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Monday, 6 June 2016

Philip Green: The insanity of neo-liberalism

‘Sir’ Philip Green, eh?  What a guy.  Knighted by Blair, a government advisor to Cameron.  Now his business ‘skills’ have led to the collapse of the 90-year-old BHS business, the loss of 11,000 jobs and the collapse of the company pension fund that he raided.  He is a fine example of unfettered neo-liberal capitalism.

In 2005, Green paid himself nearly £1.2bn. The figure I have seen is £1.17bn. Let us think a little about that. £1,170,000,000. That is £3,205,479.45 a day (that 45p matters; an extra £164 a year would make a big difference to a lot of people).  The UK average wage is about £26,000 per an. Put another way, on every single day of 2005, ‘Sir’ Philip Green earned 123 times what the average UK wage-earner makes in a year. Every single day. In the year, he earned, in that payment alone, for I dare say he had other sources of income, the equivalent of what just shy of 45,000 (that’s forty-five thousand – the population of a small town or the average gate at, say, Old Trafford) average wage-earners made.

I’m not arguing that everyone only deserves the same pay or that no one should be allowed theirfinancial success or to earn great wealth. I have no particular objection to people being millionaires or even multimillionaires. But … £3million a day? Let's just let that sink in and – more than that – think how utterly pointless that amount of money is in one person's off-shore bank account, or even in one person’s on-shore bank account. How could you even spend it all?

Let’s think.  You could buy all of the nine properties listed in this Telegraph piece on the most expensive properties in London and still have getting on for a billion pounds left over! Out of that, you could buy a couple of super-yachts like this or perhaps the world’s largest private vessel at a cost of $600m (£414.353m) and still have well over £500,000,000 (half a billion quid) to spare. So, let's buy one each of the ten most expensive types of car in the world. That's about £20m. We could hire 100 staff and flunkies for our houses and cars and yacht/s and pay them £30k p.a. each. Just to guard against future hiccups, we could set aside their wages for the next 10 years: £30m.  Let's invest £20m in various funds which, all being well, ought to give us an income for life of a million a year, probably more. What else could we do?  I know, we could buy another ten mansions around the world to sail to in the yacht (and maybe keep one of our super-cars at each). Roughly matching our London properties in price, with three staff at each, with wages for ten years: say another £250m?  Blimey. We still have £180m left. Now we could invest it, but that would only yield even more income and the point of this thought experiment is to think how we could spend the money (and we’ve already set ourselves up with a million per an for life, so we hardly need to work again)..  I’ll tell you what we could do. We could give 11,000 employees £16,363.63 each either as a bonus or – maybe better – into their pension fund, but oh dear, that smacks a bit of socialism.  Maybe we could donate £180m to charity…  Think of the good that could do.  Or – get this – pay it as … tax?!?!  Just that last bit? 15% of the total?  You have to admit that £180,000,000 would be a reasonable shot in the arm to schools or hospitals.  Hell, we could pay nearly ten percent of the entire country's university research budget for the year.  But, oh dear again, we don’t like tax, do we? It's a dirty word. Oh, I know. A jet. We haven’t bought a private jet yet…

You see what I mean about the difficulty of spending it all?  And what – really – would you do with nineteen mansions? Much more to the point, all that was in just one year.  Even I am sufficient of a champagne socialist (call it aspiration if you will…) not to think it that much of an issue if someone possessed nineteen mansions around the world, ten super-cars, a super-yacht or two and a private jet at the end of a long career of hard work at the top end of the successful business world.  But the experiment we have just indulged in concerned just one element of one year’s income.  He could have paid himself £170m and said to the government ‘fuck it. Here’s half of this year’s university research budget for the whole country. You're welcome.’  Or, better, he could have not let the government off the hook and said ‘here: raise this year’s university research budget by 50%.’ 

One thing to remember at this point is that one person is earning this, literally almost unimaginable, wealth in one year in a country (and not merely a first-world country but a G12 country) where ever more people are descending into poverty and being dependent on food-banks.

Where does all that money go? In Green’s case it was shunted by a tax-avoidance dodge into his wife’s account in Monaco, which rather illustrates the left-wing Facebook meme that money paid to the rich just gets salted away off-shore rather than going back into the economy.  All that money could instead have been distributed among the employees of the companies or in the creation of new jobs.  As I have said, 45,000 average salaries could have been paid out of that sum.  That probably misses the point that it wasn’t a sum he paid himself every year but it hardly negates the general issue.  More to the point, those salaries would have been taxable (and the sort of legal tax avoidance that ordinary people go in for costs government revenues way less, even when multiplied by 45,000, than that indulged in by the super-rich) and the rest would have been spent in the UK economy.

