Eight years ago, in September 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers sparked off the greatest crisis in the capitalist system since the crash of 1929, with results that have not yet abated. Momentarily winded, the ruling political echelons rescued the banks with bailouts and imposed austerity policies, which foisted the cost of financial collapse on those who could least afford it and were not responsible for it – policies which have utterly failed to get control over the economy but are used to deconstruct the welfare state in favour of privatisation. Nor does austerity alleviate the threat of renewed system failure, as both debt and the shadow economy continue to grow. According to the latest figures, global debt has risen to more than double global output.
Money Puzzles presents a fresh account of how and why this has happened, and the response to the crisis to be found in new waves of social activism across Europe. A counter-narrative to economic orthodoxy, it dispenses with the conventions of the mainstream documentary – the supposedly all-knowing narrator, the supposedly balanced opinions – and turns to different voices. Economics students in England frustrated with the inadequacy of what they’re being taught, critical economists like Costas Lapavitsas, Molly Scott-Cato, Johnna Montgomerie and Axel Kicillof. In Greece and Spain, we encounter the reinvention of solidarity by people at the disadvantaged social base coming together to support each other in new ways; in Brussels we hear calls for public debt audits and alternative economic strategies; in Bristol, about complementary currencies and alternative no-growth economics.
‘The banks collapsed because they had huge amounts of bad debt. And when the banks collapsed, the system collapsed because nobody knew who was carrying how much bad debt. The reason for that was they created in the short space of ten years an almost secret and opaque system of what we call now the shadow banking system.’ – Paul Mason
‘Is economics so interwoven with politics that you have those who hold power in politics determining our economies and then fashioning it in a language that makes it sound like its actually working for everyone when really, if you dig a little deeper, it’s not?’ – An economics student at a conference on ‘Rethinking Economics’
‘The existing banking system is complex, enormously complex, it’s pernicious, it’s exploitative, it’s extractive, it’s anti-women, it’s anti-planet, but it’s complex. We need a complex adaptive system which is fully democratic, which can join the democratic pieces together.’ – Pat Conaty
The events of 2008 not only burst the bubble of uncontrolled financial speculation, but have also thrown the political system which allowed this to happen into disarray. We have seen the weakening of the social democratic centre in Europe, and serious deficits have appeared in democratic systems of governance, provoking new political groupings on both the left and the right of the established political configuration. Fearing the rise of new popular forces to the left, signalled in support for Bernie Sanders in the USA and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader in the UK, the imprudence of the mainstream media has favoured the right and procured the shock results of Brexit and President-elect Donald Trump, bringing the neoliberal economic order under increasing strain.
The reconfiguration of the far right is countered by the social movements which emerged in the wake of the imposition of austerity policies and the resulting impoverishment of the majority. These currents, like the popular protests in Greece and Spain in the summer of 2011 and the international Occupy movement in the autumn of that year, inherited the anti-capitalism of a previous generation, and have not only pressed for an end to social and economic injustice, but also for new forms of democracy which they themselves have sought to embody, partly on the ground and partly through imaginative use of digital communications.
The rise of Syriza in Greece offered great hope for this new and broad anti-austerity politics, along with that of Podemos in Spain. But Syriza crumpled in the face of intransigence in Brussels, and in Spain, although the two party system has broken down, the right-wing Popular Party remains in power, although forced into minority government. At the European level, aggravated by both the refugee crisis and Brexit, the stability of the EU and of the euro are in question. The problem with the euro is that it was not designed in such a way as to equalise the disparate economies of different countries, but on the contrary, has aggravated the differences. Greece, the weakest link in the chain, broke first, but not without lively debate about whether it shouldn’t exit the euro and even default on a national debt that was unsustainable and illegitimate. Thanks to the likes of Wolfgang Schäuble the Greek debt remains unpayable.
To find out what happens when a country defaults, Money Puzzles also goes to Argentina, which suffered the biggest default in history at the end of 2001, bringing down the country’s economy. Years later, after successfully negotiating debt restructuring with the vast majority of its creditors, it was faced with the demands of a small group of vulture funds who held out and took Argentina to court in New York – because unlike individual or company bankruptcy, which come under national jurisdiction, there is no international system for dealing with sovereign debt. According to Kicillof, Argentina’s Minister of the Economy during 2013-15, the IMF has acknowledged the problem, which affects some thirty countries, but they say it lies outside their remit. But not that of the UN, where the General Assembly passed a resolution in September 2015, with a large majority, in favour of universal principles for debt restructuring. And now, as Money Puzzles is released, comes news of another initiative in the same arena, where following the release of the Panama Papers, Ecuador is proposing a global regulator to clamp down on tax evasion by multinational corporations, and on tax havens where economic elites squirrel their money away to avoid paying taxes.
There is no quick fix for these problems, and the mainstream media seem to think that what the General Assembly discusses – let alone the rest of us – doesn’t really matter, so they hardly bother to report it. This is all of a piece with their ideological role of managing the expectations of the public, partly by slanting what is reported, and partly by restricting the agenda to preclude awkward topics and dissenting approaches – when they aren’t distracting audiences with endless trivialising and escapist diversion instead. Against this background, Money Puzzles has another agenda – to engage the viewer in a dialogue about the nature of money and debt as a problem that touches everyone. A dialogue that includes children, students, critical economists and politicians, solidarity volunteers and activists, journalists, even a bitcoin trader and two former ministers of economy. Made under academic auspices on a minimal budget, Money Puzzles employs a form of dialectical montage in which the film’s fieldwork is juxtaposed with the discourses of money nowadays to be found on television and the web, be it the news or comedy shows, independent documentaries or a video of a protest flamenco in the foyer of a bank in Spain. The film offers no pat answers or ready-made policy recommendations, but through this counterpoint of discourses, maps out a series of issues that are both crucial and inescapable for the citizen of the twenty-first century.
Note on viewing
The film runs 130′ and comprises 9 chapters, which it will be possible to view individually.
There is also a short version available running 52′.