Monday, 25 April 2011

The businessification of the world

To find out what’s happening in the economy on the BBC website you click on a link called “business” and there mixed up with articles about profit warnings and new CEOs you find out things like the latest inflation figures and house price stats. For me conflating “business” with “the economy” like this places a distorting lens in front of a determining aspect of all our lives.

Institutionally, I’d argue “business” can never provide such a totality, but is instead only ever part of a broader economy that includes such significant institutions as national/local government, non-profit organisations and co-operatives run by aggressively predatory lesbians. Plus, key economic indicators, institutions and the cost and supply of key factors of production are influenced by things that are fuck all to do with “business”, oil prices and political and military events being the most obvious example. Or is this conflation meant to impose an interpretative slant on how we should approach these other events? Like does the war some madcunt despot is waging against his own (Libyan) civilians only register due to the impact it’s having on oil prices and what that means in terms of say BP’s profit margins?

I’ve also consistently put the word “business” in inverted commas because what actually registers as “business”, be it in the Financial Times, the BBC, the Economist etc. is itself only ever a distorted subset of well business. For me the best example of this involves Christmas trees, Irish Christmas trees to be precise. A mate told me how he knew someone who, having inherited a patch of land, decided one December to sell Christmas trees. Everything went hunky dory until the bloke who usually sold trees in the village turned up with a few mates and explained to the new boy that he’d better stop it pronto if he knew what was good for him.

There are loads of similar stories. There’s the scaffolding firms that regard specific parts of a city as “their patch” and who, besides intimidation, take down and/or steal the scaffolding rivals put up in “their patch” (much the same can apply to skip hire as I understand). Or there are the taxi firms that, via the power of a few backhanders, get cushy local authority contracts at inflated rates to take special needs kids to school.

Taxi firms in turn introduce the world of cash businesses and all that means in terms of pubs, restaurants, puggy parlours and latterly tanning salons, in terms of money laundering fronts (or even just, like so many small hotels and takeaways, keeping cash to one side to dodge the taxman). I’d add nightclubs, but really that’s always been a balance that waxes and wanes between who runs the doors and the nightclub owners when it comes to managing the drugs trade inside. And all of these of course pay professionals; the accountants, lawyers, financial advisors and what not, who frequently know damn fucking well what’s going on, but turn a blind eye give or take setting their fees accordingly. Then on a more industrial scale you get plant hire and the horrendous percentage of machinery dotted all over Britain’s motorways that A stole from B to sell to C with no questions asked who in turn hired it out to D.

Sticking with the construction industry you encounter the lovely motto of screw the subbies wherein main contractors fuck over sub-contractors on major, landscape changing developments because they’d rather delay paying a subbie for work (or just not pay everything that was originally agreed) than pay the interest on their working capital facilities in a situation where the subbie knows damn fine well that if he doesn’t keep schtum he’ll never get work off the main contractor again (to be fair there are the specialist construction courts, except all that proves is how rife to the point of being institutionalised this kind of behaviour is). When you start adding all this together – the Christmas trees to the taxis to the skips to the screwed subbies and what not – the more apparent the vast, never-reported world of business becomes despite “business” equalling “the economy”. Instead, “business” equals just big PLCs and a biased smear of self-publicising SMEs, the best Scottish example being of course Ultimo.

Alongside this obvious selectivity, listening to or watching any BBC shite on “business” you also realise the “business” that does get reported is a distorted, self-serving bag of shite. Now am sure any glaringly obvious examples of theft or intimidation will appear on the BBC in the crime section, except by definition, reporting that kind of shit in such a way presents it as an exception as opposed to a frequent rule; that the aforementioned backhanders feature in the awarding of local authority taxi contracts is just the way thing are.

The thing is though this can also apply to the big businesses that do get reported on, the best recent example being the £280m fine imposed on Unilever and Procter & Gamble for operating a cartel that fixed prices on household name products in eight European countries between 2002 and 2005. Now, I reckon that’s worth a wee pause and a moment’s reflection; for years price fixing was presumably integral to the marketing strategy of 2 global multinationals. And there are plenty other examples of dubious practices built into the way “business” is conducted, like have a nosey at the Competition Commission website or a think about the EU and Microsoft. Nor is this especially new given say that for c. hundred years the insurance industry was essentially a series of rigged cartels until Direct Line cut through it all by using phone lines instead of intermediaries to sell product.

