Financial Capitalism and Its Critiques. Individualization and Collectivization of Responsibilities during the Libor Scandal

Friday, 3 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
TW2.2.04 (Tower Two)
Thomas Angeletti, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom; FMSH, Paris, France; EHESS, Paris, France; Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne, Germany
During the recent years, the critique of elites seems to be more and more broader. Sometimes related to public scandals, sometimes to social movements, these critiques take place, firstly, in a financial capitalism, in other words in a world characterised by the extension of financial flows, financial institutions and financial actors. Faced with this extension, which is also geographical, these denunciations implicitly reveal a dilution of responsibilities. These critiques, secondly, are developed in a period of growing inequalities since the 1980’s. In this regard, it appears that both the increase in financial flows that the reorganization of businesses — especially in the form of shareholder groups — transformed the public criticism of elites in the last decades, and seems to be in the perpetual search of those responsible. How does financial capitalism, in this context, manage to defend and protect itself against its critiques? Why do the financial scandals focus mostly on individuals who embody capitalism and its excesses? Finally, which devices constrain and restrict a collectivization of responsibilities, and thereby, a larger and broader critique?

To answer these questions, it seems especially important for sociology to study the treatment of financial scandals. Since 2008 and the beginning of the financial crisis, different trials against financial traders occurred in France, in the United States and the United Kingdom, and have gained momentum in the public sphere. Our presentation will be precisely dedicated to the study of the Libor scandal, which occurred in 2012 in the United Kingdom. The Libor or London interbank offered rate is an average rate estimated every day by London based banks to exchange devises. Moreover, financial actors used the Libor to different purposes, from consumer credits to mortgages. Some of these banks were accused to manipulate these rates to help their traders to take better positions on the market. During the investigation of this scandal in the last years, several banks were condemned, and different traders are still waiting to be judged in the next years.

I will present here the results of an on-going ethnographic investigation of the trial of one of the traders involved in this scandal, who worked for the bank UBS. This bank was fined 940 million pounds by US, British and Swiss authorities to avoid any prosecution. Thomas Hayes, this trader, was charged of eight counts of conspiracy by the Serious Fraud Office. This trial is a good opportunity to describe, understand and therefore explain how these individuals can be presented in public discourse both as important agents of the crisis but also, in the same moment, as cogs in an impersonal financialized capitalist system of which they only revealed its inherent weaknesses.

Therefore, I will show first how such scandals take place in a more global relation, following Boltanski and Chiapello, between financial capitalism and its critiques. Second, I will argue that these trials can be understood as a sign of a broader and deeper transformation of contemporary political regimes, regarding citizens' expectations towards political and business leaders.