I once met a man who you might call an industrialist. Some might call him one of the ‘bosses’, maybe even a ‘fat cat’ or part of the ‘elite’ if you saw him driving by. He had all the credentials to be hated, that petty hate of bitter envy that often comes as a form of pure rage at life’s unfairness. He was a big man, in a big suit, no doubt with a big car parked in the big driveway of a big house. I can imagine you picturing this man, sweaty, red-faced, a Tory, the type of big little Englander you’d see on Question time, either at the front or down the back. Uniquely unlikable.
I met this man at a conference, both of us asked to give a talk about the business of business. He was what I had never wanted to be, my nightmare outcome, that little socialist crushed inside my capitalist Iron maiden.
Afterwards, we went out for supper, which is tea for posh people. When part of your income comes from talking to business people you get quite good at listening to stories about tractors, advertising rates and underground server security. Most of these people you talk to could be selling anything, and almost to a man or woman, they’re somehow burdened with the stress of doing just that, day in and day out. Sitting next to this man for supper, I put my listening head-on, ready to be interested in his line of work, whatever it was.
And what it was was making things from steel, the best steel there was, and what he made the best there was - anywhere. I asked how he’d become so good at this, this man I realised was much more northern than I’d thought, like Shaun Bean after ten years more drinking. He swore quite a bit, something that maybe was down to the head he’d put on for me.
He told me he’d been a miner, one of the toughest jobs there was, up there with deep-sea fisherman. His career was cut short by an accident, sending him to the surface with no skills but that of cutting coal. Some men would have sat at home for the rest of their lives, gone from unemployed to invalid to disabled. Life can go fast in the vacuum of human use. Be not for him, he started to work steel instead of coal and worked it well. He took what savings he had and put them into a business. He found skilled men who’d been set aside for Chinese steel and gave them more than a job back, but life itself, both to them and their children, who saw parents once sat idle now going out each day. His business grew, what he made the tip of the spear of several lifetimes of skill and craft. Bigger factories were moved into, more men employed, the demand becoming global. But growth comes at a cost, a second mortgage, debt, stress, VAT, tax, keeping people happy. Several times they came close, even when flying high, to losing the lot. If it crashed and burned his men could just walk away, but not him, he’d be finished. Success came, the big house and car, the suits and secretary, but it was a part illusion, taking out cash to pay for the shopping in case the account was empty.
Then one day his main competition asked if he wanted to buy their business, and after further dept and promises and stress, he did. And so he returned to the factory and called his men together and told them the good news, that not only was their security assured, but also that he was going to employ thirty new workers at the factory, as none wanted to move north from the old factory he’d bought.
At this moment someone spoke, saying aloud, “Typical, the rich get rich and the poor get poor”.
“Get up here you fucker” he shouted, making him get up to the front.
“How much is your house worth?” He asked, knowing this man well enough to know he’d done well out of this business.
“Thirty grand” came the sheepish reply.
“Ok, put your house on the line and I’ll give you a larger share of what we make, but if we lose it you’ll lose your house”.
“Fuck off!” Came the reply, the jeers of the other man making him slink back into the mob.
“If you’re not a socialist when you’re young you’ve got no heart,” said the man to me now, this boss, this fat cat who once I’d have hated that illogical hate, the haves and the haven’t a clue, “but if you’re not a capitalist when you’re old, you’ve got no brains”.