Why has the corona virus pandemic been so devastating for the UK? The brutal indicators of excess deaths per 1000 have shown the UK to be a major disaster zone from the point of view of public health. The economic consequences are even worse from an orthodox growth-oriented viewpoint. As I have said already in this series it is the way the government has set out its policy as a balancing act between health and the economy that have been the sign and cause of its ineffectiveness. The attacks on the public health system were central to the austerity programme of the 2010 coalition government so a whole decade has been spent grinding down the resilience of our communities. Does the government’s incompetence coupled with its corruption mean that the UK regime is any less stable than others? What is the underlying situation? Can ecological thinking help to distinguish between superficial and profound instabilities in our political structures.
In the USA, of which the UK is a client state, the current crisis is centred on the response of a population to the loss of industrially productive infrastructure. Exacerbated by the increased distribution of wealth and income towards the wealthy during the recovery from the 2008-9 crash, immiseration of large sectors of the middle class, casualisation of work, outsourcing of production processes have created a massive reaction of disillusionment, resentment and hatred of the central government. So far this has been captured by the right. Racism and ‘masculinism’ have been the immediate forms of expression. The long-term devastation of the industrial heartland of the UK which began much earlier than in the US, during the Thatcher government of 1979 onwards, has had similar impacts. The dramatic consequences of deindustrialisation are seen in a raw form in these two interlinked countries and it is manifesting itself as a betrayal of the poor white male by their ruling elite compatriots. This sector was bound by privilege, race and gender to ruling elites who now appear to have abandoned them. In order to understand this unravelling it is helpful to look at the coalescence of factors that led to the early development of industrialism here. The story of the rapid development of US industrial capitalism after the 1776 is well told in Trade Wars are Class Wars: How Rising Inequality Distorts the Global Economy and Threatens International Peace by Matthew C. Klein and Michael Pettis. Essentially these two processes were dynamically linked but that is a larger story.
The initial development of markets dominated by money at a critical scale took place in the mediterranean area in the 14th century and were centred on the mercantile centres of Genoa and Venice. This network had eventually taken over from the Greek and the Pheonician trading ‘empires’. The sheer volume and variety of goods, the way in which the merchant ships were the key focus for entrepreneurial investment, called for a stable means of circulating , measuring and storing value. I’m not saying this was the origin of money simply that it was at this point that money was operationalised at a level that created previously unseen forms of capital and banking. It became systemically significant. The obvious question arises: why did industrial capitalism start so much further north?
Twenty years ago Philip Parker published a book called Physioeconomics, the basis for long run economic growth. In it he relates climatic conditions to productive development. Because he looks primarily at human need he describes causes of development as being associated with homeostasis. This is the tendency for human beings to require their body temperature, whether they live in the hot tropics or the frozen north, to be stable. I don’t want to simplify his argument but he attributes this interaction between human beings and the immediate average circumambient temperature to be a crucial determinant of how the productive infrastructure is developed. Recently the study of bio-regionalism has developed and become more influential. Focused on the specific interaction between human populations and the immediate ecological circumstances of a given terrain it has given us a redrawn map of the earth cutting across nation-state boundaries. It has enhanced understanding of how human beings like other species, depend for their material existence on environmental resources and have an adaptive relationship to their habitat. It is in this way that a population or a species will reach a carrying capacity determined by available assets. Interactions at a micro-level are related to those at a macro-level. In broad terms this makes the history of human beings a part of natural history.
Physioeconomics and bioregionalism help us to understand our situation. Due to industrialism and imperialism human societies have transcended their immediate local supplies of environmental goods. The inventive use of input-output modelling has given us a sense of this extension of impacts in the composition of carbon-footprinting. Imperialism has exported the inequalities created by capitalist development thus extending their exploitation through trade. The colonised countries were (and are) sources of raw material for the industrial centres. The costs, for the owners of capital, of raw material (natural resources, nature, or land) and labour (the production of labour power, reproduction) could be massively reduced by imperialist trade. This did not simply consist of cotton or wood or oil but of human labour power that was apparently free of any costs of production. This latter was the basis of the slave trade. At the early stage the enslaved people were transported to where the productive infrastructure could consume their labour. In the second wave of imperialism, globalisation, it was the productive infrastructure that was transported to where the production cost of labour power was lowest. By the second half of the twentieth century, on the basis of accumulated capital infrastructure and due to political imperatives, the high wage economies of the first and second waves of industrialisation had relatively high labour costs. Expectations of a high standard of living including the ‘welfare’ costs of public health and education had institutionalised these high costs. The advantages experienced by the initial centres of capitalist accumulation later appear as burdens. The austerity policies after the 2008-9 crash, brought in to facilitate the massive state subsidies to the finance sector, were a way of discharging this burden. High wage costs act as a disincentive to investment so the problems of the first industrial centres have been exacerbated. As states with trade surplus economies emerged, Germany and China in the present period, they tended to distribute wealth to the elites rather than sectors of the population are more likely to spend money and consume. The elites tend to save and therefore decrease consumption imbalancing societies even further. In the case of the UK as the first location of industrial ‘take off’, the first surplus industrial economy, the failure of renewal and investment has also been made worse by the export of investment capital, benefitting from imperial advantage.
