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

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The old get older...

The old get old
And the young get stronger
May take a week
And it may take longer
They got the guns
But we got the numbers
Gonna win, yeah
We're takin' over...
[The Doors, Five to One, 1968]

Jim Morrison would be 75 this December... if he hadn't died in 1971.

I am writing this just as the clock is about to tick over to 30 September when I will be 60. By the time I am finished it will have done.

The Doors song came to mind while I was reading 'Cultural Dementia - how the west has lots its history, and risks losing everything else' by David Andress. 

It looks at Brexit in the UK, Trump in the USA and the Front National (now National Rally https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Rally_(France) ) in France.

The generation who are now 'the old' were 'the young' in 1968. But confusingly, the rise of the right in the UK, USA and France is a negation of the revolutionary aspirations of the 1960s/1970s generation. A contradiction the book does not engage with. Although it does do a good job of pointing out how the legacy of empire and slavery undermines any claims made by the right (and, Andress argues, elements of the left) that the UK, USA and France have ever represented enlightened civilisation rather than exploitative barbarism.

As a child in the sixties and teenager in the seventies. I grew up with the counterculture. Its combination of music and politics deeply influenced me. At primary school in June 1969 we had to do newspaper project. The headlines on mine were 'America Defeated in Vietnam' and 'Scotland Becomes Independent Communist Republic'...

The early seventies were slightly less dramatic, but the politics of the period- in Northern Ireland, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders actions in 1971, the 1972 miners strike, the 1973/4 three day week, the two elections of 1974 -were pretty exciting. The politics came close to home in 1974 when my French teacher, George Thompson, won the Galloway seat for the Scottish National Party against the Conservatives by 33 votes on a third recount in October 1974. I had helped with his campaign.

Musically by 1974 I had gone from T.Rex and glam in 1971 to Yes and prog rock to Hawkwind and the Pink Faries while working backwards to the Velvet Underground and Jefferson Airplane. This created a problem when punk came along in 1976. It took White Riot (the Clash) in March 1977 to convert me.

What interested me about punk was that it was music inspired by the
present/ everyday life and near future. And it was being made by people my age.

The way I saw it, punks were angry hippies with short hair. Why were they angry? Because the counterculture never had its revolution and now the forces of right wing reaction were on the rise. A song on the first Clash album summed up the change in the ten years since the Beatles sang 'All you need is love.'

Hate and war
The only things we got today
An' if I close my eyes
They will not go away
You have to deal with it
It is the currency...

I then had a useful bit of political education, working for the London Rubber Company 1977-1983. Based in the engineering department, I noticed how it was the workers who ran the two factories I worked in.

But although they ran the factories, there was no great urge to take them over, to seize the means of production. There were trade unions, but they weren't 'militant'. It was therefore a total shock when the new Conservative (Thatcher) government's economic policies kicked in.

The Tories had not forgotten the humiliation of the 1970-74 Heath government by the miners and other trade unions. They were determined to destroyed the organised labour movement- even if that meant trashing the UK's manufacturing industry 1974.

The Tories succeeded and the first factory I had worked in closed in 1982 and the second in 1992.

There is a Brexit parallel here. It seems pretty clear that a no deal Brexit will trash what is left of the UK manufacturing industry, but no-one can quite believe that any government would be so stupid. But, driven by their free-market beliefs, the Conservatives in the early 1980s were prepared to see hundreds of factories close and thousands of workers lose their jobs.

Back then the argument was that trade unions/ organised labour had become too powerful and were holding back the UK economy. Now it is the EU that has become too powerful and is holding back the UK economy.

But to find a time when the UK economy was world class, even wold dominating, you have to go back to 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, England.

What was the origin of this Victoria success? Answer: coal.

Coal is a source of concentrated energy. Burning one ton of coal releases heat energy roughly equivalent to burning 10 tons of dried wood. In several places in Britain the coal was close to the surface and often - eg north east England - near the sea/ navigable rivers. Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries coal was used as a substitute for wood domestically and in industries like brick making and then iron making. Horse-drawn railways and canals were used to help move the coal.

The pre-existing use of coal meant that the industrial revolution in Britain was an evolutionary process. It took 80 years to develop simple coal burning atmospheric steam engines to the point where they could replace water wheels as a power source and 50 years for coke to replace charcoal in the iron industry.

But once coal could be used as an energy source across many different industries, its easy availability allowed rapid economic growth. An industrial revolution based on wood and water would have been possible, but much harder to sustain. Ensuring enough water would have need a massive reservoir building programme and finding enough timber would have needed a huge rise in imports.

It was easier to use the millions of tons of coal readily available. The UK had an annual output of 13 million tons of coal in 1801. By 1851 this had risen to 51 million tons and by 1901 it had reached 225 million tons.

But by 1900 the UK was no longer the only industrial power. In the 1860s steel began to replace wrought iron for shipbuilding and construction. In 1900 the UK produced 5 million tonnes of steel, but Germany produced 6.6 millions tons and the USA 11.4 million tons. The UK's moment of greatness had passed. [One steel works- Port Talbot- can now produce as much steel as the whole UK did in 1900.]

Ironically, it was the UK's obsession with free trade which destroyed its industrial strength. Both Germany and the USA built up their steel and other industries behind protective tariff barriers. The UK hung on to free trade until the early 1930s. Quotas and other restrictions were then imposed to save steel and cotton, the UK's other big Victorian industry.

The idea was that the government would protect the industries while they rationalised and re-organised themselves. But that didn't happen. The industries found that they could continue in their Victorian and pre-Victorian locations using Edwardian technology and make enough profit to survive.

They were still surviving when the sixties rolled around. This presence of the past was illustrated in 1964 when the Beatles travelled by steam train from Liverpool to London in 'Hard Days Night' along railway lines built in the 1830s. In 1964 there was still a British Empire in Africa and some far flung colonies outlasted the Beatles.

The relationship between Industry and Empire is confusing. Looking back it might seem that the colonies provided raw materials for the UK which were then turned into manufactured goods and sold back to them.

But when the UK was a developing economy, its main import and export were Europe and the USA. Cotton was from the slave plantations of the USA. The manufactured cotton goods were then sold in Europe. The UK was self-sufficient in coal and iron ore and had large scale coal (coke) using iron furnaces while other countries- including the USA- still used charcoal. Pig-iron and wrought iron were exported. As Europe and the USA began building railways wrought iron rails for the trains to run on were a major UK export.

Before the unification of Germany in 1870, Prussia was a major exporter of wheat to the UK- after the Corn laws had been repealed in 1845. One of the motives for German and French industrialisation was the fear that they would become British colonies. Building railways, coal mines and iron works was seen as being in the national interest.

Rather than the spread of the free-market economy, it was state-directed or state sponsored capitalism mixed with state ownership. The UK's 'free-market' was viewed with suspicion. Because the UK was the first industrial power, it could mass manufacture goods more cheaply than its rivals, effectively preventing them from developing industrially by undercutting prices.

Even the UK had protected its industries in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries until they were advanced enough not to need such protection. This awkward fact was forgotten very quickly by the Victorian free-traders who convinced themselves that it was free trade which had made Britain great.

Which brings me back to David Andress and 'Cultural Dementia'. It seems to me that, in the case of the UK at least, history has always been transformed into myth by the power of ideology. There is not a history that has been forgotten- it was never remembered in the first place.


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