Is there any deeper link between finance and cocaine than the role credit-cards and twenty-pound notes play in its ingestion? In 2009, the UN illegal drugs ‘tsar’ Antonio Maria Costa claimed an estimated $315 billion of drugs profit was “the only liquid investment capital” available to some banks in the aftermath of the 2008 credit crunch, the only thing keeping them from seizing up.
Costa’s accusation was one of the reasons former Angry Brigade member John Barker resurrected a manuscript from the late 1980s and reworked it into his new novel, Futures. The year is 1987, and inspired by ‘Big Bang’ deregulation, City analysts and inveterate snorters Jack and Phil plot to score a huge cargo of cocaine, in anticipation of a massive price rise.
Trouble comes their way as it becomes apparent that even the not-altogether rectitudinous business practices they know from high-finance are, morally, a cut above those of the criminal underworld their new commodity throws them into trading with. Cue fast cars, pornography, pub-brawls, beatings and killings, and the endless search for a working phone-box.
It is this messiness of doing deals, rather than any critique of what City folk choose to do with their noses, that the presence of cocaine in the novel serves to highlight. It zooms in behind neatly abstract contracts and indices to show the lives and difficulties of the people buying and selling, with the drug world a particularly pungent example of this on-the-ground intractability.
Hence the novel’s structure: chapters alternate between separate narratives, each following different characters. As Futures proceeds, stories connect and overlap. Carol – “a survivor”, in Barker’s phrase – is a single mum who makes ends meet selling small amounts of coke every few weeks. It turns out she’s Jack’s dealer, through whom he’s conducting the research into market conditions which underpins his and Phil’s cocaine ‘futures’ enterprise.
Shadowing everyone is gangland big-cheese Gordon Murray, for most of the novel the only character who gets to speak in the first person. Barker wanted Murray’s voice in the book because he finds him “boring” for the way he “mimics neo-liberal language”. (Barker is working on a new book, Terms and Conditions, a dictionary of buzz-words and the ideology they can serve or conceal).
Big-business talk – “leverage”, “deliverables”, “offer”, “strategy” – is a bête noir of contemporary discourse. But commercial and economic literacy has always been seen as useful on the Left. Barker has been writing about economics for decades, with articles in the magazines Mute and Variant. An essay at the end of the book explores the connections between US agricultural and foreign policy and the rise in cocaine cultivation in South America.
Barker is a slightly better essayist than he is a novelist, the same emphasis on complexity and flux making for a compelling modesty in what he writes. His arguments, he says, are valid, and his facts are true, but are not the whole story – there are other truths and other facts. As his analyst characters are fond of saying, things are never “stupid A to B”.
Futures by John Barker is published by PM Press. RRP: £9.99 ISBN: 9781604869613