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Stop Praising Billionaires for Doing the Absolute Bare Minimum

By Petr Navovy | Think Pieces | October 12, 2018 |

By Petr Navovy | Think Pieces | October 12, 2018 |


Have you heard?

Sir Richard Branson has just suspended some business talks with Saudi Arabia. Yes indeed, the billionaire British businessman was due to meet with representatives from the Gulf oil state for discussions regarding their planned investment into his space tourism programme Virgin Galactic (just what the world needs right now!), as well as two massive tourism projects along the Red Sea. But with the ongoing crisis surrounding Saudi Arabia’s hand in the alleged murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Branson has felt the pang of his conscience and he has stood up and said, ‘No!’

According to The Guardian:

Branson said that he had had “high hopes for the current government in the kingdom and its leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman”. But reports of the regime’s involvement in the disappearance of the Washington Post columnist “if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government”.

Branson added that until Khashoggi’s fate was known, he would suspend his advisory role in the Red Sea tourism project and “suspend discussions over the proposed investment in our space companies Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit”.

Taken in isolation and disregarding all context, the reasonable response to Branson’s actions is: Well done, mate. Yeah. Good stuff.

Unfortunately, context is a thing.

The Guardian goes on to say:

Branson’s robust stance is the most dramatic yet among western business leaders, as alarm mounts over Khashoggi’s disappearance. A Guardian survey of companies and individuals with links to the kingdom has found that so far few are prepared publicly to take a stand despite the growing evidence of a Saudi role in the events.

It’s so interesting to watch how things get reported. What gets said, what gets left out, what is emphasised and what is downplayed. The framing of a story is as important as its actual substance. Here The Guardian’s reporting paints Richard Branson as a lone businessman of virtue in a den of iniquity and greed. Unable to stomach the brutal act of a repulsive regime, he has taken a stand, and he has proven himself a shining example of the Good Capitalist. Correspondingly, the Bad Capitalists are shamed by comparison.

Let’s pause for a minute here and go on a brief aside about Mr Richard Branson. A man who tirelessly projects a kooky, eccentric image but who in reality is a calculating and ruthless businessman, no different to his less colourful contemporaries.

In recent years, Virgin Care, the healthcare arm of Branson’s gigantic business empire, has been making steady inroads into taking over the running of vast swathes of Britain’s healthcare system. Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) was set up in 1948 as a comprehensive, equitable, universal healthcare provider, free at the point of use to all. It was a revolution in public policy, and in short order it achieved staggering gains in public health. It has also been under sustained assault for decades. Ever since the dissolution of the post-War economic consensus and the rise of free-market fundamentalism, the NHS has been seen as a symbol of resistance that would have to be torn down and disassembled. A socialised health care service runs completely counter to the market fanatics’ creed that the profit motive should be the driving force behind all human endeavours, and so the NHS would have to be privatised. The fanatics knew that it would not be easy to launch such an attack however. The NHS remains one of the British public’s most treasured institutions. They are (deservedly) very proud and protective of it, with poll after poll showing overwhelming support for it remaining untouched by private influence.

So while many have wanted to privatise NHS, few have felt bold enough to do so. Thatcher herself balked at the idea, even as she eviscerated the state and reshaped the country in the image of private enterprise. Tony Blair’s New Labour—a party once called Thatcher’s ‘greatest achievement’ by the Iron Lady herself—would implement a disastrous set of reforms called Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) that would introduce market mechanisms into areas of the NHS, among many other places. Thus would the rot of private enterprise slither into the NHS. Then, in 2012, an emboldened Tory party passed the Health and Social Care Act, effectively signing the death warrant of the NHS as we knew it. Despite pledging ‘no more top-down reorganisations of the NHS’ in their manifesto, the Tory Health and Social Care Act would prove to be one of the most sweeping bits of legislation ever to impact the NHS, opening all areas of it up to private providers and mandating expensive and lengthy contract tendering procedures. The Act has been an unmitigated catastrophe for the NHS, which—alongside the brutal and unrelenting budget cuts designed to make privatisation more palatable by worsening services—has brought it to its knees. Despite the emergency status of the NHS, and despite the disastrous track record of private companies running Britain’s healthcare, the contracting out of services to private providers continues apace, with Virgin Care winning multiple major contracts to run services throughout the country. One of the most outrageous provisions of the Health and Social Care Act of 2012 is that it allows private providers who bid to run a service, but who do not win the contract, to sue the NHS for not receiving said contract. Richard Branson, enlightened Good Capitalist, has been doing exactly that. Not content with receiving around £2 billion worth of NHS contracts in the last few years, Virgin Care has also taken the NHS to court for millions of pounds because it did not receive other contracts that it had its sights on. It will continue to do so.

