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Thursday 5th August 2003

Wagner: The Story of Enron?

Will Hutton thinks Wagner's Ring cycle is about the failings of capitalism. Can he be right?

Wagner's Ring cycle is currently being staged by English National Opera. In their programme notes Will Hutton from the Work Foundation argues that the story of The Rhinegold - the first opera in the sequence - can be compared to the real-life scandals of Enron and Parmalat. On Monday's programme the philosopher Roger Scruton debated Wagner's view of the corporate world with Will Hutton.

Click here to listen again to Hutton and Scruton in debate
Click here to listen to the opening libretto from The Rhinegold

Will Hutton's original notes from ENO's The Rhinegold production book:

Today’s generation, weaned on Tolkien’s Lord of Rings, Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy and fantasist computer games, will recognize The Rhinegold as the prototypical action-packed story of gods, demons, giants, cunning tricks, deadly curses and magic spells. This is a story telling tradition that harks back to the era of pagan myth-making – the ballads and tales woven by pre-Christian peoples as they tried both to entertain themselves and make sense of their world.

There were gods beyond the clouds, spirits in the forest and mutant human beings living underground with the right spell a man could change shape and achieve awesome power. The best way to understand the world was to believe that even if it was driven by forces larger than mere human agency and beyond comprehension, it was still governed by human frailties – lust, overweening ambition, riches and the desire to conquer.

The Rhinegold comes from those same pagan roots – Wagner looting the treasure chest of German and North European myth for his themes. But while of course it fascinates in those terms, each generation necessarily relates the myth to their own lived experience. The lure of gold and unlimited power and how it corrupts, the heart of The Rhinegold, is not just a fairy story.

Take two of the more infamous recent incidences of corporate fraud. Calisto Tanzi, the founder and chief executive of the Italian company Parmalat where £7 billion has gone missing, or Ken Lay, the former chair of Enron, who cheated shareholders of up to £4 billion, made their own corrupt compact to achieve the lure of gold and power. They are our own contemporary Alberichs they may not have renounced love to secure the ring and thus command over untold riches, but they renounced integrity. They took advantage of the vast opportunities afforded by globalization, unregulated offshore tax havens and duplicitous auditors and bankers only too willing to turn a blind eye to malfeasance, to succour the most base of human instincts.

Not content with being rich, they wanted to be richer still they wanted to dazzle their peers with the scale of the companies they had built – and cut any corner to achieve their aim. Greed and ambition had turned them into moral dwarves. Nor should the British shake their head at the perfidious behaviour of these untoward Americans and Italians both had British auditors and many of the frauds took place in British crown colonies. Many of those who work in the City, reading these programme notes tonight, will have wrestled with their own moral consciences as they bend the rules to configure a deal, evading and even avoiding regulation and tax to make the numbers add up and so achieve the target the gratification of pulling off the deal laced with personal enrichment on a scale the rest of us can scarcely conceive.

Wagner’s tale is saturated with pessimism about human inclination. The giants , Fasolt and Fafner, who have laboured mightily to build Valhalla have not done so just to earn an honest living. They have taken the god Wotan at his word they want their lives to be enriched by having the goddess Freia live with them – the goddess who feeds the gods with life-giving apples and whose grace will illuminate and transform their otherwise bleak lives. Wotan, desperate to build Valhalla and so careless of the rights of women that he will barter his wife’s sister to achieve his ends, has promised her to the giants. But even the giants’ passion for the ‘ beauty and delight’ of the woman who expresses womanly virtues more than any other is sacrificed for gold for that they will give up the chance of emotional happiness. If Alberich will renounce the opportunity to love and be loved for gold, Fasolt and Fafner will turn their back on Freia for the same lure.

Worse, it corrupts Wotan. The god is the custodian of contract and thus the law the deal between him and the giants was registered on his spear shaft and so must be honoured. But Wotan is no impartial judge or godly upholder of the integrity of a promise as he freely acknowledges, he never intended to give up Freia and intended to fob the giants off with something else. In the event it is Loge who breaks the impasse between him and the giants he introduces the notion of Alberich’s gold as offering a way out. If Wotan can get that for himself– even though it does not belong to him and he should use his godly power to pass it back to its rightful owners, the Rhine-daughters – then the giants will accept the gold instead of Freia. Gold is even corrupting the arbiter of the Rhine order Wotan is ready to compromise what he stands for – the god who enforces the law – to obtain gold.

