Richard Branson at Virgin Airline event, May 2010. Photo: D@LY3D via flickr Richard Branson at Virgin Airline event, May 2010. Photo: D@LY3D via flickr

Richard Branson tries to be a poster boy for capitalism’s supposed humanity but in truth he respresents its worst depravity, argues Morgan Daniels

Tiresome billionaire Richard Branson has been in the news a lot recently. It was reported at the weekend that, in light of the drastic decrease in international travel caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Peter Norris, chairman of Branson’s Virgin Group, would be asking the government to inject some £7.5 billion into the UK’s airline industry. On Tuesday, meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic told 8,500 staff to take eight weeks of unpaid leave to help offset the costs of an 80% reduction in flights from 26 March.

What does Branson’s response to the present crisis tell us about the sort of world we might like to live in?

Over the years Richard Branson has succeeded in projecting himself as a capitalist with ‘cool’. His anti-establishment credentials are impeccable: he made his first millions in the 1970s as co-founder of Virgin Records, a label that signed the Sex Pistols. Branson has always shown himself to be a great sport, taking on cameo roles in films and TV series such as Casino Royale and Friends. He was also a vocal opponent of the Iraq War in 2003 (Virgin Atlantic was quick to fly medical aid to Basra after the end of major hostilities).  

Branson outlined his caring, philanthropic philosophy in a 2011 book, Screw Business as Usual. ‘I truly believe capitalism was created to help people live better lives,’ he wrote, ‘but sadly over the years it has lost its way a bit. The short-term focus on profit has driven most businesses to forget about the important long-term role they have in taking care of people and the planet.’ For Branson, the dynamic entepeuralism encouraged by market competition can bring great progressive change to the world. 

The coronavirus crisis has rapidly exploded the lie that the market might be harnessed for the greater, greener good. The wasteful logic of capitalism was laid bare by the revelation that Virgin Atlantic has recently been chartering near-empty flights: EU law dictates that airline companies must ‘use or lose’ their prime take-off and landing slots at least 80% of the time.      

So much for taking care of the planet.  

If Richard Branson is responsible for needlessly burning thousands of fossil fuels as part of a macho game of airline musical chairs, he has also caused considerable damage to the NHS. As our hospitals struggle in the months ahead, let us remember than in 2018 alone, Virgin Care won £1 billion worth of NHS contracts. That same year, Virgin successfully sued the NHS for £2 million after it lost out on a 2016 contract for providing childcare in Surrey.

So much for taking care of people.

Life and death

The coronavirus pandemic represents such a profound social crisis precisely because it is taking place under capitalism. A system predicated on private profit is by its very definition unfit to meet the needs of millions of sick and vulnerable people, especially at short notice. And the major disruption caused to global markets, to business as usual, will only create millions more sick and vulnerable people, as jobs are lost and prices soar.

An alternative would be a society in which goods were produced according to the needs of the many, rather than the profits of a select few. During a time of crisis, such a society — we might call it a socialist society — could respond undeterred by greedy insurance companies or fluctuations in stocks and shares. There would certainly be no need to rent private hospital beds for £2.4 million a day.

Richard Branson is having none of it. If you had to point to one country where socialism has worked, I don’t think you can find one,’ he told an audience of capitalists in Abu Dhabi last year. ‘Take Venezuela – it has resulted in a bankrupt country or worse. And in the UK, when governments ran everything, it really didn’t work that well.’ 

Yet the recent actions of Branson’s Virgin Atlantic — depriving thousands of workers of their livelihood during a pandemic, then begging for a handout — ought to put pay to the idea of a ‘progressive’ capitalism with the answer to society’s problems. And as governments in Spain, Italy, and Turkey turn to nationalisation to deal with an ever-deepening crisis, it is becoming clear that socialism is not just a nice idea, but a matter of life and death.

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