Chapter 4: A Futile Chore
Footnote: Barriers: Restrictive Practices
The term 'free market' implies a system in which all are free to trade their skills, goods and services with anybody else without restriction or hindrance. But the reality is a global clique, riddled with mechanisms that exploit the individual to feed corporate gluttony, stifle the weak and exclude the poor.
Historically, my family were never labourers. At least, not in the physical sense. They were by tradition and aptitude: teachers, administrators, engineers, clerics, academics, psychologists, masters of merchant ships and one television news presenter. A strong ethos of academic competitiveness pervaded the whole family. It was oppressive. Its philosophy of life was that the way to health, wealth and happiness was to work hard at school, get good qualifications, and then work hard at the enviable job which would be one's automatic reward. Those who worked hard and succeeded academically would be rewarded well. Those who failed could expect nothing. "If you don't pass your exams," I was firmly told, "you might as well pick up a spade and learn how to dig." This was the 'Sword of Damocles' which, for the full duration of my school and college life, was forever poised above my head.
Thus from my beginning, a firm and simple picture of economic society was passively instilled into my mind. There were employers and there were employees. Employers were vast mighty economic machines which were created, ordered and preserved by faceless beings of a different and unreachable species. The notion of anybody passing across from one to the other never so much as entered one's mind. I was born into the employee cast. That is where the natural scheme of things had placed me. And that is where, presumably, fate had predestined me to stay. The employers were them and the employees were us.
A Naïve View
The simple picture is of a level playing field populated with a homogeneous mass of individuals. None has means of his own. To live each must find paid employment. Collectively these form a pool of available labour. Also on this level playing field is a much smaller number of employers. They possess the means by which a potential employee can, if permitted, turn his labour into his needs of life. But it is, and always will be, a buyers market. The potential employee must go cap in hand to an employer in the hope that the employer will condescend to grant him the privilege of employment. The only way for one of the employee cast to maximise his chances of employment is to make himself as useful to his prospective employer as he possibly can.
I was always taught that there was only one way to do this. And that was to gain the best possible academic qualifications. These, it was unquestioningly assumed, were what determined one's usefulness to an employer. These, it was universally believed, were the one and only yardstick which employers used to grade their employees.
I was also taught that the level of academic qualification which one ended up with was simply a matter of the amount of effort one put into one's studies while at school and college. And since education was universal, the opportunity to get qualified was equal to all. Hence so too was opportunity for employment. Consequently any individual within the teaming population of this so-called level playing field was thought to have an equal opportunity to achieve health, wealth and happiness. However, I was soon to discover that what I had been led to believe was untrue.
I was not deliberately deceived by my family and educators. They merely passed on to me what they had been led to believe. But this simplistic notion of a pool of employees on the one side flowing smoothly across to fill a steady procession of jobs benevolently provided by a fair and ordered economic system of employers on the other, is not how it works. This idealist's vision of society as a homogeneous fluid of equal opportunity has never existed. There are powerful sinister forces within society which constantly act to prevent it. These would instantly re-curdle any such equitable sea of tranquillity back into the mottled coagulation of cells, cliques, classes and hierarchies which characterise the real and present society in which we live.
For the first 10 years of my career I worked for large companies as an employee. But in 1976,
family circumstances prompted me to set up on my own. I would sell my skills directly to my market as an independent self-employed artisan. I naïvely assumed that out there was a market for my skills from which I would be able to obtain my fair and proper share of work. I did my market research. I worked out the size, frequency and content of mailshots required to capture enough work to keep me busy. I sent out the mailshots. I placed the advertisements. Statistically, in a homogeneous marketplace, I should not fail to get the predicted amount of work. I then allowed plenty of time for the results to materialise. I kept sending out the mailshots. I kept the ads running.
I did not get good results. I did not get disappointing results. I got no results at all. I extended the coverage of my mailshots from local to national. I eventually got a few responses. I chased all over the country covering hundreds of miles a week following them up. But it was all for nothing. No actual work ever materialised. At first I thought that I must simply be a lousy salesman. But the way in which certain of these 'sales' fell through soon led me to conclude that this could not be the only reason for my failure to get work. I could not even see bad salesmanship as being a major factor. The results were plainly uncanny. They appeared to violate the laws of probability. Something else - something quite powerful - was preventing me from getting the work.
