On Superheroes, Men and The Politics of Money

Gendered narratives around Mark Carney’s appointment obstruct much needed debate about the Bank’s role

Adrienne RobertsAs a Canadian living in the UK, I cannot help but roll my eyes over the gushing media headlines about Mark Carney’s recent arrival to head the Bank of England. The former governor of the Bank of Canada has been variously described as the ‘rock-star banker’, the ‘film star central banker’, a ‘knight in shining armour’ and a central banking ‘superhero’ who is expected to swoop in to stimulate the British economy with his ‘magical monetary powers’. His ‘supreme abilities’ will earn the handsome and ‘immaculately groomed new governor’ an attractive £874,000 a year.

As these descriptions attest, the economy isn’t the only thing being stimulated by the arrival of ‘the dashing new governor’, who some observers claim bears a striking similarity to George Clooney. Media pundits and industry professionals have lavished praise on the man they describe as possessing the star qualities of charm and likeability combined with intelligence and ferocity. According to one of his former colleagues, Carney is “going to tear through London like a lion. He’s the guy you want to have at your table at dinner.” A senior Treasury official reportedly referred to Carney as “the perfect Davos-man”.

These descriptions are underlined with multiple gendered meanings. On the one hand, Carney is associated with the masculine characteristics of heroism, chivalry, ferocity and exceptional prowess in the dog-eat-dog world of global finance. Yet, insofar as Carney embodies a certain form of masculinity, it is not the ‘transnational business masculinity’ (TBM) that R.W. Connell and others argue has emerged as the hegemonic form of masculinity in the financial sphere and elsewhere over the past several decades. Rather, in contrast to the iconic figure that engages in the practices associated with TBM – which include egoism, conditional loyalties, exuberant energy, aggressiveness and a hetero-sexualized male confidence – Mark Carney is projected by the mainstream press as more of a noble-minded patriarch.

Following a distinction noted by Linda McDowell in Capital Culture, an ethnographic work on financial services in the City, Carney more closely resembles a second iconic figure: that of the sober-suited bourgeois man who is rational and powerful and in whose careful hands the levers of the world economy are presumed to be secure.

This gendered projection of Carney as a suave superhero capable of fixing the economy that was broken by the excessively risky behaviour of financiers in the 2000s bears some similarity to the media attention that was given to women as the saviours of global capitalism post-2008. As Christine Lagarde, now the head of the IMF, mused over what would have happened had Lehman Brothers been Lehman Sisters and the business press published articles with headlines such as “Fixing the Economy is Women’s Work”, Davos Woman was thrown into the spotlight as the solution to the problems created by a hyper-masculinized and testosterone-driven capitalism. As several critical feminists (including Juanita Elias, Elisabeth Prügl and myself) have pointed out, this framing naturalizes both gender and finance-led capitalism. It also helps to legitimise, depoliticise and dehistoricise the broader neoliberal macroeconomic framework that has created and sustained multiple forms of inequality and oppression.

In a similar manner, the personification of Mark Carney as the fix to all of Britain’s economic woes (not to mention those of Canada and the rest of the world) naturalises gender and depoliticises monetary policy. In terms of the former, it is Carney’s masculinised characteristics of strength, chivalry and virility that will enable him to guide the economy (presumed to exist outside of social relations, including relations of class and gender), along a smooth course. This then facilitates the latter as the crucial politico-economic questions regarding the nature of this course are displaced.

Carney, who claims that his thinking is not motivated by any particular theorist, will be able to charm his way through political debates that may arise between the “independent” central bank and the government. This will be all the easier given his ability to woo support across political lines as well as from the private banking sector (which is apparently comforted by his background with Goldman Sachs).

When charm fails, the former quarterback and hockey player can rely on his more ferocious side to get his way. According to the Financial Times, Carney is tough enough to stand up to banks. When he was yelled at by the chief executive of JPMorgan at a private meeting of bankers, he “came out fighting in public two days later” (during meetings of the Financial Stability Board, of which Carney was Chairman) “putting a gathering of international financiers in their place”. Here, crucial debates about minimum levels of capital requirements and other regulations that may help to rein in some of the immense power that banks and financial firms have accumulated over the past several decades have been reduced to a battle between men.

To be clear, my point is not that more women are needed to change masculinised financial relations but rather that ‘London’s love affair’ with Carney is helping to construct and reproduce a gendered narrative that depoliticises what are inherently political questions. We can leave aside the fact that the picture in Canada is not nearly as rosy as the media portrays it to be (Canadian banks received over $100 billion in aid between September 2008 and August 2010, the income gap between the rich and the poor is among the fastest growing in the world, the debt-to-income ratio of Canadian households has risen by 40 percent in the past decade, and the housing bubble has continued to grow at an alarming pace), as this can’t be attributed to the actions of Carney alone. The more important point to emphasise is that insofar as the formal separation of the Bank of England from the government, and therefore from the influence of politicians and the voting public, is depoliticising and disempowering, so too is the narrative that the economy is best left in the hands of the right sort of man. This obscures important distributional questions such as those related to the class-based and gendered inequalities that result from the adoption of macroeconomic policies designed to prioritise low inflation, low public debt and expenditure, low taxation and low budget deficits.

One month after Carney began his new job as a high-paid benevolent superhero, all signs point to politics as usual in the Bank of England. That is what should concern everyone.