The problem with ‘bail-ins’

UK Uncut & occupying banks

13 February 2011


“A Bail-In means marching into our broken banks and building something better. Make your silent, sterile Barclays branch sing, dance, explode with life! “

UK Uncut are planning bail-ins at Barclays branches next weekend. I don’t want to be the continual purveyor of internet take-downs concerning these guys (this is no John Lewis protest), but there are some serious political problems with this kind of action.

Banks are extremely tense, stressful spaces, particularly when you’re skint. We’ve all been there to some extent, routinely avoiding checking our balances until our loan/wages have been paid in, to escape that little panic moment. When I was on benefits I’d avoid having anything to do with my bank where possible, and when cheques, overdraft issues and card thefts made visits necessary I’d have to psyche myself up to go in. Money worries dominate your life when you’re hard-up and the bank, like the benefit office, has the power to arbitrarily withdraw the limited credit you live on. The people in this position already hate bank visits – should we be making them more stressed by disrupting what might very well be necessary, long put-off and difficult business?

Saturday opening hours are also the only time lots of workers can access bank services. If you get paid by cheque, or work longer than 9-5 with an hour for lunch, or in a place miles from highstreet shops and banks, you need weekend banking. Saturday, for many, is cheque-cashing, bill-paying day. The queue at my local Barclays stretches out the door and down the street on a Saturday morning, probably not because people enthusiastically choose to spend their free time this way. Because they have to.

Banks aren’t like Topshop. No one ‘needs’, on a fundamental, day-to-day, life-sustaining level to go buy some jeans in Oxford Street on any particular day. But we’re forced to rely on banks, and, the worse off we are, on the physical spaces of highstreet branches – students and young professionals might find internet and phone banking more convenient, but they’re often not options for those on benefits, the unemployed and pensioners. The bank trip on a Saturday morning, queueing for ages, maybe with kids and shopping, is for some the only way to sort out the anxiety of money problems without another week rolling past. The only way to pay the rent or bills before getting into arrears. The only way to cash a cheque so it’s in your account before your bills are due. The only way to request that overdraft extension that’ll feed you this month.

So perhaps disrupting these places, at this time isn’t such a great idea. The video embedded on the UK Uncut item is interesting. The idea of a ‘University of Strategic Optimism’ is funny and clever. From their site it looks like they’ve hit posh people’s bank Coutts and participated in library teach-ins and anti-Tesco actions. Good. The guy in the video dressed as an academic delivers a good, rabble-rousing speech without too much jargon or posturing. But who is his audience? It looks rather like a group of activists, not customers. When this kind of walk-in, sit-down, ‘bail-in’ occurs, how many of the people using the bank – the very people, I presume, UK Uncut want to appeal to with anti-cuts politics – will stay? And how many will get pissed off at the disruption, or be forced to leave with their money business not complete?

It’s all very well to talk about reclaiming space and set up “libraries, forests, hospitals, schools, playgrounds, leisure centres” in occupied banks, but if we’re not winning people over on the ground we’re only talking to ourselves. That’s just revolutionary posturing, and it isn’t helpful. If your creation of a ‘university’ in Barclays, prevents pensioners, claimants and workers from paying bills, sorting out cash flow or paying in cheques, they’re just going to think you’re middle-class twats. However much they disagree with the cuts.

Maybe the audience isn’t meant to be these people, the bank users who’ll be there when activists arrive. Maybe it’s meant to be channelled through the media, to a bigger audience of readers. But how hard is it going to be for journalists to get a quote from someone prevented from banking, setting up a nifty middle-class kids v. working-class people divide? Not very. That story doesn’t work with the Topshop, Boots or Vodafone shut downs, but it’ll work here. Not least because it’s uncomfortably close to the truth if activists don’t engage with the realities of working-class life before flashmobbing and teaching-in.

This action has been developed off the back of outrage at bankers’ bonuses. But the City being closed on a Saturday isn’t a good enough reason to re-target that outrage at the highstreet, with all the problems that involves. And it’s pretty economically confused too. Unlike Topshop and chums, banks don’t make their profits primarily from highstreet branches. Maybe bail-ins will stop them selling a few savings accounts and high-interest credit cards. But those aren’t the main source of the unimaginable sums that go into bonuses – both the BBC and Telegraph report the majorty of Barclays’ profits coming from the investment banking side. Highstreet branches have little to do with the investment arms of banks, the high-level high-risk trading and betting. I don’t fully understand how banks work – I think few people do – but we should. No one is going to be any the wiser about the workings of capital, the hidden processes behind boom and bust, if we create activism that incoherently confuses bail-outs and bonuses with highstreet banking.

So what’s the alternative? I quite like the idea of invading the dead weekend City, but there’s obvious problems with having no targets around, and no non-bankers to persuade about the cuts. Hitting the highstreet on a Saturday can be a good opportunity to talk to local people, as the tax-avoidance protests have shown. But there has to be a better way of making the point about banking without disrupting the very necessary business of organising money during limited free time. Street stalls, replica bank counters outside branches with street theatre, lectures, leafletting – we don’t have to abandon the highstreet to make our point. But we shouldn’t unnecessarily and counter-productively antagonise it either.