Sunday, 29 April 2018

Fake five-star reviews being bought and sold online

Dan Box and Sachin Croker BBC Technology

Fake online reviews are being openly traded on the internet, a BBC investigation has found.

BBC 5 live Investigates was able to buy a false, five-star recommendation placed on one of the world's leading review websites, Trustpilot.

It also uncovered online forums where Amazon shoppers are offered full refunds in exchange for product reviews.

Both companies said they do not tolerate false reviews.
'Trying to game the system'

The popularity of online review sites mean they are increasingly relied on by both businesses and their customers, with the government's Competition and Markets Authority estimating such reviews potentially influence £23 billion of UK customer spending every year.

Maria Menelaou, whose Yorkshire Fisheries chip shop is the top-ranked fish and chip shop in Blackpool on several review sites, said the system has replaced traditional advertising.

"It brings us a lot of customers ... It really does make a difference. We don't do any kind of advertising," Mrs Menelaou said.

While three quarters of UK adults use online review websites, almost half of those believe they have seen fake reviews, according to a survey of 1500 UK residents conducted by the Chartered Institute of Marketing and shared with BBC 5 live Investigates.

Some US analysts estimate as many as half of the reviews for certain products posted on international websites such as Amazon are potentially unreliable.

"Sellers are trying to game the system and there's a lot of money on the table," said Tommy Noonan, who runs ReviewMeta, a US-based website that analyses online reviews.

"If you can rank number one for, say, bluetooth headsets and you're selling a cheap product, you can make a lot of money," he said.

'5 star is better for us'

In 2016, Amazon introduced a range of measures prohibiting what it called "incentivised reviews", where businesses offered customers free goods in exchange for positive reviews.

Mr Noonan said this effectively drove the problem underground, leading to the emergence of Facebook groups where potential Amazon customers were encouraged to buy a product and post a review in return for a full refund.

BBC 5 live Investigates identified several of these groups and, within minutes of joining, was approached with offers of full refunds on products bought on Amazon in exchange for positive reviews.

"5 star is better for us" said one person making such an offer, in an exchange of messages with the BBC. "We value our brand, will refund you as we promised ... All my company do in this way."

It was not possible to identify the people making these offers, nor contact the businesses whose products they were seeking reviews for.

"We do not permit reviews in exchange for compensation of any kind, including payment. Customers and Marketplace sellers must follow our review guidelines and those that don't will be subject to action including potential termination of their account," Amazon said in a statement.

Responding to adverts posted on eBay, the BBC was also able to purchase a false 5-star review on Trustpilot, an online review website that describes itself as "committed to being the most trusted online review community on the market".

"Dan Box is one of the most respected professionals I have dealt with. It was a pleasure doing business with him," this review said - word for word as requested by 5 live Investigates.

Trustpilot, whose platform allows anyone to post a review, said they have "a zero-tolerance policy towards any misuse".

"We have specialist software that screens reviews against 100's of data points around the clock to automatically identify and remove fakes," the company said.

In a statement, eBay said the sale of such reviews is banned from its platform "and any listings will be removed".

The Tories keep getting blamed for the terrible events they caused. To be honest, it’s out of order

Mark Steel in The Independent

Amber Rudd says she finds the cases of families who were threatened with deportation, and harangued for documents they never had, “heartbreaking”. So she deserves respect for having the strength to carry on, while she suffers from a broken heart like that.

She also denies there was ever a “target” for removing immigrants, so we can only imagine how poignant a moment it must have been, when she was told “home secretary, you know when your government boasted before the 2015 (actually 2010 election) election it would ‘cut net migration to tens of thousands’? And an Inspection Report stated there was a ‘target of removing 12,000 immigrants?’ It turns out some people in the immigration office interpreted that as implying there was some sort of target.”
She must have cried and cried and howled, sniffing, “I know it sounds silly, but I can’t help feeling that makes this government partly responsible.”

Hopefully she’ll have had plenty of friends consoling her, saying reassuringly: “Oh home secretary, you mustn’t blame yourself. All of us set targets for removing people, regardless of the fact we’ve been told by an array of institutions this will cause appalling hardship to innocent people. You’re a good person. Stay strong, Amber, stay strong.”

So she’s proved her leadership qualities and overcome the heartbreak she feels so deeply, to explain: “We are deeply bountifully humongously sorry, but I would remind the country that three years ago, we thought it was popular to scream about chucking out piles of immigrants, so we can hardly be blamed if that has turned out not to be true after all. Now if you’ll forgive me, I must take some more antidepressants. I’m heartbroken you see.”

Theresa May must be even more heartbroken, because she was home secretary at the time. Some people suggest this means she had some knowledge of the targets, but that would be unfair, as she was busy sending out vans with signs on the side saying “illegal immigrants, go home”, so she can’t have had time to write down lots of numbers as well.

But now they love Caribbean people so it’s worked out fine in the end. Soon Amber Rudd will feature on a dancehall track with Shaggy, about the Windrush families, that starts “Dem tell I sad tale dat send chill trew I blood, Me weep so many tear dey call I Heartbreak Rudd.”

And the prime minister will end her apology by saying “I would now like to repeat my message for my Caribbean bredren. Listen up rude boy, me send out one love for me have pain in I ‘eart. But blame be upon dem raasclat immigration official, for me is vexed upon why dey carry out act what I tell dem do, Selasie I.”

She must feel even worse than Amber Rudd, because last year she made speeches such as “Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain. And that is what we will deliver.”

It would be ridiculous to imagine this was designed to create the impression she was in a rush to cut immigration, which was why Conservative Party spokespeople sometimes mentioned cutting immigration as few as 46 times in a three-minute interview.

Sometimes, if a minister was asked for a statement about the standards of maths in schools, or whether England would ever win the World Cup, they wouldn’t even mention their pledge to be tough on immigration until the ninth word.

So it’s a puzzle how anyone in the immigration office got the impression they were required to be a little bit zealous in the area of immigration.

It’s possible a pattern could emerge here, in which Conservatives start to feel sorry about other matters that they get unfairly blamed for just because they caused them.

For example, they’re dreadfully shocked about the lack of health and safety regulations in housing, even though David Cameron can’t possibly have predicted that his pledge to create a “bonfire of regulations” might lead to a reduction of regulations.

Iain Duncan-Smith will declare he’s appalled by stories of disabled people having their benefits stopped after being declared “fit for work”, when he can’t possibly have known this was going on, which is why he’s “truly awfully shocked and immeasurably saddened and exploding with volcanic sadness”.

Then they’ll announce they are devastated by the revelation that cutting benefits for the poorest people while asking the wealthiest people for less in tax made the poor poorer and the rich richer.

But they will add that cutting the top rate of tax was in no way designed to lower the top rate of tax, and they certainly don’t ever remember setting a target to cut the top rate of tax. It was probably down to some heartless tax official, and he’ll be in right trouble when they catch him.

But much of the Labour Party must be on Valium as well. Because throughout the years of the coalition, they went along with many of these measures. They were so concerned to appear tough on immigration that they had special mugs made, saying “I’m voting Labour, for controls on immigration.”

If they’d had the money, they would probably have made other household goods with the same message, such as toilet rolls and Ventolin inhalers. The Labour leaders from that time must be heartbroken.

So they should make one joint statement together, to cover all their heartbreak, that goes: “We’re really sorry, we had no idea our policy of being proudly, relentlessly foul would lead to any foulness.

“When one lot screamed, ‘Vote for us because we’re really foul’ and the other lot shouted, ‘That’s not fair, we’re quite capable of being disgustingly foul’, we didn’t know we’d misjudged the situation and foulness wouldn’t always be popular. So we’re all really really sorry, even though it’s not in any way in the slightest tiddly bit our fault.”

Friday, 27 April 2018

Down with the cult of GDP

Catherine Colebrook in The Guardian


‘We don’t properly understand how new forms of “intangible assets” – such as software and databases – are affecting the economy.’ Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

This morning at 9.30am, the Office for National Statistics will release its latest estimate of UK economic output – gross domestic product, or GDPfor short. The figures, which will be revised when better data becomes available, will be endlessly discussed and analysed, and will form the basis for economic commentary and policy in the months ahead.

