In his Inferno, Dante descends through the many ‘circles’ of hell, accompanied by the poet Virgil. He meets and interacts with people condemned to a variety of awful eternities for their respective sins. In an inevitable mix of legal and moral judgement Dante carefully documents the hierarchies of sin and transgression. Those who are virtuous but reject the Christian faith lie in Limbo – a languishing, pointless sadness; those guilty of sullen disregard for the divine wonder of life are sunk in a cloying mud; those guilty of lust are battered with a constant rain and mud; those guilty of anger and aggression towards fellow human are condemned to forever rolling boulders at each other – and so on. These and others are mostly the offence of incontinence (lack of self-restraint).
It is when Dante descends to the city of Dis that he comes across those being punished for the other two offences against god – bestiality and injury. These are mostly crimes of harm to another, and these receive harsher sentences. Here is where we find our modern values apparently departing from Dante’s medieval values. The hierarchy is clear enough. First comes heresy, then violence and, in the darkest centre circle, fraud – and at the centre of the centre, so to speak – the most heinous crime of all – is treachery. This produces results that are sometimes remarked upon as surprising. Murder, most notably, is considered a lighter crime than usury (charging interest for loans), various forms of fraud and, finally, treason.
This may not be quite the surprise is may seem on the face of it. High treason (plotting against the Crown, forging the Crown’s seal (in Scotland), impeding the royal succession – even having adulterous relations with those close to succession) have long been regarded as the highest order of crime in the UK, punishable by anything up to life imprisonment. In fact, most of the law on treason is still based on the Treason Act of 1351, so deep-seated and enduring is the perception of the crime. When we consider the processes and procedures for prosecuting and defending fraud, these consume, proportionately, far greater resources than does the often hum-drum business of prosecuting a murderer. Even so, the maximum sentence for fraud is capped at 10 years, while murder can command life imprisonment. In this life, at least, murder tops the hierarchy of crime, other than high treason.
But what is the moral case for placing fraud higher in the pantheon of crime and misery than murder?
In medieval Florence the case is pretty clear – and gives us a clue for today’s world. Italy in the 13th an 14th centuries did not exist other than as a collection of competing independent city-states: Florence, Milan, Lucca, Siena, Genoa (Dante is often credited with having established the linguistic foundations for a unified Italian language). These cities were in a constant ebb and flow of collaboration, conflict and competition. A murder here or there might tear at the fabric of private lives and relations, but, unless committed against city leaders (when it became treason) it left society intact. Murder presented no existential threat to these clumps of civilisation, constantly facing the real possibility of collapse.
Fraud, on the other hand, was instantly corrosive of the integrity of these mercantile mini-economies, and rendered the lives of all more fragile. In committing fraud or treachery you were endangering the lives and livelihoods of many, tearing at the very social fabric that held together these States. Indeed, beneath fraud and treachery lies a malevolence, a disregard for the collective and a supreme self-elevation that rarely underpins a murder. Murder, while mostly inexcusable, is often more easily understandable under the circumstances. The murderer can often be seen as a victim of circumstance in a way that is rarely the case with a fraudster. A fraudster creates the circumstances of the crime; the murder often is in response to the crime’s context.
So, to Richard Branson and Philip Green and Carillion and failing school academies and Bernie Madoff and the ever-lengthening list of those who commit fraud (legal and illegal) and betrayal of trust against the public finances. I include the as-yet unconvicted Bransons and Greens as betrayers of trust (East Coast rail line, BHS pension fund, respectively – just for starters) and as those who help to both create and then exploit opportunities for the private accumulation of public monies. Branson does nothing illegal in buying up profitable swathes of our National Health Service, but the morality of exploiting ill-health for corporate profit (i.e. not just for personal salary) is more than questionable in humanistic terms – as is walking away from a £2bn bill to the public purse.
Death may well be a consequence of their actions in this regard (depleted health services owing to privatisation, wreckage of lives owing to pension fund mismanagement), but here does not lie the more serious crime. The more serious crime lies in picking apart the social and economic fabric that holds us together in civilised commune. The creation of a welfare state, the dedication of such a monumental amount of public finances, represented a massive step forward in the evolution of moral and humanistic society. Its current dismantling cannot be explained away as simply a response to a changed society. If society has changed since the early years of the NHS it has done so to intensify the need for it, as we return to those Victorian values that said (explicitly, in the case of Social Darwinism) that poverty is a necessary condition for insane wealth. No. The welfare state is our social fabric, and picking it apart is every bit as much of an existential threat to our social order as it was in medieval Florence. Legal it may be; morally it is a betrayal of trust and obligation – fraud and treachery.
So a return to pay-per-wellbeing is a regressive step in the onward march of humanism. Branson sits alongside other ‘usurers’ in easing this retreat by profiteering from health, education and criminal justice needs. Rupert Soames, CEO of SERCO, Etonian and member of the Churchill family, brother of Conservative grandee, Nicholas Soames; Jon Lewis, CEO of CAPITA (which, like Carillion has started issuing profit warnings); Julian Drinkall, old-Etonian and ex-head of the second-largest network of private schools, Alpha Plus – now CEO of the Academies Enterprise Trust, which is on the brink of economic collapse…and so on. Phillip (Sir) Green, favoured advisor to government joins an equally long list of corporate bosses who have pillaged and mismanaged the pensions of millions of hard-working people. At the time of writing this Blog the Guardian is extensively reporting the exploitation of opportunities to provide private sector foster care for vulnerable children involving significant overcharging and money-laundering for tax-avoidance:
The fact that the legal system we have (carefully engineered to allow much of the anti-humanist profiteering) does not outlaw these practices says nothing about their moral standing. This was Dante’s point, and why his epic provided such a boost to the resurgence of humanism and the renaissance in general. Down in the depths of the city of Dis, across the Styx and in the chaos of suffering that is his (not so metaphorical) hell, the ‘final’ judgement is moral and not legal, seen and felt by the perpetrator as against nature :
“Fraud, that in every conscience leaves a sting,
May be by man employ’d on one, whose trust
He wins, or on another who withholds
Strict confidence. Seems as the latter way
Broke but the bond of love which Nature makes.”