Occupational Health

By Hanson, Steve | Social Alternatives, First Quarter 2009 | Go to article overview

Occupational Health


Hanson, Steve, Social Alternatives


This article studies a postmodern financial work space (Halifax plc/HBOS) by exploring a series of ruptures leading up to our current financial crisis and the way they impacted on the social fabric of the institution, as well as the life and existential viewpoint of the author. It links life-world narratives to wider discourses on postmodernism, alienation, and examines the way these ruptures were linked to wider historical processes, particularly 9/11. It describes new right beliefs in supposedly 'natural' or 'stabilising' forms of free market capitalism as 'theology'. Via this, it questions the idea of agency in human social life, also asking if the attempt to illuminate historical process from an individual viewpoint carries severe limitations.

It's bankruptcy, the human haul,

The shining, bulging nets lined out of the sea, and

always a few refugees

Dropping back into the no-longer-mirthful kingdom

- John Ashbery, 'Purists Will Object'

September, 2008. In America major investment banks collapse, then Lehman Brothers goes, including its Canary Wharf headquarters. Days later, the Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS) announces stability, but its shares are glass slippers, and nobody realises how late it is.

C. Wright Mills (1970) urged for the experiences of those who describe social life to feed into accounts they make of it. He also calls for this process to be linked to wider, inescapable shifts of history. The recent financial crisis sent me back into my own Bermuda triangle of self, history and other.

I worked for HBOS, a merger of Halifax pic and Bank of Scotland, between 1999 and 2002, as a graphic designer, working in the team who put 'Howard' on television screens (see fig.l). Less enjoyably, I had to sit through seemingly hundreds of video tapes featuring Halifax branch employees performing karaoke. Pop Stars was a popular TV show. Howard was picked, for his spectacles rather than singing, which were then made slightly bigger and patented. His harmless, slightly geeky image was an alibi. Soon, Howard was heard around the marketing department declaring that he wanted to be a 'real' pop star.

This myth of winner-takes-all instant celebrity exists both as entertainment and a distorted reflection of the free market. Howard was removed from the HBOS marketing strategy in 2008. He was a nice guy, but his cheery success narrative was deemed unmarketable to a market which was, well, priced out of the market. Howard, as with so much in popular culture, illuminated what was going on unseen, beneath the surface, although this always requires some decoding.

I began working at the Halifax plc headquarters, Trinity Road, in 1999. The old Masonic lodge is enshrined like a golden temple at the heart of a huge piece of 1970s architecture, built entirely aloof from its locale (see figs. 2, 3 and 6). It appears to be on legs, ready to go stalking the streets in search of new prey, its windows impenetrable, warping the town back at itself in a hallof-mirrors caricature. Upon entry, Trinity Road replicates the town it locks out, with its security barriers and swipe cards. It renders the town outside redundant for those lucky enough to work inside. A micro Halifax in Halifax. During the merger between Halifax plc and the Bank of Scotland, a local newspaper distributed a protest broadsheet bearing the surreal plea to 'Keep Halifax in Halifax' (Halifax Evening Courier, 1 May 2001, see fig.4). From here on in, reality seemed to leak from the hull of the institution

rapidly.

Inside Trinity Road was a shop for workers, stocking all those little things you may need to 'nip out for'. Public life was marginalised. The Halifax 'X' logo was everywhere inside, detectable all over the architecture of the building. X marks. Close your eyes and it was imprinted on your retina, a 'brand' in a very original sense, but a double bind, a mark of ownership, as well as the cross-hairs of desire. …

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