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Thieves, Fools, Fraudsters, and Gamblers? The Ambivalence of Moral Criticism in the Credit Crunch of 2008

  • Sascha Münnich (a1)
Abstract
Abstract

This article examines public debates on the legitimacy of banking profits in the 2008 credit crunch. A content analysis of 957 newspaper articles published in Germany and the UK in the early weeks after the Lehman Brothers collapse examines critical statements directed at illegitimate forms of financial profit in order to identify the cultural legitimacy of financial capitalism. The conceptual framework provided by the French sociology of justification points to the role of shared orders of value as a normative reference for public discourses. In both national debates, four important boundaries for legitimate profits were drawn that concerned the problems of ownership, risk-management capacities of traders, fraudulent client relations, and speculative gambling. The meaning of this classical moral criticism of banks was transformed in the context of the 2008 crisis: a line between “normal” and “excessive” financial profits was drawn, defining an area of legitimate profit-seeking that hewed to the basic assumptions of the market model. Economic theory was used as a scheme of public economic morality. The seemingly harsh critical debate effectively reproduced a legitimate image of a functioning financial market, deflecting public attention away from the structural ambivalences of financial profit-seeking and granting legitimacy to the institutional status quo of financial capitalism.

Résumé

Cet article étudie les débats publics consacrés à la légitimité des profits bancaires à l'occasion de la crise du crédit de 2008. Une analyse du contenu de 957 articles de journaux publiés en Allemagne et au Royaume-Uni dans les premières semaines qui suivirent la faillite de Lehman Brothers recense les principales critiques dénonçant l'illégitimité des profits financiers. Le cadre conceptuel apporté par la sociologie française de la Justification souligne le rôle des ordres partagés de valeurs comme référence normative pour les discours publics. Dans les deux débats nationaux étudiés, sont particulièrement discutés en rapport avec l'idée de profit légitime des problèmes d'appropriation, la capacité des traders à gérer les risques, les relations frauduleuses avec la clientèle et les paris purement spéculatifs. La critique morale classique des banques prend un sens nouveau dans le contexte de la crise de 2008 : une ligne est désormais tirée entre les profits financiers « normaux » et les profits financiers « excessifs » définissant du même coup une zone de recherche du profit légitime. La théorie économique apparaît alors comme un schème de moralité publique. Le débat critique en apparence virulent ne fait que reproduire l'image d'un marché financier fonctionnel, détournant l'attention publique des ambivalences structurelles de la recherche de profit financier et accordant une nouvelle légitimité au statu quo institutionnel du capitalisme financier.

Zusammenfassung

In diesem Artikel werden öffentliche Debatten über die Legitimität von Finanzprofiten in der Bankenkrise von 2008 untersucht. In einer Inhaltsanalyse von 957 Zeitungsartikeln, die in Deutschland und Großbritannien in den ersten Wochen nach dem Zusammenbruch von Lehman Brothers erschienen, werden kritische Angriffe auf die Legitimität von Finanzprofiten betrachtet um die kulturelle Dimension des Finanzkapitalismus in den Blick zu nehmen. Aus Sicht der französischen Soziologie der Rechtfertigung geraten geteilte Wertordnungen als normative Bezugspunkte einer öffentlichen Moralökonomie in den Blick.

In beiden nationalen Diskursen finden sich vier wichtige Grenzziehungen des legitimen Profits die den Eigentumsstatus der gehandelten Gelder, die professionelle Kompetenz der Risk-Manager, die Frage von betrügerischen Kundenbeziehungen und die Rolle von spekulativem Glücksspiel betreffen. Die Bedeutung dieser klassischen Elemente jeder moralischen Kritik an Banken veränderte sich im Kontext der Krise von 2008: So wurden Profite aus Finanzgeschäften nicht generell in Frage gestellt, sondern in der Debatte wurde eine Linie zwischen „normalen“ und „exzessiven“ Finanzprofiten gezogen. Als Maßstab für die so definierte Zone des legitimen Profits diente das ökonomische Marktmodell. So wurde ökonomische Theorie in den Debatten von 2008 zum Maßstab öffentlicher Wirtschaftsmoral.

Die scheinbar radikale öffentliche Kritik am Profitmodell der Banken reproduzierte somit letztlich das legitime Bild eines funktionierenden Finanzmarktes „in greifbarer Nähe“, wenn nur die Akteure sich moralisch, d.h. systemkonform verhalten würden. Dies zog die öffentliche Aufmerksamkeit weg von den strukturellen Ambivalenzen aller Finanzprofite und legitimierte so den institutionellen Status Quo des Finanzmarktes.

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European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie
  • ISSN: 0003-9756
  • EISSN: 1474-0583
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