Thursday, April 30, 2009

Les Bienveillantes and Its Lessons in Finance

Below is an excerpt from the HCM Market Letter. I don't know if the whole thing is somewhere out on the internet or not. I really enjoy reading about connections to finance in the world outside of finance. I think about nature and games and science and thier principles in relation to finance. So I read this I found it very interesting and decided to put it out on the blog. I have not read the book.

In 2006, an American raised in France named Jonathan Littell published a near-1000 page novel in French entitled Les Bienveillantes. The novel tells the story of Dr. Maximilien Aue, a former Nazi officer who survived the horrors of World War II and reinvented himself as a lace manufacturer and family man in post-war France. Dr. Aue is a highly educated man, wellversed in literature, philosophy, music and the arts. He is also a serial killer, who before the end of the novel not only murders with his own hand but supervises and plays a role in the genocide of Jews, Gypsies, the mentally impaired and other groups deemed enemies of the Nazi regime. He is on the scene at many of the prime charnel houses of Europe, including Auschwitz. As you might imagine, Les Bienveillantes was highly controversial when it was published in France. It was awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt but evoked both great praise and loud approbation for its depiction of a deeply twisted soul and a regime that engaged in acts so horrific that they remain fundamentally inexplicable to this day. HCM finds itself squarely in the camp of those who consider Mr. Littell’s novel a morally complex and deeply disturbing work of literature that deserves a great deal of praise despite its abhorrent subject matter. Mr. Littell’s novel forces readers to confront parts of the human soul that some may believe should best remain hidden, but concealing them is what allows evil to flourish unchecked in darkness until it bursts into the light and wreaks destruction.

The HCM Market Letter is not a literary journal. Les Bienveillantes, however, speaks to the current crisis in financial markets in ways that most reviewers of the book have completely ignored. While many critics have focused on the allusion to Greek mythology in the novel’s title11, HCM would read the title in a more colloquial manner. Dr. Aue was an order-follower, although he certainly exercised freedom of thought outside of his duties as a Nazi officer (he engages in virtually every sexual perversity known to man). Nazi Germany was filled with wellmeaning people who were completely lacking in moral courage or were trained to obey their government’s orders. The world is only different today in degree, not in kind; it is still filled with well-meaning people who follow orders but remain essentially oblivious to the consequences of their actions. It is a world of the complicit. In Nazi Germany, the consequences of such behavior were obviously horrific, and perhaps there was little opportunity to opt out without putting one’s life in danger. In today’s world, however, the consequences of such conduct are not as blatantly horrific; people are not being asked to murder fellow human beings. But that does not mean that what they are being asked to do is inconsequential.

Failure to speak truth to power, in whatever historical context, constitutes complicity with whatever form of evil lurks in a society. In modern Western societies, that evil most recently consisted of a form of economic capitalism that awarded speculation over production to an extent that rotted away the solid underpinnings of economic growth and opportunities for the disenfranchised. While this may not be as morally reprehensible as genocide, it remains morally reprehensible nonetheless. The consequences of the economic practices that caused the current crisis are real human pain and suffering in the present and long-term damage to society and the economy in the long run, which equates to genuine human suffering in the future. Shouldn’t we consider those who kept their mouths shut and simply participated in the process are as culpable in the context of their time as Dr. Aue was guilty in his? This is why Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide at the Franco-Spanish border in September 1940 rather than be taken by the
Nazis, wrote, “[o]nly that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And the enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” As we work to reform the financial system, Mr. Benjamin’s cry from the depths of despair should drive us to make sure that we get the changes right. Had the world sunk into a real depression, we might have faced a conflagration that would have made the destruction of World War II look like a garden party in comparison. What each of us does every day as participants in the capitalist system makes a moral difference. Too many people forgot that and are already starting to forget that all over again.

One of the most searing features of Mr. Littell’s book is the portrayal of the toll that the commission of genocide exacted on the Nazi soldiers who were charged with carrying out the actual acts of torture and murder. In one way or another, this behavior dehumanized them. To a lesser but still tragic extent, participation in a corrupt capitalism warped the values and beliefs of many of the individuals in positions of power – CEOs, regulators, politicians, money managers, etc. It is a rare individual who can resist being influenced and changed by the madness of the crowds that surround him, yet it is those few individuals crying out against the mob that are the voices that need to be heard the most. It is not that the road to hell is built with good intentions or bad intentions – that road is built with human intentions. Mr. Littell’s masterpiece depicts those intentions in all of their terrible beauty and sounds a message for all men in all times.


Jody said...

I just read the HCM letter and as always, it was very thought provoking. I'm finishing up The Forgotten Man and I can't help but be disturbed by the lengths to which the FDR administration went to control/change virtually every aspect of daily life as it saw fit. The Constitution (and individual rights) was absolutely demolished and thankfully a very strong Supreme Court acted as a reasonable counterweight (at least for part of the decade).

Very, very frightening, especially given what I am currently seeing out of Washington. I am afraid that we may see may a redux of 30s in that this administration will use the current "crises" as a scapegoat to advance a broad-reaching political agenda that the average American does not want and normally would strongly oppose.

Market Seer said...

Yeah, that is the next book on my list.

The thing is the average American doesn't know. Take the Obama speech today. He was pounding on hedge funds saying everyone was making sacrificies. Well I found myself even thinking that these hedge funds must be benefiting from credit default swaps. No. I started looking into it and the deal was a crummy deal for the debt holders. As debt holders you have rights under rule of law. You don't like the deal, you can go to bankruptcy court. It gets worked out there. That should be encouraged instead of villafied. But the average American doesn't understand that.

I'll let you write my next letter on the topic. :)