A couple of weeks ago, whilst ill on the sofa, I watched The Wolf of Wall Street, the 2013 biopic of stock market fraudster Jordan Belmont. It stayed with me for days afterwards, and not in a good way. It was disturbing in a way I found hard to shake off.
It’s disturbing to watch a portrait of a man just grabbing whatever he wants, whether it’s other people’s money or other people’s tits, and ultimately – give or take a few months’ jail time – basically getting away with it. It’s more disturbing when you know that this man is not only real, not only still out there, but is actually earning royalties from the film you’re watching. It’s really, really disturbing when you know that as the film was being made, one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers was sexually assaulting women with impunity; that since it was made, such a man has now become the President of the United States.
Immediately after watching the film I spent a while on my phone scrolling through its reviews (a habit I have when watching basically anything more thought provoking than Finding Dory). This made things a hundred times worse. All of the – overwhelmingly male – reviewers wrote about Belmont’s “hedonistic lifestyle” and his “addiction to drugs and sex”. But not one mentioned the fact that you see him sexually assaulting an air hostess and, eventually, raping his wife – scenes I found incredibly hard to watch.
Worse, most of them seemed to think the film’s central achievement was in keeping us on Belmont’s side despite his obviously immoral behaviour. Philip Horne in the Telegraph compared him to Shakespearean “anti-heroes” who “charm us and disable our moral instincts”. One of us, I thought, has really missed the point of this film. And I really hope it’s you. But the more pieces I read, all saying basically the same thing, I more I started to feel like my response to the film put me in a distinct minority. According to Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent, Belmont is “a very likable scoundrel. We can’t help but root for him.” Can’t we? Or rather, can’t you? What the actual fuck is going on here?
Thank God for Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post, who captured my own feelings a lot more closely in describing Belmont as “such a thoroughly loathsome character that it makes “The Wolf of Wall Street” difficult to process as art, much less entertainment.” Ah – I see what’s happened here. I’m not crazy; in finding the film’s protagonist almost unwatchably vile, I’m in the company of roughly half of humanity. They’re just not the half writing the reviews.
All this was just after the Harvey Weinstein scandal had broken – but before the subsequent tidal wave of sexual harassment revelations had started to engulf British politics as well. It was hard not to feel that this was a portrait, not of some kind of deviant, but of the personality of predatory power that runs much of the world. And the reviewers’ excitable reaction spoke volumes about how our culture has come to not only excuse such predatory behaviour, but glamourise it.
Even the title ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is telling. It’s the title Belmont chose for the book that launched his post-jail career as a motivational speaker. Sources say nobody ever actually called him that, so one can only assume that he chose this moniker as part of a conscious attempt to build a personal brand around the image of a successful predator.
As Naomi Klein notes in her latest book ‘No Is Not Enough’, the same is true of Donald Trump, whose business empire is largely based on a personal brand symbolising wealth and power, and the license that goes with it. This is why the attacks made on Trump’s character during the election campaign failed to stick, she argues: they only served to strengthen the brand.
And of course, Belmont and Trump have something else in common that matters for understanding how we got into this mess: they are not only sexual predators, but also economic predators. Like many of the global 1%, they became wealthy principally by ruthlessly preying on others – whether by extracting rent from them or by exploiting their vulnerabilities. They are both successful brands because of – not in spite of – how potently they symbolise the worst excesses of rapacious rentier capitalism.
I had cause to reflect on this a few days after watching The Wolf of Wall Street, when news emerged that the police are investigating RBS’ Global Restructuring Group. It’s long been alleged that the group – supposedly set up to support struggling businesses – in fact pushed healthy businesses towards bankruptcy before hoovering up their assets to bolster RBS’ own balance sheet. An internal memo leaked to the BBC shows staff being pressured to extract revenues from companies they were supposed to be helping.
This is predation on a massive scale, next to which the so-called Wolf of Wall Street looks like a puppy dog. In fact, Jordan Belmont didn’t actually work on Wall Street, and was basically running a common or garden boiler room scam from an office in Long Island. But it doesn’t take a genius to work out why he felt that ‘The Wolf of Long Island’ wouldn’t have quite the same ring to it. As few have been able to deny since 2008, predatory behaviour in finance is certainly not confined to the boiler room.
Neither is it confined to the history books: regulators’ feeble post-crisis efforts have consummately failed to stamp out behaviour like RBS’s. And how could they? This isn’t a matter of a few rotten apples: this is hard-wired into big banks’ business models, into our entire economic system. Banks preying on customers, landlords preying on tenants, privatised energy firms preying on citizens, ‘gig economy’ firms preying on workers – none of these groups are getting rich by making something useful. They’re all getting rich by extracting wealth from others, something that – as Jordan Belmont discovered – only gets easier the more of other people’s wealth you manage to amass.
Although our history syllabus encourages us to forget it, rich nations’ wealth is itself largely a product of predatory behaviour on a global scale – extracting resources and people from the global south through colonialism and neo-colonialism. And this ethic continues to govern our relationship to the natural world as well. We are at the top of the food chain, so apparently it’s our God-given right to tear up the earth to feed our factories, cars and farms – even to the point of collective suicide.
But, if I was tempted to think that predatory behaviour is just a symptom of neoliberal capitalism – something that would vanish if we could only overthrow our unjust economic system – I’ve been rudely awakened from that delusion as well. Last week, I discovered that the founder of the Buddhist order I’ve been taking classes with was himself a sexual predator.
It’s now widely accepted that Sangharakshita (Dennis Lingwood to his friends) abused his position of power as a teacher to sexually exploit and manipulate younger male Order members, even twisting Buddhist teachings to justify his behaviour. He also seems to have had a misogynistic streak, claiming that women had “less spiritual aptitude” than men – something his own example singularly fails to demonstrate.
This discovery has left me feeling deeply shaken, even disorientated. This was a man I’d been encouraged to look to as a spiritual guide, in a movement I was beginning to see as part of the answer to building a kinder world. I now feel my trust was so painfully misplaced that I don’t know if I can ever go back. When you find that this toxic culture has infected even the places we might seek a refuge from which to change it, it’s easy to feel hopeless.
Looking back, though, I wonder how I could have been so naïve. After all, I had no such illusions about progressive politics. I’ve since discovered that this kind of behaviour is depressingly common across a number of different Buddhist schools. Indeed, perhaps there’s even something about Buddhist teaching that lends itself to this kind of dangerous distortion. We know that sexual predators and bullies operate by eroding their targets’ sense of self. How much more powerful and sinister to be able to tell them that this loss of identity is all part of the path to enlightenment?
Ultimately, the lesson I’m drawing from all this is that there is no safe haven. Wherever we find structures that concentrate power, we find the possibility of predation. And wherever we are complacent enough to think that those structures are somehow inherently not oppressive – because they are too politically or spiritually pure – we are almost guaranteed to reproduce oppression. Our beliefs and ideologies do not give us a free pass, nor do they automatically protect us. What matters are the structures and cultures we build in their name. What matters is how we act.
The behaviour of RBS, just like the behaviour of Jordan Belmont and Donald Trump, of Sangharakshita and Harvey Weinstein, is not an anomaly. It’s programmed into the power structures that run the world, and all too often into those that are trying to change it. If we want to stop this predatory culture, we need to look a hell of a lot deeper than just a few bad wolves.