It seemed that I would approach a prospective client and provide a valuable idea. I would then write a proposal as to how I would realise that idea to benefit the client's business. I would hear nothing or be told that the client had decided not to proceed. However, on occasions, by unwitting slips of the tongue over the telephone by one of the client's more naïve employees, I would discover that the revenue-earning work of realising my proposal had gone elsewhere. The prospective client had taken my idea, accepted my proposal and given the actual work to someone else.
I once visited a former colleague who had also started up on his own. He had been made redundant by our former employer. During my visit he mentioned that he had experienced this trouble. I told him that I had suffered the same problem. It seemed that good ideas and free proposals would be gladly accepted from every direction on this level playing field we call the free market. However, the actual revenue earning business flowed only through certain restricted channels. It was as if, superimposed upon our homogeneous economic plain, a network of routes had been established through which business was exclusively constrained to flow. It was as if a labyrinth of family, social and old-school-tie relationships permeated the whole of free trade.
The first and most natural kind of relationship network is the family. This is as old as the human race. The family is the most basic and essential element of human society. In a truly egalitarian society, family relationships create and preserve order and structure. In a hierarchical society a small proportion of families win land by being the first come, through combat or by favour. The hierarchy quickly stabilises and becomes long lived. There thus becomes established a ruling class which develops skills of rulership which are passed on and enhanced from generation to generation. They quickly get to know how far they can exploit and oppress their common populous to keep it just below the threshold of insurrection. However, in the lottery of modern capitalism, blind chance and fickle fortune can suddenly catapult any Tom, Dick or Harry into a position of wealth and power. But in doing so, it equips him with neither a sense of equity nor the skills of rulership. His family becomes a formidable instrument of economic oppression and exclusion against outsiders. Once a family gets capital it becomes dangerous.
Nevertheless, it appears to me that there are in our modern capitalist society two kinds of families. Two philosophies. On the one side are the unbridled opportunists. These are those who make up royalty and aristocracy (who gained their wealth by conquest or inheritance), land owners, capitalists, and business proprietors. The latter includes those once lowly opportunists whom fortune catapulted to wealth and hence into the so-called middle class. All are highly nepotistic. Family members are a higher form of life from outsiders. On the other side are the moralists. These are those who seem to be cursed with a strong ingrained sense of universal fairness and equity. They live by their labour; be it physical, mental or both. They are thinkers. They strive to understand the world. They consider right from wrong. To them, nepotism is anathema. All human beings are equally precious. Capitalism, if they but knew the truth of it, is not for them.
The first kind form business networks which favour insiders and exclude outsiders. The second kind do not. Those few of the first kind on whom inheritance, good fortune and chance have shone are the rulers, exploiters and oppressors. The remainder of us are the ruled, exploited and oppressed. The nepotistic networks of these favoured families permeate the whole of the so-called free market. They funnel all business and exchange through themselves and their own. Nothing can happen without their percentage being taken. No outsider may gain from his own labour except by their leave.
Within a modern nation, no single family network is large enough to embrace the whole economy. To dominate the whole of a national economy, these family networks must establish an 'Internet'. They have to forge links between individual family networks. The environment which is perhaps the most conducive to the formation of such inter-family links is the upper class private school. Here, boys from different wealthy families board and learn together. By the time they go their separate ways in the outside world they share a long, strong common history. They truly know each other. Similarly, the young ladies of such families attend their secondary and finishing schools where they can do the same. All share a manner of speech and a way of life which is instantly recognisable by each other as uniquely belonging to their kind. This type of relationship is commonly known as the 'old school tie' because of the distinctive ties worn at such schools.
I have had a few fleeting encounters with members of this exclusive class. From them I have gathered that the way they maintain and strengthen their inter-family relationships is through a mechanism called the 'annual bash'. It seems that once a year or so, each member of this exclusive community throws an enormous party. It must cost a fortune. They invite everybody who is relevant. In their unbridled merriment they update and renew their relationships. And somewhere, among truck loads of mindless trivia, they exchange nuggets of valuable strategic business information. "I say, I hear you need a new computer system, what?" "Yes, any ideas?" "Nigel's the chap for that nowadays. He's just bought some outfit or other in Reading." "Oh, jolly good, I'll give him a bell!"
