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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Thursday, July 20, 2017

transition transmission

Clifford Harper's cover for Undercurrents 20, 1977

I am giving a talk about the Galloway Levellers in October. For most people who know about them, their uprising was against the enclosure of the land and the clearance of the people (sometimes called peasants)  who had lived on the land for generations.

Although Marx didn’t mention the Galloway Levellers  in ‘Capital’ he explains the emergence of capitalism through a discussion of clearance and enclosure in 16th century England. He then throws in the Highland Clearances as a more recent example of the process.

The argument is that the first capitalists were landowners who created their capital by modernising farming to increase output from the land. The extra food produced could then be sold in the market at a profit. But to do this they had to get rid of the  peasants who were farming for self-sufficiency (= subsistence) not to produce a surplus for the market.

The capital created was then used to build factories which employed the peasants driven off the land. This could be done  cheaply,  since without access to land the dispossessed peasants now had the choice between working in factories or starving. They now had to buy  food they had previously grown for themselves.

The peasants became the proletariat, generating huge profits for the new industrial capitalists who replaced the feudal landowning elite as the new ruling class.

But the new system was not stable. The logic of capitalism is competition which forces capitalists to keep finding ways to produce more commodities more cheaply. Over time this would drive down wages to the point where the proletariat would have to choose between starvation or revolution.

By ‘seizing the means of production’ -the factories- from the capitalists, the proletariat could liberate the immense productive power of industry for the benefit of the many not the few. The economic and social pyramid of power would be levelled and the wealth of society would be evenly distributed and humankind would finally be liberated from scarcity and oppression.

Some problems.
Firstly, the equation of enclosure with clearance only applies when arable land is converted to livestock pasture. This happened in 16th century England when the wool industry was profitable, in early 18th century  Galloway when the cattle trade was profitable and again late 18th/ early 19th century in the Highlands when the land was cleared to create sheep farms.

But the big change which happened in 17th and 18th century England and later 18th century Scotland was the improvement of arable farming. This was a major change and did involve enclosures, but arable farming  was labour intensive. It did not involve mass evictions and clearance from the land- it relied on farm workers staying on the land.

This agricultural revolution increased output of food crops crops. The increase in food production led to an increase in the rural population- people who are better fed have children who are stronger and so infant mortality decreases while adults live longer, healthier lives. But as the rural population increased there were more people than needed to work the new improved farms. This drove wages down which encouraged young people to move from the countryside to the cities where wages were higher. In England this was one of the process which drove the growth of London.

Since the agricultural revolution came before the industrial revolution, the workers in the new factories came overwhelmingly from the surplus rural population, not from people cleared off the land by enclosures.  

Evidence from Wales shows that rural wages were higher in areas closest to the iron/coal districts where farmers had to compete with the wages paid to industrial workers. Further out, rural wages were lower. This created a gradual movement of rural workers towards the industrial districts via the higher wage rural areas. There was no need to force the Welsh ‘peasants’ off the land, they moved off the land in pursuit of higher wages.

Farm wages close to cities were also higher than in more distant rural areas, so a similar process occurred. People did not always move directly to the cities, but first moved from lower to higher farm wage areas before making the final move into the cities.

The Importance of coal.

During the 16th to 18th centuries  in England and the  18th century in Scotland, coal became a substitute for wood in many industrial process and for domestic heating. This was important because without the use of coal a shortage of wood would have choked pre-industrial economic growth. London, as a major example, relied on coal shipped by sea from Newcastle. Between 1600 and 1700 London grew from 200 000 to 600 000, overtaking Paris as the largest city in Europe in the 18th century, reaching 1 million in 1801.

The growth of London is significant because it stimulated the development of what was to become capitalism. Landowners around London found it was worthwhile to improve production -using methods developed by the Dutch - to feed the city.

