Comet, rotten apples and capitalism

This article appeared in Solidarity today.

The announcement that another high street retailer, Comet, had bit the dust was hardly unexpected. We’re in the midst of a recession, competition is fierce, the company had long been in trouble. There’s not much Marxists can add to the debate — or is there?

We can of course start with an analysis of the inevitability not only of Comet’s collapse that also the (barely-noticed) collapse of its American rival Best Buy, which withdrew from the UK market in the midst of a recession before you could say “bad idea”.

And you don’t have to be much of a financial wizard to predict the eventual failures of those high street electronics retailers still standing — primarily Curry’s.

Capitalism is a constantly shifting, fiercely competitive environment and at a time when anyone can order anything online, why would someone go the old-fashioned route to buy, say, an MP3 player or laptop computer on the high street?

Anyone who’s been inside a Curry’s or Comet recently can tell you that this can be an entirely unpleasant and demoralising experience, one that many of us would avoid at all costs.

Marxists would go a bit further than that and say that an outstanding feature of the collapse of Comet is the fact that the venture capitalist who bought the business eight months ago for just £2 will probably lose no money at all, and might even make a profit as he sells off unsold stock, shops and so on.

And the company’s 7,000 staff who all face the sack? No one will do much for them — and they’ll be added to the increasing number of people seeking work and living on the dole.

But what struck me in the coverage of Comet’s collapse in the Sunday Times, for example, was the way in which it was none of this really was the focus of the story. Not the 7,000 workers (this is the Sunday Times, of course), and not the nature of technology and the likely death of high-street retailers in this field.

No, the entire focus of their coverage has been on Henry Jackson, the “smooth talking American” who had picked up Comet for less than the price of a cappuccino last winter.

The Times was keen to show that it had predicted that Jackson’s period at the helm of Comet would end badly and showed its headline from last February — “Starry couple behind Comet” — with a photo of Jackson and his wife.

Mrs Jackson gets noticed in this week’s coverage with just a quick mention of how her husband devoted time to “helping his glamorous Canadian wife Stacey forge a semi-respectable career as a pop star”. Jackson, it seems, was so keen to help his wife — perhaps to help her move up to a “fully-respectable” rather than “semi-respectable” career — that he sent out regular emails to his contacts in the City “urging them to buy her music”.

The article I’m quoting from didn’t appear in the gossip columns of the Sun, or in OK or Hello — it appeared in the business pages of the Sunday Times.

It reeks of misogyny, of contempt for women, but more than that, it plays up to an image of “smooth talking Americans” that sneak up on good, old-fashioned British businesses, buy them for a song, milk them for all they’re worth, and then toss them aside, destroying the lives of hard-working British families.

It’s all part of a broader narrative that divides capitalists into two classes — the worthy ones, who run productive family businesses that create jobs, and the others.

The others are often described as “vultures” or “predators” who are value-less scoundrels who are in the business just to make a quick buck. They are often Americans, often linked to Wall Street or New York, and there’s more than a hint of xenophobia in all this.

The fact is that Henry Jackson was trying to make a quick buck made him no different from Kesa, a French-owned concern (more bloody foreigners) that had previously owned Comet.

Kesa which got out at the first opportunity and passed on what was a ticking time bomb to Jackson. Kesa, like Jackson, was only interested in making money.

The notion that there are good, productive family-owned businesses — especially at the level of Best Buy, Comet and Curry’s — is an utterly reactionary one, and a fantasy. It’s part of the world-view that says that the global economic crisis was caused by greedy bankers, rather that being something endemic to capitalism itself.

Marxists have the often-thankless job of telling the unvarnished truth, which is that lowlife like Henry Jackson and his “glamorous” and “semi-respectable” wife are not the rotten apples in the barrel.

All the apples are rotten because the barrel rots them. The system itself is rotten, the rules are rotten, and that is truth we need to tell.