Alberich’s choice, rather like that of Enron’s Lay or Palmalat’s Tanzi, is explicable although we may wonder at it we know that society will throw up greedy value-free rogues, and corporate society is no different. But Wagner is more damning still. Faced with the opportunity for riches, nobody manages to hold on to the higher values in our emotional and moral hierarchy. We will sacrifice the chance of feeding our souls and give up the integrity of a promise trust, love, nobility of purpose – all come second to the prior need to satiate our base desires: unlimited capacity to spend, to rule and transmute love into lust. Indeed Alberich and Wotan are united by their common disdain for women they are vessels for male pleasure. Alberich sees no real loss in abdicating the chance of love he can still enjoy the pleasures of female flesh – and Wotan openly takes the same view ( the Rhine-daughters have a similarly carnal view of male flesh lust is not all one-way traffic) . If a man or woman believes this, is not difficult to allow possessing gold to be more important than love.

Globalization is an enormous economic opportunity it creates markets and a burgeoning flow of ideas. Production can be much cheaper trade explodes profits soar. It is a source of prosperity. But it is also a source of temptation. It is now never easier to move money beyond the regulations of nation states built up painstakingly over decades. The ability of civil society everywhere to harness the capitalist dynamic for the common good is being weakened the laws requiring companies to treat their workforces properly, to pay their taxes and to honour their obligations to the societies of which they are part are harder and harder to enforce. Power has moved to business which can play nation states off against each other we live in a business civilization.

This in itself is not bad society wants wealth to be generated. But The Rhinegold is a warning. Companies are run by men ( there are no more than a handful of woman executive directors serving on the boards of our top hundred companies) , and while all are not Alberichs, they are prey to the same preferences as the giants and Wotan. They will pay themselves ever more extravagant salaries and bonuses, laced with executive jets and the paraphernalia of the super-rich they will use offshore tax havens to avoid and evade tax they will insist that society gives up its attachment to a social contract, basic notions of fairness and even ideas of public value if they get in the way of the injunction to maximize shareholder value. Society certainly needs business to create its wealth – to build its Valhalla but it also needs business to recognize its place in the scheme of things: that it exists to serve society and its values rather than become their master. If we allow everything to be consecrated to profit maximization while forgetting the underlying purpose of business – to discharge an economic function that serves our needs – we are making the same choice as Alberich and the giants.

Wotan, tempted to keep the gold he and Loge have tricked from Alberich, gives everything away, even the ring, to secure Freia. He heeds the warnings of the mysterious woman-spirit Erda that no good will come from the gold and the ring. But his renunciation is calculating rather than from moral conviction he needs Freia and her apples to stave off disaster and he rebuts the Rhine-daughters’ claim. Nor can he be certain, as he enters Valhalla, that he has averted the fate of which Erda warns.

Our ring is the whole body of ideology that justifies anything that business and finance does in the quest for maximizing the owners’ immediate profit as both conforming to iron economic laws which must be obeyed and a superior moral universe. Without the rise of free market fundamentalism and the accompanying view that the domain of the individual and private is inherently more superior to the domain of the social and the public, our civilization would not run the risks that it does. Ever-rising inequality of income, wealth and opportunity are of course pernicious, but they are excused as the bi-product of our commitment to free markets, business freedom, wealth generation and individualism. But what is more pernicious still is the threat to the values of integrity, trust, honour, respect for those weaker than ourselves and fair play such a value system represents. The swelling torrent of corporate scandals are not only sobering in themselves but for the wider message they spell the good businessman, the wealth creator and builder of a great business franchise, is being crowded out by those for whom all that counts is the gold. Our ring is the belief that this cannot be challenged because this is the way the world must be ordered if we want wealth generation. And like Wotan we cannot escape our responsibility to act differently by simply turning our back on the consequences of our actions. We have to assert that values and principles other than gold count. Will we heed the warning of The Rhinegold? It is for you to judge.
(Copyright Will Hutton)

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