People will doubtless defend Green on two scores.  The first is that what he did is not illegal.  That really is something that governments need to think about.  Whether or not technically illegal, this sort of tax avoidance is profoundly unethical.  Who pays for the education of Green’s workforce, or their health-care when they are sick, or for the roads and infrastructure on or by which his goods are transported, or for the police that maintain their security and the armed forces that protect them?  By tax-dodging he is expecting us – and his own workforce – to pay for all that. For his own benefit (and remember, he benefits to an unimaginable extent).

The other defence, which I have seen proposed by the equally awful Karen Brady (though grudgingly  I still have to respect her success in the boys’ own world of football-club ownership and admin), is that by creating jobs and business, he contributed enough to the economy and deserves his tax-free billions.  I don’t think that that withstands the arguments above, and I don’t think it defends the sheer scale of the wealth being taken out of the country (he could, after all, have paid himself £100 million and still paid 100,000 employees a £10,000 bonus, which would have stayed in the country, without affecting the companies’ ‘bottom line’).  In the thought experiment above, no more than a couple of hundred jobs were created, as much outside the UK as in.  More importantly though, it is completely undermined by his long-term failure. Eleven years (and god knows how much additional wealth) later, he has ruined the business, screwed their pension fund and left 11,000 people jobless (whose benefits, insofar as this government will still allow them any, although their unemployment is no fault of their own) will have to be paid for by the rest of us.  In the meantime, who has benefitted?  Not many traditional Tory-voting demographics, that’s for sure.  That money could have gone into sustaining rural communities, for instance and supporting farmers; companies of the sort that Green runs (generally dodging corporation tax too, remember) are the ones ruining the high street and forcing small businesses out.  This is the short-termism of neo-liberalism, witnessed by heaven-knows-how-many of Osborne’s economic ‘policies’.  Take as much money as you can, here and now and screw the rest, screw the future.

This isn’t just greedy. It's sociopathic.

Unimaginable, un-spendable wealth, looted by a few and taken abroad in unsustainable get-rich-quick schemes, benefitting almost no one.  That is the utter insanity of extreme, unfettered neoliberal capitalism.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Why Sixth-Century History Doesn't Matter (any more or less than any other history)

I'm a sixth-century historian ... and let me tell you I look good for my age.  Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.  I'll be here all week.  Now please welcome Miss Elaine Page.


Be all that as it may, the VC of Queens University Belfast, Patrick Johnston (an oncologist) has recently said that 'society' (that thing that Thatcherites like him don't believe in, remember?) doesn't need people who specialise in the history of the sixth century.
"Society doesn't need a sixth century historian. It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership [as, ahem, Johnstone, like almost all of his ilk - university managers, that is, not oncologists - clearly doesn't] and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to drive society forward."
OK. There are a lot of things you can wonder on the basis of this interview.  One might ask why, given his utilitarian obsession, Johnston is running a University and not still working to cure cancer (might one assume that, like most university managers, he ran out of ideas in his area of academic specialisation and took the soft route to a £250,000 salary instead?); one might wonder whether Durham and Newcastle (QUB's partners in the 'Northern Bridge' post-graduate funding consortium) are not now asking themselves what kind of idiot they have got into bed with; one might seriously sit down and ask what this man really thinks education is about, or what mind-numbingly limited range of things he thinks can 'benefit society'; one might ponder what sort of grey, cultureless, dystopian hell his vision of a society 'benefited' and 'led' by his idea of Higher Education resembles*; and finally one would be forgiven for thinking on the basis of this interview that, if this is an example of the sort of people who manage (for they certainly don't lead) UKHE, the sorts of people, the sorts of intellectual second-raters (amongst whom there are more than a few historians), into whose hands British Higher Education has fallen, we should all just put our heads in our hands and weep.

Such is Johnston's staggering ignorance that one assumes he picked on 'sixth century history' (he doesn't actually specify BC or AD) because he thought it was a sort of obscure Dark Age topic that no one could possibly see as valuable and that no one would stand up for (that is, again, typical of the sort of bullying these people do).  In that, at least, he was wrong.  Various responses have sprung up which have led Johnston to issue a hasty statement clarifying how much 'respect' he has for history graduates. The details need not detain us; it is corporate bullshit.  It is a sort of superficial climb-down at least but he dropped the veil on his real opinions and, one assumes, his real intentions if push comes to shove. (And he already has form in cutting back on the arts and humanities.)