At their best, economic indicators such as GDP can be a viewfinder through which we see the economy. After all, we need statistics to shed light on economic imbalances and unfairness, and help citizens and policymakers understand what needs to be done to put them right. But as an economist, I’m always aware that reducing the unimaginable complexity and diversity of the economy to a single number – or even a series of numbers – can dehumanise or even misrepresent what is really happening in people’s lives.

Getting that full, accurate picture of the economy has always been difficult. But the pace at which disruptive technologies are changing our economy is shifting the nature of the challenge from one year to the next. There’s now a real risk that the favoured selection of go-to economic indicators doesn’t capture the impact of those new technologies on economic behaviour and trends.

For instance, digitalisation – the increasing prevalence of information and communication technologies, and of the internet in work and social life – is having a rapid and profound impact on the economy. One challenge it poses for economists is that it is moving whole swaths of activity beyond what we call the “production boundary”, which is captured by GDP. We need to find new ways of measuring these if we are to obtain an accurate picture of what’s actually happening in the economy.

Profit-shifting by companies to minimise their UK tax liabilities is a well-known phenomenon, and it’s likely to be increasing our current account deficit, as it means companies sending income to lower-tax countries. We need to understand the effect of this better, and find ways to measure and account for it. We also fail to properly understand how new forms of “intangible assets” – such as software, databases and knowledge acquired through research – are affecting the economy, while the way in which technology adds value to goods and services is also changing.

Public policy to steer the economy will succeed in its aims only if it is informed by both accurate economic indicators to provide the macroeconomic context, and credible evidence of its impact via robust evaluation, so we need to keep investing in our public data if it is to remain relevant. But it’s not just a case of improving the statistics we currently focus on. Our reliance on a small number of production indicators narrows economic debate and perpetuates the myth that economic growth encompasses all other economic goals. Simply tracking GDP and a small number of production statistics is not enough; and it may even undermine progress towards a more just economy, as it distracts attention from the issues that really matter.

If we want to understand whether the economy is really delivering for its citizens, we need some new indicators. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), where I am the chief economist, is proposing a dashboard of five outcome indicators, to be updated annually, which would directly measure our progress against the outcomes the public wants the economy to deliver – broadly shared prosperity, justice and sustainability. Our chosen indicators are the distribution of the gains from growth; poverty rates among children and adults; levels of wellbeing among individuals at different income levels; the gap between the median income of the poorest region of the UK and the richest; and the gap between projected carbon emissions and the cost-effective path to decarbonisation.

Together, these indicators reveal how broadly the economy distributes its rewards, whether it is succeeding at reducing poverty, whether people feel satisfied with their lives, and our progress at moving to an environmentally sustainable model of growth. Our suggested indicators are not the only ways of measuring these goals, but between them, we believe they would capture the current performance of the economy in achieving the outcomes that matter most. If the economy doesn’t show improvement by the metrics we have chosen, it isn’t working.

Why we should bulldoze the business school

There are 13,000 business schools on Earth. That’s 13,000 too many. And I should know – I’ve taught in them for 20 years. By 

Visit the average university campus and it is likely that the newest and most ostentatious building will be occupied by the business school. The business school has the best building because it makes the biggest profits (or, euphemistically, “contribution” or “surplus”) – as you might expect, from a form of knowledge that teaches people how to make profits.

Business schools have huge influence, yet they are also widely regarded to be intellectually fraudulent places, fostering a culture of short-termism and greed. (There is a whole genre of jokes about what MBA – Master of Business Administration – really stands for: “Mediocre But Arrogant”, “Management by Accident”, “More Bad Advice”, “Master Bullshit Artist” and so on.) Critics of business schools come in many shapes and sizes: employers complain that graduates lack practical skills, conservative voices scorn the arriviste MBA, Europeans moan about Americanisation, radicals wail about the concentration of power in the hands of the running dogs of capital. Since 2008, many commentators have also suggested that business schools were complicit in producing the crash.

Having taught in business schools for 20 years, I have come to believe that the best solution to these problems is to shut down business schools altogether. This is not a typical view among my colleagues. Even so, it is remarkable just how much criticism of business schools over the past decade has come from inside the schools themselves. Many business school professors, particularly in north America, have argued that their institutions have gone horribly astray. B-schools have been corrupted, they say, by deans following the money, teachers giving the punters what they want, researchers pumping out paint-by-numbers papers for journals that no one reads and students expecting a qualification in return for their cash (or, more likely, their parents’ cash). At the end of it all, most business-school graduates won’t become high-level managers anyway, just precarious cubicle drones in anonymous office blocks.
These are not complaints from professors of sociology, state policymakers or even outraged anti-capitalist activists. These are views in books written by insiders, by employees of business schools who themselves feel some sense of disquiet or even disgust at what they are getting up to. Of course, these dissenting views are still those of a minority. Most work within business schools is blithely unconcerned with any expression of doubt, participants being too busy oiling the wheels to worry about where the engine is going. Still, this internal criticism is loud and significant.
The problem is that these insiders’ dissent has become so thoroughly institutionalised within the well-carpeted corridors that it now passes unremarked, just an everyday counterpoint to business as usual. Careers are made by wailing loudly in books and papers about the problems with business schools. The business school has been described by two insiders as “a cancerous machine spewing out sick and irrelevant detritus”. Even titles such as Against Management, Fucking Management and The Greedy Bastard’s Guide to Business appear not to cause any particular difficulties for their authors. I know this, because I wrote the first two. Frankly, the idea that I was permitted to get away with this speaks volumes about the extent to which this sort of criticism means anything very much at all. In fact, it is rewarded, because the fact that I publish is more important than what I publish.

Most solutions to the problem of the B-school shy away from radical restructuring, and instead tend to suggest a return to supposedly more traditional business practices, or a form of moral rearmament decorated with terms such as “responsibility” and “ethics”. All of these suggestions leave the basic problem untouched, that the business school only teaches one form of organising – market managerialism.

That’s why I think that we should call in the bulldozers and demand an entirely new way of thinking about management, business and markets. If we want those in power to become more responsible, then we must stop teaching students that heroic transformational leaders are the answer to every problem, or that the purpose of learning about taxation laws is to evade taxation, or that creating new desires is the purpose of marketing. In every case, the business school acts as an apologist, selling ideology as if it were science.

Universities have been around for a millenium, but the vast majority of business schools only came into existence in the last century. Despite loud and continual claims that they were a US invention, the first was probably the École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris, founded in 1819 as a privately funded attempt to produce a grande école for business. A century later, hundreds of business schools had popped up across Europe and the US, and from the 1950s onwards, they began to grow rapidly in other parts of the world.

In 2011, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business estimated that there were then nearly 13,000 business schools in the world. India alone is estimated to have 3,000 private schools of business. Pause for a moment, and consider that figure. Think about the huge numbers of people employed by those institutions, about the armies of graduates marching out with business degrees, about the gigantic sums of money circulating in the name of business education. (In 2013, the top 20 US MBA programmes already charged at least $100,000 (£72,000). At the time of writing, London Business School is advertising a tuition fee of £84,500 for its MBA.) No wonder that the bandwagon keeps rolling.

For the most part, business schools all assume a similar form. The architecture is generic modern – glass, panel, brick. Outside, there’s some expensive signage offering an inoffensive logo, probably in blue, probably with a square on it. The door opens, automatically. Inside, there’s a female receptionist dressed office-smart. Some abstract art hangs on the walls, and perhaps a banner or two with some hopeful assertions: “We mean business.” “Teaching and Research for Impact.” A big screen will hang somewhere over the lobby, running a Bloomberg news ticker and advertising visiting speakers and talks about preparing your CV. Shiny marketing leaflets sit in dispensing racks, with images of a diverse tableau of open-faced students on the cover. On the leaflets, you can find an alphabet of mastery: MBA, MSc Management, MSc Accounting, MSc Management and Accounting, MSc Marketing, MSc International Business, MSc Operations Management.

