The shallow socialism of hating Michael O’Leary
As evidenced in a new collection of his ‘wit and wisdom’, the cocky Ryanair boss both embarrasses his fellow capitalists and annoys the hell out of anti-capitalists.
‘For years flying has been the preserve of rich fuckers. Now everyone can afford to fly.’ At a time when capitalists have had every drop of character wrung out of them by being forced to learn managementspeak and to rebrand themselves as ‘socially responsible’ in order not to upset the likes of Naomi Klein, Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, sticks out like a turd in a punch bowl. Or like a pope on a Ryanair flight. (O’Leary dressed up as the pope to preach about the wondrousness of low air fares on Ryanair’s first flight from Dublin to Rome.)
In recent decades CEOs around the world have been forced to wash their gobs out with the soap of corporate responsibility, giving rise to a generation of fat capitalist bosses who are not fat, not openly capitalistic, and not particularly bossy. Yet O’Leary, as evidenced in this new collection of his ‘wit and wisdom’, talks openly about wanting to make as much moolah as possible as quickly as possible. ‘If the drink sales are falling off, we get the pilots to engineer a bit of air turbulence. That usually spikes up the drink sales’, he says. And that’s the thing with leery O’Leary – you don’t know if he’s joking or not.
I feel torn about O’Leary, not knowing whether to like him or loathe him, mainly because I’m a Marxist. But – and this is absolutely true – I first felt the tingling of Marxist thought in the nerve endings of my brain while on one of those vomit-inducing, wailing-baby-packed ferry crossings between Britain and Ireland. I was 18 and sailing from Dublin to Holyhead, devouring Lenin’s State and Revolution in one of the ship’s corridors (because it was the only place on the godforsaken vessel where there wasn’t a drunk person singing ‘The Fields of Athenrye’) in preparation for a discussion about the book back in London. ‘The working class must break up, smash the “readymade state machinery”, and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it’, Lenin said, making me wish the ship would hurry up so that I could get back to London and start rousing for a revolution.
Yet now, courtesy of O’Leary’s exploitation of airline workers, I can get to Ireland, puke-free and feeling fresh, in two hours rather than twenty and for a tenner (if I’m lucky) rather than £100. As O’Leary himself says: ‘The alternative to progress is Thomas Hardy’s Wessex: horse-drawn carts, people living below the poverty line, and only the very rich going on Italian tours. Now we make it possible for everybody to go on Italian tours.’ What’s a modern Marxist to do?
It’s easy to see why O’Leary, who since 1985 has turned Ryanair from a tiny Irish airline with one plane flying between Gatwick and Waterford into the largest airline in Europe, winds people up. He irritates his fellow capitalists because he refuses to follow the PC rules of the new Caring Capitalism and thus exists as a constant reminder (a constant reminder known to dress as Santa for press conferences) of what capitalists are primarily motivated by: maximising profit. And he annoys the hell out of what passes for radical anti-capitalists these days because he refuses to play their game: to be meek, to apologise for making money, to make ads featuring black kids and white kids running through deserts to a soundtrack of Kiri Te Kanawa (he prefers ads featuring sexy women dressed as schoolgirls under the banner ‘HOTTEST back-to-school air fares’).
What other CEO could have a collection of his quotations published? O’Leary is un-PC. ‘Germans will crawl bollock-naked over broken glass to get low fares’, he says. He’s confrontational. On greens he says: ‘We want to annoy the fuckers whenever we can. The best thing to do with environmentalists is shoot them.’ He’s unapologetic. On Ryanair’s ‘No Refund’ policy, he has said: ‘You are not getting a refund so fuck off.’ And: ‘We are not interested in your sob stories.’ And: ‘People will say, “As the Founding Fathers wrote down in the American Constitution, we have the inalienable right to bear arms and send in our complaints by email.” No you bloody don’t. So go away.’ And: ‘We don’t fall over ourselves if you say “My granny fell ill”. What part of “No Refund” don’t you understand?’
Unlike Lord Alan Sugar, he doesn’t cosy up to politicians. ‘If I were David Cameron I would stop competing over who is better at riding a bicycle and call for a serious debate on the next generation of nuclear power stations. Sticking a windmill on top of your house is not the answer.’ He hates the EU oligarchy. ‘Sometimes it’s good to show Brussels the two fingers’, he has said. ‘Yes I have read the Lisbon Treaty. It’s a fucking pain-in-the-arse document. I nearly died of boredom’, he said in the run-up to the first Irish referendum on Lisbon in 2008, before telling Irish voters that they should say ‘Yes’ to it anyway because that would be in his – ie, a European-based capitalist’s – interests. In a recent newspaper interview he said: ‘I’m disrespectful towards what is perceived to be authority. Like, I think the prime minister of Ireland is a gobshite.’
