‘Everything you’re gonna hear about in this film you already know,’ says Russell Brand at the beginning of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the new documentary he’s made with Michael Winterbottom. ‘You might not know the exact figures, but you know the big issue. The rich are getting richer. Inequality is getting greater. But it doesn’t have to be like this. It can be different … Things can change. Things do change.’
The Emperor’s New Clothes is a great, infuriating and rousing film. One of its main strengths is that it discusses capitalism and more specifically, the 2008 banking crisis and its aftermath, removing all the deliberate obfuscation that exists around the subject and explaining simply and articulately exactly what happened and why. Consequently, it’s a film that has you simmering with righteous indignation and at the same time, desperate to do something about it. Crucially, it leaves you feeling positive.
Here are some of the facts and figures brought to light in the film – stuff you might not have known, or most probably have heard before but have probably forgotten because it’s just too galling to keep in your brain:
+ In the UK, we bailed out the banks to the tune of £133bn, which is more than £4,000 per taxpayer. In the US, they pumped in two and a half trillion dollars.
+ In Britain since the crash, bankers have paid themselves more than a hundred billion pounds in bonuses. Since the crash, that is – when they ripped us off and totally got away with it.
+ In 2010, the average pay of CEOs in big banks was £6.4m. Two years after the crash, that is. Two years after the whole banking system had been bailed out by the British taxpayer, back there in the midst of the so-called credit crunch, the bosses of the banks were still taking home 300 times the average UK wage.
+ A cleaner in your average bank would have to work 300 years to earn the same a CEO in the same building earns in a single year.
+ Last year Goldman Sachs bankers earned an average of £3m each. If the bankers each gave up one day of their pay, they could practically double the wages of all their cleaners.
+ Since the bailout, George Osborne has made £81bn worth of cuts. In the same period, £80bn worth of banker bonuses have been awarded. (These are the very same bankers, don’t forget, to whom we paid £133bn when they fucked everything up with their greed.)
+ In 2013, the Royal Bank of Scotland lost £8.24bn but still paid £588m in staff bonuses.
+ Higher and higher student loans are making further education impossible for many people. One medical student in the film is looking at a post-degree debt of £80,000.
+ The minimum wage was introduced in 1999. If it had increased at the same rate as bosses’ pay, it would now be £20 an hour. Instead it’s £6.70.
+ When Thatcher came to power, bosses of big companies in Britain used to earn ten times the salary of the average worker. Now they earn about 150 times more.
+ At Barclays, in 1979, the boss got £87,000 a year. In 2011, CEO Bob Diamond paid himself £6.3m, even though the company share price had dropped by 30% in the ten preceding years.
+ If the ordinary rate of pay for Lloyds workers had gone up at the same rate as the CEO over the past 35 years, the average worker would now be earning £900,000 a year.
+ For every billion pounds of benefit fraud, there are 9,000 prosecutions. For every billion pounds of income tax fraud, there are five prosecutions.
+ According to Oxfam, a bus with the 80 richest people in the world on it would contain more wealth than the collective assets then half the earth’s population.
+ 80% of the hedge fund industry is based in the Cayman Islands where there is no corporation tax and no income tax.
+ Non-doms – rich people who insist they live abroad and therefore don’t have to pay tax in the UK, such as Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere, who lives in the UK – avoid (or if you prefer, steal) more than £4bn a year.
+ More than half of world trade passes on paper through tax havens. Half of all banking assets are held offshore. There are whole industries set up to avoid paying tax (or if you prefer, stealing).
+ In 2012, research estimated that the amount of personal wealth held offshore in order to avoid paying tax onshore (stealing) is between 21 and 32 trillion dollars. Imagine!
+ Before the free market revolution, the superrich were taxed at 98%. Now Rupert Murdoch has companies registered in tax havens all around the world and it’s estimated he pays 6% in tax. Six per fucking cent.
As Brand says at one point, if this stuff doesn’t make you angry enough to kick a pig into a ditch, then you’ve not understood it properly.
The film tracks the rise of free market fundamentalism, from Thatcher and Reagan adopting Milton Friedman’s neoliberal economic policies, to the wild corporate capital accumulation of the past few years. It manages to do this while maintaining a very light touch. Footage of demonstrations and riots and slithery bankers ignoring journalists is intercut with Brand narrating against a white backdrop, slightly Jesus…
For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?
…but not overly. If you let Brand’s ego put you off, then frankly, you’re probably not that interested in the issues.
One particularly galling sequence of the film focuses on the riots in 2011, and highlights the differences in how we, as a society, treat corporate criminals and how we, as a society, treat criminals who target property.
The figures speak for themselves. More than 1,200 people were jailed as a consequence of the riots, and their sentences added up to more than 1,800 years in prison. As for the bankers, who stole hundreds of billions of pounds, well, a few of them lost their jobs. But don’t worry. They found new ones.
