On global capitalism in Lenin’s day, the Bolshevik leader had this to say: “Imperialism is an immense accumulation of money capital in a few countries … hence the extraordinary growth of a class, or rather, of a stratum of rentiers, i.e., people who live by “clipping coupons”, who take no part in any enterprise whatever, whose profession is idleness …” If only the money men of 21st century Britain remained excrescences on the economy, of directing their stooges to invest capital and growing fat off the labour and talent of others. At the risk of being wistful, this ideal-typical view of your average capitalist is long buried and have gone beyond mere uselessness. Drunk on their parasitism, they are oblivious to how their appetites are not just imperiling the health of the enterprises they gorge upon, but threaten to kill them outright.
The latest example is the collapse of British Home Stores (BHS), a venerable department store that has graced the high street for 88 years. Not that I ever went there, which I suppose is a microcosm of the predicament it finds itself in. Lately, not enough of anyone have come through its doors to buy outfits and lampshades. Yet the Darwinist cut and thrust of the retail market can only shoulder so much of the blame. The reason why BHS is looking down a barrel, and its 11,000-strong workforce face uncertain futures is in large measure down to its erstwhile proprietor, the fly-by-knight Sir Philip Green. Acquiring the struggling BHS for £200m in 2000, Green and his family shook the firm down for a billion quid. All the profits, all the wage squeezes, every saving that could be wrung from the business passed through head office en route to Tina Green’s capacious purse in Monaco. And when there was nothing left, Green offloaded BHS on his tax-dodging wife’s behalf for a quid. The new owners, a ragtag-and-bobtail outfit going by the name of Retail Acquisitions, failed to raise the cash BHS needed to start turning itself around.
It goes without saying that Green’s behaviour was grubby and disgusting, and he could face action from the pensions’ watchdog amid suggestions that the firm dodged its obligations (this would be on top of the pensions holidays many large firms took in the late 90s/early 00s, all with a nod from Gordon Brown). Seemingly aware he could be on the hook for something, Green has offered to stump up £80m toward the BHS pension fund’s half-a-billion deficit. I hope the sop is rejected and he gets rinsed.
As you can see, Green went well beyond the “coupon clipping”. His ownership and running of the brand suggests little if any interest in preserving the business for the long-term, of increasing products, introducing new lines, investing in new technology, and battling it out for market share. You know, the things Max Weber told us capitalists are supposed to do. If BHS was in difficulty 16 years ago, self-evidently a business that has a billion pounds sloshing around is a business that was not a basket case. Instead of treating BHS like a bile bear with the tap left on full for the Green durée, the monies could have been used to add value by expanding its range, aggressively marketing itself, and venturing properly into online retail. Instead, Sir Phil was to his host a tax-dodging, celeb-stalking, yacht-bothering tapeworm.
Ah, but he’s a one-off, a bad apple, yes? In the interests of fairness, BHS’s problems can’t all be laid at his door. The so-called death of the high street is the result of policies pursued over the last six years. The cost of living crisis (remember that?) was always more than a soundbite for millions of people. As meagre wage rises/freezes have bitten, people don’t have as much cash to splash, hence middlebrow stores like BHS were always going to face what the experts call a “challenging retail environment”. The second is the brash new competitor, Amazon, have got away with ripping off the Treasury. Without as much of a tax liability, they have built an infrastructure on the back of exhausting, low-paid work, which has given them an unfair competitive advantage. Having got caught dithering over steel, the Tories are not about to invite more scrutiny of their complicity in this situation. Which probably helps explain why Anna Soubry’s been very quick to discuss the issue in the House and dampen speculation about redundancies.
There’s a wider point. Green is the “cultural dominant” of what a capitalist looks like in 21st century Britain, the sort valorised, flattered, and admired by the City and its helpers. The pursuit of profit, of realising returns on investment, comes not from building things but of tearing them down. As David Harvey points out, global capital from the 1980s on snapped up sold off state infrastructure and coined it from the introduction of markets into public services. New markets were conquered, but these were provided by governments as they let capital swoop in and profit from institutions under their stewardship. Capitalism ate the infrastructure that sustained it. As Britain is the epicentre of global finance, we find here these necrotising social relationships have achieved their fullest expression: an economy whose GDP is dependent not on production, but the selling of houses between buy-to-let landlords, a state bent on selling off what’s left of the public domain to politically suitable bidders (one doesn’t have to be the highest, as the Garden Bridge fiasco demonstrates), and a financial industry that sucks in Britain’s best brains to design fiendishly complex but socially useless “products”, “packages”, “vehicles”, and “instruments”. Funny how the intangible has annexed the language of the concrete. In sum, the owners of capital have become dysfunctional and decadent from the standpoint of British capitalism itself.
Green is not a one-off. He’s archetypal.