Phillip Green and Mike Ashley: The faces of Disaster Capitalism

2 Aug 2016

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“Our whole people ethos revolves around ‘Right Person, Right Place, Right Time’ and we are committed to the continued development of our people to meet our future growth plans”.


This linguistic choice, from the Employees section of the Sports Direct website says it all. Just one glance leaves the reader with the wider ostensible focus on the growth of the profit margin superseding the basic human entitlements of the workforce.


The same disregard for the workforce, the units of the ‘wealth of nations’ as Adam Smith put it, is also evident on the British Home Stores’ defunct website. Directing all consumer queries to a ‘customer care’ line is now its sole purpose.


The disdain of these retail giants towards those who really keep their profit-machines churning could not be clearer. From reports of an employee too terrified to take a day off work, giving birth in a warehouse toilet, to the 11,000 BHS employees now facing a precarious future, the recent parliamentary enquiries have revealed the face of disaster capitalism. It isn’t pretty.


Does it come as a surprise? From the exposing of widespread malpractice in Murdoch’s NewsCorp in 2013 to the recent confirmation of offshore hoarding in the Panama Papers, it appears that manipulation and criminality are part and parcel of today’s neo-liberal mode of political economy.  


Twenty-First Century capitalism, reneging on its Keynesianism postbellum success, is rather a byword for injustice and perversion. The point one may decipher here is clear. Does the book stop with the owners of companies? The parliamentary reports support this view; Green undoubtedly played a huge role in the demise of his company – his family directly profited £307 million from the false sale of ‘dividends in excess of profits’.


To target individuals solely, despite faults of greed however, is not only disingenuous, it is highly dangerous. Exploitation is not simply limited to these two retail giants – it is endemic of an economic system which actively promotes and thrives from it. There are clear structural implications. We are witnessing the zenith of cronyism.


The depreciation of the bargaining power of the global workforce and wages cannot be limited to the sixteen years of this century. It is rather a cumulative process. A clear dialectical link is present, connecting the 1980s to the present. From the 1984 Miners’ Strike, to the proposed introduction of the draconian labour legislation in Wisconsin. This is an economic paradigm built on brutalization; on intrusion, deceit and the illusion of hope.


What’s the difference between Six Strike Policy of Sports Direct and the Subprime housing bubble of 2007? There is none. Somebody somewhere will tonight make millions if you are somehow unable to pay your monthly phone bill. It is a trend which is cyclical, ongoing, and inherent in neo-liberalism. The excessive wealth of the 1% generated by globalisation has been built on the backs of every ordinary consumer. To label this system as unjust would be doing it justice. It is perfect by design.


As ever increasing profit becomes the zero-sum game, de-humanisation is the legitimising key. Owen Jones’s polemic Chavs provides some thoughtful insights. Once more didadic links are prevalent. The advent of working-class bashing in Benefits Street is no different to the blatant intense commodification of the workforce which has increasingly come to light. They intrinsic to a political economy of dominant ownership.


Such an arrangement is promoted by the Liberal-Democratic state. The increasing corporate tax breaks throughout the West are a direct encouragement for the managerial class to vote themselves into huge salaries unrelated to their productivity. This only strengthens sentiments of self-entitlement and a disregard for those at the bottom of the corporation. Whilst the wage increases for the majority have been eaten-up by inflation, the structural tendency is to vastly increase the purchasing power of those earning £200,000 a year. Whereas taxes on capital have wavered, the burdens on real incomes have only increased. It is no surprise to see that real capital income share (interest rates, dividends, rent) has soared since the 1990s. The real wage income share has steeply declined. Marx’s statement rallying the ‘workers of the world’ to ‘unite’ has never had more resonance; the enslaved in Primark factories in Bangladesh increasingly have more in common with their British counterparts.


The actions of an Ashley or a Green within such structures are highly rational. They are merely responding to the pressures of an economic paradigm which actively promotes, and more importantly allows for and rewards, such abuses of power.


The real battle, therefore, is not against individuals. The fight is against wholesale ‘disaster capitalism’ - within which doctors, teachers and retail workers, from Sidney and Berlin to Stockholm and London all have a stake in fighting. For we are all being exploited. From student loans to the freezing of public sector pay, these events cannot be isolated. They only make sense in a coherent organic whole.


Sports Direct and British Home Stores, though shocking, are not exceptional. They are, rather, symptomatic of the new normal. An unchallenged structure which has existed for decades. Closing down Ashley’s empire or buying out BHS will not halt this misery. For that true economic reform is required.



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