A clip of David Cameron seemingly seeing the light and describing the bankers as ‘people showing indifference to right and wrong, people with a twisted moral code, people with a complete absence of self-restraint’ turns out to be a speech condemning looters who smashed up some stuff and stole trainers.
But, asks Brand, ‘How many bankers went to jail for ripping off their customers by selling £23bn of PPI which they didn’t need? Or what about Standard Chartered money laundering involving 60,000 legal transactions adding up to $250bn? Or HSBC’s money laundering? How many bankers will go to prison for the illegal rigging of the Libor interest rates, which controlled trillions of dollars of transactions? Or the latest crime of the bankers, the foreign exchange rate scandal? The banks have paid millions in fines, but what do fines matter to people who can print money? When are some bankers going to start going to prison?’
Although attempts to speak to the CEOs of various banks and Lord Rothermere are stymied, Brand does get various ex-bankers and economists on camera. Their conclusions are coldly authoritative. Yes, enormous crimes were committed, deliberately and with contempt aforethought, and yes, if there were any justice in the world, bankers would be punished and the profit motive would be entirely removed from the banking industry.
Although the filmmakers made every attempt to interview bosses from all of the major banks, none agreed to talk. Instead there is footage of bankers simply refusing to comment, and of Brand being rejected from plush foyers or attempting to embarrass bank bosses with megaphones and Michael Moore-style stunts.
Some of the most powerful scenes in the film, however, feature Brand talking to ordinary people who have been adversely affected by recent austerity cuts or by corporate gluttony more generally. People who have to work multiple jobs to scrabble together a living wage, or who can’t afford to send their kids to university, or who have had their healthcare cut, or who are being evicted from their homes by means of 400% rent-hikes.
And it is with this focus on ordinary people under capitalist duress where the film comes into its own and becomes a tool of empowerment. Brand’s message has always been not merely that everything is fucked and unfair, but that we can change it, and that all we really have to do to change it is to come together and demand change.
Crucially, there are plenty of examples in the film of where people have stood up to corporate concerns and have seen them back down, including the Hackney healthcare workers who fought pay cuts and redundancies, the Hovis workers who took on Premier Foods and the New Era Estate tenants who stood up to private landlords Richard Benyon and Westbrook Partners.
One of the New Era Estate women spells it out: ‘What’s really important is that we’re not just standing back and allowing it to happen. I think what’s so exciting about it is that people like us – just normal people – can actually make a stand. We did make a difference: the Benyon estates did pull out of the purchase of the [New Era] estates and now we’re just about doing the same to Westbrook….’
They did. Westbrook eventually backed down and the New Era Estate was sold to a small housing group committed to providing low-cost homes to Londoners.
Now some of the women involved in fighting their eviction are helping other communities who are similarly threatened in other parts of London.
One of the many common criticisms levelled at Brand is that he offers no alternatives. As it happens, this isn’t true. He frequently offers alternatives. It’s just that the people who criticise have not really been paying attention, and are probably not that interested in the first place. At the end of this film, a few basic concrete changes are outlined. ‘How about,’ says Brand,
…we make them bankers pay back that money we gave them? How about a financial transaction tax to stop all them gamblers in the city? How about a 90% income tax for the richest 1% of people? … 90% inheritance tax for anything over £1m … Stop tax avoidance! Everybody equal under the law … How about a living wage for everyone? Could we possibly break up billionaires’ monopolies? … No one should be able to own more than 49% of one newspaper. How about we change company law [to clamp down on tax avoidance]. All companies should have workers, consumers and members of the community represented on the board so they can be part of the conversation. All workers should have shares in the companies they work for. Bosses’ and workers’ pay should be related and decided upon by a cross-section of workers in the company. We need to give people the time and space to come together in communities, in shared enterprises. Change does happen, and it can happen quickly.’
If you don’t agree that the gargantuan canyon between rich and poor in this country is something that should be addressed and changed; if you don’t agree that community is more important than the individual and that people are more important than money, then fine. Go your merry way. Continue to deride Brand and those who support him. Continue to call him naïve, hypocritical, egomaniacal and whatever other profoundly hollow insults impress your short-sighted friends on social media, and have fun with that.
Meanwhile, for the rest of us, who are just utterly fed up with the inequality and the injustice that is part and parcel of free market fundamentalism, it’s time to get involved. Sitting at home voting once every five years is really not enough. It’s time to get organised. It’s time to protest. Fundamentally, it’s time to come together.
The Emperor’s New Clothes is released tonight, in some places. If it’s not near you, but you’d like to see it, you can go here and – if there are enough of you – you can make it so.
Make it so.
If you’re keen to get involved in other stuff that’s already going on, a decent place to start might be with The People’s Assembly.