We’re in the grip of money madness

Now at least we know the origin of the phrase “a crashing bore”. The Great Crash of 2008 will, we have been assured, affect us all; what nobody explained was that its first casualty would be normal, sane human discourse.

Once, not so long ago, one could go to a social occasion and discuss life, love, politics, TV, maybe even a little culture. Now there is only one topic in town, and that is money. What used to be regarded as an essentially dull, and possible rather vulgar, topic of social conversation is now impossible to avoid. The age of making money has given way to the age of talking about it.

The very guests whom everyone at a party would avoid – dead-eyed money men, braying bankers – are now VIPs. They are on the frontline! They can explain what backwardation is, talk for hours about leveraging and black swan theory! It is all absolutely thrilling.

In the millions and millions of hours spent in bars and over dining-tables discussing the terrible things which have happened in the economy and the even more terrible things which await us, two things are universally true.

The first is that virtually everything said will be utter piffle. Just as the most clueless football fan will think himself an expert at managing the national team, so now anyone who listens to the radio or reads a newspaper is suddenly an expert in economics.

The truth is that, at a time when even those in the know are floundering hopelessly, those who regurgitate the latest hysterical bulletin from Robert Peston, full of phrases like “unprecedented crisis”, “staring into the abyss”, “thinking the unthinkable”, or spew out their own crackpot theories, are engaged in an exercise of extreme drivel.

The second inevitable feature of Crash-talk is that the sheer excitement of the subject will push back the border between the mildly silly and the barking mad. It will be the end of the City, says one person. The end of capitalism, says another. The end of money, says the third. Soon it will generally be agreed that within weeks hordes of beggars will be roaming the streets, most of Berkshire will have been sold to the Germans, child slave-labour will be back, and suburban housewives will be selling their bodies on the High Street in order to survive.

There is something strange about this kind of talk. It is as if adults had entered a child’s game of pretend-fear. The feelings conjured up by apocalyptic visions of the future are not terror, but excitement. People are thrilled to be asked to think the unthinkable. Bored by the security of their lives, they are turned on by talk of loss and disaster.

We have become addicted to anxiety. Eight years ago, the end of civilisation would be caused by crazed terrorists. As that fear diminished, the great environmental terror set in. Instead of being blown up or gassed, we were all going to fry. Now, with the great crash/slump/recession/depression, we are going to lose all our money. It seems as if only when considering our incipient doom do we feel fully alive.

Each of these modern fears were, and are, justified, but there is something perverse and decadent in the way that the chattering world has responded to them.

It is undignified, this breathless obsession with losing what we have, and is an insult to past generations who have faced more grievous threats with courage and calm, and to people in different, harsher parts of the world who still do.