It must be a decade now since I read “The Turner Diaries”, a book of fiction about a militant group in the US trying to bring down society which they hated on account of the influence of the liberals, the Blacks, the Irish, the Jews, the homosexuals, the Catholics – pretty much everyone really. The book was banned in a few jurisdictions though the only part of it I found specifically troubling was a fairly detailed description on producing a fertiliser bomb. Its banning reignited the debate about freedom of expression versus the “harm principle” (society’s freedoms should be considered alongside individual freedom of expression).
Of course society doesn’t only depend on official censors to prevent what some consider damaging material coming in to the public domain. We are capable of self-policing to a degree. And during the present crisis, I have been impressed by the care which the media takes in reporting the banking crisis which generally avoids sensationalism that could lead to a run on the banks. Indeed, like Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, the idea of a bank run has become It-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Mentioned and is sometimes referred to as the R-word. Commentators have also been generally responsible in avoiding provocative phraseology which might engender panic. And for my own limited part, whenever the issue of the safety of deposits has arisen, I have been careful to link to information on the extensive State guarantee which underpins the confidence in our banks. All of this comes at the possibility of a bank run from the point of view of a collapse in confidence. But what about an orchestrated bank run?
Given that the French have in general terms had a good financial crisis and credit crunch, it is perhaps surprising that a run (Le Banque Attaque) has been inspired by philosopher, actor and kung fu aficionado (and sometimes footballer) Eric Cantona. His video interview with a regional French newspaper in October 2010 in which he called for a revolution to tame the power of the banks was picked up by others, notably Belgian scriptwriter Geraldine Feuillien who reportedly created the website bankrun2010.com and of course there is the obligatory Facebook page (37,000 fans). The campaign’s aim is that tomorrow, 7th December, 2010 citizens will be encouraged to withdraw savings from banks worldwide (but it seems to have gained most traction in France) and that banks will consequently collapse and in their stead a Citizens Bank will be established. Initially dismissed and downplayed by politicians, in recent days it seems that it is attracting more concerned and robust responses from French politicians – that the bank run will not bring down any bank but practically may clog up the system and encourage muggings on citizens carrying money. Indeed French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde tackled Eric last week when she said “Mr Cantona is no stranger to controversy. He is a great footballer, but I’m not sure we need to pay heed to all his suggestions”
For a country that gave the world the word “boycott”, you might have thought that Ireland was the natural home for an organised response to the current financial crisis. We have a government for which less than 20% of the population would apparently vote for today. We have banks which are expected to suck €56-62bn from its citizens (September 30th, 2010 estimates plus the €10bn announced last week with a contingency of €25bn on top) though some of this may be recouped over time. We have not seen one person held meaningfully to account for the financial disaster. It seems that most of the people directly responsible for the crisis are either still in post or have been superannuated with a princely payoff. So far we have been remarkably restrained.
And the Eric-inspired campaign is not being widely reported here at all. I can’t find any recent mention of Eric on rte.ie though there is a minor (less than 250 word) article on Eric in the Irish Times. The Irish Independent carries a longer piece. Perhaps the campaign is not judged newsworthy enough – perhaps it is too incendiary for a nation whose banking system is severely weakened. And whilst the campaign may not achieve its aims (the official line is that there has not been an avalanche of notifications to withdraw on notice deposit accounts for example) it does bring to life the possibility that citizens acting in unity and with effective co-ordination and access to media (and on this latter point, the Internet, wikileaks, social media illustrate how tenuous government’s control of the media can be when there is an orchestrated and motivated campaign) can enforce their democratic will outside the ballot box but without breaking the law. No doubt the denouement of the campaign tomorrow will be watched closely by some in our own administration.