A TERM already exists for the most predatory and ruthless of corporate profiteers: vulture capitalists. By using their existing wealth, these firms and individuals roam the world seeking business carrion that still has enough meat on its bones to squeeze one more financial windfall before it turns to dust.

The distressed company, already cut loose by the banks, then becomes prey to the vultures. All remaining assets, including employees and their families, are stripped away and disposed of. What is left can thus be moved on for a profit, trading on the brand’s name that the hard work of those blameless workers had helped build.

In the Third World they buy up the unredeemed debts of poor countries and ensnare them further by replacing what might have been a gradual and benign payment regime with one much more onerous. Their wealth grants them access to a premier division of tax specialists who, using their privileged knowledge, can plot a safe route through any legal challenges.

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It doesn’t matter if the full debt is never repaid as mere ownership of it adds value to sprawling asset portfolios. The global banking system simply stands aside and washes its hands of it. “It’s the market, dear chap; we wouldn’t dream of interfering.”

The coronavirus pandemic has spawned a new class of capitalists which takes vulture capitalism to another level. Perhaps we could call it death capitalism, for out of disease it has managed to spin gold.

In April, Forbes magazine calculated that 2020/21 had delivered a record increase in new billionaires. Forbes reports that a record 493 people joined its World Billionaires list which, it said, meant “the world, on average, gained a new billionaire every 17 hours since Forbes last took a snapshot of billionaire wealth on March 18, 2020”. Among these new billionaires are more than 40 who were enriched directly by the healthcare industry.

As the world fought desperately to provide life-saving drugs, medical care and protective equipment an anointed group were permitted to exploit a disease. At just the right time and having just the right nexus of personal wealth and investment advice they found that the laws of capitalism afforded them a once-in-a-generation opportunity to benefit directly from death.

Rishi Sunak, the UK Chancellor, has been praised for moving relatively quickly to support individuals and businesses with a wide-reaching furlough scheme. Rather less well-known is that the chancellor also permitted firms owned by some of the UK’s most fabulously wealthy private equity consortiums to be eligible for business support.


Open Democracy reported last year that Bank of England emergency loans were granted to such as Rolls Royce (£300m); Airbus (£500m); Ryanair (£600m); easyJet (£600m) and British Airways (£300m). Immediately, each of these corporate behemoths announced a massive round of redundancies. Rolls Royce (3000 job losses); Airbus (1700); Ryanair (3000 forced pay-cuts); easyJet (1900); British Airways (10% redundancy scheme).

There was merit to Mr Sunak’s support measures, but never for a minute imagine that any sense of morality was matched by capitalism’s billionaire class. In capitalism only one thing matters: making more money and at any cost. The concept of attaching value to human beings simply does not figure, save for their potential to be squeezed.

Even the harshest critics of capitalism would struggle to place two of Scotland’s richest and most successful entrepreneurs, Sir Tom Hunter and Lord Willie Haughey, in the predatory or death class of vultures. Both of these men, hailing from unprivileged backgrounds have amassed vast fortunes by dint of hard work and no little ability. Along the way they seem to have paid their taxes and treated their employees with respect and fairness.

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Last week though, they jointly advanced a bizarre and out-of-touch theory on the existence of billionaires in a world perennially disfigured by inequality: there aren’t enough of them.

The pair were talking on last Sunday morning’s entertaining Go Radio business slot. “The more billionaires the better as long as they are creating jobs and paying their taxes,” said his Lordship, the fridge magnate. “The more the merrier.” Sir Tom agreed, adding that entrepreneurship and the creation of wealth “is what makes the world go round”.

Both men, by means of their enormous wealth, enjoy a direct route to all spheres of democratic government. It gives them a seat at any table where ideas around economic development are discussed. Yet each betrayed a simplistic and naive analysis of wealth and what makes it that made me genuinely worried that they’re permitted to be anywhere near economic decision-making.

The existence of billionaires is living proof that the world’s economic system is broken. That during a lethal pandemic a new class of super-rich has been created suggests not only that the financial system is broken but that it’s intrinsically wicked. In its simplest form it permits a gilded few to gather a grossly disproportionate quantum of the world’s wealth and resources to themselves and to justify it by “paying our taxes and employing people”.

Much more malevolently it betrays a resistance to the value of honest, hard work. It signifies that we are content for billions of workers to be underpaid for their own skills and hard work which produce the goods and services that create wealth. In a fairer society the value of their work would be such that there could be no billionaires. It would make their work more sovereign by protecting it from the predations of vulture capitalists or equity fund managers who demand more rounds of redundancies when a decimal point is shaved off an annual multi-million-pound profit.

It would confer a degree of human dignity by making basic needs – housing, energy, healthcare and education – free. It would grant normal people with modest incomes the opportunity to enjoy rest and recreation and to make future plans with a degree of security.

The money is there to make this happen, but to unlock it we need much fewer billionaires, your Lordship; not more. Where there’s a billionaire so also are there many people who have been stiffed along the way.

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