Asset stripping is a business model based on buying a prosperous business and then selling its assets piecemeal, with no regard for the long term health or indeed survival of the company. It is so last century. Perhaps, in fact, so 1970s. But now that so many of the assets have been stripped, what's left?
Plenty. For a start, be not too eager to count your blessings, lest they be stripped. By the 1970s – there's a coincidence – citizens of rich countries, principally in the west, enjoyed a standard of living that was unparalleled in human history. It didn't matter how you judged it. Wealth, health, nutrition, freedom, equality, happiness: more people had more of it than ever before. We were blessed.
Then something strange happened. No-one is quite sure what. A convincing case can be made for the rise in the price of oil, which transferred a lot of money from merely wealthy westerners to the fabulously wealthy in the oil-producing states. Another possibility is that enough people had enough money that they lost sight of where the wealth had come from. No longer did they see themselves as citizens of a nation that had grown rich in unison. Rather, they imagined that their personal wealth was uniquely a consequence of their own intelligence, foresight and hard work. Everyone else, by contrast, was a brake on their personal supremacy. There was no such thing as society.
By the dawn of the 21st century, equality was declining; debt (the polar opposite of wealth) was increasing; health suffered as obesity, depression and alcoholism mushroomed; freedom was under ever greater restrictions, with an unwinnable “war” against drugs; and happiness, even by the highly disputable criteria of those who pretended to measure it, was on the decline.
Even so, many could still count their blessings. A home and the means to heat it. Food and drink of a quality that would have been hard for the vast majority of the population to imagine a century before. Wages that paid for a standard of living that would have been the envy of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Not just more and better refrigerators, washing machines and motor cars, those fruits of the 1950s, but also dishwashers, big televisions, personal computers, mobile 'phones.
Increasingly, though, these blessings were built upon sand. In the 80s and 90s, pension fund managers were so drunk with the fantasies of high interest rates that they just stopped paying in to pensions funds: the so-called “contributions holidays”. Elsewhere in finance, banking deregulation severed the link between finance and productivity. Outside finance, an obsession with universities destroyed the link between education and work. After 1998, access to UK universities ceased to be a privilege and became a burden. Those whose parents could afford the fees, or who were themselves willing to become slaves to debt, could go to university. For the rest: tough. And the fees have gone up and up.
Then there was September 11th 2001. The Word Trade Center attacks were treated as an act of war (thereby glorifying the “combatants”) instead of as an act of criminality. Seldom was the prescience of Eisenhower's 1961 phrase. “the military-industrial complex”, better illustrated. The “war on terrorism” was added to the “war on drugs”. “War is good business, so invest your son.” A war requires more and more expenditure on ever more sophisticated weapons, though strangely, not on soldiers: look at where Britain's defence cuts have fallen. The people who made the weapons, and the surveillance systems, thrived; and who, after all, seeks to make petty economies in time of war? Neither “war”, on terrorism or drugs, could withstand much scrutiny; but the military-industrial complex seized on both with glad cries.
A few years later, greedy bankers and (worse still) really bad economic models put a massive dent in the world economy. Jobs in the rich world were ever less secure; life, ever more precarious. New concepts arose. We saw “zero-hours contracts” and internships, better described as zero-pay contracts. People were drafted as slaves to work for private companies while being maintained by the public purse. The “working poor” were indeed so poor that they had to rely on benefits in the UK or food stamps in the USA.
Think about that for a moment. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic subsidized employers, just as certainly as if they had shovelled the money directly into the companies' coffers. “What's that? You can't afford to pay a living wage? Never mind, we'll pay some of the wages for you.” All this with the approval of the sort of economist that otherwise promoted capitalism red in tooth and claw: the “creative destruction” which meant that inefficient businesses went under. If a company cannot afford to pay all its employees a living wage, it deserves to be destroyed. Creatively. Why not, for example, nationalize Wal-Mart and convert it into an employee-owned trust?
The rich benefited, being the paymasters rather than the paid: more money stayed in their pockets, where it was ever more lightly taxed. Also, they could replace labour with machinery. How many branches and jobs is Barclays talking about destroying? After all, who needs them? We all use hole in the wall machines nowadays. Even the bank managers have been fired. Today, a computer program decides who gets a loan and who doesn't. Trust? Local knowledge? Dealing with a long-term customer? Forget it.
Bank managing was, after all, the ultimate comfortable middle-class job. But then it was proletarianized. There were always plenty more university graduates to shill the bank's products, after all. This is the flip side of “Education, education, education.” It provides, in effect, a cowed, indebted but reasonably literate lumpenproletariat. Formerly employers looked for short-term labour to dig holes. Then they bought a JCB digger and those jobs were gone. Now they want short-term labour to work in banks. Not quite as short term, it's true – a few years instead of a few weeks – but still with very little security and with a most ingenious way of suppressing class consciousness. “Class consciousness? Why, bless 'ee, young master, you'm a graduate; you'm middle class.” If you couldn't get into a university, and couldn't find a job driving the JCB? Well, then you were a chav, and it was all your fault. Meanwhile, privatization rolled on, even in the NHS.
This was the time of austerity, when “We're all in it together.” No, actually, we weren't, and we're not. Those who have only a strong arm or a broad back to sell, the labourers and blue-collar workers, have been replaced by machinery. So have many of those who formerly earned their bread by so-called “brain labour”, such as payroll clerks and bank employees; and for those who have not been so replaced, there are still not enough jobs to go around. The economy is transferred almost entirely into the hands of the rich, the paymasters, who choose whether to hire (and be taxed on it) or to buy another machine (and receive tax relief on it); and they reward themselves handsomely for their decisions.
So now, when you count your blessings, think on this. Many of your blessings – wealth, health, nutrition, freedom, equality, happiness, as enumerated above – have already been curtailed. Most of the rest are under threat. The strippers may no longer be stripping quite so many assets, but now they are stripping our blessings.
The idea of blessings strippers may seem depressing enough, but blessings are not all that is being stripped from our lives. How about stripping away adulthood? The idea that adolescence may not end until our mid twenties is perfectly defensible, but equally, it's a very good excuse for governments to treat adults like children. The old exhortation, “Grow up!” has hardly the same weight when we are expected to be dependent schoolchildren until we are well into our twenties. Why should we grow up? We're just kids after all.
Then again, what about reality stripping? Never mind video games and “reality” television. Think instead about economics, where reality comes a poor second to pseudo-equations in which wildly oversimplified variables and relationships are defined with a sloppiness that would make a physicist or even a biologist laugh out loud.
Worse still is hope stripping. Things will not get better, at least not in the near future. Austerity stretches ahead indefinitely. It's the Ninth Beatitude: “Blessed are they who expect little, for they are seldom disappointed.” The longer you can keep people's expectations low, the more you can frighten them, the easier they are to manipulate. Remember Orwell's 1984: Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, and the only hope is of (distant) victory. This is something of a redefinition of hope. Exactly the same can be said of the wars on drugs and terrorism.
Worst of all is dream stripping. We are expected to dream only the dreams that Big Brother sells us, the dreams of the military-industrial complex. We impose our masters' will by force upon the rest of humanity, and we are rewarded with massive but carefully regulated consumption suited to our caste. Welcome to Huxley's Brave New World. Be awfully glad you're a Beta; and whatever you do, do not dream unauthorized dreams.
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Text copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2017.