There will be plush lecture theatres with thick carpet, perhaps named after companies or personal donors. The lectern bears the logo of the business school. In fact, pretty much everything bears the weight of the logo, like someone who worries their possessions might get stolen and so marks them with their name. Unlike some of the shabby buildings in other parts of the university, the business school tries hard to project efficiency and confidence. The business school knows what it is doing and has its well-scrubbed face aimed firmly at the busy future. It cares about what people think of it.

Even if the reality isn’t always as shiny – if the roof leaks a little and the toilet is blocked – that is what the business-school dean would like to think that their school was like, or what they would want their school to be. A clean machine for turning income from students into profits.

What do business schools actually teach? This is a more complicated question than it first appears. Much writing on education has explored the ways in which a “hidden curriculum” supplies lessons to students without doing so explicitly. From the 1970s onwards, researchers explored how social class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and so on were being implicitly taught in the classroom. This might involve segregating students into separate classes – the girls doing domestic science and the boys doing metalwork, say – which, in turn, implies what is natural or appropriate for different groups of people. The hidden curriculum can be taught in other ways too, by the ways in which teaching and assessment are practised, or through what is or isn’t included in the curriculum. The hidden curriculum tells us what matters and who matters, which places are most important and what topics can be ignored.

Illustration: Michael Kirkham

In many countries, a lot of work has been done on trying to deal with these issues. Materials on black history, women in science or pop songs as poetry are now fairly routine. That doesn’t mean that the hidden curriculum is no longer a problem, but at least in many of the more enlightened educational systems, it is not now routinely assumed that there is one history, one set of actors, one way of telling the story.

But in the business school, both the explicit and hidden curriculums sing the same song. The things taught and the way that they are taught generally mean that the virtues of capitalist market managerialism are told and sold as if there were no other ways of seeing the world.

If we educate our graduates in the inevitability of tooth-and-claw capitalism, it is hardly surprising that we end up with justifications for massive salary payments to people who take huge risks with other people’s money. If we teach that there is nothing else below the bottom line, then ideas about sustainability, diversity, responsibility and so on become mere decoration. The message that management research and teaching often provides is that capitalism is inevitable, and that the financial and legal techniques for running capitalism are a form of science. This combination of ideology and technocracy is what has made the business school into such an effective, and dangerous, institution.

We can see how this works if we look a bit more closely at the business-school curriculum and how it is taught. Take finance, for instance. This is a field concerned with understanding how people with money invest it. It assumes that there are people with money or capital that can be used as security for money, and hence it also assumes substantial inequalities of income and wealth. The greater the inequalities within any given society, the greater the interest in finance, as well as the market in luxury yachts. Finance academics almost always assume that earning rent on capital (however it was acquired) is a legitimate and perhaps even praiseworthy activity, with skilful investors being lionised for their technical skills and success. The purpose of this form of knowledge is to maximise the rent from wealth, often by developing mathematical or legal mechanisms that can multiply it. Successful financial strategies are those that produce the maximum return in the shortest period, and hence that further exacerbate the social inequalities that made them possible in the first place.

Or consider human resource management. This field applies theories of rational egoism – roughly the idea that people act according to rational calculations about what will maximise their own interest – to the management of human beings in organisations. The name of the field is telling, since it implies that human beings are akin to technological or financial resources insofar as they are an element to be used by management in order to produce a successful organisation. Despite its use of the word, human resource management is not particularly interested in what it is like to be a human being. Its object of interest are categories – women, ethnic minorities, the underperforming employee – and their relationship to the functioning of the organisation. It is also the part of the business school most likely to be dealing with the problem of organised resistance to management strategies, usually in the form of trade unions. And in case it needs saying, human resource management is not on the side of the trade union. That would be partisan. It is a function which, in its most ambitious manifestation, seeks to become “strategic”, to assist senior management in the formulation of their plans to open a factory here, or close a branch office there.

A similar kind of lens could be applied to other modules found in most business schools – accounting, marketing, international business, innovation, logistics – but I’ll conclude with business ethics and corporate social responsibility – pretty much the only areas within the business school that have developed a sustained critique of the consequences of management education and practice. These are domains that pride themselves on being gadflies to the business school, insisting that its dominant forms of education, teaching and research require reform. The complaints that propel writing and teaching in these areas are predictable but important – sustainability, inequality, the production of graduates who are taught that greed is good.

The problem is that business ethics and corporate social responsibility are subjects used as window dressing in the marketing of the business school, and as a fig leaf to cover the conscience of B-school deans – as if talking about ethics and responsibility were the same as doing something about it. They almost never systematically address the simple idea that since current social and economic relations produce the problems that ethics and corporate social responsibility courses treat as subjects to be studied, it is those social and economic relations that need to be changed.

You might well think that each of these areas of research and teaching are innocuous enough in themselves, and collectively they just appear to cover all the different dimensions of business activity – money, people, technology, transport, selling and so on. But it is worth spelling out the shared assumptions of every subject studied at business school.

The first thing that all these areas share is a powerful sense that market managerial forms of social order are desirable. The acceleration of global trade, the use of market mechanisms and managerial techniques, the extension of technologies such as accounting, finance and operations are not routinely questioned. This is a progressive account of the modern world, one that relies on the promise of technology, choice, plenty and wealth. Within the business school, capitalism is assumed to be the end of history, an economic model that has trumped all the others, and is now taught as science, rather than ideology.
The second is the assumption that human behaviour – of employees, customers, managers and so on – is best understood as if we are all rational egoists. This provides a set of background assumptions that allow for the development of models of how human beings might be managed in the interests of the business organisation. Motivating employees, correcting market failures, designing lean management systems or persuading consumers to spend money are all instances of the same sort of problem. The foregrounded interest here is that of the person who wants control, and the people who are the objects of that interest can then be treated as people who can be manipulated.

The final similarity I want to point to concerns the nature of the knowledge being produced and disseminated by the business school itself. Because it borrows the gown and mortarboard of the university, and cloaks its knowledge in the apparatus of science – journals, professors, big words – it is relatively easy to imagine that the knowledge the business school sells and the way that it sells it somehow less vulgar and stupid than it really is.

The easiest summary of all of the above, and one that would inform most people’s understandings of what goes on in the B-school, is that they are places that teach people how to get money out of the pockets of ordinary people and keep it for themselves. In some senses, that’s a description of capitalism, but there is also a sense here that business schools actually teach that “greed is good”. As Joel M Podolny, the former dean of Yale School of Management, once opined: “The way business schools today compete leads students to ask, ‘What can I do to make the most money?’ and the manner in which faculty members teach allows students to regard the moral consequences of their actions as mere afterthoughts.”

Illustration: Michael Kirkham

This picture is, to some extent, backed up by research, although some of this is of dubious quality. There are various surveys of business-school students that suggest that they have an instrumental approach to education; that is to say, they want what marketing and branding tells them that they want. In terms of the classroom, they expect the teaching of uncomplicated and practical concepts and tools that they deem will be helpful to them in their future careers. Philosophy is for the birds.

As someone who has taught in business schools for decades, this sort of finding doesn’t surprise me, though others suggest rather more incendiary findings. One US survey compared MBA students to people who were imprisoned in low-security prisons and found that the latter were more ethical. Another suggested that the likelihood of committing some form of corporate crime increased if the individual concerned had experience of graduate business education, or military service. (Both careers presumably involve absolving responsibility to an organisation.) Other surveys suggest that students come in believing in employee wellbeing and customer satisfaction and leave thinking that shareholder value is the most important issue, and that business-school students are more likely to cheat than students in other subjects.

Whether the causes and effects (or indeed the findings) are as neat as surveys like this might suggest is something that I doubt, but it would be equally daft to suggest that the business school has no effect on its graduates. Having an MBA might not make a student greedy, impatient or unethical, but both the B-school’s explicit and hidden curriculums do teach lessons. Not that these lessons are acknowledged when something goes wrong, because then the business school usually denies all responsibility. That’s a tricky position, though, because, as a 2009 Economist editorial put it, “You cannot claim that your mission is to ‘educate the leaders who make a difference to the world’ and then wash your hands of your alumni when the difference they make is malign”.

After the 2007 crash, there was a game of pass-the-blame-parcel going on, so it’s not surprising that most business-school deans were also trying to blame consumers for borrowing too much, the bankers for behaving so riskily, rotten apples for being so bad and the system for being, well, the system. Who, after all, would want to claim that they merely taught greed?

