Monday, 25 April 2016

BHS and the perverted face of capitalism

I am not a habitual shopper at British Home Stores.  Therefore, on the level of the self-styled venture capitalists who today put it into administration, it is my fault that the demise of another company is occurring.  Management failure and asset stripping have nothing to do with it - not in a new capitalist jungle where the only guaranteed winner is Teflon-coated and where the morals of a destruction of social fabric are warped beneath a perversion of language.

Markets shift and tastes change - and firms adapt or die.  Not a difficult concept to grasp.  And not a bad outcome if there is regeneration and new growth elsewhere.  So I cannot find it in my heart to regard BHS's potential demise as anything more than the actions of the market clearing out a retailer, like Woolworths, that has failed to evolve or provide a response to the challenge of the internet, specialists or discounters, that has provided it with brand identity or loyalty.  What makes me much more concerned is the ethical and strategic vacuum at the centre of contemporary financial and economic structures.

As an economist, I suspect my fellow pedlars of snake-oil deserve much more criticism than they get.   This is partly a function of Britons being scared of numbers (witness the Brexit cheerleaders' desperation to move away from quantifiable discussion) and also of microeconomists' reductionism in a risible attempt to scientific respectability.  Numbers are king, especially if you can manage to convince people that a third-rate algorithm cooked up in Excel holds the key to wealth and happiness.  Whether the perpetrators have any experience of the mutability of the world, or the thought patterns and values of other people remains to be proven.  Empirical evidence tends to suggest not.

Warping language into "wealth creators", "entrepreneurs" and other positive self-projection does not disguise the facts that most of the most disgusting perpetrators of this myth do this solely at the expense of others.  The myriad sales and chicanery around BHS's ownership since its acquisition by Arcadia and "Sir" Philip Green do not disguise the fact that most of the focus has been on "realising assets" - this seems to have resulted in large amounts of money disappearing from the BHS balance sheet and into places where they can't be used to compensate the 11,000 staff whose livelihoods are now at stake and whose pensions will have to be partially-compensated by the rest of the community.

While this all unravels, the "venture capitalists" will have ventured none of their own capital, or so little as to be easily replenishable.  Is it any wonder that there is little trust in business or institutions when this is the assumed modus operandi of modern capital?  An ethos that treats humans as overheads, expendable and collateral damage when the latest brainwave proves to have been a chimera undermines social cohesion.  The fig-leaf of "corporate social responsibility" while firms and bankers avoid tax and press for ever more favourable treatment at the expense of the wider community, and the blind acquiescence in this particular capitalist model by the new right are vile outliers and ultimately may prove self-defeating.

Inequality and greed are not necessarily long-term motivators for stability.  Greed is driven by asset bubbles and insecurity - and social control through indebtedness.  Students, householders and the vast majority of the population are kept in a state of tutelage while the gap widens - increasing aspiration and uncertainty.  What is disturbing is the extent to which this is seen to be a desirable and inevitable outcome - focusing on monetary compensation rather than social cohesion and the worth of the individual is a recipe for short-termism and moral blindness.

Whereas the operation of capitalism is a necessary, least-bad outcome compared to many of the alternatives on offer, the unfettering of social and legal control in the name of deregulation has become an evil.  Responsible citizens of all parties need to be alert to the possibility that further irresponsible pandering to the parasites will spark off extremism, and there could always be an ironic outcome that the current handwringing over Corbyn's alleged ultra-leftism might be seen as a nostalgic exercise.  Government and society operate by consent, and if you exclude, alienate and pauperise then the basis on which this can be sustained becomes less and less tenable.

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