Johnston's philistine, corporate dribblings are, however, no more than some of us have come to expect from University managers. It's the replies that I really despair about, for they give a pretty bleak indication of what historians think their discipline is about - or rather that, typically, they haven't got a clue what their discipline might be there for, other than as some sort of hobby or middle-class divertissement.  Charles West, to his credit, asks what history is about, if not thinking and analysis.  If one wants to be narrowly utilitarian, one can specify the ability to sift information critically, reach a conclusion and present that conclusion via reasoned argument in (in theory at any rate) cogent written or oral form, to a deadline.  Ideally that is what a history graduate should be able to do, and it is very important (maybe in practice it's the most important thing; I don't know), but it is not, of course, something that is limited to History graduates.  At that point, however, the serious argument for sixth-century history presented thus far fizzles out.

For where does it go after that, generally non-history-specific, justification?  Sadly, West retreats into an argument that important stuff happened in the sixth century that is, allegedly, 'relevant' today, and that knowing the history of these things gives them 'context'.  Do you really need to know about the rise of Islam to understand ISIS (other than, as here [and ff.], to refute the dangerous banalities of 'top historian' Tom Holland)?  What kind of meaningful context does a simple knowledge of the sixth century add to understanding the modern world?  The response to Johnstone from QUB's own Immo Warntjes, however, doesn't even get as far as West's.  All it is is a list of (to him at least) interesting things that happened in the sixth century.  Mostly they are things of some interest to me too, as you'd expect, but I would hesitate to ascribe to any of them an innate importance. But is that all history has to differentiate it from any other humanities discipline?  Knowing facts about the past?  Chronicling and antiquarianism?  Readers of this blog know full well that I do not accept that even knowing the 20th-century history of the Middle East helps you understand the rise of ISIS in and of itself.  That too reduces history to simple chronicling and raises some pretty difficult (I'd say insurmountable) epistemological questions about causation and narrative.

Does, however, the defence of history need to go anywhere beyond the intrinsic interest of things that happened in the past?  Is not knowledge for its own sake a valid defence?  Obviously I sympathise with that ideal but in practice it has severe limitations.  For, if just knowing about stuff is its own justification, then why not degrees in stamp-collecting, car-recognition, arithmetic or French vocabulary?  If knowing facts about the past is qualitatively different from being able to, say, identify the date, origin and value of any stamp, sufficient to justify the payment of university salaries etc, one needs to have a cogent argument as to why, which goes beyond mere intellectual snobbery.

I have set out why I think history does matter before and I don't want to repeat all that, but do please read that post if you have not read it before.  Suffice it to say that what matters about history applies to sixth-century history no more and no less than to the history of any other century.  Why does it matter to train 21-year-olds in history?  To help them critique sources of evidence - as Charles West says - and not just accept what they are told; to help them think about humanity and understand other human beings in other contexts too.  But these things are not unique to history.  What is (I propose)unique to history is not simply the knowledge of things that happened in the past, but the investigation of why they happened, of why people said they happened and of why they want you to think they happened; more so (perhaps) the knowledge of understanding why things happened involves the awareness of the other options that were available - the things that could have happened but didn't (and grasping why they didn't) - and of how no one historical state of affairs or set of outcomes is preordained to be the only, natural one.  It didn't have to be like that then; it doesn't have to be like this now.  This is the emancipatory potential of history, specifically.

To sum up, then, the history of the sixth century matters as much as the history of any other century not so much for the knowledge of all the things that happened so much as for the understanding of all the things that didn't.


* This is what I imagine: a society in which disease is a thing of the past and businesses are all well led but in which no one has any capacity to create or critique culture or think sophisticated, questioning thoughts about the inevitable finitude of life, disease or no (there might, I suppose, be a core of characteristically pointless analytical philosophers providing cod-logically-truthful, cod-ethical arguments for the turning off of life-support systems, under the ironic banner of 'medical humanities'), or about whether business and capitalism are good things, or by what right people with 'useful' degrees claim to lead society, or whether 'driving society forward' is ipso facto a 'Good Thing', or by what criteria we judge what a Good Thing might be, or what the alternatives are; where no one has the sort of training that might help them improve the sophistication of that society's cultural life, or indeed do anything non-utilitarian except as some form of hobby. Or maybe that is what the 'non-leaders' do in their spare time, when not working zero-hours contracts for the businesses of the drivers and leaders or watching 1000 versions of strictly on the 1000 quality-free business- and utility-driven deregulated TV channels and getting their view of the world from the sorts of 'leaders' and 'drivers' that created Fox News and the Daily Mail.  A society stuck in this rut ad infinitum for lack of anyone with the wit or imagination to challenge it and its models.  That, I imagine, is the society that technocrats like Johnston and his ilk think universities are there to produce and maintain.