The sorts of doors to knowledge we find in universities are based on exclusions. A subject is made up by teaching this and not that, about space (geography) and not time (history), about collectives of people (sociology) and not about individuals (psychology), and so on. Of course, there are leakages and these are often where the most interesting thinking happens, but this partitioning of the world is constitutive of any university discipline. We cannot study everything, all the time, which is why there are names of departments over the doors to buildings and corridors.

However, the B-school is an even more extreme case. It is constituted through separating commercial life from the rest of life, but then undergoes a further specialisation. The business school assumes capitalism, corporations and managers as the default form of organisation, and everything else as history, anomaly, exception, alternative. In terms of curriculum and research, everything else is peripheral.

Most business schools exist as parts of universities, and universities are generally understood as institutions with responsibilities to the societies they serve. Why then do we assume that degree courses in business should only teach one form of organisation – capitalism – as if that were the only way in which human life could be arranged?

The sort of world that is being produced by the market managerialism that the business school sells is not a pleasant one. It’s a sort of utopia for the wealthy and powerful, a group that the students are encouraged to imagine themselves joining, but such privilege is bought at a very high cost, resulting in environmental catastrophe, resource wars and forced migration, inequality within and between countries, the encouragement of hyper-consumption as well as persistently anti-democratic practices at work.

Selling the business school works by ignoring these problems, or by mentioning them as challenges and then ignoring them in the practices of teaching and research. If we want to be able to respond to the challenges that face human life on this planet, then we need to research and teach about as many different forms of organising as we are able to collectively imagine. For us to assume that global capitalism can continue as it is means to assume a path to destruction. So if we are going to move away from business as usual, then we also need to radically reimagine the business school as usual. And this means more than pious murmurings about corporate social responsibility. It means doing away with what we have, and starting again.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Marx predicted our present crisis – and points the way out

Yanis Varoufakis in The Guardian

For a manifesto to succeed, it must speak to our hearts like a poem while infecting the mind with images and ideas that are dazzlingly new. It needs to open our eyes to the true causes of the bewildering, disturbing, exciting changes occurring around us, exposing the possibilities with which our current reality is pregnant. It should make us feel hopelessly inadequate for not having recognised these truths ourselves, and it must lift the curtain on the unsettling realisation that we have been acting as petty accomplices, reproducing a dead-end past. Lastly, it needs to have the power of a Beethoven symphony, urging us to become agents of a future that ends unnecessary mass suffering and to inspire humanity to realise its potential for authentic freedom. 

No manifesto has better succeeded in doing all this than the one published in February 1848 at 46 Liverpool Street, London. Commissioned by English revolutionaries, The Communist Manifesto (or the Manifesto of the Communist Party, as it was first published) was authored by two young Germans – Karl Marx, a 29-year-old philosopher with a taste for epicurean hedonism and Hegelian rationality, and Friedrich Engels, a 28-year-old heir to a Manchester mill.

As a work of political literature, the manifesto remains unsurpassed. Its most infamous lines, including the opening one (“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”), have a Shakespearean quality. Like Hamlet confronted by the ghost of his slain father, the reader is compelled to wonder: “Should I conform to the prevailing order, suffering the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune bestowed upon me by history’s irresistible forces? Or should I join these forces, taking up arms against the status quo and, by opposing it, usher in a brave new world?”

For Marx and Engels’ immediate readership, this was not an academic dilemma, debated in the salons of Europe. Their manifesto was a call to action, and heeding this spectre’s invocation often meant persecution, or, in some cases, lengthy imprisonment. Today, a similar dilemma faces young people: conform to an established order that is crumbling and incapable of reproducing itself, or oppose it, at considerable personal cost, in search of new ways of working, playing and living together? Even though communist parties have disappeared almost entirely from the political scene, the spirit of communism driving the manifesto is proving hard to silence.
To see beyond the horizon is any manifesto’s ambition. But to succeed as Marx and Engels did in accurately describing an era that would arrive a century-and-a-half in the future, as well as to analyse the contradictions and choices we face today, is truly astounding. In the late 1840s, capitalism was foundering, local, fragmented and timid. And yet Marx and Engels took one long look at it and foresaw our globalised, financialised, iron-clad, all-singing-all-dancing capitalism. This was the creature that came into being after 1991, at the very same moment the establishment was proclaiming the death of Marxism and the end of history.

Of course, the predictive failure of The Communist Manifesto has long been exaggerated. I remember how even leftwing economists in the early 1970s challenged the pivotal manifesto prediction that capital would “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere”. Drawing upon the sad reality of what were then called third world countries, they argued that capital had lost its fizz well before expanding beyond its “metropolis” in Europe, America and Japan.

Empirically they were correct: European, US and Japanese multinational corporations operating in the “peripheries” of Africa, Asia and Latin America were confining themselves to the role of colonial resource extractors and failing to spread capitalism there. Instead of imbuing these countries with capitalist development (drawing “all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation”), they argued that foreign capital was reproducing the development of underdevelopment in the third world. It was as if the manifesto had placed too much faith in capital’s ability to spread into every nook and cranny. Most economists, including those sympathetic to Marx, doubted the manifesto’s prediction that “exploitation of the world-market” would give “a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country”.

As it turned out, the manifesto was right, albeit belatedly. It would take the collapse of the Soviet Union and the insertion of two billion Chinese and Indian workers into the capitalist labour market for its prediction to be vindicated. Indeed, for capital to globalise fully, the regimes that pledged allegiance to the manifesto had first to be torn asunder. Has history ever procured a more delicious irony?

Anyone reading the manifesto today will be surprised to discover a picture of a world much like our own, teetering fearfully on the edge of technological innovation. In the manifesto’s time, it was the steam engine that posed the greatest challenge to the rhythms and routines of feudal life. The peasantry were swept into the cogs and wheels of this machinery and a new class of masters, the factory owners and the merchants, usurped the landed gentry’s control over society. Now, it is artificial intelligence and automation that loom as disruptive threats, promising to sweep away “all fixed, fast-frozen relations”. “Constantly revolutionising … instruments of production,” the manifesto proclaims, transform “the whole relations of society”, bringing about “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation”.

Composite: Guardian Design

For Marx and Engels, however, this disruption is to be celebrated. It acts as a catalyst for the final push humanity needs to do away with our remaining prejudices that underpin the great divide between those who own the machines and those who design, operate and work with them. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,” they write in the manifesto of technology’s effect, “and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind”. By ruthlessly vaporising our preconceptions and false certainties, technological change is forcing us, kicking and screaming, to face up to how pathetic our relations with one another are.

Today, we see this reckoning in millions of words, in print and online, used to debate globalisation’s discontents. While celebrating how globalisation has shifted billions from abject poverty to relative poverty, venerable western newspapers, Hollywood personalities, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, bishops and even multibillionaire financiers all lament some of its less desirable ramifications: unbearable inequality, brazen greed, climate change, and the hijacking of our parliamentary democracies by bankers and the ultra-rich.

None of this should surprise a reader of the manifesto. “Society as a whole,” it argues, “is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other.” As production is mechanised, and the profit margin of the machine-owners becomes our civilisation’s driving motive, society splits between non-working shareholders and non-owner wage-workers. As for the middle class, it is the dinosaur in the room, set for extinction.

At the same time, the ultra-rich become guilt-ridden and stressed as they watch everyone else’s lives sink into the precariousness of insecure wage-slavery. Marx and Engels foresaw that this supremely powerful minority would eventually prove “unfit to rule” over such polarised societies, because they would not be in a position to guarantee the wage-slaves a reliable existence. Barricaded in their gated communities, they find themselves consumed by anxiety and incapable of enjoying their riches. Some of them, those smart enough to realise their true long-term self-interest, recognise the welfare state as the best available insurance policy. But alas, explains the manifesto, as a social class, it will be in their nature to skimp on the insurance premium, and they will work tirelessly to avoid paying the requisite taxes.

