Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Is There An 'Acceptable Face of Capitalism?

Writing in THE OBSERVER, Will Hutton looked at the rise and fall of Philip Green, the billionaire businessman, and asked whether we should critically “look closely at British Capitalism” to learn any lessons (Damn Philip Green. Damn also the rotten culture that allowed him to flourish, 28.10.2018).

The lessons Mr Hutton wanted us to learn was to agree to reform capitalism so that employers provided “great places to work”, where they were considerate to their employers and where they “recognise their responsibility to the society of which they are part”. Socialists disagree.

Sir Philip Green received his knighthood in 2006 from Tony Blair’s Labour government; something about Labour at the time being “at ease with the filthy rich”. And "filthy rich” Green certainly is, with a fortune estimated at around £2 billion (TIMES RICH LIST 2018). He also gives a lot of his money to David Cameron’s Tory Party while using exotic and creative tax management techniques to pay as little tax in Britain as possible. His wife, Tina, sits on most of his families’ off-shore wealth in Monaco.

Philip Green is also known to be a ruthless businessman, described by Robert Preston in his book “WHO RUN'S BRITAIN” as “The King of Jackpot Capitalism”. And for investors Green certainly has hit the jackpot for them. Richard Caring, the restaurateur and clothing tycoon, received £93 million in payouts in the early days of Green’s ownership of BHS (GUARDIAN 29th April 2016).

So why has Sir Philip Green passed from being an “acceptable” capitalist feted by politicians from Blair to Cameron to becoming an “unacceptable” capitalist attacked in the media and Parliament? Why the pariah status?

A lot had to do with BHS going into administration in 2016, the fate of its 174 stores, problems with its pension fund and the 11,000 employees who lost their jobs. More recently, it is because of the way in which Green treats his employees. According to THE OBSERVER (28. 10. 2018) Green verbally bullies and racially abuses some workers in his employment and sexually harasses others. Green claims it is “banter”. An example of his abusive and bullying “banter” is given in Oliver Shah’s biography of Green, Damaged Goods, in which Shah claimed Green, said to a womenswear buyer who had paid too much for a range of commodities:

You’re absolutely fucking useless. I should throw you out of the window, but you’re so fat you’d probably bounce back again”.

BHS was always going to fail. With the arrival of internet shopping the department store has become a thing of the past – look at the recent problems at Debenhams who has been forced to close 50 stores with 3,000 job losses. Green knew this when he sold BHS for a pound in 2015 to a consortium called Retail Acquisitions Limited led by Dominic Chappell. Chappell was “less than credit-worthy” and a “repeat bankrupt” (PRIVATE EYE no. 1417 2016). Green was forced later to pay back several millions of pounds into the BHS pension fund.

Chappell and his associates took £15 million out of this loss-making company. In comparison the pension fund had a liability of only £570 million. Intense competition, use of cheap foreign labour to produce clothes and cut-throat discounts favour the lean and the mean high street operators, out of town and mail order retail operators. By comparison, BHS was like a dinosaur. And the same problems of on-line commercial Internet competition are plaguing Green’s Arcadia Empire, chains of cheap fashion like Top Shop.

On learning that he was to blame for the demise of BHS Sir Philip Green is reported to have said:

If I give you my plane, right, and you tell me you’re a great driver and you crash into the first fucking mountain, is that my fault?” (GUARDIAN 19th March 2016).

Sir Philip Green has his admirers. Richard Godwin, writing in the EVENING STANDARD, saw Green as the embodiment of modern capitalism with:

Its cynicism, the avarice, the bullying and insecurity” (EVENING STANDARD, 27th April 2016).

Godwin went on to remark that Green:

…performs a service simply by showing us how it (capitalism) works”.

But does Sir Philip Green really show how capitalism works. Superficially, capitalists like Green are seen to undercut their competitors, make vast profits and amass as much capital as possible. If the business fails, then creditors, workers and others are just “collateral damage” in a system where making a profit counts for everything.

