Friday, February 6, 2009

you want it to be one way

"Exiled Dallas Stars' forward Sean Avery is expected to be cleared from the NHL and NHLPA's Behavioral Modification program later this week or sometime early next."

I was going to write about the ongoing absurdity that is the NHL's unwavering effort to scrub any life - unpredictable, troubling, trangressively hilarious - from it's off-ice theatre, but then this was brought to my attention. I suppose the two stories are somehow linked by what I see as one of the defining themes of modern capitalism: the mechanized deceptions of the market sublimated in the simple language of personal responsibility. It's rare that a 21st century organization would be so honest as to use the phrase "behavioral modification" to describe their means of attracting profits, but that is undoubtedly what is afoot when a BoA representative asked Paul Kelleher of his deceased mother's debts: "You mean you're not going to help her out?"

For a year or so, I was a Bank of America customer. For many years after that, I was their prey. Years later, at a Chicago-area bank, I ran into similar problems while trying to skate by, paycheck-to-paycheck. With overdraft fees piling up due to the bank's convenient policy of re-ordering withdrawals, I called the bank to beg for mercy. After talks with the service rep went nowhere, I was transferred to a manager, who proceeded to lecture me about the importance of keeping tabs on my balance at all times. I protested that these fees were the result of their willful manipulation of my account, which resulted in even more condescending blather from the manager. We're charging you these fees, she seemed to be saying, to teach you a lesson, to show you how to be a better, more responsible person. Every word she said was designed to disguise the simple fact that mistakes like mine are her company's bottom line.

We're conditioned to see institutions like banks as monolithic, neutral arbiters of human activity. Experiences like Kelleher's, surely compounded by the thousands in call centers worldwide, bear out exactly how completely and utterly wrong this is. Banks wield this kind of biopower effortlessly, rigging the unseen details of the game while hectoring us about right and wrong. If it were Bank of America's mother, surely it would pay off the debt. We're led to feel shame about these kinds of defaults, as if they are true faults. Everyone else is watching their balance, paying their debts, why can't you? The irony being that, when Bank of America itself took its eye off the ledger last fall, it felt no shame. Just the opposite, in fact. It marshaled the dire straits of the economy in its favor: as just another way to guilt average Americans into cutting them more checks.

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