Business: always the villain, never the hero

The idea that private profit is inherently evil, and the public sector inherently virtuous, is a myth perpetuated by much of British literature from Dickens right up to the present day

When I was at university, I did a course called Business Literature and Society, taught by the rather marvellous Neil McKendrick, later the Master of Gonville and Caius College.

The idea was to look at how business and industry were portrayed in British literature. It was rather depressing. We looked George Orwell's horror of business and money in general. He hated poverty (it "kills thought"), but he didn't fancy money or capitalism much either ("the advance of machine technology must lead ultimately to form of collectivisation").

We looked at EM Forster and the horror of technology-led progress he displays in The Machine Stops, as well as the ambiguity towards progress shown in Howards End. Think of quotes such as "the real thing is money and all the rest's a dream", or "humans heard each other speak with increasing difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky".

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Then there was DH Lawrence who raged against even Forster's portrayal of business ("you did make a nearly deadly mistake in glorifying those business people in Howards End"). and made his own views as a certain an unwavering critic of industry pretty clear in Lady Chatterley's Lover.

We looked, too, at Dickens, with his endless antagonism to the Victorian age and vision of money, commerce and industry threatening personal relationships.

Then we moved on a bit and read David Lodge (Changing Places, Nice Work) and Margaret Drabble, who worried endlessly about moral exhaustion in industrial society (a "huge icy fist... that is squeezing and chilling the people of England").

Flick through all this literature and much more modern and you will see that as a rule we haven't much good to say about businessmen, capitalism or even entrepreneurs, for that matter.

This all popped back into my mind this week when I was reading Janet Daley in the Telegraph. The column in question is here. In it, Daley rages against the idea that public institutions should be allowed to operate with an "aura of sanctity" around them "almost as if being employed by an outfit that is funded by state subsidy means that you aren't doing it for payment, that idealism and devotion to your vocation are somehow a substitution for renumeration." The public sector is, therefore, "inherently virtuous".

This is, of course, nonsense. Yet as an idea it increasingly runs parallel to the idea that "private enterprise, and specifically profit, are necessarily evil". Where does this extraordinary notion come from? asks Daley.

It is hard to put your finger on the very beginning (the defensive snobbery of the landed gentry during the industrial revolution is probably a good place to start) but what might help, just for once, would be a few popular books with a successful businessman as the hero. not the villain.

PS I am not so familiar with American literature, but this looks interesting. More on the businessman in UK literature here.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.