books social justice wealth

Bank Job, by Hilary Powell and Daniel Edelstyn

One of my favourite social justice projects is Rolling Jubilee, a ‘people’s bailout’ set up by the Strike Debt campaign in response to the financial crisis. Activists in the US, many of them previously involved in the Occupy movement, ran a series of fundraising events. They used the money to purchase bundles of medical or student loans on the secondary debt market, and then wrote them off.

It’s a good example of ‘prophetic’ protest, where “the vocation of the prophet is to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” (More on that here)

My response to Rolling Jubilee was to write about it on the blog. Daniel Edelstyn and Hilary Powell went a good deal further. A film-maker and artist respectively, the husband and wife team took the idea and ran with it in their London context. As a response to systemic indebtedness in their community, they started their own bank in Walthamstow. They printed their own banknotes, raised funds and bought £1.2 million in locally owned debts. Then they packed it into a van and blew it up with Canary Wharf in the background.

The project brings together community wealth creation, art and protest, and the story is told in their entertaining documentary Bank Job – currently available in full on Youtube. For more detail, there’s the book, which I read last week.

Bank Job combines a personal story with an explanation of the economics of the debt system. We get some background to the artists and their motivation, and how they came to focus on debt as an issue they wanted to address. It’s honest about wrestling with a sense of powerlessness, and feeling their way towards a meaningful response. “Debt, democracy and freedom are intricately entangled,” they write, “and if debt is the key tool of a neoliberal order then what do we have in our toolkit? Creativity, community, collective action and critical vision – taking our place amid a growing chorus of voices demanding that economics be done differently, and doing it ourselves and with others.”

The book succinctly describes the role of debt in the economy, and the creeping spread of loans and credit. “For lending to be considered moral, it must involve some risk to both parties”, they note. But come the financial crisis, banks were bailed out while people had to pay. As policies of austerity were brought in, everyone paid for the recklessness of the banks. Despite the moral language around debt, responsibility and hazard, who has to repay what to whom has a lot more to do with power than justice.

In protest against this sytem and the damage it does to people’s lives, the ‘bank job’ was devised as a “community heist on the financial system.” They rally neighbours and local activists and artists, and open their own satirical bank branch. It takes the whole community, in what sounds like an extraordinary amount of hard work. As well as the printing going on in the bank, the book shares some of the struggles around funding, securing the tenancy of the building. There are massive complications around blowing up a van too – some of them predictable health and safety concerns, and some of them deliberately trying to block an action that the banks didn’t like. But they get their in the end, staging their own alternative ‘big bang’ as an act of defiance against an unjust system.

I really like Bank Job – the book, the film and the project itself. It’s imaginative, righteous and full of community and can-do spirit. That same approach is apparent in Powell and Edelstyn’s latest project around solar, POWER, and I’ll be writing more about that in future.

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