Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Ian Martin: Fracketeering - how capitalism is power-hosing the last drops of value out of us all
Once you’ve mined the earth and milked the service industries, what is there left to frack? Us, that’s what – with everything from admin charges and estate agent fees to blockbuster premiums and ‘cakeage’
Fracking. Could there be a more perfect model for how we’re getting rinsed by this current conspiracy of government and commerce? In a world turned upside down, “conservative” now means the absolute opposite of “leaving things as they are”. Conservative means changing everything. It means dismantling things and selling off the bits. It means drilling into our lives and extracting the marrow.
Conservatism and conservation are now about as far apart as it’s possible to get. Friends of Conservation are the ones protecting the countryside. The ones who stand around self-consciously in terrible fancy dress, holding passive-aggressive placards in praise of the noble, selfless badger. Or basically any mammal that looks good in a waistcoat.
Friends of Conservatism, on the other hand, are the ones who roll up on heavy machinery like a pissed Ukrainian militia. The ones who drill deep beneath that area of local countryside whose only “use” so far has been as a picnic site. And who then pump into the ground powerful jets of high-pressure hydrogunk, splintering rock as easily as a walnut. And who, having sucked up a sky’s worth of valuable gas through a massive crack pipe, then pack up and lumber off to fracture and steal someone else’s underground treasure.
Welcome to capitalism’s late late show. If you can power-hose the last drop of value out of something, you now have an amoral imperative to do it. Fracking is the chief inspiration for today’s entrepreneurs, those “heroic wealth creators” so admired by Andy Pandery Burnham and half the Labour party. Everything is up for grabs now. The age of the racketeer is over. It’s all about fracketeering now.
Here is a recent example. A gang of London estate agents has invented something called a “client progression fee”. Yeah, ha ha, the cheeky peaky blinders are leeching an extra grand and a half out of buyers just for accepting their offer on a property. Imagine that. Charging people for agreeing to sell them something. Arbitrarily monetising something that customers are obliged to do anyway.
It’s almost as if the property industry is a pirate economy serviced by unscrupulous thieving bastards drenched in melancholy duty-free fragrances. Let’s face it, estate agents have pretty much perfected the art of taking the piss with a straight face. One former estate agent told me the other day he was always instructed to make admin fees “whatever you think you can get away with … go high, then drop as a favour”. Classic surcharge frackery.
I had decided that of all the agents – sports, double, biological – estate agents were definitely the worst. Then I asked people on Twitter how they had been fracked over lately and they reminded me about letting agents. And about how every single person I’ve ever known who has had any dealings with a letting agent has had to recalibrate their view of the human race as a result. Has anyone ever got their exorbitant deposit back in full without an exhausting argument pointing out that three years of normal wear and tear can’t be classed as catastrophic damage? I’ve been hearing about people being charged a £90-per-person “reference fee” when moving between two properties run by the same agent, “so that’s £180 to ask themselves how we were as tenants”. Or being charged £50 for printing six pages of a rental contract. “I asked them to email it so I could print it. They said no.”
The world of fracketeering is infinitely flexible and contradictory. Buy tickets online and you could be charged an admin fee for an attachment that requires you to print them at home. The original online booking fee – you’ve come this far in the buying process, hand over an extra 12 quid now or write off the previous 20 minutes of your life – has mutated into exotic versions of itself.
The confirmation fee. The convenience fee. Someone who bought tickets for a tennis event at the O2 sent me this pithy tweet: “4 tickets. 4 Facility Fees + 4 Service Charge + 1 Standard Mail £2.75 = 15% of overall £!”. Definitely a grand slam.
It’s amazing to think of a world that existed before the admin charge. It almost makes you nostalgic for a simpler and more innocent time, when racketeers would work out what it was we wanted and then supply it at an inflated price. You remember racketeers. Snappy dressers, little moustaches, connections to organised crime. Some of them did very well and went on to become successful publishers or peers of the realm. Quite a few old-school racketeers went into the “hospitality and leisure” business, where these days fracking is in full effect.
Restaurants charging “cakeage” fees of up to £9 a person if diners want to bring their own birthday cake. A “blockbuster” surcharge on cinema tickets for popular films. The “tray charge” on a room service dinner that already costs as much as the room. And a particular favourite of mine – any hotel that charges for internet access, as if WiFi were some fancy extra like a massage chair, or clown therapy. “Congratulations, you may now surf the world wide web,” says the drop-down box from 1996. It might as well add: “We would ask that you keep your visit to the internet as brief as possible as reception may require the telephone line for incoming calls.”
The problem for fracking capitalism is finding new territory. It is an immutable law of economics that the rich have to keep getting richer, otherwise the whole system collapses and then what happens? Nobody knows, but the rich drop hints from time to time that if their margins are eroded we might all find ourselves in some Riddley Walker dystopia where humans have to hunt food again and keep wild dogs at bay and it’s raining all the time and people tell wistful stories about the old days when there were ships in the sky and pictures on the wind, so to stop this happening keep making us richer.
