The City, finance and human obligations

By Giles Fraser
27 Oct 2011

The St Paul’s Institute is about to release a new survey about the values of those who work in the financial services industry. * It is timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Big Bang: 27 October 1986 was the day when the City of London changed for ever.

For good or ill, there would be no going back after that seismic event.

The Big Bang transformed the City from an old boys’ club, dom­inated by the values of public-school honour — “My word is my bond” — into the boiler-room of international capitalism.

Without the deregulation that occurred in October 1986, the City of London could well have become a quaint financial backwater. Indeed, by the mid-’80s, it had already been overtaken by New York as the world’s leading financial centre. But, as restrictions were loosened and fixed commission charges dropped, global capital found in the City of London its most sympathetic conduit.

From now on, most financial pro­d­ucts would be traded over the phone and through computers. The days of open outcry were over. No longer would stockbrokers and stockjobbers wave frantically at each other across a crowded dealing floor.

Technology made a different sort of trading possible, one less reliant on human interaction. Computers were faster and cleverer than people — at least, that was the idea — and they didn’t sleep. Business expanded exponentially. The UK came increas­ingly to rely on the tax revenues pro­vided by this international success story.

The Jewish philosopher Em­manuel Levinas says that the face of the other is the primary site of moral obligation. Having all the right rules and regulations in place is all well and good — indeed, they are essential — but the real tug to do what is right comes from looking into the face of another, and recognising an obliga­tion to someone other than oneself.

The fact that trading is now so heavily mediated by technology and less reliant on direct human contact may go some way to explain how a sense of moral obligation has come to feel less compelling. Furthermore, as many have argued, morality is at its most robust when it is im­preg­nated with a strong sense of community.

The old City may have been an exclusive and inward-looking club, but the value of clubs is that their members often have a better-developed sense of standing for some­thing, and are able to hold each other to account for failing to live up to the club’s values.

As Albert Schweitzer put it: “The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.”

[* There are now suggestions that the report, highly critical of the moral standards of bankers, has been delayed by St Paul's amid fears it would inflame tensions over the protest, report the Independent on Sunday and Observer newspapers (30 Oct 2011). The report, based on a survey of 500 City workers who were asked if they thought they were worth their salaries and bonuses, was due to be published last on 27 October.]

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© Giles Fraser was until 27 October 2011 Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute. He resigned over threats to forcibly evict Occupy anti-corporate greed protesters from their 'tent city' outside the Cathedral. This article is adapted from Giles' regular Church Times column, with grateful acknowledgment.

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