Friday, 16 May 2014

The playthings of our leaders


There is a big political row about the US drug company Pfizer’s bid to buy its British rival AstraZeneca. It is interesting that it is a row because for at least three decades it has been claimed in Britain, at least, that ownership does not matter and, as I discuss on pp. 106-7 of the book, there has been a wholesale sell-off of what were once British companies (other countries, including the US, have been somewhat more wary of seeing ownership drift offshore). We have thus had the bizarre disjuncture in political discourse of constantly bemoaning the relatively limited international mobility of labour – immigration – whilst cheerfully accepting the complete mobility of capital. The Pfizer bid has suddenly galvanized an understanding that ownership does matter, because (in this example) there is very little reason to think that Pfizer will care much about nurturing the UK’s science and R&D base, which are widely seen as vital to the national economy.
There is an added poignancy to the situation of AstraZeneca, because it arises out of the case, discussed in the book (p.110) of ICI as a classic example of the disastrous ‘financialised’ organization model of the new capitalism. An excellent article by Aditya Chakrabortty this week tells the story:
“AstraZeneca was originally the corporate child of ICI, which was once Britain's largest manufacturer of everything from paints to betablockers. Then came one of Thatcher's favourite wheeler-dealers, Jim Hanson, who, in 1991, put in a bid to take over the conglomerate and break it up. That approach got bogged down in scandal – but ICI's executives did what Hanson wanted anyway and smashed up the company. The drugs arm was sold to the Swedes, the pesticides division flogged to the Swiss, the dyes part to the Dutch and the adhesives and electronics materials finally parcelled out to the Germans”.
Whether the Pfizer bid will spark a belated recognition of the importance of ownership remains to be seen but, in a sense it is too late for, as Chakrabortty points out, in the meantime the British manufacturing and research base has been eviscerated.
Meanwhile, in another corner of the neo-liberal wasteland, I noticed this week that the former head teacher I discussed in my post The New Barons last June has been banned for teaching from life because of her fraudulent activities. As I said in my original post, this arose because of the idea that ‘leaders’ should be set free from bureaucratic constraints but such freedom carries grave risks, as Steve Richard’s article on this fiasco also explains.
It’s been nagging at me today that there is something that links these two stories. Most obviously, both are outgrowths of neo-liberalism as applied to, respectively, industrial policy and public sector management. But beyond – or perhaps related – to that is the way that both arise from the separation of power and responsibility. Our companies (and with them our jobs), our schools (and with them our children’s education) seem in some way not to figure as real or important. Instead, they are the plaything of our leaders. So whereas neo-liberalism purports to empower the customer or consumer in fact it does no such thing: it enacts, enshrines and endorses the power of elites.

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