But once you’ve mined the earth and milked the service industries, what is there left to frack? Us, that’s what. Heard of Kwasi Kwarteng? He’s a rising star in the Tory party. Always a danger signal, this. To qualify as a rising star in this context you have to make Judge Dredd look like the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Kwarteng’s suggestion, which has gone down very well with literally everyone I hate, is that a young person who hasn’t got a job and therefore hasn’t paid any national insurance contributions should get their unemployment benefit in the form of a repayable loan. Even if someone was out of work for the entire seven years between 18 and 25, he says, “the total sum repayable would be £20,475 – considerably less than the tuition fees loan repayable by many of his or her peers”. The clincher, there. You might be unemployed, but think yourself lucky you’re not going to university.
Redefining citizens as frackable units is precisely where all this current terrifying unpleasantness with the NHS is leading. Once you apply the laws of fracketeering to the NHS it’s a short step from monetising cataract operations to privatising them. Procedures that are highly profitable for shareholders, however, may be out of reach for the poor. Perhaps we can come to some arrangement. You owe us for restoring your eyesight, but you can’t seriously expect to seeand get a full state pension …
Nearly everyone had an NHS dentist once. God, it’s been years since you were in with a shout for one. What did they look like, can anyone remember? I’ve got this image of a Victorian gentleman, top hat and cape. Nowadays the poor just put up with bad teeth. It’s the same with physio. GPs round my way now simply advise you to book privately to avoid a months-long waiting list, but even a short course of sessions costs over a ton. It might as well be a grand if you’re on a tight family budget.
I’ve been getting free prescriptions for years. Of course I’m incredibly grateful. The meds are keeping me going. Indeed, they’ve kept me going for longer than was originally anticipated. I’ve paid in all my life; now I’m being looked after. It was always taken for granted, this arrangement. NHS. Free for all, paid for by everyone, from each according to their means to each according to their needs, let’s have a knees-up, God bless us all, boom bang-a-wap diddly bosh. But I can’t be the only one on regular meds thinking, “how much would they cost me without an NHS?” and Googling the market price.
I don’t want to sound overdramatic but fracketeers are faceless evil wizards and algorithms are their flying monkeys, dispatched from the anonymous castles of corporate service providers. You can’t tell me the people frackers aren’t looking at the meds people are on, too. And wondering how quickly the UK can be shunted into an American reality, where “unpaid medical bills” is now the number one cause of bankruptcy.
We are already living in a capitalist sci-fi horror story, where masters of the universe are trading stuff that doesn’t even exist yet. Future grain harvests in Canada, milk yields in Wisconsin, next year’s batch of Japanese whisky. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange has a wide variety of “weather derivatives” available for trade if you’re interested including “temperature ranges, snowfall amounts and frost”. If fracketeers can think it, they can monetise it. There are no moral boundaries. The only limit to fracketeering is imagination.
For all I know, there’s a cabal of trillionaires sitting in a Jacobean library somewhere discussing how they might trade futures in trading futures. Or trying to fix the odds on farmed stem cells, or fat-burning nebulisers. Whatever’s round the corner, though, you can be sure humanity will be the harvest. People are the basic material of an economic world. Of course the frackers will drill into us.
Aspects of our physical existence will be divided as spoils. One day there will be a giant respiratory multinational that will own all new lungs. Babies will be born with their pulmonary systems on a lifetime leasehold. When they grow up they’ll face severe penalties for breathing polluted air. The manufacturers of cigarettes and vaping devices aren’t going to like that much, so maybe it’s Big Tobacco that sees where the future’s going and cleverly snaps up all the lungs in advance.
Sex, sunshine, sleep, singing. The best things in life are currently free. We’d better make the most of them, because in a frackable future they’ll all be metered and chargeable. Libido International or whoever would be alerted to any sexual activity via, I don’t know, some sort of monitored hormonal “thinkernet” and would shut it down after 60 seconds unless you authorised a debit or had a prepaid sex account.
Maybe people will be fitted with retinal paywalls to allow in sunshine, which will be owned by a solar consortium based somewhere tax-efficient and warm. Sleep would be traded on the international sleep exchange – imagine the premium new parents would pay for an hour of ultra-deep oblivion. And all human singing would be automatically Shazammed to a central licensing bureau for billing, the days of “out of copyright” having long gone. Everything out of copyright will be automatically the copyright of Singinc, who own “trad” and “anon” now, too. And your vocal cords.
In the future it will probably be best to stay celibate, in the dark, awake for as long as possible and quiet. So let’s live a little now, before we’re all fracked.