A disaster foretold
HGV drivers, petrol, empty supermarket shelves - Britain’s dependence on global supply chains has been badly exposed. Paul Demarty investigates
Whatever the problem, ‘fixing’ it by sending in the troops always gives off a certain uneasy vibe.
There is, of course, the faint whiff of desperation, of things being very much out of control. But then there is also the vague intimation that we are at war. I can remember, in my own lifetime, the deployment of troops as essentially scab labour during the firefighters’ strike of 2002; the relieved reception of the army’s antiquated ‘Green Goddess’ fire engines with just the faintest echo of the past - more violent encounters between the armed forces and the labour movement.
In the present fuel crisis, we seem to be more in a desperate than an ominous situation. By last weekend, large parts of the south-east had serious petrol supply problems, with queues and forecourt squabbles sighted much further afield. The starting gun was fired, naturally, by government pleas for people not to panic-buy - will ministers ever learn? - but the result was surely inevitable, given the dire nature of the situation. Petrol, it seems, is the new bog roll.
The petrol shortages coincide with other troubling stories, some more closely related than others. Supply chain problems are creating gaps in supermarket shelves, with great anxiety over the fate of the Great British Christmas. There is the small matter of huge numbers of livestock that may simply have to be destroyed - all these problems essentially for want of labour (or at least labour at a price the various employers are willing to pay). There is also an ongoing shortage of natural gas - which is largely, but not entirely, unrelated, as we shall see - and which adds to the pervasive sense of panic.
How did we get here? The orthodox view is summarised in one word - Brexit. After all, the jobs we have mentioned - heavy goods vehicles, seasonal agricultural labourers, and so on - are all historically part of a low-wage economy largely served by migrants in this country. The hard-Brexit policy of Boris Johnson and his colleagues led to changes in immigration laws that are explicitly biased against such workers. They are now in the humiliating situation of having to find a bunch of emergency temporary work visas, which are hardly the most enticing offerings in the world (but perhaps there are sufficiently desperate Slovakians available); quite apart from trying to lure aging truckers out of retirement for one last job.
The ‘remainer’ spin is not purely media-bubble stuff. Haulage firms have been warning of this sort of problem all the way through the Brexit negotiations; the margins are thin, the work exhausting and unrewarding, financially or otherwise, and in fact the haulage workforce has been declining for some time. The associated spin - that this is wholly a matter of incompetence or sociopathic disregard for consequences - is slightly misleading, since this is after all a matter of policy: erecting harder borders, according to the Brexit script, is supposed to start a transition away from a low-wage, low-productivity economy towards something better, and even a successful such transition could hardly take place with no disruption at all. Of course, we do not in fact expect it to be successful, nor do we expect the stated policy to outlive its electoral pertinence - more of which later.
The trouble with the gas supply is a little more interesting, and basically a matter of a huge spike in global demand, as countries unfreeze their pandemic economies. In lieu of economically viable renewables, the denuclearised energy systems of Japan and Germany - both, of course, industrial economies - are unusually hungry for natural gas. The supply to Europe from Russia is interrupted, with cold-warrior types speculating that this might be pressure to get a new pipeline approved avoiding the Ukraine. Unusually calm weather has disrupted wind power. And so on.
Of course, supply and demand do fluctuate - sometimes according to chaotic market mechanisms, and often in strategic industries like fossil fuels artificially. It is generally a good idea to keep reserves around for such cases. But successive British governments, by privatising and then deregulating the industry, conspired to minimise those reserves. Having opened up North Sea oil and gas, we merely burned through all of it, because gas-generated electricity was suddenly so much cheaper; the wider supply chain operates effectively on a ‘just in time’ basis, which is absolutely splendid and terribly efficient (until anything at all goes wrong).
In this respect, the situation is similar, after all, to the other problems - the petrol, the food supply, and so forth. By insisting on running all these things very lean, for short-term boosts to profitability, the whole system is very fragile.