All these examples make abundantly fucking clear we are rarely talking about one-off mistakes by rogue employees who no longer work for the company and whose unsanctioned, secret antics have been fully investigated to the point where they’ve generated a suite of lessons that have been learned from, applied and documented in a code of conduct. Rather, this kinda shite is as much a part of “business” as the shite that actually does get reported on. In fact compared to what does get reported on it’s arguably more real, more valid and a damn sight more accurate.

To give a practical example, I reckon at least some of the following factors influenced Halfords move into selling services alongside things:

It’s close to saturation point in its existing markets with limited scope for diversification into additional product areas that are anyway also subject to the downturn in discretionary spending: The services chosen provide a logical extension of an existing (utterly fucking shite) brand; competition in these markets is highly fragmented indicating there is clear scope for an aggressive, major player intent on consolidation and leveraging its existing scale economies and actual service prices have frequently risen well above inflation indicating good margin is available.

Except when I click here the Halfrauds CEO, David Wild, instead talks about Tesco in a way that leaches off the latter’s credibility, then spins some homily shite about how he “always think about the customer” when making business decisions. Now this is kinda lovely except it implies he bases multi-million pound investment decisions on him putting himself in the shoes (and cars) of yer average punter as opposed to say ordering detailed cost-benefit analyses, gathering deep market research, buying in strategic consultancy advice on formulating and implementing strategy and what not i.e. the kinda shit that actually happens. As a result he sounds like an unprofessional twat.

Alternatively, he’s simply doing what most PLC CEOs do, which is bullshitting in a Harry G. Frankfurt type style on behalf of his company because to a large extent he and they are largely figure heads used to reassure and warm-up fund managers, key suppliers, big customers and other stakeholders. The thing is though if that’s what CEOs do, why the fuck don’t we get to hear from bods who actually know how shit is in “business”? Obviously, Halfrauds would never let your local store manager appear on the box to talk about the reality of how Halfrauds sells shit shitely, well at least not until he or she had been on a media management course. But, if the alternative is David Wild’s bullshit, then why the fuck bother and why present the programme David Wild spewed over as being a “business conversation show with people at the top giving insight into what matters”, given they patently don’t provide insights and don’t talk about shit that matters?

One argument I guess is that the programme’s editors consider themselves lucky to get such senior bods to talk (in exchange for handing over a free advertising platform and smearing a patina of credibility all over them). This is lovely, I guess, except, business in Britain luxuriates in a distinct lack of scrutiny; when David Wild started bullshitting should he not have been challenged on his bullshit, like should his strategy not have been considered in terms of its success to date and impact on other businesses (and employers)? Rather, we live in a media-defined world where instead of analysis, “business” gets routinely equated with the economy and, the fetish of executive personalities aside, reporting means spewing out the same predictable, exclusionary cultural tropes wherein BP equals a potential environmental disaster, car manufacturing the next campaign to keep production of an SUV designed elsewhere in some horrible English town and utilities the next pensioner crippling price rise and so on and so on.

It could be worse I guess, like US telly has all these kerazee cunts in braces over-enthusiastically jibber-jabbering about the next hot stock pick. Except we know they’re clowns who neither matter nor give much insight into anything whereas our equivalent is more fucked up because it's taken more seriously. So besides business speak oozing into common discourse like a wet one leaking out a pair of boxers, the biased, selective, version of “business” we get spoon fed keeps getting presented to us as a cultural paragon we all should aspire to and learn from because of its great efficiency, customer focus, leanness and so on. Indeed, here “business” is an imperative stick routinely used to beat us over the head; the public sector NEEDS to get more “business” like, we NEED “business” leaders to tell us how universities should be funded and all that kinda bollocks. Except, business can also mean threatening to kick a rival Christmas tree seller’s head in, multinational price fixing arrangements, tax dodging, cutting costs until lives are lost and Halfrauds complete disregard for the personal safety of their customers i.e. there’s a selective, political rhetoric of “business” used every day to justify all sorts of shite in a hegemonic type style. Cunts.

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