There is no inevitable logic to the consequence of having been the first industrial power. It does not necessarily mean that the UK will be the first to experience the full impact of post-industrialism but that is what’s happened. The first phase (1979-2008) of this movement, that is complex because of the interaction between industry and empire, seems to have completed itself. It has left the UK as the beneficiary of capital accumulation that reached its peak 150 years ago. There is residual capital infrastructure and wealth and, due to specific intra-imperialist relationships and conflicts, an over-centralised and internationalised financial ‘industry’. It has left the UK population muddled.
The last major exploitable mineral resource within the UK territory was North Sea oil and gas. The excess income derived from this enabled successive UK governments to continue with the ‘run down’ of manufacturing industries and engage in wars. The public housing stock was sold off as was most of the other public assets, services, infrastructures, and wealth. The UK regime is unstable and will break up because the political elites have no more assets at their disposal. They have no room to move and have no natural advantage. Did they ever have? What was the ecological basis for the development of industrial capitalism.
The wealth and well-being of people must derive from the land and natural resources with which they are surrounded and on which they live. Of course culturally generated skills and knowledge, even predispositions, must play a part. Ingenuity and inventiveness is natural and cultural. Japan has been through extraordinary economic and natural crises and catastrophes over the last 20 years. Bending Adversity by David Pilling is a book about the particular qualities of resilience that have shown themselves to be a part of Japanese culture and society. Interactions between human populations and their habitats are multiple and diverse and thus specific societies and groups and political regimes develop.
Every human culture is grounded in the unique response of human capabilities to the resources afforded by a given terrain and geographical position and is specifically developed from the social and political cultures that are antecedent to it. The political contours of the British islands were formed by the extent and nature of the Roman occupation from 52 CE. Whatever preexisting human developments – the British Isles were had a highly developed iron age culture – it was the Romans who first intensively extracted mineral wealth and organised agriculture in a systematic way. The establishment of a major centre in London and the building of a system of roads that connected up the rest of the island to it was formative. The extraordinary centralisation of communication that this provided has been determinant and is still. Already the benefits of the Thames river system and the harboured access to the sea were established. During the Roman occupation this facilitated the export of raw materials from the British Isles. Later the flow of trade would be reversed. The subsequent invasion (400-500 CE) by Germanic people in the period following the break-up of the Roman Empire kept within the geographical boundaries created by the Romans. The Norman invasion, once again abiding by the Roman boundaries, was the last major movement of conquest and settlement that had started with the movement of people from the east, probably responding to climatic changes, who came into the western part of the Eurasian continent as the Roman Empire declined. The colonisation of the American continent that began 500 years later could be considered to be a continuation of this process of migration. The country submitted to a comprehensive survey of assets carried out at the request of the new owners, the Domesday Book. The suppression of resistance to this settler colonial invasion was violent and programmatic. It was particularly in the north that rebellion was most widespread, the suppression of which is remembered as the ‘harrying of the north’. The imposition of a ruling aristocratic elite was still being referred to during the English Revolution, nearly 600 years later, as the ‘Norman yoke’.
As the political nation states of the Western region of the Eurasian landmass began to form themselves England was able to be peculiarly definite in its constitutional construction. This was partly due to the sea providing both a natural limit as well as a means of transport. Unity and homogeneity had been imposed by the Norman invasion. I will address the political consequences of this in another piece. The extraordinary natural harbour of the Thames estuary and the expeditious uniting of wool production with maritime expansion meant that within 300 years, England dominated the wool markets of Europe, even the cloth manufacturing of the Italian peninsula was dominated by this import. It was rather the coincidence of shipping and wool that laid the basis for the introduction of Italian banking methods (Italian bankers became influential in England during the reign of Edward I) that extended the dominance of London and laid the basis for mercantile capitalism and later imperial expansion.
The Romans started the exploitation of most of England’s coal deposits and thereafter, only when sources of timber began to run out from the 12th Century onwards, did coal production recommence. Maybe the impact of homeostasis can really be seen in this development in which the English, Welsh and Scottish were preeminent. The English dominated the coal market in Europe from the 1600s as they had the wool market. In 1905 the UK was still the largest coal producer. This is the underlying basis of the industrial development which took root at the beginning of the 18th Century. Unsurprisingly the industries of cloth production and this newly exploited energy source were brought together in the steam powered looms which were so significant in the development of the factory system. But the first innovation was the Newcomen steam engine that was developed to pump water out of coal mines. Coal-mining in the UK was more or less brought to an early end in the mid-1980s by the Thatcher government’s declaration of war against what she stigmatised as the ‘internal enemy’ embodied in the militant trade unionism of the miners. This they could only afford to do because of North Sea Oil.
