundreds of supporters were literally behind him, seated in tiers on stage. A massive screen showed a live close-up of Macron's youthful face. Something in his picture-perfect smile seemed to wonder what would happen if the crowd stopped cheering.