Against such an omnipotent and prohibitively expensive sales and marketing system, all others are shamed. Forget knocking on doors. Abandon mass mailshots and database marketing. Throw out your computerised contact management systems. Disband your telesales teams. Cancel your advertising. Do not even consider exhibitions. These will only pick up what is left. They will never get you through to those who matter - those with the power and the money. All these are merely tools for marketing to hoi polloi.
Feeling left out and powerless, the artisans fought back. Those of each trade formed themselves into a guild. Through their guild, they were able to pool their economic power. But these guilds began to diversify their memberships. Each soon reached a point at which its membership represented a large diversity of trades. Now they have become essentially exchanges for business information in a way similar to that of the upper class 'annual bash' - although never anywhere near as powerful or as exclusive. But they are exclusive nonetheless. Not anybody can become a member. One has to be invited to join. And to be a candidate for invitation, one has to be known by at least one established member of the guild concerned.
As guilds evolved further, they developed weird and secretive rituals. These served to bond members. They instilled a sense of mutual obligation. Members became brothers. Each, who by chance or fortune, found himself in a position to provide business would first offer it to a brother. A godly and virtuous act they thought. Notwithstanding, in a finite economy like ours, actively funnelling business towards one who is a 'brother' is necessarily actively funnelling it away from all who are not. The guilds, and the secret orders they have become, are economically and socially divisive. They favour some and ostracise others arbitrarily and unfairly - with regard for neither merit nor virtue. I sense that these have been a positive contributor to the fruitlessness of my efforts.
The ultimate difficulty for the outsider is that all the special relationships between members of these cliques and guilds is almost always invisible. Some appear deliberately to maintain a veil of secrecy. Whether one person got the job rather than another because of one of these special relationships is therefore always totally unprovable.
I have spent almost all the working hours of my 32 year career developing computer software. All, that is, apart from the 5 years I spent as a technical writer researching and writing about it. I have, for the most part single-handedly, expedited every stage in its creation. I have identified human tasks which computer software could perform or in which it could assist. I have specified all the data structures and procedures required to computerise such tasks. I have coded them. I have tested them. I have optimised and tuned them. I have marketed them. I have demonstrated them. I have sold them. I have implemented them on end-user systems. I have helped users to set up their business data. I have trained users. I have provided open-ended telephone support. Yet, since the advent of formal qualifications in this field, I am not allowed to refer to myself, or hold myself out to practice, as a computer software engineer.
This is because I do not have a degree in computer science and I am not a member of the British Computer Society. Being unemployed and existing on State welfare I simply cannot afford the cost of taking such a degree and I do not qualify to become a software engineer in the eyes of the British Computer Society. And since I am over the age of 50, there is no financial assistance from the State. In any case to take a degree in this field would teach me nothing, certainly not in the light of the intense leading-edge personal study which I have done over my 10 years of unemployment. Furthermore, to spend 3 years taking such a degree at this stage in my life and career would be boring, unbearable and soul-destroying.
The result is that I am barred from work at, and extending considerably below, my capability. In fact, I am in effect barred from all work within the IT industry. This is because one or more self-appointed exclusive professional cliques have engineered themselves into positions which empower them to decide who shall and who shall not be permitted to work in their industry. Their decisions are not based on the material reality of a person's knowledge, experience and achievements. They are based on pieces of paper which in my case are over 30 years old. There was no such thing as a computer science degree at the time I took my degree.
Such institutes do have certain associate or affiliate membership grades. Nevertheless I decline these for two reasons. Firstly, on State welfare, I cannot possibly afford the subscriptions. Secondly, they do not in any way reflect what I am. Consequently I refer to myself as a software artisan or developer rather than as an engineer. I think I am still allowed to do this. Notwithstanding, the state of not being a member of an appropriate professional body automatically and undeservedly brands me forever as a cowboy.
The wealthy and powerful family cliques I mentioned earlier do not like to expose their capital to risk. They do not want to lose it. They want to keep it secure. On the other hand, the more lucrative ventures are usually the more risky. Their solution is therefore surreptitiously to off-load as much of the risk as possible on to others. Preferably on to unwitting hoi polloi rather than on to others of their own kind. The need for a means for reducing capital risk was first realised during the vast expansion of British world trade at the beginning of the 19th century. Many gained fortunes. Others lost all. The solution was the
limited liability company. A wealthy individual could then invest a small part of his capital in a risky venture without the risk of creditors being able to claim the rest of his personal fortune if the venture went badly wrong. As a result, today these wealthy elite trade exclusively through these faceless corporate entities which insulate them from the raging tempest we call the free market.
