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Decline and Fall: The Brexit years

An excerpt from my new book which is available on Amazon or to order from bookshops and libraries:

I didn’t set out to write about Brexit.  My interests have always been in the far more profound crisis stemming from what environmentalists – among others – refer to as trying to have infinite growth on a finite planet.  As early as 1972, computer modellers had understood and begun to warn that if humanity continued with business as usual, then sometime in the first or second decade of the twenty-first century we would begin to experience a series of crises from which there would be no way back.  These included:

  • Pollution and environmental destruction
  • Climate change
  • Resource depletion
  • Energy shortages
  • Falling birth rates
  • Falling life expectancy
  • Economic crises
  • Socio-political crises

Thirty years later, using modern computing and improved modelling, the same researchers confirmed that humanity had continued to follow the track we had been on in 1972; and that the anticipated crises were increasingly apparent.

The problem, at its simplest, is this: in a financial system based around debt-based currency – in which almost all of the currency in circulation was borrowed into existence with interest attached – the real economy (of goods and services) has to grow exponentially if we are to avoid a crash.  Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we could do this simply because we were much fewer in number and we had access to far more resources and energy than we could ever need.  By the beginning of the twenty-first century, though, with 7.5bn of us to feed, clothe and entertain, cheap energy and resources began to deplete; preventing the economy from growing exponentially.  At the same time, the biosphere – which we had previously used as a sewer – began to break down; signalling a hard limit to the amount of pollution we could continue to dump into it.

Exactly how these limits would affect our economy, society and political processes was impossible to model.  Much depended upon how we – and especially those in positions of power – chose to act.  The unpleasant and impractical Club of Rome solution was to dispense with democracy altogether; and to hand power to technocratic international organisations to impose sustainable living on the global population.  Less controversially, from the mid-1970s, prompted by the 1971 currency collapse and the 1973 oil shock, governments in the developed states began to take global limits seriously.  Sadly, that all came to a halt when new oil deposits in the North Sea, the North Alaskan Slope and the Gulf of Mexico began to be exploited.

In the 1980s Gordon Gekko informed us that “greed is good,” while Ronald Reagan had the solar panels torn down from the White House roof.  To pay for it all, governments sold off public assets, slashed public services and welfare, and handed control of the money supply to private banks.  And for anyone who didn’t like what was happening; Margaret Thatcher was on hand to explain that “There Is No Alternative.”  But while a small – and shrinking – affluent metropolitan class got rich on the back of the banking Ponzi scheme and a host of state-funded corporate welfare schemes, a growing part of ex-industrial Britain (and America) grew ever poorer; laying the foundations for the political crisis we now find ourselves in.

Put simply, a semi-skilled worker in 1970 in one of the many towns that later voted to leave the EU earned enough to support a family, buy a house, run a car and pay for an annual holiday.  By 2016, a semi-skilled worker in one of those towns was either out of work and dependent upon a hostile and inadequate benefits system, or was in work and still dependent upon the same hostile and inadequate benefits system to top up otherwise inadequate wages.  Either way, raising a family, affording a home and paying for an annual holiday had become a pipe dream.

In the meantime, the traditional parties of the left had abandoned the old working class in the belief that they had nowhere else to go.  Instead, they courted the metropolitan affluent liberal classes to provide the support for their version of a neoliberalism that further eroded the living standards of their former supporter base.

In my book, The Consciousness of Sheep – written prior to the 2015 general election – I had pointed out that as the crisis unfolded, and as the traditional parties of the centre-left abandoned the people they had been founded to represent, so populist parties of the right would be able to use fears of the impact of immigration on already depressed wages and overloaded public services in order to win power.  At that point, Donald Trump was still a B-rate TV host and it seemed possible that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party might be able to form a government.  A year after the book was published, everything had changed.  The British people – or at least the majority of those in England and Wales – had voted to leave the European Union while those Americans who didn’t live in California and New England had propelled Trump into the White House.

I began tracking the political crisis on a Google blog that I had set up for the purpose.  Meanwhile, I had built the consciousness of sheep website to focus upon the energy, environmental and economic crises that are the main focus of my writing.  However, in the wake of the Brexit and Trump votes, it has seemed obvious to me that these are the socio-political manifestation of the deeper crises.  And so I incorporated my writing onto the one website after 2016.

Articles and essays relating to Brexit are just a small part of the content on the consciousness of sheep website.  Nevertheless, reviewing them three years after the vote – and with the political class still unable to resolve the crisis – it was obvious that there was something of an ongoing commentary that might interest a much broader audience…

*****

Decline and Fall: The Brexit years seeks to place the “Brexit Crisis” in its proper context.  The book begins with a section titled The Long Decline, which offers an energy-based explanation of the rise and fall of England/Britain, first as a colonial empire during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the world’s first industrial empire from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century; followed by the years of relative decline from the 1860s and the absolute decline following “peak coal” (1913) and the aftermath of the First World War.  Everything that has followed – including the brief oil/debt-based boom in the 1990s and early 2000s – has been a sequence of vain attempts to resolve the crisis caused by declining per-capita energy.  The post-1945 attempt to generate full-employment, underwritten by a welfare state was one solution.  The neoliberal project after 1979 was another.  Brexit, in this sense, is merely the latest in a line of temporary fixes which will go the same way as its predecessors.

Decline and Fall: The Brexit years goes on to give a detailed account of the immediate factors prior to the referendum which indicated – to the few of us who were paying attention – that Britain was going to vote to leave the European Union.  It goes on to examine the immediate shockwave that rocked the political establishment as they realised that people had voted for something that they barely understood.  Part three of the book, From crisis to farce details the three-year political clown show in which the British establishment tried – and failed – to find a form of Brexit in which the UK could formally leave the EU while everything stayed the same.

Part four, The myth of the 48 percent, examines the political failure of the pro-remain camp as they desperately sought a means of overturning the 2016 result.  Despite successive opinion polls indicating that nothing much had changed in the years after the vote, these campaigners – with no evidence – convinced themselves that the ranks of the 48 percent who had voted to remain in the EU in 2016 had been swelled by a new generation of socially liberal 18 to 20 year olds, who would provide them with the votes to reverse the result in a second referendum.  The tragicomic end to this fantasy came in December 2019 when Boris Johnson’s Tories turned the general election into a de facto second vote on Brexit.  The result was the worst defeat inflicted on the pro-remain opposition since 1935.  Johnson’s 80 seat majority in Parliament means that Brexit is no longer up for debate.  It will happen the way the Tories want it to happen and it will be at least five years – and most likely a decade – before anyone else can do anything to change it.

Brexit, though, is merely the froth on top of a far deeper crisis.  The final part of Decline and Fall: The Brexit years, A wider crisis, charts Britain’s decline as a former oil state which now lacks the energy and resources to prevent a prolonged period of economic decline and social disruption.  Nor is this solely a problem in the UK.  The parallels between the Trump years in the USA and the Brexit years in the UK are no accident.  Both are a product of a growing global crisis and a response to the failure of the previous “solutions” that were supposed to restore prosperity.  For the moment, the USA has considerable advantages that Britain – and Europe more widely – no longer has; most notably a continental resource base which is not completely depleted.  But just as Britain led the way up the bell curve of industrial civilisation 250 years ago, it is now leading the way down the back slope.  The (increasingly un-)United Kingdom has taken John Michael Greer’s advice to: “collapse now and avoid the rush.”

As you made it to the end…

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