Looming over all of this is, of course, capitalist civilisation’s catastrophic failure to decarbonise meaningfully at all. Though the unreliability of common renewable energy sources is implicated, as we have noted, in the current mess, the total and necessary failure of the bourgeoisie to mend its destructive ways made such a perverse outcome far more likely.
The ‘blame Brexit’ framing of this affair, apart from its direct explanatory value, points us at least in the direction of a historical understanding of the present disruptions, which are not merely an unfortunate contingency - a ‘perfect storm’ (or lack of storm, in the case of our undisturbed wind turbines).
The commentators crying foul about Brexit now are the heirs of the social neoliberals of especially the 1990s - in this country exemplified by Tony Blair. There were, so far as Blair and Gordon Brown were concerned, certainly things a government could do to improve things for voters, but these were invariably either small and marginal or else had to be filtered through a perverse structure that allowed the private sector to cream something off the top. Simply directly spending money on public services or jobs programmes would cause capital flight to lower-wage economies. The British had to face up to the reality of what was called ‘globalisation’, and accept that labour markets would be more competitive, and that was the price of post-cold war international comity - such as it was.
We need not relitigate in detail the blows dealt to this complacent outlook over the last 20 years; but we should note that above all the financial crash of 2008 unleashed a dynamic away from ‘peaceful’ globalisation, as richer countries offloaded the consequences onto poorer ones, and creditors stayed intact at the cost of huge social dislocation. What was, at the outset of this century, a bourgeois consensus so impregnable that the mildest Keynesian deviations would get a pundit sent to the funny farm, is - as of today - fantastically implausible at the political level, after Brexit, Donald Trump, the formal definition of ‘Xi Jinping thought’ and many other phenomena.
What remains of that outlook is what remains of the world the neoliberal globalisers built. There really are vast and complex supply chains cross-hatching the surface of the earth; and, above all, for such reasons our fair island nation has come to grief. If Johnson is serious about his nationalist project (on that point, who can tell?), he - or somebody in his pay - will have to confront far more dangerous problems in this sphere than those looming over him this autumn. It is poor luck for British omnivores if they cannot get a turkey for Christmas, but Britain is a significant net importer of food; there is a real risk of far worse disruption if trade cannot be regularised or else domestic agriculture reshaped, such that it can actually feed people reliably. So for food, so also for gas, petroleum, computer chips, rare earth metals, car parts …
If this is likely to be an endless source of headaches for Johnson and the post-Brexit bourgeois establishment more generally, it ought to serve as a wake-up call for those on the left who indulge delusions of national-autarkic ‘socialism’. Such is obviously true of the ‘Lexiteers’ themselves - the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party, and - above all - the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. A Star editorial on the crisis notes:
Petrol pumps running dry and empty shelves in the shops are exposing chronic weaknesses in an economic model based on long supply chains, underinvestment in skills and training and the super-exploitation of underpaid foreign labour.1
Which is true as far as it goes, but, of course, not all of those “long supply chains” can really be shortened. The oil and gas are where they are, and - our dwindling reserves of the North Sea excepted - they are not in Britain. The Star and CPB expect no ‘sunlit uplands’ from Johnson, but suppose it merely to be a matter of political will and of subordination to the capitalist class. Those are hardly unimportant, but a ‘Lexit’ government would face - thanks to hostility from the antibodies of the world system - worse immediate economic dislocation than Johnson.
We can at least agree with the Star and all other reputable leftwing outlets on one other takeaway from all this: running ‘natural monopolies’ like energy on a capitalist basis is the road to disaster, and the necessary remedy is nationalisation and subjection to democratically accountable planning in natura. But a qualifier is necessary: the truth is that supply-chain logistics in the largest firms is already conducted according to a plan, and market price signals are at most incidental and more commonly effects of the plan. It is merely that today it is done non-transparently, with the aim of enriching senior managers and investors.
The choice is not between the market and the plan, but the democratic and oligarchic versions of it.