Richard Branson’s Good Capitalist image is undermined not just by his vulture-like circling of Britain’s healthcare system (among other public services) but by his chronic and prolific use of tax havens, depriving the UK treasury of millions of pounds of income owed. Estimates put the total sum of money hidden in tax havens around the world at around $50 trillion. A number that is almost impossible for a human mind to conceive. Despite the abstract nature of the figure, the seismic force of this fraudulently hidden money is mighty indeed, putting hard limits on the agency of democracies around the world. Corporations and individuals who utilise this system should be roundly and continuously condemned and compelled to change their ways. Richard Branson is one such individual. Virgin is one such company.

Richard Branson is no Good Capitalist. If there is such a creature, it does not exist among the billionaire class. A few acts of moral rightitude from members of that class do nothing to compensate for the toxic effects of its very existence. Such a concentration of wealth in the hands of so few individuals has gone hand in hand with soaring wealth inequality; with a political system increasingly captured by the interests of the billionaire class; and with an almost endless litany of woes that has afflicted the world. Indeed we are now finding out that the world has maybe twelve years at most in which to act to prevent the effects of man-made climate change turning our planet into a nightmareish scene of scarcity, resource wars, and extreme weather events. Our children—and especially the children of the poorest and of the global South—will be inheriting a world corrupted by greed. A once green and bountiful land set poisoned by large scale industrial capitalism. We are also learning that the vast majority of these effects can be laid at the feet of the billionaire class, and at the systems that they have erected to enrich themselves further. What the press will tell us is that we are to blame. That individual action is what is called for to save the planet. That is a smokescreen of guilt. Individual acts are drops in the ocean. Yes of course it is better if the average person tries to behave more responsibly and conscientiously towards the environment, but while we busy ourselves down here, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, the billionaire class are the ones steering the boat. They have seen the iceberg coming for a long time now but they don’t care because they have plenty of lifeboats.

Billionaires love press-worthy acts of kindness and generosity because it makes for good optics. It costs them nothing to pull off a small publicity stunt that will then get reported adoringly by a compliant press. It does wonders for their image and it enables them to carry on going on about their other business as usual. It placates the masses and it quiets the righteous anger that would otherwise bubble dangerously and threaten to bring change to a system rigged in their favour.

So don’t be too quick to applaud Richard Branson for putting a stop to some of his deals with the brutal regime of Saudi Arabia. It didn’t seem to bother him too much when he was dealing with them while they waged a monstrous, Western-backed, assymetric ‘war’ against Yemen, reducing the country to rubble and condemning millions of children to famine. That is the real Richard Branson. The plundering of Britain’s National Health Service. That is the real Richard Branson. Running significant portions of Britain’s trains, siphoning off profits and living off government subsidies while providing an ever worsening, pricier service. That is the real Richard Branson. Not this small act of conscience. Similarly don’t applaud Jeff Bezos for finally agreeing, after tireless worker campaigning, to pay those workers a wage that they can just about live on. Those are crumbs from a table we will never be invited to. Don’t applaud any billionaire for doing the absolute bare minimum to approach a base level of human decency. Their existence is an affront to that decency, to fairness, and to the very health of the only planet we have to live on as a species. The world tilts on an axis of finance, and the billionaires, following their avarice and pride, have pushed us, perhaps irreversibly, towards doom.

So don’t applaud billionaires for small acts of goodness. Get angry that they believe we’ll be fooled into thinking that that’s enough to atone for their sins.

How does the line from that old poem go?

Ah yes.

You depend on our protection Yet you feed us lies from the table cloth

Header Image Source: Getty Images