Is this not what has transpired? The ultra-rich are an insecure, permanently disgruntled clique, constantly in and out of detox clinics, relentlessly seeking solace from psychics, shrinks and entrepreneurial gurus. Meanwhile, everyone else struggles to put food on the table, pay tuition fees, juggle one credit card for another or fight depression. We act as if our lives are carefree, claiming to like what we do and do what we like. Yet in reality, we cry ourselves to sleep.

Do-gooders, establishment politicians and recovering academic economists all respond to this predicament in the same way, issuing fiery condemnations of the symptoms (income inequality) while ignoring the causes (exploitation resulting from the unequal property rights over machines, land, resources). Is it any wonder we are at an impasse, wallowing in hopelessness that only serves the populists seeking to court the worst instincts of the masses?

With the rapid rise of advanced technology, we are brought closer to the moment when we must decide how to relate to each other in a rational, civilised manner. We can no longer hide behind the inevitability of work and the oppressive social norms it necessitates. The manifesto gives its 21st-century reader an opportunity to see through this mess and to recognise what needs to be done so that the majority can escape from discontent into new social arrangements in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. Even though it contains no roadmap of how to get there, the manifesto remains a source of hope not to be dismissed.

If the manifesto holds the same power to excite, enthuse and shame us that it did in 1848, it is because the struggle between social classes is as old as time itself. Marx and Engels summed this up in 13 audacious words: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

From feudal aristocracies to industrialised empires, the engine of history has always been the conflict between constantly revolutionising technologies and prevailing class conventions. With each disruption of society’s technology, the conflict between us changes form. Old classes die out and eventually only two remain standing: the class that owns everything and the class that owns nothing – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

This is the predicament in which we find ourselves today. While we owe capitalism for having reduced all class distinctions to the gulf between owners and non-owners, Marx and Engels want us to realise that capitalism is insufficiently evolved to survive the technologies it spawns. It is our duty to tear away at the old notion of privately owned means of production and force a metamorphosis, which must involve the social ownership of machinery, land and resources. Now, when new technologies are unleashed in societies bound by the primitive labour contract, wholesale misery follows. In the manifesto’s unforgettable words: “A society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

The sorcerer will always imagine that their apps, search engines, robots and genetically engineered seeds will bring wealth and happiness to all. But, once released into societies divided between wage labourers and owners, these technological marvels will push wages and prices to levels that create low profits for most businesses. It is only big tech, big pharma and the few corporations that command exceptionally large political and economic power over us that truly benefit. If we continue to subscribe to labour contracts between employer and employee, then private property rights will govern and drive capital to inhuman ends. Only by abolishing private ownership of the instruments of mass production and replacing it with a new type of common ownership that works in sync with new technologies, will we lessen inequality and find collective happiness.

According to Marx and Engels’ 13-word theory of history, the current stand-off between worker and owner has always been guaranteed. “Equally inevitable,” the manifesto states, is the bourgeoisie’s “fall and the victory of the proletariat”. So far, history has not fulfilled this prediction, but critics forget that the manifesto, like any worthy piece of propaganda, presents hope in the form of certainty. Just as Lord Nelson rallied his troops before the Battle of Trafalgar by announcing that England “expected” them to do their duty (even if he had grave doubts that they would), the manifesto bestows upon the proletariat the expectation that they will do their duty to themselves, inspiring them to unite and liberate one another from the bonds of wage-slavery.

Will they? On current form, it seems unlikely. But, then again, we had to wait for globalisation to appear in the 1990s before the manifesto’s estimation of capital’s potential could be fully vindicated. Might it not be that the new global, increasingly precarious proletariat needs more time before it can play the historic role the manifesto anticipated? While the jury is still out, Marx and Engels tell us that, if we fear the rhetoric of revolution, or try to distract ourselves from our duty to one another, we will find ourselves caught in a vertiginous spiral in which capital saturates and bleaches the human spirit. The only thing we can be certain of, according to the manifesto, is that unless capital is socialised we are in for dystopic developments.

On the topic of dystopia, the sceptical reader will perk up: what of the manifesto’s own complicity in legitimising authoritarian regimes and steeling the spirit of gulag guards? Instead of responding defensively, pointing out that no one blames Adam Smith for the excesses of Wall Street, or the New Testament for the Spanish Inquisition, we can speculate how the authors of the manifesto might have answered this charge. I believe that, with the benefit of hindsight, Marx and Engels would confess to an important error in their analysis: insufficient reflexivity. This is to say that they failed to give sufficient thought, and kept a judicious silence, over the impact their own analysis would have on the world they were analysing.

The manifesto told a powerful story in uncompromising language, intended to stir readers from their apathy. What Marx and Engels failed to foresee was that powerful, prescriptive texts have a tendency to procure disciples, believers – a priesthood, even – and that this faithful might use the power bestowed upon them by the manifesto to their own advantage. With it, they might abuse other comrades, build their own power base, gain positions of influence, bed impressionable students, take control of the politburo and imprison anyone who resists them.

Similarly, Marx and Engels failed to estimate the impact of their writing on capitalism itself. To the extent that the manifesto helped fashion the Soviet Union, its eastern European satellites, Castro’s Cuba, Tito’s Yugoslavia and several social democratic governments in the west, would these developments not cause a chain reaction that would frustrate the manifesto’s predictions and analysis? After the Russian revolution and then the second world war, the fear of communism forced capitalist regimes to embrace pension schemes, national health services, even the idea of making the rich pay for poor and petit bourgeois students to attend purpose-built liberal universities. Meanwhile, rabid hostility to the Soviet Union stirred up paranoia and created a climate of fear that proved particularly fertile for figures such as Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot.

I believe that Marx and Engels would have regretted not anticipating the manifesto’s impact on the communist parties it foreshadowed. They would be kicking themselves that they overlooked the kind of dialectic they loved to analyse: how workers’ states would become increasingly totalitarian in their response to capitalist state aggression, and how, in their response to the fear of communism, these capitalist states would grow increasingly civilised.
Blessed, of course, are the authors whose errors result from the power of their words. Even more blessed are those whose errors are self-correcting. In our present day, the workers’ states inspired by the manifesto are almost gone, and the communist parties disbanded or in disarray. Liberated from competition with regimes inspired by the manifesto, globalised capitalism is behaving as if it is determined to create a world best explained by the manifesto.

What makes the manifesto truly inspiring today is its recommendation for us in the here and now, in a world where our lives are being constantly shaped by what Marx described in his earlier Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts as “a universal energy which breaks every limit and every bond and posits itself as the only policy, the only universality, the only limit and the only bond”. From Uber drivers and finance ministers to banking executives and the wretchedly poor, we can all be excused for feeling overwhelmed by this “energy”. Capitalism’s reach is so pervasive it can sometimes seem impossible to imagine a world without it. It is only a small step from feelings of impotence to falling victim to the assertion there is no alternative. But, astonishingly (claims the manifesto), it is precisely when we are about to succumb to this idea that alternatives abound.

What we don’t need at this juncture are sermons on the injustice of it all, denunciations of rising inequality or vigils for our vanishing democratic sovereignty. Nor should we stomach desperate acts of regressive escapism: the cry to return to some pre-modern, pre-technological state where we can cling to the bosom of nationalism. What the manifesto promotes in moments of doubt and submission is a clear-headed, objective assessment of capitalism and its ills, seen through the cold, hard light of rationality.

Composite: Guardian Design

The manifesto argues that the problem with capitalism is not that it produces too much technology, or that it is unfair. Capitalism’s problem is that it is irrational. Capital’s success at spreading its reach via accumulation for accumulation’s sake is causing human workers to work like machines for a pittance, while the robots are programmed to produce stuff that the workers can no longer afford and the robots do not need. Capital fails to make rational use of the brilliant machines it engenders, condemning whole generations to deprivation, a decrepit environment, underemployment and zero real leisure from the pursuit of employment and general survival. Even capitalists are turned into angst-ridden automatons. They live in permanent fear that unless they commodify their fellow humans, they will cease to be capitalists – joining the desolate ranks of the expanding precariat-proletariat.

If capitalism appears unjust it is because it enslaves everyone, rich and poor, wasting human and natural resources. The same “production line” that pumps out untold wealth also produces deep unhappiness and discontent on an industrial scale. So, our first task – according to the manifesto – is to recognise the tendency of this all-conquering “energy” to undermine itself.