London as a market even had an effect as far away as Galloway. In 1667 the English parliament banned the import of cattle from Ireland wich was running at about 60 000/ year. Of these 10 000 reached England from Ulster via Galloway (short sea crossing). Landowners in Galloway took advantage of the ban to start selling cattle from Galloway to England in the 1670s. Some of the landowners became capitalists by re-investing the profits from cattle sales to England to buy or lease more land to produce more cattle. Others cheated by smuggling in Irish cattle and passing them off as Scottish…

 Brick-making, glass-making, brewing and salt-making all shifted from using wood as fuel to using coal. Greater demand for coal led to two problems. Mines became deeper so water had to be pumped out. This led to the use of the first (atmospheric) steam engines. Around Newcastle the early mines close to the river Tyne became worked out. The new mines were further from the river so wooden rail roads were built to carry the coal from the mines to the ships.

Until about 1750, charcoal was used to smelt iron, but it then became cheaper to use coke instead of charcoal. By 1780 Watt’s improved steam engine was in use- it used less coal than previous steam engines but that made it more attractive as a source of power for pumping water, providing the blast for iron furnaces and -by 1800-  working cotton spinning mills. Steam powered ships and railway locomotives were developed over the next 25 years.

In 1700 the UK was producing   2.7 million tons of coal/year.
In 1750 the UK was producing   4.7 million tons of coal/year.
In 1800 the UK was producing  10.0 million tons of coal/year.
In 1850 the UK was producing  50.0 million tons of coal/year.
In 1900 the UK was producing 250.0 million tons of coal/year.

By 1860, if wood had been used as fuel in the UK instead of coal an area of 25 million acres of forest would have been needed, equal to the entire area of farmland in England.

The transition of the UK from a rural/ agricultural traditional economy to an industrial/urban capitalist economy would have been impossible without coal. No coal = no capitalism.

Economists like Adam Smith writing in the mid 18th century expected the agricultural revolution to produce economic growth which would stimulate industrial/ manufacturing growth.

But they expected this growth to tail away leading to ‘the stationary state’- the end of economic and population growth.

They did not expect and could not imagine the economic growth which took place in the 19th and 20th centuries and which is only slowly ending in the 21st.

This was because they believed that land was the foundation of the economy. The land produced food from arable crops and livestock, but also timber for fuel and building. Clothing  also came from the land  as wool from sheep, linen from flax and leather from animal hides. The land produced fodder for horses which ploughed the soil and transported people and goods.  

The land could be improved, could produce more, but there was an economic limit to improvement. This would happen when the cost of improving and maintaining the productive capacity of marginal/ poor quality land was greater than the value of what that land produced. This ‘law of diminishing returns’ was a limit on economic growth. As return on investment in improvement diminished, so the stationary state came closer.

This actually happened in Galloway. The population grew through the 18th century and early 19th century but then peaked in 1851. By then all the good quality lowland land had been improved, leaving only the poor quality uplands which were given over to sheep farming. The local industrial revolution did not progress beyond the water powered  cotton mill stage. Significantly there is no coal in Galloway.

In central Scotland where there was coal, the population continued to grow through the 19th century. In central Scotland the cotton industry moved from water to steam power. Central Scotland also had coal and iron ore and so developed as an industrial region.

From a more modern perspective, the limit on the growth of pre-industrial economies was the amount of energy from the sun that plants could photosynthesise. 18th century improvement could  maximise this ‘solar harvest’ but not move beyond it. Coal is the product of millions of years of photosynthesis, a huge store of solar energy. It was this massive reserve of stored energy which powered the industrial revolution, breaking through the limits to growth.

Continuous economic growth fuelled by coal allowed the new capitalist class to buy off the proletariat through higher wages. It also allowed the UK to pay for food imports from other countries, exchanging iron for wheat. The percentage of workers on the land could be reduced without the country starving.

The global transition to fossil fuels.

In 1851 a ‘Great Exhibition’ was held in Hyde Park in London. It was huge celebration. Six million people, equal to a third of the British population, visited the Exhibition. In 1851, the  UK was the only industrial power in the world. It was a free trade state, with no import barriers- but it didn’t need any since there were no industrial competitors. Instead the UK exported manufactured goods and imported food and raw materials from around the world.

The Exhibition was huge success, but there were some background worries.  The UK did not just export finished goods. It also exported machinery for making those goods- like cotton spinning machines. It also sold steam engines and railway engines along with railway building materials. Some people wondered if other countries might begin to catch up with Britain.

