Tuesday, June 20, 2006


At the last local elections in the UK, when the BNP got another foothold in Barking, a news programme went there to interview people passing in the street. One of their interviewees, an elderly black man, explained that the root cause, he believed, was that skilled jobs were being lost and those that were available either required qualifications that ordinary people didn't have or paid so little that only immigrants would take them. I was shocked by his clarity - not only that he could see what was happening but that he explained it so clearly (whoever he was, if he wants to stand for partliament up this way, I'll sure as hell vote for him). The programme also interviewed politicians and pundits who either didn't understand this important point or didn't want to.

I believe him because I've seen it so much myself, probably all the more so living in a fading, post-industrial city with 2 universities, that (I'm guessing) has the sort of unemployment levels of most other places, but also chronic underemployment. When you do the shit jobs you meet an awful lot of graduates or what used to be the skilled working-class (e.g. former toolsetters). The UK's unemployment level is also high - during the Thatcher years, it was reduced substantially by changing the counting methods, no less than 18 times, principally by putting many unemployed on sickness benefits. The Labour party protested limply, but has proved content to live with this statistical fiddle since taking office. Indeed, press and politicians have been gloating recently over France's troubles, claiming they're the result of failing to 'reform' it's economy along Anglo-American lines, yet using real unemployment figures, it's actually higher in this country.

What's happened to the good jobs? I think there are 3 drivers here.
  1. Automation. Especially true in the car industry, these are ideal jobs for robots, a true homogeneous product line. You still may need your machines to do a bit of visual processing, pattern recognition, etc to cope with what the production line throws at them, but for a machine it's a far easier task than, say, gutting a chicken. As well as replacing humans, the car industry has long been producing surplus capacity, junking a huge number of vehicles which never even get to the showroom, which inevitably has led to plants closing.
  2. Outsourcing. Manufacturing's been moving to countries, particularly in the Far East, where wages are much lower. This started in the 80s, particularly with sportswear, but has now geared up to the stage of Chinese companies buying plant to relocate. This aspect is particularly worrying, not just in terms of the appalling way workers are treated in the 'export zones' where the manufacturing for takes place, but in that cheap oil isn't going to last forever; when that runs out the West may have to face true de-industrialisation.
  3. The loss of the Empire that enabled Britain to create an 'aristocracy of labour' (iirc I found this phrase reading Lenin, who was quoting Churchill). The empire allowed British workers a much higher standard of living, sucking up raw materials at, effectively, a commandeered price and ensuring a compliant market for manufactured goods. A specacular example was the creation of the welfare state; Attlee was under no illusion it was paid for by Iran's oil.
Whatever happened to our vision of the future where robots would do all the work and we'd devote our time to creativity and leisure? Well, it hasn't gone away, the problem is just getting your hands on the money to pay for it. The promise of the Reagan / Thatcher years, trickle-down economics, turned out to be the exact opposite. The balance of the rewards for capital v. labour tilted decisively in favour of the former to the extent that governments now run a 'Dutch auction' promising ever higher incentives to attract investment, and by extension, cutting back on programmes to help the mass of people.

More scarily, a hell of a lot of Westerners are living beyond their means. The whole system with it's high rates of consumption is being kept afloat on an enormous raft of credit. Moreover, it's also true of the U.S. government, which has run to enormous budget and trade deficits.


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