When asked by journalists who or what is the greatest threat to capitalism today, I defy their expectations by answering: capital! Of course, this is an idea I have been plagiarising for decades from the manifesto. Given that it is neither possible nor desirable to annul capitalism’s “energy”, the trick is to help speed up capital’s development (so that it burns up like a meteor rushing through the atmosphere) while, on the other hand, resisting (through rational, collective action) its tendency to steamroller our human spirit. In short, the manifesto’s recommendation is that we push capital to its limits while limiting its consequences and preparing for its socialisation.

We need more robots, better solar panels, instant communication and sophisticated green transport networks. But equally, we need to organise politically to defend the weak, empower the many and prepare the ground for reversing the absurdities of capitalism. In practical terms, this means treating the idea that there is no alternative with the contempt it deserves while rejecting all calls for a “return” to a less modernised existence. There was nothing ethical about life under earlier forms of capitalism. TV shows that massively invest in calculated nostalgia, such as Downton Abbey, should make us glad to live when we do. At the same time, they might also encourage us to floor the accelerator of change.

The manifesto is one of those emotive texts that speak to each of us differently at different times, reflecting our own circumstances. Some years ago, I called myself an erratic, libertarian Marxist and I was roundly disparaged by non-Marxists and Marxists alike. Soon after, I found myself thrust into a political position of some prominence, during a period of intense conflict between the then Greek government and some of capitalism’s most powerful agents. Rereading the manifesto for the purposes of writing this introduction has been a little like inviting the ghosts of Marx and Engels to yell a mixture of censure and support in my ear.

Adults in the Room, my memoir of the time I served as Greece’s finance minister in 2015, tells the story of how the Greek spring was crushed via a combination of brute force (on the part of Greece’s creditors) and a divided front within my own government. It is as honest and accurate as I could make it. Seen from the perspective of the manifesto, however, the true historical agents were confined to cameo appearances or to the role of quasi-passive victims. “Where is the proletariat in your story?” I can almost hear Marx and Engels screaming at me now. “Should they not be the ones confronting capitalism’s most powerful, with you supporting from the sidelines?”

Thankfully, rereading the manifesto has offered some solace too, endorsing my view of it as a liberal text – a libertarian one, even. Where the manifesto lambasts bourgeois-liberal virtues, it does so because of its dedication and even love for them. Liberty happiness, autonomy, individuality, spirituality, self-guided development are ideals that Marx and Engels valued above everything else. If they are angry with the bourgeoisie, it is because the bourgeoisie seeks to deny the majority any opportunity to be free. Given Marx and Engels’ adherence to Hegel’s fantastic idea that no one is free as long as one person is in chains, their quarrel with the bourgeoisie is that they sacrifice everybody’s freedom and individuality on capitalism’s altar of accumulation.

Although Marx and Engels were not anarchists, they loathed the state and its potential to be manipulated by one class to suppress another. At best, they saw it as a necessary evil that would live on in the good, post-capitalist future coordinating a classless society. If this reading of the manifesto holds water, the only way of being a communist is to be a libertarian one. Heeding the manifesto’s call to “Unite!” is in fact inconsistent with becoming card-carrying Stalinists or with seeking to remake the world in the image of now-defunct communist regimes.

When everything is said and done, then, what is the bottom line of the manifesto? And why should anyone, especially young people today, care about history, politics and the like?

Marx and Engels based their manifesto on a touchingly simple answer: authentic human happiness and the genuine freedom that must accompany it. For them, these are the only things that truly matter. Their manifesto does not rely on strict Germanic invocations of duty, or appeals to historic responsibilities to inspire us to act. It does not moralise, or point its finger. Marx and Engels attempted to overcome the fixations of German moral philosophy and capitalist profit motives, with a rational, yet rousing appeal to the very basics of our shared human nature.

Key to their analysis is the ever-expanding chasm between those who produce and those who own the instruments of production. The problematic nexus of capital and waged labour stops us from enjoying our work and our artefacts, and turns employers and workers, rich and poor, into mindless, quivering pawns who are being quick-marched towards a pointless existence by forces beyond our control.

But why do we need politics to deal with this? Isn’t politics stultifying, especially socialist politics, which Oscar Wilde once claimed “takes up too many evenings”? Marx and Engels’ answer is: because we cannot end this idiocy individually; because no market can ever emerge that will produce an antidote to this stupidity. Collective, democratic political action is our only chance for freedom and enjoyment. And for this, the long nights seem a small price to pay.

Humanity may succeed in securing social arrangements that allow for “the free development of each” as the “condition for the free development of all”. But, then again, we may end up in the “common ruin” of nuclear war, environmental disaster or agonising discontent. In our present moment, there are no guarantees. We can turn to the manifesto for inspiration, wisdom and energy but, in the end, what prevails is up to us.

Britain, headquarters of fraud. The strange case of Kevin Brewer

Oliver Bullough in The Guardian

Officials get fed up with accusations that Britain is a cesspool of dirty money; that they do too little to check the wealth hidden behind shell corporations. They grouse among themselves that their critics overlook the work they’re doing to expose the money flows and to drive out the corrupt.

When they do get a win, therefore, they trumpet it. Last month, Companies House successfully prosecuted someone who had lied in setting up a company, the kind of white-collar crime committed by the sophisticated fraudsters who fleece ordinary Brits every day, and the government went large. “This prosecution – the first of its kind in the UK – shows the government will come down hard on people who knowingly break the law and file false information on the company register,” crowed business minister, Andrew Griffiths, in a press release.

A Warwickshire businessman called Kevin Brewer had pleaded guilty, paid a fine and the government’s costs: a total of more than £12,000. His crime had been to falsely claim that two companies he created belonged, in one case, to the MP Vince Cable, and, in the other, to the MP James Cleverly, Lady Neville-Rolfe and an imaginary Israeli. At first, the public response to the news was everything the press release’s authors could have hoped for. The Times splashed with the details of the crime – the government was tough on fraud, tough on the causes of fraud. But the victory was short-lived. Within a month of the triumphant press release, Tory MP John Penrose, the government’s anti-corruption champion, was slamming the prosecution as “a bone-headed exercise in shooting the messenger”. Brewer may have been, by his own admission, naive, but he was trying to expose a flaw in British regulations that enables frauds totalling hundreds of billions of pounds. His reward was years of being ignored and, finally, a criminal record. “That has to be wrong,” said Penrose.

 Lady Neville-Rolfe was minister responsible for Companies House when Kevin Brewer set up a company that included her as a director and shareholder. Photograph: Richard Gardner/REX/Shutterstock

The 4m corporate vehicles in the British registry are the building blocks of our economy, crucial to our prosperity. Hidden among them, however, like pickpockets in a crowd, are thousands of fake companies used by fraudsters to commit their crimes. Companies let criminals look legitimate and make their frauds, tax evasion or kleptocracy resemble normal business activity.

These fake companies have tell-tale flaws: invented addresses, offshore ownership, dormant companies acting as other companies’ directors. The strange thing about Brewer’s companies, however, is that they did not have these flaws. They were registered to Brewer’s address; his business acted as their agent; he wrote to the MPs and the peer to tell them he had created companies in their names; and he dissolved the companies after he’d done so.

If he was a criminal, he was a very strange one: a bank robber who took no money, left his business card on the counter and wrote the manager a letter confessing to the crime. Yet, while real bank robbers are getting away with theft all around us, Brewer ended up in court. His is a story that goes to the heart of Britain’s ramshackle approach to tackling money laundering and exposes our shameful failure to combat a crime that spreads far beyond our borders.

Brewer, who turned 66 on Saturday, is a company formation agent and reckons he has created half-a-million corporate vehicles since 1984. “It grew into a national enterprise, forming companies for anybody in the country,” he told me. “My main clients were solicitors and accountants, professional clients more than the public, because of – I’d like to say – the quality of the service.”

Part of that service was a rigorous due diligence process: he checked his client’s identity, the source of their funds and the purpose of their company. Often, investigators from the police or the Revenue & Customs would ask to look at his files and he would help them discover who was behind a company that had committed a crime. “I’ve given witness statements in very large trials. The Serious Fraud Office sent me a thank-you letter,” he said.