The development of railway networks in countries with coal and iron ore was the key factor in the spread of industrialisation and industrial capitalism. By the 1890s, Germany and the USA had caught up with the UK and by the beginning of WW1 then overtook the UK in a key industry- steel. Germany was also ahead in the chemical and electrical industries. Mass production of automobiles started in the USA in 1908 with the model T Ford.

The global trade network pioneered by the UK in the 19th century extended beyond the British Empire. The first railway was built in Argentina in 1855 and railways encouraged the growth of agriculture, mainly beef and wheat, which were then exported. Japan’s industrialisation benefited from the disruption of British cotton exports in WW1, allowing the Japanese to sell their cotton to India and China. Even within the Empire, the disruption of trade during WW1 encouraged industrial growth. The first Tata steel works opened in India in 1914.

After WW1, the UK struggled to rebuild the trade it had lost. The UK cotton industry which had led the industrial revolution entered a decline which it was never to recover from. As a sign of things to come, in 1929 the Scottish steel industry, which had relied on ship-building as its main market, was in crisis. There was a plan to build a new modern steel works to replace the Victorian ones. The Tata company suggested an alternative. They could supply Scottish steel makers with 100 000 tons/year of Indian pig iron more cheaply than it could be produced in Scotland. The offer was not taken up but by 1930 India was producing 1 million tons of pig iron every year.

The economic depression of the 1930s followed by a second world war disrupted global trade. After the war, although the UK economy recovered in the 1950s, the USA was now the dominant capitalist power. The American’s fear of communism saw them support the rebuilding of west Germany and Japan as major industrial powers. The resulting surge in post-war global economic growth ended in 1974.

The post-war global economy had been built on cheap oil rather than coal. The cheapest oil came from Arab countries in the Middle East. In October 1973 a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. The USA supported Israel and in response  Arab oil producing countries cut oil supplies to the USA and its allies- including the UK and Japan. By 1974 the price of oil had jumped from $3/barrel to $9/barrel, triggering an economic crisis, despite the cuts being reversed in March 1974. Then the 1979 Iranian revolution and the 1980 Iran-Iraq war pushed oil prices even higher to $38/barrel.

This had two consequences. One was the political and economic shift to neoliberalism. This used the increase in inflation which followed the rise in oil prices to push through policies which reduced the power of organised labour in manufacturing industries  through mass unemployment. Although oil prices began to fall again through the 1980s as increasing supplies of oil from the North Sea, Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela and Russia became available, this cheaper oil was used to cut transport costs from factories set up in low-wage countries rather than revive manufacturing in the UK and USA.

By 1998, adjusted for inflation, the oil price was lower than it had been since 1946. In the 1990s, the collapse of communism opened up new cheap sources of labour in eastern Europe and China. Through the 1990s and into the 21st century a new global market economy emerged. This was in some ways a reverse image of the global economy which had existed 100 years earlier, with China and India among the countries supplying a de-industrialised UK with manufactured goods.

The resulting neoliberal boom was unsustainable. The destruction of organised labour and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the older industrial economies kept wages low. To keep the globalised economy going, consumers were encouraged into debt. There were also worries that the increase in oil production, which along with coal, was fuelling the boom, would exhaust supplies of easily accessible oil. Oil prices would then rise choking off growth.

Oil prices did rise by 500% between 1998 and 2008 when the price of oil was higher than it had been in 1980. This triggered a global banking crisis and the price of oil fell rapidly.

The second consequence of the 1973/4 oil crisis was to encourage a proto-green movement -the radical or alternative technology movement. While governments promoted nuclear power as an alternative to dependence on oil and coal, the radical technologists favoured renewable sources of energy- hydro, wind and solar power. They supported a shift away from industrialised farming since it relied heavily on oil derived fertilisers and the internal combustion engine. They also supported a shift towards worker co-operatives and industrial democracy along with a shift to ‘socially useful’ production of goods and services.


