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The slaves’ revolt the elites can’t defeat

In the aftermath of the 2016 peasants’ revolt, in which Britain accidentally found itself falling out of the European Union while Americans looked on with joy and horror as a former TV host accidentally became president, the elites who pull the strings have become increasingly paranoid.  One manifestation of this is the widespread manipulation of social media.  Another is the establishment media casting off the cloak of neutrality.

In the wake of both votes, the full weight of establishment media, along with various “security” agencies and neoliberal think-tanks, was deployed to promote the narrative that the voters were too stupid to know what they were voting for… and they were probably xenophobes and white supremacists to boot.  Perhaps, some said, it was time to think again about allowing such people to vote at all.  And in the same way as the old, landed aristocracy used to base voting rights on land ownership, so the new technocracy floated the idea that only those with the right degrees from the right universities should be allowed to vote.

Less savoury ideas were floated too, such as “carrot passports” for a “carrot” which doesn’t even prevent transmission.  Although the concern is less with the stated reason than with handing states the power to monitor and restrict people’s activities using the increasingly ubiquitous smartphone – all for our own good, of course…  And just in case you cannot imagine a democratically elected government using tech to restrict freedom, just remember what the Canadian government did to the truckers’ protest last year…  something which will be all the easier if – after the coming banking and financial crisis – central banks get away with implementing digital central bank currencies (CBDCs).

Initial implementation will no doubt, be to tackle something – like a credit crunch – that few people would oppose, and for which your anti-brexit, pro-lockdown, russophobic social media friend will likely provide fanatical support.  But when was the last time you witnessed a state handing back the “emergency” powers that it was allowed to take for itself?  And how many times have we seen legislation which they promised would only be used in emergencies, being used against ordinary people in mundane circumstances?  Slice by slice, we are experiencing exactly what Frank Zappa famously said would happen:

“The illusion of freedom will continue as long as it’s profitable to continue the illusion. At the point where the illusion becomes too expensive to maintain, they will just take down the scenery, they will pull back the curtains, they will move the tables and chairs out of the way and you will see the brick wall at the back of the theater.”

Zappa probably thought in terms of money.  But the real expense which has been growing remorselessly is energy.  And tearing down the scenery is less an act of strength than one of desperation by a technocracy which fears its days are numbered.  As John Michael Greer wrote recently:

“By 2002 those who paid attention could no longer ignore the hard fact that something had gone dreadfully wrong with the grand project of endless material progress on which the industrial world had staked its survival in the wake of the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution of 1978-1980… rising prices and declining discoveries of oil and natural gas made it painfully clear that there was much more involved, and that the deeper causes could not be fixed by throwing more money at the already rich.

“The Anglo-American attempt to seize and exploit Iraq’s oil wealth in the Second Gulf War was one consequence of that realization.  There were many other consequences, and one of them was an increasing (and entirely justified) nervousness on the part of elites and managerial classes alike about their ability to keep the masses in line. By 2002, decades of impoverishment, immiseration, and malign neglect inflicted on the poor and the working classes were already bearing fruit:  the masses were becoming hostile and suspicious toward their supposed betters.  To those who were paying attention, again, it was becoming painfully clear that this could get much worse, and potentially imperil the survival of the elites and their managerial hangers-on.”

The new peasants’ revolt which brought us Brexit, Trump, the gilets jaunes protests, the truckers’ freedom convoy and Britain’s growing Don’t Pay and Enough is Enough campaigns, is real enough, and has morphed in ways which are both threatening and difficult to control.  Kwasi Kwarteng, for example, during his brief spell as Chancellor, proposed using the benefits system to force the over-50s back into work in order to solve the perceived vacancy crisis.  But the thing which makes it a crisis is precisely that many over-50s have simply opted out of the system – you can’t use benefits sanctions against people who are not claiming benefits.

Nor were the over-50s the originator of what has been termed “the great resignation.”  The Eastern Europeans were the first to drop out en masse.  Rather than continue slogging away at the jobs British workers didn’t want to do – mostly because they were too low-paid – thousands of European workers chose to sit out the pandemic back home with their families.  And with the UK economy accelerating around the U-bend, few are in a hurry to return.  Those in the 50-65 age group with high enough pensions to allow some semblance of a retirement – particularly those who lost decent full-time work as a result of lockdown – followed suit. 