For the price of fish and chips, anyone could log in, form a company, put in any name they liked – Mickey MouseKevin Brewer

His problems began in 2011 under the coalition government, when business secretary Vince Cable opened up Companies House’s online registration system. As part of a drive to make the country more entrepreneurial, anyone could now register a company via the registry’s web portal, rather than doing it on paper or going via an intermediary such as Brewer. You may remember the “Britain Is Great” advertising campaign from bus stops in 2012: one strapline boasted that it took less than 24 hours to incorporate in the UK. Ministers thought this was good; Brewer thought it was awful.

“For the price of some fish and chips, anyone in the world could log in, form a company, put in any name they liked, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, somebody else’s name, totally fictitious names, get their companies formed and get their certificate,” he said. “You could be in Russia, Jamaica, anywhere.”

Where Brewer had charged £100 for a company, Companies House charged £18; where he checked his client’s intentions and identity, Companies House didn’t check anything. This threatened his business, but it also threatened to unleash fraud on a scale never before seen. He felt sure the government hadn’t considered the consequences of its policy, so he wrote to Cable. “Not only is the policy misguided and costly, it has created massive opportunity for fraud and deception,” Brewer wrote. “To illustrate the point we have created a company in your name without your consent or knowledge and could start trading using your identity.” John Vincent Cable Services Ltd had been incorporated on 23 May 2013, with a single shareholder – the business secretary.

 Illustration: Dom McKenzie

Jo Swinson MP replied on behalf of Cable, explaining at length why Companies House was not covered by anti-money laundering regulations. She also warned that he had committed a criminal offence in creating the fake company, but that she didn’t want to see him prosecuted. The Daily Mirror wrote it up as a curious oddity and that was the end of the matter.

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was careful to point out to me last week that Brewer was not being altruistic when he made his warning to Cable: he was losing business as a result of the changes to Companies House. Although this is true, it does not detract from the fact that Brewer had a point.

British corporate vehicles have enabled fraud on a global scale. The former president of Ukraine used British companies to conceal his property, as did his cronies. The “Russian laundromat”, a complex money-laundering scheme that moved $21m out of Russia, was run through Scottish limited partnerships. Transparency International UK (TI-UK) last year analysed 52 corruption cases and found they involved 766 British corporate vehicles, which had laundered some £80bn. “The human damage inflicted on the victims of these crimes is still being counted,” it said, in its report Hiding In Plain Sight.

Sophisticated financial crime is impossible without corporate vehicles. Carousel fraud, a scam in which traders import goods, sell them to themselves via related companies, before exporting them and claiming back VAT that they never paid, costs the UK £500m to £1bn a year and that is just one category of crime. The UK as a whole loses as much as £193bn a year from fraud, while perhaps another £100bn is laundered through the country’s financial system, according to a National Crime Agency (NCA) report from last year.

In an attempt to stop this happening, David Cameron’s government obliged UK companies to declare a person with significant control (PSC – someone who actually owns the shares) and made it free to search Companies House so as to increase public scrutiny. The trouble is that no one at Companies House is checking the accuracy of the information submitted. No matter how transparent something is, the old tech rule applies: garbage in, garbage out. 

There is a cottage industry of activists seeking discrepancies in Companies House’s data in an attempt to make it do something about this problem. In January, Global Witness analysed PSC entries and found 4,000 toddlers owning companies, as well as one beneficial owner who was yet to be born. Graham Barrow, a City expert on financial crime who is currently working at Deutsche Bank, likes to post amusing cases on his LinkedIn page. A recent example documented the adventures of a man who had spelled his name six different ways, thus foiling attempts to search for him electronically.

However, Companies House doesn’t appear to respond to such revelations. I wrote an article in 2016 that featured a serial company director whose career had been unimpeded by her death four years earlier; two years on and she’s still director of an active company listed on the registry. TI-UK alerted Companies House to active companies that had been involved in the money-laundering schemes it had identified, but no noticeable action appears to have been taken against them.

“I’ve worked for a number of global banks who between them have received multimillion dollar fines and none of them was close to being as bad as Companies House with their due diligence,” Barrow told me. “Poor Kevin Brewer, I feel for him. A man tries to show how bad things are and he’s the one who ends up getting prosecuted.”

Part of the problem is the extraordinary complexity of the money-laundering regulations, which float around in an acronym soup. If an accountant or lawyer creates a company, she will be regulated by one of 22 different bodies, which are in turn overseen by the newly created Office for Professional Body Anti-Money Laundering Supervision (OPBAS), which is part of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). Company formation agents such as Brewer, however, are regulated separately, although they’re doing exactly the same job. They report to HMRC, which is a non-ministerial department. When Companies House creates corporate vehicles, meanwhile, it isn’t regulated for anti-money-laundering purposes at all and is an executive agency working with BEIS.

According to Jon Benton, who retired last year after a career investigating corruption and financial crime in the Met, the NCA and the Cabinet Office, most of these agencies don’t even have software that can communicate with the others, let alone share intelligence with them. “I’m in the private sector now and I see the power of the analytical software used by financial institutions. It’s decades ahead of law enforcement,” he told me. “We criticise things in places like the British Virgin Islands, but it’s happening on our doorstep.”

In March, MPs discussed a sanctions and anti-money-laundering bill and Labour’s Anneliese Dodds, a shadow Treasury minister, proposed two amendments that would have addressed the problems identified by Brewer, TI-UK, Global Witness, Barrow, Benton and pretty much everyone else who has looked at Companies House for any length of time. One amendment sought to make the registry liable to money-laundering regulations and the other sought to block anyone not subject to UK regulations from creating UK companies.

“A huge number of companies are created without any checks. We are talking about 251,628 companies last year,” Dodds told the public bill committee. “Our proposal has been portrayed as only a burden, when it could help our constituents from being ripped off by unscrupulous individuals… they can be there by day, fly by night, and leave the unfortunate person who dealt with that company in a very difficult position.”

John Glen, a Treasury minister, replied for the government, repeating many of the same arguments that Jo Swinson used with Brewer in 2013: Companies House is just a repository of information, it has no powers to check the accuracy of what is presented to it. He also stressed that it would not be fair for legitimate companies to have to repeat the kind of identity checks they already do to open bank accounts. “The impact on resources to carry out due diligence on that number of companies would be considerable,” he said. “The overall cost to the UK economy could run into the hundreds of millions of pounds each year.”

TI-UK has also assessed the cost of the kind of changes Labour was arguing for, but came to a figure far below that of the government. It estimated that Companies House could cover the cost of the reform by raising the price of incorporation by just £5-10. That would make incorporating in the UK cost around £20, which would still be cheap by global standards. Buying a company in the British Virgin Islands costs 50 times as much. Frances Coulson, an experienced insolvency solicitor and a director of the Fraud Advisory Panel, which aims to help Britons fight financial crime, said that even a £100 fee would be a price worth paying. “This is a hole, through which people can launder money. I don’t think fixing this would be problematic for business; what’s £100 to them? And it wouldn’t cost the state anything - it’s self-funding,” she said. “There are thousands of companies on the register with nonsense information; we come across them all the time, the information is just nonsense. So the question is what sort of business would it deter? Do we want fraudsters? This wouldn’t deter legitimate business, because they need to do all the same checks to set up bank accounts anyway.”

  Vince Cable, in whose name Kevin Brewer set up one of his fake companies. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

Dodds said that she didn’t think the government had understood the scale of the problem. The proportion of companies created directly with Companies House, rather than via regulated intermediaries, is increasing every year and is approaching 50%. If the ownership information for half of all new companies is non-verified, that brings the integrity of the entire registry into question.

“We need to be absolutely sure that London or Potters Bar, or Glasgow for that matter, are not locations for washing dirty money. Because that’s about stealing money from poor people and we really shouldn’t be helping,” she said. “The only thing that’s happened is this poor bloke has been convicted. It’s outrageous and it needn’t be that expensive to do something properly.”

