The rogue charade

A focus on rogues - whether rogue bankers, journalists or states - blinds us to larger, systemic failures. By Daniel Matthews.

Vince Cable, in a piece published in the Guardian in late December, accepted that the City is a “source of systemic instability, unfettered greed and industrial scale tax dodging” but blamed the problem on a small number of rogue institutions. The task it seems is to find the “few rotten apples” that somehow manage to bring an entire system into disrepute. The reliance on a minority scapegoat in order to cover over much wider-spread illegality, immorality and abuse of power is a particularly favoured tactic in the financial sector. Rogue traders like Jérôme Kerviel and the recent UBS renegade Kweku Adoboli along with rogue business leaders like Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford are, we are told, the fly in the otherwise uncontaminated ointment of late capitalism.

The figure of the rogue is an interesting one. It implies both a destructive and unpredictable tendency as well as a mischievous but likeable trait. We all know someone who is “a bit of a rogue”. In recent years the rogue has become associated with the “rogue states” of North Korea, Iraq and Iran: cut off from the herd they are prone, we are told, to wild, unpredictable destruction. But despite the appalling suffering endured by the people of North Korea, the late Kim Jong-Il enjoyed somewhat “roguish”, laughable status in the West. The rogue is at once likeable, forgivable, mischievous, dangerous, destructive and unpredictable. The ability to evoke this sense of the simultaneously forgivable and the dangerous is perhaps why the term has been so widely used of late. The mischievous goings on of a few bad apples in the tabloid press that were easily forgiven at the time; those impish Rogue States that won’t let the weapons inspectors in; the pesky few companies that don’t pay their taxes in the City of London.

In every case, the figure of the rogue is evoked to apportion blame and ask for forgiveness. It’s always just one or two rogue individuals, states or institutions that emerge as the unique source of blame for an entire system’s failure. The rogue is blamed but ultimately the system that produces it is forgiven.

When the figure of the rogue is evoked, it stops us asking more challenging questions. What if Glenn Mulcaire and his coterie of phone hackers are simply symptomatic of an entire system of oversight and regulation in the British press that has failed? What if North Korea, Iraq and Iran are simply the product of decades of failed diplomacy and geo-political negotiations that are more intent on the empire building of the United States and the security of Europe than anything else? What if the rogue institutions that caused the financial crisis of 2008 and now avoid paying their taxes are simply the best, and most profitable, example of everything that is wrong with capitalism today; merely the product of a system that rewards greed and exploitation?

As the Leveson inquiry into the culture and ethics of the British press continues, those rogues who hacked into answer phone messages on Fleet Street are quickly being exposed as pawns in a far larger game. Let’s hope that the rogue institutions of the City of London are not allowed to fulfil the promise of their epithet – for their transgressions to be forgiven and ignored. These rogues are products of greater forces at work. Let’s stop treating them like inexplicable anomalies and start to understand the conditions that make them and their misdemeanours possible. Then perhaps we can do away with the figure of the mischievous but forgivable rogue altogether.

Originally published on Critical Legal Thinking under a Creative Commons by-nc-nd 3.0 license.

Image top: stumayhew.