The growth of modern capitalism is being charted at the National Theatre in London in the swashbuckling, immigrant-entrepreneurial tale of the Lehman brothers. They sold overalls in 1850s Alabama, bought farmers’ raw cotton to sell to factories, diversified into coffee, rail and oil, and finally gave up on solid objects to deal only money.
In the final moments of the play the last family board member (40 years before the financial crash) prophesies that the next stage in banking is to exploit credit, “break the barrier of need” and make buying as routine as breathing: “Anyone can buy anything, and everything is a bargain!”
And so the mass-consumption society was born, and skidded all the way to the modern subprime mortgage crisis.
Well, no. Actually, entirely the wrong way around. Lehman went bust – truly, properly, bust – as a result of investments in real assets. Property in the Inland Empire if memory serves, but it might not. The bank run, the subprime mortgage crisis, these were to denouement, not the cause.
So this stuff that everyone knows about what happened is entirely, wholly, wrong. Which is going to cause certain problems when people try to apply the lessons, isn’t it?