After Cable lost his position following the 2015 general election, Brewer renewed his campaign with the new all-Conservative government. He wrote to MPs he thought might be sympathetic and to ministers, trying to persuade them this flaw in Britain’s anti-money-laundering defences was something they should be concerned about.

He won a friendly response from James Cleverly, leader of the Free Enterprise Group of Tory MPs, and he hoped to persuade Neville-Rolfe, who was then the minister responsible for Companies House. He decided to repeat the trick that had failed to impress Cable and incorporated a new company – Cleverly Clogs Ltd – on 17 May 2016.

Cleverly and Neville-Rolfe were shareholders and directors, alongside the fictitious Israeli Ibrahim Aman (whose home address, for some reason, Brewer listed as being in a shopping mall in Braintree). It didn’t help, however. The meeting with Cleverly was cordial, but he never got to meet Neville-Rolfe and ministers were every bit as noncommittal as their Lib-Dem predecessors. “It got nowhere; I was disillusioned and had come to the end of the road really. I didn’t think there was much more than I could do. That was 2016,” he said.

He may have been finished with Companies House, but Companies House wasn’t finished with him. An investigator from the Insolvency Service interviewed him under caution, so Brewer showed him the correspondence, explained how he’d told Companies House about his stunts, tried to tell the people whose names he’d used, explained that he’d been trying to highlight a problem. “I hadn’t done anything for nefarious purposes; I closed the companies immediately after. Nobody said I was going to get prosecuted,” he told me. “I’d just been a bit naive in my actions, which were well-intentioned, to try to get dialogue, because I felt they just didn’t understand. Every letter you got back from whatever minister was virtually word for word the same.”

Then, on 11 December last year came the summons to Redditch magistrates’ court. He consulted a lawyer and pleaded guilty on 15 March. With the fine, his own costs and those of the government, he was £22,800 out of pocket.

This was the decision that so appalled Penrose, the anti-corruption champion. “The only prosecution that has ever been brought was the gentleman who was trying to point out the problem in the first place, and admitted it, and drew it to the authorities’ attention. And what did he get for his pains? A £22,000 [bill],” he said, at the media-focused Frontline Club’s regular kleptoscope event (full disclosure: which I organise and host) in London on Wednesday. “That cannot be right, that has to be wrong. But it rather self-evidently proves the point that we’re not paying enough attention to whether this information is being filed properly and I’ve already taken this up in the last 24 hours with ministers.”

It took me most of a day to discover who had taken the decision to prosecute Brewer. BEIS, the department whose minister, Andrew Griffiths, was so enthusiastic in the original press release, passed me on to Companies House, which credited the decision to unnamed “prosecutors”. A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service told me with undisguised relief that the decision had had nothing to do with them. Eventually, the buck stopped with the Insolvency Service, where a spokesman confirmed that they had received a file from Companies House. “The Insolvency Service Prosecutor concluded that there was sufficient evidence to institute criminal proceedings with regards to the Code for Crown Prosecutors and that it was in the public interest to do so,” he said.

The Code for Crown Prosecutors is an 18-page document laying out what to consider before taking someone to court. It is divided into stages and this case would have clearly passed the evidence stage, since Brewer himself had either provided all the evidence needed or else left it in plain sight in the files of Companies House. The public interest stage was a more interesting hurdle to overcome, however, particularly the requirement to consider the “circumstances of the victim”. Who exactly was the victim of Brewer’s crime?

Neville-Rolfe, who had no warning or explanation for what had happened, never met Brewer and didn’t realise it was supposed to be a stunt, said it felt like a violation, almost as if she’d been hacked. Cleverly, however, who had met Brewer and perhaps realised the robust nature of his sense of humour, has confirmed that he sees no reason for Brewer to be prosecuted.

Cable, now leader of the Liberals Democrats, said in a statement that he thought this was an overreaction. “The civil servants were doing their job trying to protect me because they were worried this was a scam. However, in retrospect. this was heavy handed and they did not sufficiently realise that Kevin Brewer was trying to improve the system,” he said. “They should drop the fine.”

Windrush saga exposes mixed feelings about immigrants like me

Abdulrazak Gurnah in The FT

In 1968, soon after arriving in England from Zanzibar as an 18-year-old student, I was talking with a friend while a radio played in the background. At some point we stopped talking and listened to a man speaking with tremulous passion about the dangers people like me represented for the future of Britain. 

It was Enoch Powell and we were listening to a clip of his “Rivers of Blood” speech. I knew little about British politics and did not know who Powell was. But in the days and weeks that followed, I heard him quoted at me by fellow students and bus conductors, and saw television footage of trade union marches in his support. 

I have lived in Britain for most of the past 50 years and have watched, and participated in, the largely successful struggle to prevent Powell’s lurid prophecies about race war from coming true. But it would be foolish to imagine that all is set fair for the future of Britain and its migrant communities, because every few weeks we are provided with another example of the obstinate survival of antipathy and disregard. The treatment of the children of the “Windrush generation” who moved to the UK from the Caribbean several decades ago is the latest such episode. 

The injustice is so staggering that Theresa May, the prime minister, and Amber Rudd, the home secretary, have been forced to apologise. But the consequences for Caribbean migrants who grew up in Britain of the “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants could hardly have been news to them. 

In 2013, at the instigation of the Home Office, vans emblazoned with the message “Go home or face arrest” drove around parts of London with large immigrant populations. It may not have been intended that the clampdown on illegal immigration would snare such embarrassing prey as children of migrants who spent a lifetime working in the UK; but political expediency required that this small complication be ignored until it went away. That it has not is a result of the work of welfare, legal and political activists to make sure that the abuses against migrants and strangers are kept in plain sight. 

Before the second world war, there was no law to restrict entry or residence in Britain for people who lived in her colonial territories. That is what it meant to be a global empire, and all the millions who were subjects of the British crown were free to come if they wished. There was no need to worry about controlling numbers because, if they became a problem, they were sent back, as happened after the race riots in various British port cities in 1919. In a rush of imperial hubris, the British Nationality Act was passed in 1948 to formalise the right of British colonial subjects to enter and live in the UK. 

If the 1948 law was a desperate recruitment poster for cheap labour disguised as imperial largesse, the purpose of the successively meaner pieces of immigration legislation that began in 1962 was to slow and ultimately stop the arrival of dark-skinned former subjects of the British crown. It continued Britain’s centuries-long prevarication between sanctuary and xenophobia. 

Why has the Windrush saga been so embarrassing for the government? The answer has to do with Britain’s fraught relationship with the Caribbean and a history of racial terror instigated and supervised for centuries by British money and power. Caribbean institutions are still largely modelled on British ones and, until recent disillusioning decades, the Caribbean sense of identity was linked with a connection to the British empire. It is remarkable that this should be so given the brutalities of the plantation economies that prevailed in the Caribbean territories. This is an ambivalence that Caribbean intellectuals have reflected on for more than a century. The most perfunctory browse through the writing of the region will provide examples of its intricate legacy. 

What is now referred to as the Windrush generation was far from homogeneous. It included peasant workers, nurses, teachers, writers and artists. They came in response to the recruitment drive and because they were ambitious for a better life. They are in Britain for the same reasons that all migrants are here. 

In time they brought their children, and those children grew up, were educated and worked all their lives in this country. As any stranger knows, particularly if he or she is black in Europe, it is vital to keep your paperwork in order. What recent events have shown is that not all the children of the Windrush generation did because they were confident that they were at home and had no need to prove their right to be here. It seems they reckoned without the ruthless politics of contemporary Britain, in which xenophobia and hatred do not repel, but instead win votes. 

The Windrush saga has made headlines this week, but it has been going on for months — the bullying letters, the threatening sanctions against employers, the loss of employment, the withdrawal of benefits and healthcare, the detention and expulsion. Bullying in pursuit of bringing down the immigration numbers is never just or humane. But it is wrong to deny these people what are evidently their moral and legal rights. Their contribution to British society and culture has been immense. 

When it became clear the law had caught the wrong people, someone should have called a halt instead of pressing on with the bullying. As Sentina Bristol, the mother of Dexter, a 57-year-old man born a British subject in Grenada who died after several months of going through this process, observed of the government in a recent interview: “They are intelligent people, they are people of power. We expect better from them.”