Common man is constantly fed with an image of an economy in which companies of all sizes are locked into constant competition for his custom. But the owners and directors of the larger companies - the ones which matter - invariably are members of that same wealthy elite who meet, socialise and talk at the 'annual bash'. They are the same bunch of jolly good chaps who all scratch each other's backs and help each other out in their common endeavour of exploiting the deluded masses. There is no getting away from the fact that they constitute an exclusive clique. Consequently and inescapably, therefore, the corporate entities through which they trade are a cartel. There is nothing on paper. There is no tangible evidence to prove it. Nevertheless, the statistical behaviour of the market towards any unaffiliated individual strongly and inexorably suggests it.
Apart from the power to capture the market by mass advertising and corporate image, the clique has a further way of excluding the outsider from his market share. This is the
proprietary qualification. Once a corporate has gained a dominant share of its market, it is able to dictate that only approved outsiders are qualified to operate and maintain its products. To obtain such a proprietary qualification, an independent artisan has to pay. He also has to meet whatever criteria the dominant corporate arbitrarily decides to impose. In other words. The dominant corporate lays down the conditions under which he will or will not be allowed to practice. Though this may carry no legal force, it is invariably every bit as effective, often more so. Proprietary qualifications have thus closed the door to my getting the kind of self-employed work I did for over 15 years.
This elite clique of rich individuals thus now own the market in exactly the same way as their forebears owned the land. The Companies Acts enabled them to commandeer the free market in the same way as the Enclosures Act gave their forebears the mandate to commandeer the land. In both cases, common man almost instantly became deprived of his free and fair share of the natural means of turning his labour into his needs of life. The lone artisan with no elite family connections is thus securely locked out from any share in the only market for his hard earned skills.
In a purported bid to exorcise the industry of the cowboy operator, the State inevitably finds it necessary to interfere. This recently took the form of a standard for service provision called BS5750. This was later transmuted into an international standard ISO9000.
Having been on a large number of contact databases over many years, my former business was invited to apply for approval under these standards. The literature required the candidate organisation to draft out written procedures which departments and employees would expedite to ensure that output was to a satisfactory quality. They recommended 'consultants' to help with or supervise the drafting. These were normally self-declared 'consultants' who were otherwise unvetted. My impression was for the most part that it was a 'jobs for the lads' situation. The BS5750 documents which resulted usually contained generalised highly subjective statements about what the company concerned would 'endeavour' to do to ensure that its products and services were of a bone fide quality and standard.
Since I was the only productive worker in my business I saw the BS5750 standard as irrelevant. I did not need to write admonitions to myself about working to acceptable standards. I did that anyway. My motive was interest in my work and the desire to maintain a good reputation. Nevertheless, I was told that I ought to produce a BS5750 document and become 'approved'. What I had to do was simply produce a document containing a statement of my intent to work to an acceptable standard. It seemed to me to be tantamount to providing myself with an open reference. Like witnessing my own signature. In fact, the whole thing - irrespective of the size of the business to which it was applied - seemed to be exactly that. It was nothing short of brazenly vouching for one's own honesty, except that because it was done through an official instrument, the market at large would somehow be hoodwinked into seeing it as credible.
Having been thus approved, the business - large or small - could put a little flash on its headed stationery to the effect that it was an 'officially approved' supplier or provider. To me it stank of bullshit. I could not bring myself to go along with something which seemed so false. Another such self-approval scheme which came later was called 'Tick IT'. This too sported a catchy little flash on ones headed stationery which shouted 'bone fide', 'officially approved' 'reliable', 'dependable', 'quality'. But again the hapless punter never had sight of any tangible form of assurance or regulation which may or may not have been behind it. To my mind they are all practically meaningless.
A different kind of State imposition which came in during the zenith years of my former businesses was the requirement to register with an official registrar if you did this or that kind of business. I did work for a certain client. The client had more work than I could handle myself. He asked me if I knew anybody else who I could employ on the project to speed the project. I found two people. We were all home based. Later, the same client asked if I could find the right kind of person to work on another project and suggested that to keep things conveniently coming from a single source and bolster my business I could hire the new person and subcontract him out to the client. This I did. Later, others were taken on board. The work often involved us individually travelling to various parts of Europe. We would visit foreign companies to gather information and then return to the UK. Unpredictably, it would be necessary for some of my people to work on the client's or even the client's client's premises for a sustained period. This was operationally no problem.