Colourful characters like Sir Philip Green litter capitalism’s history. Bernard and Norah Docker, in the 1950s, presided over the decline of BSA, as they milked the company to finance their opulent lifestyle. Then there was the landlord Peter Rachman, the architect and businessman John Paulson, Jimmy Goldsmith, Robert Maxwell, the “Guinness Four” (Saunders, Lyons, Parnes and Robson), one of whom became the only person to recover from severe dementia. They are the stuff of novelists and satirists. However being a ruthless bully, walking over competitors and treating workers like so much disposable rubbish is in fact not how capitalism really works.

If you want a scientific account of how capitalism really works you will not find it in the Business Section of the EVENING STANDARD or in op-ed pages of THE OBSERVER. In fact you will also not find it in the economic text books taught at universities. To discover how capitalism works you will first have to turn to the works of Karl Marx and similar socialist literature.

So, what is the function of a capitalist? Marx gave an answer:

As the conscious representative of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value, which is the objective basis ..., becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will...The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at (CAPITAL VOLUME ONE. Part II: The Transformation of Money into Capital. Chapter Four).
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch04.htm

This comment by Marx applies to all capitalists whether they are “the good, the bad or the ugly”.

And where does this profit come from? It does not come from buying cheap and selling high or from cheating. Profits are not made in circulation but in production. It comes from the exploitation of the working class who produce more social wealth than they receive in wages and salaries. This “surplus value” as Marx called goes to the capitalist class in the unearned income of rent, interest and profit.

It does not matter whether the capitalist is an ascetic philanthropist or a ruthless chancer like Sir Philip Green. They both have to exploit the working class as ruthlessly as possible to remain capitalists. They have no choice in the matter if they want to remain as capitalists, although capitalism favours the entrepreneur who destroys his competitors without losing any sleep. “Capitalism is not for wimps” and “Greed is good” is the ruthless world Green inhabits.

An investor would rather have Sir Peter Green at the helm than Mother Theresa. For the investor, the Greens’ of the world, while they are making money for the shareholders, will always be the acceptable face of capitalism.

In his article, Will Hutton believes British capitalism needs “a root-and-branch makeover”. It needs no such thing. Instead, World capitalism needs to be replaced with world socialism. That is what needs to be done. This is the last thing on Hutton’s mind. Hutton believes you can have capitalism without the effects of capitalism. You cannot. Capitalism is exploitive and capitalists have to exploit the working class. And Hutton admits this. He says that:

We need more firms committed to creating value over time

The creation of “value over time” comes from class exploitation, from workers’ unpaid labour, and it does not matter if it is exploitation is in the short or in the long term; by employers hugging workers as they turn up to work in the morning or behaving rudely and discourtesy to their workforce like Green and capitalists like him.

Hutton wants a touchy-feely capitalism; a capitalism working in the interests of everyone. And Hutton lectures socialist on their “utopianism”!!! Capitalists have no option but to intensify and extend the rate of exploitation. Capitalists have to be aggressive and competitive or they will not survive. As Marx once noted: “One capitalist kills many”.

What is not acceptable is for the working class to go on year-in and year-out producing the surplus value and subsequent profit for Sir Peter Green and his class to live-off while the rest of society lives in poverty and unmet social and individual need. The collapse of BHS shone a light on the grubby practices of those who have gained by its collapse. And the recent exposure of Green as an unpleasant and vulgar employer might also serve to demonstrate the reality of class power and privilege. However his behaviour does not show how profit is made any more than it explains capitalism and the workings of the profit system.

The question is not presenting an acceptable face of capitalism as though managing the effects of class exploitation can be reduced to a PR exercise. Nor is it a question of the right type of capitalism who invests for the long term, treats his employees well and considers the wider social environment as Hutton seems to want a capitalist to behave like but still keep the class exploitation.

Instead, it is a question of the ownership of the means of production and distribution, what they are used for and what they are not used for. This turns on whether there is production for profit or production solely for social use. And for production solely for social use to take place, the workers do not need the capitalist class living off their labour, whether with an “acceptable face” or not. Socialism is the answer to class exploitation not social reform.

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