Far less obviously, the geographical mismatch between the location of spare workers and the location of the vacancies – mainly London – is further evidence of the trading down I’ve written about on many occasions.  That is, during lockdown, people became more aware of the benefits of place, family and community.  At the same time, the allure of the bullshit job in the big city – the one which was supposed to be a first step on the golden career ladder, but which increasingly led nowhere – wore off.  Given the additional costs – which run to thousands of pounds a year – of working and living in the big city, large numbers of us have discovered that even after taking a drop in pay, local employment and cheaper living costs in ex-industrial, rundown seaside and small-town Britain leave you better off.

Notice that these are not “political” responses in the way that we generally understand politics.  None of the political parties stand in favour of leaving the European Union, encouraging a relatively impoverished early retirement, or creating an economic chasm between the big cities and the poorer hinterland.  Indeed, insofar as they are political phenomena, what they have in common is a widespread withdrawal from the political process entirely.  Only a minority of us now believe the narratives put out by establishment media – like the citizens of the Soviet Union reading their daily copy of Pravda, we watch/listen to/read the BBC, Guardian, Telegraph, etc., to get the line, not the news.  In the same way, even a large number of those who continue to pay membership fees to the political parties understand that they will do nothing to improve our situation.  And after 14 years of stagnation, surely only the deluded could imagine that a change of prime minister or a change of party in government is going to bring about economic growth.  And so, the only political option available is to opt out… to cease attempting to climb the greasy pole and to reduce one’s spending solely to that which one needs in order to get by… a process aided by rising prices and interest rates.

Little wonder then, that the technocracy is pushing hard for central bank digital currencies which, in addition to controlling what we think and say, can be used to regulate spending.  If, for example, inflation is running too high, a CBDC can be used to curb our spending.  If, on the other hand, we are deemed to be saving too much, the CBDC can be devalued with each day we continue to hoard it.  And it goes without saying that a CBDC can be used to make protest almost impossible, for example, preventing striking trade unionists from accessing their bank accounts.

The technocracy would have us believe that they are the all-seeing eye at the apex of the pyramid… able to control and regulate our every thought and deed.  But the reality is likely closer to the little old man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz.  As John Michael Greer points out:

“I wonder how many people have noticed the way that entertainment pushed by the corporate media has helped foster modern conspiracy culture, by flooding the collective imagination with conspiracy-themed movies, games, and novels?… these all served the purpose of trying to convince people that the corporate-bureaucratic state was run by invulnerable, omnipotent masterminds who planned out in advance everything that happened in the world. That’s a very common habit of ruling classes on the way down.”

Indeed, the common practice in real hierarchies is to filter only positive feedback to those at the top.  Problems – particularly those for which there is no obvious or palatable solution – tend to get filed by some functionary halfway up the pyramid, leaving those at the top blissfully unaware of the forces which are about to overwhelm them and bring the whole rotten structure to the ground.  Which is why, among other things, the technocracy ought to be spending a lot more time looking at where the developing world stands on the question of replacing the US dollar with a new, commodity-backed reserve currency.

This though, still less we ordinary peasants, is not the biggest threat to the technocracy.  The barbarians hammering at the gates are the 22 billion energy slaves whose massive productive power has supported the western way of life which grew out of the ashes of the two world wars.  The raw power is almost beyond human imagination.  A single barrel of crude oil can produce the equivalent of 4.5 years of human labour… and until recently we’ve been consuming 100 million barrels a day.  Coal, which still provides an energy base for humanity, also produces fantastic volumes of work… a metric ton of coal being equivalent to 5 barrels of oil or 22.5 years of human labour. 

Meanwhile, all of the wind power captured on planet Earth in 2021 was equivalent to just 8,061,638 barrels of oil per day… enough to replace about two hours’ worth of oil consumption.  Solar produced about half as much again, while even much touted nuclear provided a little shy of double the power from wind.  This suggests that the Great Green Fourth Industrial New Reset that the technocracy is rushing headlong to implement will require us to restructure our economies and our lifestyles to operate on less energy than our grandparents were using in 1950.

The problem for the technocracy – who consider themselves immune to the changes this will bring about – is far worse, because the nominal wealth that they hold is no more than a claim on future energy.  So that, if total energy is declining rapidly – which it must if they are to achieve their goal of ending fossil fuel use – most of their claims – that is, their wealth – will be rendered worthless.  This is because energy – or rather, that part of it which can be put to productive work – is the source of all value within an economy.