Although most of the mineral wealth of the British Isles has been extracted, the land is rich and rainfall means that it is well irrigated though there are signs that this land is exhausted. The ship-building that was so well keyed into the coastal and forest resources of the islands reached a peak of competitive success 100 years ago. The advantage that we gained from the early days of financial de-regulation in the mid-1980s, being conveniently placed between Asia and America and giving US banking access to deregulated financial markets, has been eroded by information technology innovation. The ideology of the peoples of the islands is badly divided and anything but homogenous. The divisions between the north and the south which can be dated back to the Norman invasion have become more inflamed especially because of de-industrialisation. The huge distortion that the city of London has created in terms of wealth distribution has led to severe disruption between the rulers and the ruled.
A key-note in the speech Johnson gave to the Tory Party conference in 2020 projected a vision of the UK based on the exploitation of wind power. He told members that wind would be to the UK what oil had been to Saudi Arabia. Johnson’s idea that wind would be to the British isles as oil was to Saudi Arabia needs a massive correction, it was wool or coal not wind.
The British state, the UK project, has absolutely no obvious strength nor advantage. The economy is highly indebted. This would be manageable if the currency remains stable. However, sterling has already been downgraded because of what has been identified as political instability. This will impact on the sale of bonds and restrict the ability of the central bank to engage in quantitative easing. The impoverishment of the population by the 2008/9 crash has increased and this can become a source of deep alarm and discontent as the anti-austerity movement that started in 2010 showed. The economic processes that are entailed in the exit from the EU look very different in the light of the ravages brought about by the pandemic. The government are running out of credible candidates as target ‘enemies’. There are efforts to engineer a connection between terrorism, left socialism, migrants, leftie lawyers and this could be escalated if they get into real trouble but, because of historical example, this isn’t an easy strategy for them. They would need to prove widespread treason and subversion. They have edged towards this in their attempts to isolate the socialist left but they have had to use the ‘veil’ of anti-antisemitism to do so. Since the real enemy to their project must be social justice, egalitarianism, and environmental sustainability the reconstructed ‘war on terror’ can not serve them as a vehicle of counter resistance. They were only forced to construct this model of social struggle as the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived them of an obvious and powerful target. It has turned out that the major consequence of the socialist movement that dominated the world in the twentieth century is the power and influence of the People’s Republic of China. It is easy to forget that the victory there of the Communist Party was connected to the success of the Soviet Union in defeating German National Socialism. Of course there will be attempts to show that China poses a deep threat – in the attempt to persuade people of this, the totalitarian nature of the Chinese Communist Party is always underlined. At the moment this also appears as an unlikely target to focus counter-resistance around. Will the external and internal weakness of the UK state with its economy so deeply in debt, so dependent on imports in all fields and on financial and related services that can so easily relocate and that anyway depends on the stability of a currency that is becoming more and more exposed, with a deteriorated education system, a damaged and demoralised university sector, a health service ravaged by privatisation, an increasingly apathetic and disaffected population that has lost a coherent sense of public responsibility and deeply distrusts its political institutions, be capable of being blamed on an internal or external enemy?
Do the weaknesses that I am pointing to mean that the UK regime is in a process of imminent collapse? On their own they don’t but there is no feature of the situation which suggests any sources of strength. The financial deregulation can be pushed a bit further and undoubtedly Brexit will act as occasion for this. There is no North Sea oil nor can the UK look to be bolstered by a special relationship with the US based on military adventurism and shared security institutions. London continues to offer US banking an offshore deregulated haven. The US is also suffering relative decline. The cost of labour can hardly be driven any lower but undoubtedly the Tories will want to cut into it even more savagely. The cohesion of its original colonising project first carried out through the colonial settlement of Wales in the 13th Century was grounded in the domination by the English of the British Islands. It created a union with Scotland in 1707 and with Ireland in 1805. It is clear that devolution of certain aspects of local government to the Welsh and Scots by the Blair government took place within the overall aegis of the European Union and this was even more pertinently the case with Northern Ireland. This union is more and more fragile as we emerge from the EU. Though this connection is more symbolically important than actually necessary, its meaning is powerfully central to the UK imperial project. One needs only to look at the Union Jack flag for confirmation of this
I fully admit that the picture I have given of the ecological determinants of the rise and fall of UK capitalism and imperialism is neither comprehensive nor authoritative. It’s a sketch. What can these considerations tell us about what has supported the UK regime since it crystallised in the settlement of 1688-9. Eventually imperialist advantage is worn away and wealth moves to where labour productivity is highest in order to recommence its cycle of dominance. However radical changes in available and sustainable sources of energy have taken place. What resources are available? The mineral raw materials that are the basis for electronics are not available in the old centres of imperialist power. How can people reconstruct a productive and creative life conforming with these ecological imperatives or parameters or limits?
Each of the elements of an ecological history of the British Isles has a political and social correlative impact. I will attempt to describe these consequences and interactions in the next piece. I am not advocating ecological determinism. Also the focus on the UK may be misleading. The UK regime’s crisis is linked to an international crisis that is expressed through the specificities of the nation state. I am describing what factors determine the advantages and vulnerabilities of the political elites in the UK but also indicating the depth of the issues that must be addressed by a new movement based on ecological thinking and socialist ideas.