The last time I met my fellow FPI Blog contributor James Bacon we were talking about how one of the great things about comics as a medium is that they can cover just about anything that is possible to write a book about. James has a great love for war stories, both real and fictional, which I don’t share. On the other hand, I can take any amount of books like Darryl Cunningham’s Supercrash, which attempts to tell in accessible words and pictures how an event like the big financial crash of 2008 happened.
I’ve been an admirer of Darryl’s work for some time now, and have been fortunate enough to run into him at a few events over in the UK – most recently at a talk about Misty in the British Library earlier this year – and he’s one of the good guys, in my book. So, a new book from him, Supercrash (published by Myriad) gave the perfect excuse to do a wee bit of an interview, as Our Joe has already reviewed the book. Which, it goes without saying, is good, and needs to be read.
Pádraig Ó Méalóid: Why did you choose this subject?
Darryl Cunningham: Economics is very poorly understood by the general public. People say there’s a gap in the publics’ understanding of science, but that is as nothing compared to the grand canyon-sized gulf that separates Joe Public from grasping the intricacies of the financial sector. What are options, futures, bonds, credit default swaps, and collateralised debt obligations? The news media has generally done a poor job of explaining this apparent wizardry to those who have been most affected by the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis. So one of my motives in writing this book was explain some of this stuff, and along the way, show how the banking crisis came about and who was responsible.
I also wanted to look at the free-market philosophy of unregulated capitalism, which currently dominates the world. There was a time when writers like Ayn Rand were on the fringe of political thinking, but the past thirty years, from Reagan and Thatcher onwards, has seen a capture of the political mainstream by a form of politics that conveniently views selfishness as a virtue and generosity as a moral weakness. This book looks at Rand in particular, tracing her life story and influence on politicians who were the key decision makers, leading up to the banking crisis.
PÓM: Ayn Rand doesn’t seem to have been a particularly nice person. Why are you so interested in her and her work?
DC: In the way you might be both repelled and fascinated by a spider, I was drawn to Rand because her politics are almost exactly the opposite of my own. I’m compelled to take the side of the underdog and I have a keen sense of injustice. She cared little for those crushed under the wheels of capitalism and considered economic failure to be your own fault if it happened to you. To help another just for the sake of it with no benefit to yourself was, in her eyes, a moral weakness. She developed a whole philosophy – the philosophy of Objectivism, in order to justify her own selfishness and contempt for the needy. She’s little known in Europe, but in the States, 30 years after her death, she still has a huge following. Her books, especially Atlas Shrugged, sell in their thousands. Top businessmen and politicians name her as an influence. Objectivism is a very convenient philosophy if you’re someone who venerates your own needs over everyone else’s. For the purposes of the book, I felt if I could understand her, I could get to the nub of what has gone wrong in Western politics over the past three decades.
PÓM: The version of your book that I have is the American one, I think. What’s the difference between the two versions?
DC: The advance review copy that was sent out is in fact, the UK version. The US version, which will be out from Abram ComicArts in March where it will be called The Age Of Selfishness, will differ only slightly. The ten pages of material about the UK welfare state that appears in the third section of the book, will be replaced by material about Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act). This is a law brought in to help those without medical insurance get such insurance. Amongst many other things, the act makes it illegal for insurance companies to refuse coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. Let’s say you had cancer when you were a child. Under the act you could still get insurance and wouldn’t be discriminated against. The Republicans hate this law, which they see as government interference in health care, and therefore tantamount to socialism. They’ve done everything they can to destroy it, and still failed.
PÓM: It really looked, for a brief while, as if the banks were going to break even the very concept of money, and now it’s beginning to look as if though they’re on their way to doing it all over again. Do you think we’ll ever see a saner, fairer system take over?
DC: It can happen, but there has to be the political will for change and for that to take place the electorate has to be engaged. Currently people are either apathetic or they wrongly believe our problems have been caused by the European Union and immigration. In the UK the right wing media, which is most of it, have done a bang up job of directing our attention away from the real culprits. In almost no country has there been any effort to reform banking. Those working in the financial sector are still incentivised to behave badly. Billion dollar penalties, such as the one slapped on HSBC for laundering a Mexican drug cartel’s money, are just seen as the price of doing business. As large as these penalties are, they are as nothing compared to the profits such activity generates. Why is this not considered to be organised crime? If those people who behaved this way thought they were in danger of going to prison, then it would stop. It’s the public’s apathy that allows this situation to continue.
PÓM: How much research goes into a book like this?
DC: An enormous amount. Books are stacked around my bedroom for the duration. The research period can go on for months. Eventually though, I will get to a point where if I feel I can explain the subject to another person, then I know I understand it myself. Then I can begin drawing it. With Supercrash, I also drafted in others to help me on the tricky financial section. I had a few people, experts who’d worked in banking, to fact-check for me. Michael Goodwin, author of the book Economix, helped me with a couple of pages that describe what derivatives and Collateralised Debt Obligations are – these are financial instruments crucial to understand if you want to know how the banking crisis happened.
PÓM: In the UK, you have what looks like the inexorable rise of the dangerously right-wing UKIP, and its leader, Nigel Farage. Does this worry you at all, and do you think we’re going to see a repeat of the rise of fascism we saw a hundred years ago?
DC: Yes, I think we will see a further growth of fascism, but it won’t take the form of previous manifestations. There won’t be any avert militarisation, as that’s just too scary to the average voter. UKIP don’t have a brutal shock troop arm and they’re unlikely to develop one. I don’t see Nigel Farage commanding cohorts of skinheads any time soon. UKIP may be ignorant, but they don’t fetishise violence as previous incarnations of the far right did. They are Dad’s Army fascists: bumbling and oafish. The danger UKIP pose is very similar to the one presented by the Tea Party in the US, in that their presence on the scene pulls all politics further to the right, so that policies become even more punitive and uncaring. There needs to be a counterbalancing movement on the left, and indeed, there is one developing which is focussed around Russell Brand. This is not ideal, as Brand is a divisive figure who will inevitably alienate many people, especially among the older generations. But so far the left has failed to offer any alternative.
PÓM: Is it too early to ask what you’ll be working on next?
DC: I want to wait to see what doors Supercrash opens for me, before I commit to another big project. I may work on a collection of short stories, which will be a mixture of old and new material.
FPI would like to thank Darryl and Pádraig for taking the time to share their thoughts here. You can keep up with Pádraig via his blog and Twitter, while Darryl’s site is here and of course he is on Twitter as well. Supercrash is out now in the UK from Myriad and was reviewed recently on the blog here – highly recommended reading.