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The inevitability of decline

Despite the growing tribalism here in the UK, one thing continues to unite the warring factions – the future is still bright.  The “green” tribe remains convinced that the current – probably irreversible – economic downturn is no more than a temporary blip on the road to the hi-tech, renewable energy-powered nirvana.  On the opposite side of the aisle, the climate change denying tribe – correctly, at least in part, as it happens – blames the net zero policies of their opponents for plunging the economy into the current downward spiral.  Nevertheless, they argue, if only we can get back to drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea, fracking the Bowland shale deposit, and mining coal in Cumbria, we will secure the energy needed to usher in a brave new, technologically advanced world…  which, of course, is a red rag to those residing in the online conspiratorium, where both techno-dystopian visions of the future involve an Orwellian mix of total surveillance, programable digital currencies, fifteen-minute cities, vaccine passports and a program of mass euthanasia.

The thing to note about this thinking is that it emanates from within the remaining pockets of prosperity in an otherwise rapidly disintegrating economy.  Take a moment to step beyond the leafy suburbs of the top-tier university towns and you discover that everything is falling apart.  Most observable here in the UK is our one growth area within the material economy… potholes!  Since the posh boys took over the – disconnected – reins of power in 2010, central and local government ceased funding road resurfacing, despite asphalt being the single most recycled substance in the economy.  Instead, Britain’s roads – even the high speed ones – have become a patchwork of temporary repairs which break apart within a few weeks of being made. 

Less obviously, water companies have charged tens of billions to signally fail to achieve their only two goals – deliver enough clean drinking water to the population and prevent shit from spilling into the rivers and the sea.  Public transport is a shambles, with buses non-existent across large tracts of the UK, while trains are expensive, overcrowded, and late… if they turn up at all.  Meanwhile, as a country we are incapable of building either high speed railways or the nuclear power to drive them, without running way over-budget and behind-time. 

Even the much-touted benefits of AI turn out to be little more than a digital voice on a customer service (sic) line which keeps you on hold for hours at a time before failing to resolve your problem.  Doctors’ appointments are like vinyl records – something your grandparents used to have, but which only a select minority are able to get their hands on today – while NHS dentists disappeared around the same time as the last honest banker.

A few optimists are prepared to look at the unfolding decline only because they still believe that something might be done to reverse it.  But while our increasingly remote political class could have done a great deal more to prevent the worst of this, the resources needed to repair the damage were squandered elsewhere – mostly on tax breaks for the wealthy and a large dose of corporate greed.  Indeed, the political class long since gave up any pretence of solving the growing crisis, preferring instead to pursue policies which favoured a fabled “middle ground,” which conveniently turned out to mean people just like them… the impoverished majority could just be thankful for the rise of foodbanks.

Underpinning the crisis – unseen by almost everyone – is a massive decline in per capita energy which began long before the political class became convinced that it could do without the cheap Russian oil and gas which previously held a lid on prices.  Some of this decline was down to faulty arithmetic – not counting the energy expended producing goods consumed here but manufactured elsewhere.  Nevertheless, following the North Sea peak in 1999, the surplus energy – the amount left over after the energy cost of energy has been paid – available to the UK economy went into steep decline.  Put simply, with less energy to go around every year, the economy as a whole had to shrink.  And in the UK, this had a more obvious geographical form.

In the eighteenth century – not unlike today – the City of London had become a viper’s nest of greed and corruption, while government – central and local – again, just like today, were on a taxation spree, using any and every device they could think of to fleece businesses and people.  The consequence was that a new industrial class moved to the north and west to build their ironworks, railways, shipyards and factories.  This though, meant that the island of Great Britain was economically divided along a line between the Severn Estuary and the Humber, with the great coal-powered industries of the nineteenth century located in the north.  So that, in the twentieth century, as the old coal age industries fell into decline even as new oil age industries like automobiles, aviation, and pharmaceuticals prospered in the south, the “north-south divide” reversed.  And by the 1980s, with the arrival of harsh and ultimately counterproductive neoliberal economics and politics, the north and west of the UK entered a permanent decline.

If this was solely a UK problem, we might be justified in laying blame on our increasingly feeble-minded political and cultural elites.  But the UK is merely leading the way that the other developed economies are bound to follow – the precise details may vary, but the rising global energy cost of energy and the ensuing economic shrinkage is already making itself felt across the western states.  For example, as Ralph Schoellhammer at UnHerd writes:

“According to the energy consultancy FG Energy, ‘Germany’s industrial base, in particular its more energy-intensive industries, will find it challenging to recover to pre-Ukraine war levels.’ Primary and final energy demand have hit a 50-year low, mainly due to demand destruction in the country’s industrial sectors. Rather than finding more efficient ways of providing its industry with energy, Germany simply allowed parts of it to disappear, thereby reducing gas demand — as well as economic output, paid wages and manufacturing. Real GDP growth has stagnated since 2017, and forecasts are not optimistic about a spurt anytime soon…

“If the new standard of prosperity for a G7 nation is whether or not its people are resigned to the fear of freezing to death in the winter, Berlin can judge its policies a success…”

Denial is the widespread political response among those who are still warm enough and fed enough to participate.  “If only,” they tell us, “We had more – or less – green energy, AI-driven technology, and above all faith in the gods of techno-utopianism:

  • It is only a prototype
  • It will improve
  • It is inevitable.”

But the truth, as I wrote six years ago, is that the political class believes in a mirror image of reality:

“Blackpool, and towns like it, is precisely the post Neoliberal future that we were warned about back in the 1980s.  The warning has come true.  But worse is yet to come.  Blackpool is not an anomaly; it is London’s future.”

We are not moving toward a hi-tech future – green or otherwise – in which the top-tier universities are leading the way.  But rather, the rising tide of poverty, precariarity, and misery which has already engulfed ex-industrial, rundown seaside and small-town Britain will keep on rising until even those last remaining islands of prosperity are overrun.

As you made it to the end…

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