 The radical technology movement was part of a wider ‘utopian’ cultural /political movement which emerged in the 1960s and expanded in the 1970s. The rightward shift under Thatcher in the UK first checked the expansion of this movement and then attempted to reverse it.

This had an effect on the radical technology movement even where, with wind power for example, the technology continued to improve. In the early 1990s, Margaret Thatcher’s former press secretary Bernard Ingham was a paid  supporter of nuclear power. Wind turbines were a cheaper and greener alternative to nuclear, so in 1992 Ingham helped set up an anti wind-farm protest group called Country Guardian and became its chair.

With support in the right wing press and linked to climate change denial, the anti-wind power groups have helped frustrate and delay the essential transition to a post-fossil fuel future.

The transition movement did not emerge directly from the radical technology movement. Rather it has emerged out of the permaculture movement which began in Australia in the 1970s. In 2004 permaculturalist Rob Hopkins became aware of ‘peak oil’ and began looking at ways for communities to make the transition to a sustainable, post-oil, future. The aim is for communities- towns and villages- to maximise their self-sufficiency through encouraging local food production, recycling and generally reducing reliance on long supply chains.

If, however, it is now accepted that climate change rather than peak oil is the future, then the limitations of the transition movement become apparent. Local production for local consumption is a necessary step, but if that exists side by side with business as usual outside the transition towns or even transition regions, the positive local outcomes will be overwhelmed by the impact of global changes. The transition to a post-carbon future must be a combination of national and international level changes. For example, even localised food production will be at risk from extreme weather events such as flooding or a prolonged drought.

In the UK and especially Scotland, the concentration of the population in former industrial districts makes it difficult if not impossible to achieve localised self-sufficiency in food. In pre-industrial Scotland, the staple cereal crop was oats since wheat was difficult to grow in most parts of the country. Bread made from wheat was a luxury which only the rich could afford. A return to an oat based diet would help reduce Scotland’s carbon footprint, but would also require a major cultural shift.

This takes us to the underlying problem. The transition to a  carbon-neutral future is possible in theory, but very difficult in practice. It would be very difficult to make the transition without it being seen as a regression to the pre-industrial past or at least a permanent commitment to a ‘wartime’ economy where everything has to be rationed- including bread made from wheat…

Rationing and other limitations are accepted in wartime as temporary measures necessary for national survival. Neither peak oil nor climate change are such obvious threats to national survival as the German U-boats of world wars 1 and 2.  The transition movement  must therefore rely on the willingness of individuals to voluntarily ‘ration’ their consumption of goods and services.

If adopted widely, the focus on local production for local consumption would remove the mass market for mass manufactured goods. There would be a reversion to the pre-industrial economy which remove the voluntary aspect of transition. All that would be available would be food and goods which could be produced locally. Something similar occurred in the fifth century after the collapse of the Roman empire. In England the archaeology of this transition is marked by the absence of mass produced wheel-thrown Roman style  pottery and its replacement by varieties of locally produced and cruder hand made pottery.

What eventually replaced the Roman empire in Europe was feudalism. In the Marxist model of history, feudalism was in turn displaced by industrial capitalism which in turn will give way to socialism as part of the transition to communism. This progressive movement assumes that the benefits of industrialisation will be conserved, but equally distributed rather than concentrated in the hands of a ruling capitalist elite. That there will be abundance rather than scarcity.  

From a Marxist perspective, the transition movement is seen as capitalism with a green face, an attempt by the ruling class to re-introduce ‘scarcity’, thus imposing another obstacle for the proletariat in their attempt to secure the fruits of their labour.

To the extent that the transition movement was a response to fears of ‘peak oil’, this is a justifiable criticism. Climate change, however, is a different matter. Regardless of who controls the ’means of production’, if the ’energy of production’ is a fossil fuel, then there will be a contribution to global warming and climate change.

Any communist society will therefore have to immediately revolutionise the means of production, substituting renewable for fossil fuel energy as a power source. Failure to do so will condemn the new communist society to a future of scarcity and potential starvation. Unfortunately, unless a communist society emerges within the next 5 to 10 years, the opportunity to avoid a future of scarcity and probable starvation will have been lost.