Then along came a package of silly legislation. This decreed that anyone subcontracted by me who was working on a client's premises under the client's supervision caused me to be deemed an employment agency. But I was not an employment agency. I did not advertise. I did not subcontract people outside my own personal domain of technical expertise. I was a simple prime contractor subcontracting effort to my client.
Whether a subcontractor of mine was working under the client's supervision or merely working as an information gatherer under his own initiative was more of a philosophical conundrum than an administrative construct. The demarcation between the two was not definable. However, the penalty for violating the legislation was severe and the fee for registering as an agency was uncomfortably high. At least it was on the established margins on which I was operating. Employment agencies who supplied contract staff to my client made some rather pointed comments about my operation, although none of them was remotely equipped to do what I was successfully carrying out for the client. The area of the law was so grey and the atmosphere so tense that when that client shut down its UK operation I decided to get out of that business and not pursue it further.
The other piece of hob nailed legislation which made my life very uncomfortable was the
data protection act. This required that anybody who kept personal data like names and addresses on a computer had to register with the data protection registrar. This was relaxed to include only personal data which was in databases capable of selecting personal data according to criteria such as geographic region or subjects of interest. Since practically all databases are capable of doing this it essentially changed nothing.
It meant that everybody who had so much as a Christmas card list held on a selective database engine had to pay the fat registration fee to the registrar and be recorded as a data keeper. All that is, except those from whom the individual really needs protection, namely the instruments of the State. Again there are penalties for non registration if you are liable to register. At one time I was given to understand that you could even have your equipment confiscated. Nevertheless, the fee has always been beyond my meagre means. It was obviously pitched at reasonably sized companies. Therefore, officially, I have no client information. Nor do I have any contact details for relevant people within prospective employer organisations for the purpose of finding work. How I manage I don't know. The data protection act is thus yet another means through which those in power restrict who may practice and trade within the free market.
Though I wouldn't change it for the world, my family's traditional ethos is not conducive to faring well in an unbridled capitalist free market. Even less so now than it was in my formative years. My generation had universal education. My children's generation does not. Their tertiary education would have to be paid for. Grants for the underprivileged would never allow them to function as their privately funded peers.
The capitalist free market is not a simple flat plain with a pool of employees on the one side flowing smoothly across to fill a steady procession of jobs benevolently provided by a fair and ordered economic system of employers on the other. On the contrary, it is a putrid convolution of social and economic cells, cliques and hierarchies which are sustained and perpetuated by an elite who hide behind their faceless limited liability corporations which protect them from the very tempests they themselves stir up in the free market ocean, and on whose fury the rest of mankind must ride. The free market is an elite domain. It is their sovereign possession. To them alone it yields its riches. As for me, as indeed for all hoi polloi, there is a wall of iron barring my way to its bounty.
The weapon by which the artisans of old tried to fight back has become a shadow of that which it sought to dislodge. The artisanic guilds have themselves become secret and exclusive cliques which are both economically and socially divisive. They favour their own and ostracise others arbitrarily and unfairly. They have regard for neither merit nor virtue. Though less secretive, professional institutes do much the same. They exclude according to criteria which are far from necessary and sufficient to determine an individual's non-qualification to practice. I am convinced that these have been a positive contributor to the fruitlessness of my efforts to get work for which I am suited.
The artisanic guilds and the professional institutes do command some small amount of power and control over the free market. At least, in the domain of professional and skilled labour. This must be a thorn in the corporate side. The corporate masters of the free market would, where possible, endeavour to neutralise that power and take it for themselves. Through the instrument of proprietary qualification, they are increasingly succeeding. This allows corporate interest to determine who is and who is not qualified to practice in their market. It thus further renders the market even more exclusive, their conditions and charges closing the door on many with a whole lifetime of knowledge and experience in the field.
Finally the State, probably in a context of bundling ignorance, seeks to 'protect' the consumer by establishing standards. But these are nothing more than words on paper. Self-recommendations. Bullshit. Costly ministrations which achieve no good, yet dispense much ill by excluding from the marketplace those otherwise good providers who have neither the money nor the resources to humour the legislators.
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©May 1998 Robert John Morton