Do you remember 2013, when everyone was in love with Mike Ashley? Probably not. It was a strange moment, a kind of acid flashback to 2012's vaunted Summer of Sport, that tense and frantic time when strangers were constantly making thin-lipped smirks at each other on London public transport, making nice because we had guests round. And then the athletes left and we all woke up, heads clouded, the mere existence of other people once again an enormously unfair imposition on our patience – but in the meantime we'd all bought a lot of sporting goods.
You saw all the athletes on the TV being really good at their jobs, and you realised that you're not really good at anything, that you're just another honey-soaked larva coiled up on itself in the great social comb, and so you bought a pair of electric-blue running shoes and exactly one squash racquet from Sports Direct, and then never saw them again. You hid them in some dank mildewed cupboard with your shame, but Mike Ashley knew what you'd done.
In 2013, Sports Direct declared record profits of £200 million, and as its owner Ashley spread out the takings before his staff: thousands of low-wage workers in his high street stores received £100,000 worth of shares; your shameful, broken, discarded things had, like some Amalthean horn, become a vessel of infinite plenty. 'I could work at Sports Direct,' you thought. 'I could deal with constant cheery pop music and balding men who are very particular about their laces; I could suffer the invasive tang of deodoriser in my nostrils all day, for one hundred thousand pounds.' Mike Ashley. What a great guy.
He doesn't look so great now. As Marx knew, you don't learn much from looking at the high street stores, the "noisy sphere" of circulation; you have to go into the "hidden abode of production", where ugly things happen behind closed doors. On Tuesday, Ashley appeared hunched and monstrous in front of a Commons Select Committee to explain what goes on there. It's not a pretty show. His big round face resolves into two huge, tattered cheeks, the face of a rodent that's stuffed its mouth with too many nuts, an expression of discomfort trying to pretend itself into contrition, as he wearily admits: yes, we paid warehouse workers less than the minimum wage; yes, we relied on zero-hours contracts; yes, we disciplined workers for taking sick days to the extent that one of them was forced to give birth in a toilet; no, it was not fair to fine workers 15 minutes' pay for every minute they were late on shift; yes, we fucked up, an honest mistake. Big confident hand gestures, worried little vole eyes; a flabby, worn-out villain, his evil slouching in such pits of banality that it's hardly even recognisable as evil.
And some of the MPs on the Select Committee seem to be taken in. As the Sports Direct boss was dragged before a government body to answer for the appalling conditions suffered by his employees, one of our elected representatives took a moment to praise him for his "authenticity", this self-made man, this Del Boy hero: he made mistakes, but don't we all? After all, as he said, he's just "one human being"; he's just the owner; it's all handled by an agency; it's not as if it was him personally snatching money out of people's pockets, it's not as if he had pushed a pregnant woman with one swipe of his grey and sagging arm into a company toilet, to give birth alone among the piss. There was a system, and systems fail.
How much should we be hating Mike Ashley? This is the kind of question that gets raised occasionally, whenever powerful people are found to be doing awful things: we saw it with Philip Green and BHS, we saw it with "the bankers" in general after the 2008 financial crash. What these people did had enormously destructive consequences, but they were just cogs in a machine, doing what bosses and bankers do. We're not free actors; we live in a system. It's worth noting that aside from paying below minimum wage, none of what happened at Sports Direct is actually illegal – if you want to create a "culture of fear" at your business, if you want to threaten workers with penury for staying home with their sick children instead of doing their duty to the sale and delivery of plasticky trainers, you're perfectly free to do so. And if doing that means your company would be more profitable, then why wouldn't you do that?
All this is true. But too often lines like this are used to let people off the hook: you can forget that systems are composed of people and designed by people, rather than forming some kind of geological structure on whose surface we simply skid. Ashley defended his company's "six strike" system, in which taking a sick day or using a mobile phone at work could get you fired, saying that "if it's executed correctly, if there's not an abuse of it, this is OK" – as if this isn't already abuse, as if any set of dehumanising rules are fine, so long as they're kept to. If it's not illegal for companies like Sports Direct to employ exploitative labour practices, then why not?
At the Select Committee, most of the strident denunciations came from representatives of the union Unite; the MPs were kinder, almost chummy. When they broke from their deference, Ashley was indignant. "This has so far been positive," he complained, "and now you're making it negative." And why shouldn't it be positive? Take one member of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills: Richard Fuller, Tory MP for Bedford and Kempston, who has consistently voted for restrictions against labour unions – often the only bodies that can meaningfully work to stop abuses like those at Sports Direct. Or Kelly Tollhurst, MP for Rochester and Strood, with a similar record.
Mike Ashley is a venal and unpleasant man, and there will always be venal and unpleasant men. The problem is that we've let these sad-eyed golems reshape society so as to allow the maximum possible exercise of their venality and unpleasantness. And then to show that they're not all bad, they drag up one overgrown wide-boy for the cameras, to puff out his cheeks and whine: I didn't know. It's not my fault.
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