This is not obvious to those trained in economics, where energy is regarded – where it is considered at all – as just another cheap input to production.  In reality, energy precedes everything in the economy.  The workforce must be fed before it can produce, and the machines must be plugged-in before they can be operated.  Take away the energy and all you have left is an inert art exhibition.

In the event that the technocracy awakened to the danger, they might, perhaps, choose to maintain and – assuming they desire economic growth – even grow our fossil fuel production… at least until some viable transition to alternative energy is ready to take over.  But even if they decided to follow this route, they will not be able to achieve it for hard geological and thermodynamic reasons. 

The geological reason is simple enough to understand.  Humanity – or at least that part of it which has consumed fossil fuels – has worked its way through all of the cheap and easy deposits and is increasingly struggling to maintain production from the expensive and difficult remains.  There may still be as much fossil fuel beneath the ground than we have burned our way through since the 1750s, but most of it will be too difficult to ever recover.  The thermodynamic barrier concerns the amount of energy required to produce energy.  This primarily mirrors the geological issue since, if it takes more energy to obtain energy than the energy it returns, then it isn’t worth doing.  This is also where money sometimes mirrors the energy it is ultimately based on, because it appears to us that such energy-negative deposits are simply too expensive.  Thermodynamic limits though, are somewhat tighter because they extend beyond the energy cost of energy at the mine or at the wellhead and must account for energy costs all the way to the point of use.  This, for example, is why the old fantasy about Antarctica sitting on massive oil deposits will likely remain just that, because the cost of moving any oil that is there to the places it is needed would render it too expensive to be worth doing.

There is, however, an even less obvious problem with the energy cost of energy… it rises over time.  That is, while a large, land-based oil field may first gush huge volumes of pressurised oil and gas to the surface, over time the pressure falls.  To counter this, oil companies pump water, and later carbon dioxide, into the field.  And as the field depletes, they will turn to so-called “enhanced oil recovery” techniques such as pumping detergents into the field in order to break up the last sticky residues.  This keeps production up… but at an ever-greater energy cost.

This is where the technocracy’s real woes begin because there is roughly a four-decade gap between an oil deposit being discovered and output reaching a peak.  And the peak of world oil deposit discovery came more than half a century ago, in 1964.  On that basis, we might expect that world oil production would have occurred sometime around 2004.  And to some extent this was borne out, insofar as the peak of conventional oil production came in 2005 and led directly to the financial crisis in 2008 and the depression which has persisted ever since.  If – as is increasingly obvious – we add fracking and melting tar sands to the enhanced oil recovery column, then it becomes clear that what the oil industry has been engaged in is a very expensive effort to keep production levels up.  And that effort began to falter at the end of 2018… production is around five million barrels a day less in 2022 than it was in 2019.

Some of this, of course, is the technocracy’s own doing.  The use of ESG investment rules, together with governments implementing fossil fuel bans, has made further investment in oil recovery and refining far less worthwhile.  Indeed, oil companies are better served generating shortages in order to keep prices up rather than producing more to bolster the fading economies which depend upon them.  It might be that, with massive investment and a Herculean effort, 2019 levels of production might be maintained for a few more years.  Nevertheless, the thermodynamic and geological drag means that there are going to be millions fewer energy slaves to maintain our economies with each passing year.

This is the slaves’ revolt which the technocracy cannot defeat.  Not least because all of the mechanisms deployed to keep we mere mortal peasants in line depend upon a degree of economic complexity which cannot be sustained without an ever-growing supply of cheap energy.  As a rapidly de-industrialising Europe – including the UK – is discovering, the “green energy revolution” is only a good idea so long as nobody tries to do it for real. 

What future though, your CBDC, your metaverse and your self-driving electric cars when the energy which makes them work is no longer available?

The irony in all of this is that, by their own description, the technocracy are “the educated class” – the second generation of Michael Young’s meritocracy, who pulled the ladder up behind them and became a self-perpetuating class for themselves.  They went to all of the right private schools and universities, where they obtained the correct qualifications and credits prior to their parents funding their obligatory one-year internship.  And yet for all of their self-identified cleverness, they missed the simplicity of the third law of thermodynamics:

“… that a system’s entropy approaches a constant value as the temperature approaches absolute zero.”

Or, to put it in terms that even an economist might grasp, all energetic systems – including industrial economies – eventually burn themselves out.  Ours is no different.

As you made it to the end…

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