He saves his hottest ire for environmentalists. There is not a businessman on Earth (well, none that I know of) who isn’t currently bending over backwards to appease his green critics by drafting emission-reduction strategies etczzz – except, that is, O’Leary. ‘The BBC runs green week, ITV runs greener week, Sky runs even greener week, Channel 4 runs even bloody greener week, and each time they use a picture of aircraft taking off’, he complains (quite accurately as it happens). When the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, said in 2006 that flying is a sin, O’Leary accused the man of God of spouting the ‘usual cliched horseshit that he obviously heard at some dinner party with the chatterati’. Most eco-criminally of all, O’Leary has said: ‘The fact that our tea and coffee supplier is a Fairtrade brand is a welcome bonus, but the decision was based on lowering costs. We’d change to a non-Fairtrade brand in the morning if it was cheaper.’ And his vision for the future? ‘Let’s go nuclear… and then watch the eco-nuts go crazy.’
O’Leary’s verbal assaults on the sandal-wearing brigade (as he refers to them) captures why he is so hated, why some greens and anti-capitalists are more agitated by his capitalist company than by almost any other (apart, of course, from BP). Ours is an age of capitalism-in-denial, when capitalists are encouraged to present themselves as ethical actors rather than profit-makers and to hold back from doing too much R&D in case it leads to the further dirtying of the planet by mankind’s greedy, grubby hand. Indeed, there has been a wacky meeting of minds between capitalists and anti-capitalists in recent years, as both have reoriented themselves around the project of Making Capitalism Nicer – the bosses by investing billions into corporate social responsibility projects, and their critics by staging carnivalesque protests whose main demand can be summed up as: ‘You need to be even more corporately socially responsible and stuff!’ This bizarre political union between the fat cats and the skinny anti-caps is best captured by the fact that, in the words of Reason magazine, Naomi Klein’s anti-capitalist bible No Logo has ‘inadvertently served as the most influential marketing manual of the decade’, as big companies have incorporated its anti-branding, pro-caring message into the big consensual mission to make capitalism less fat, ugly and cocky.
And the problem with O’Leary – ‘jumped-up Paddy’ that he is (his words) – is that he’s pissing on the parade. His refusal to bend the knee to the social and responsible and green agendas serves to remind us that, actually, capitalism is still about exploitation, division, conflict. Asked how he keeps his staff motivated and happy, he said: ‘Fear.’ He doesn’t play the ‘I love my staff’ game played by other bosses (who then think nothing of sacking people), instead saying: ‘MBA students come out with, “My staff is my most important asset.” Bullshit. Staff is usually your biggest cost.’ He reminds us that the relationship between state regulation and capitalist enterprise is still often a fraught one. On the European Commission’s introduction of new rules in relation to low-fare airlines, he said: ‘There are fucking Kim Il-Jungs in the Commission. You cannot have civil servants trying to design rules that make everything a level playing field. That’s called North fucking Korea and everybody is starving there.’ And his loudmouthness reminds us that capitalists are more than happy to fuck (to use O’Learyspeak) the workers when they need to: ‘I don’t give a damn about labour laws in France. We’ll break the laws in France if that’s what needs to be done.’
With his unguarded utterances, O’Leary reveals that capitalism is not – and never will be – a hunky-dory arena in which floppy-haired bosses and their ping-pong-playing workforce gather together to make the world a better place. Instead there’s tension, there’s competition, there’s self-interest, there’s fear, there’s conflict, there’s angst. The capitalists hate him for this because he is giving voice to the kind of deep-seated issues that they have worked hard to rebrand. And because – with his undoubted impact of changing many people’s lives for the better by opening up virtually the whole of Europe to the less well-off – he reminds today’s undynamic, conservative, regulation-inviting capitalists what their class used to do as a byproduct of their drive to maximise profits: break down barriers and drive the economy and society into new areas. And the ‘anti-capitalists’ hate O’Leary’s outspokenness because for them – obsessed as they are with the surface of capitalism rather than its inner workings and relations – there is nothing worse than an arrogant, foul-mouthed, money-making man. Indeed, the anti-O’Leary outlook in radical circles captures how shallow contemporary anti-capitalism is. Today’s rads are less concerned with the exploitation of workers and the hampering of human progress than they are with the logos and wording and cockiness levels of contemporary capitalism. Which is why they hate Ryanair but love Whole Foods.
Indeed, such is the backward-looking nature of ‘anti-capitalism’ today that O’Leary, simply by being an anti-green blusterer and wind-up merchant of epic proportions, can come across as more progressive than his anti-capitalist critics. Where they want to ground flights, or at least make them more expensive in order to make them less frequent and thus help ‘save the planet’, O’Leary says: ‘[In the past], nobody moved more than three miles from where they were born. Young people now want to go to Ibiza on bonking holidays. Let them. Ask them in downtown Afghanistan if they would like the M25 and they would bite your hand off.’ At the very least, the rise of Ryanair has allowed me and millions of others to get off those bloody ferries and into the skies, which gives us far more free time to do other things – even to continue reading Lenin and to dream of that revolution.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
Plane Speaking: The Wit and Wisdom of Michael O’Leary, by Paul Kilduff, is published by Aurum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)