September 19, 2017

The Nineteen Eighties

The changes that have occurred in our society during the 1970s have not led me to modify the predictions I made ten years ago regarding the medium (thirty years) to long-term future of this country, which were published in the last chapter of my book Can Britain Survive? published in 1971.

To predict the exact time-scale of these developments however, and hence how far they will have progressed by the end of the next ten year period, is very much more difficult. Nevertheless this is how I see the 1980s—

The changes that will most affect the direction of our society must be those that affect our attitudes. For it is attitudes that determine how we behave and hence our attitude to life—within a given set of physical constraints—determines how we live.

During the 1980s there is likely to be a very substantial change in our attitudes to just about everything, in particular our more basic values.

At the beginning of the 1970s most people still believed in the omnipotence of science and technology. In the preceding decades we had seen the invention of antibiotics, synthetic fibres, DDT, the supersonic jet and, of course, man had caught up with science fiction by landing on the moon. All this lent additional credence to this myth.

But disillusionment is beginning to set in. It is not that we have lost faith in the incredible ingenuity of our scientists, indeed living as we are at the dawn of the age of genetic engineering and of micro electronics, we know that our scientists are likely to continue to astound us with their seemingly limitless ingenuity. If we are disillusioned it is for a very different reason:- it is that we are coming to realise just how totally irrelevant all these incredible achievements are to the solution of the real and desperately serious problems that confront our society today—problems such as unemployment, famine and malnutrition, the growing epidemic of cancer and heart disease and above all the soil erosion and desertification that in the next thirty years are likely to reduce the world’s agricultural land by a quarter. “C’est magnifique”, might be a suitable reaction to the achievements of our scientists, “mais ce n’est pas la guerre”.

In the eighties, this attitude can only harden, indeed as more of the undesirable side-effects of these achievements become ever better documented, a reaction will set in against science and indeed against scientists. As Dr Schumacher used to say, we must choose between science and wisdom and it is wisdom that we shall be seeking in the next decade. This choice will affect everything we do because it is science and the technology it engenders that, more than anything else, including the decisions taken by our politicians, have determined the shape of our modern society.

At the same time we shall see the gradual abandonment of our other closely associated values and beliefs. Thus a reaction has already set in against individualism which we are beginning to realise to be but a euphemism for the social isolation and anonymity of our mass society and instead people are frenziedly searching for their roots—trying desperately to establish for themselves some sort of social identity. Hence the present trend towards the accentuation of ethnic differences, a reversal of the previous trend towards social homogenization. On the positive side this must lead to the development of regionalism, indeed the recent set-backs encountered by the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists are certain to be reversed during the 1980s—a healthy trend towards a more decentralised society. On the negative side it may well lead to worsening race relations.

We are also likely to see a strong reaction against the materialism of our modern world. It has already begun to set in amongst middle class youth who are displaying growing concern for nature, aesthetics and the things of the spirit. During the industrial age we were told that all these things were of little account largely because our scientists could not quantify them; they were not seen by our economists as making any contribution towards Gross National Product nor were hey an obvious source of votes for our politicians.

As Weber and Tawney pointed out, an aspect of social behaviour whose nature is largely determined by attitudes, rather than by the more easily quantifiable variables that monopolize the attention of our economists, is economic behaviour. It is probably the attitudes engendered by the welfare state that have above all reduced Britain’s economic competitiveness and hence its material prosperity. Indeed a society cannot hope to compete economically if its citizens have been taught to take prosperity for granted—and assured that, even if they make no effort of any kind, the State will see that their standard of consumption remains relatively unaltered.

The new attitudes that will develop during the 1980s are not likely to be any more favourable to our economic competitiveness, because people will come to attach ever less importance to the benefits that a successful economy can provide.

Attitudes that are more favourable to economic competitiveness have, on the other hand, been developing very rapidly in other countries, in particular in those that are coming to be called the

NICS or Newly Industrialised Countries such as Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea.

Competition from these and from other countries such as Japan, France and Italy for whom the industrial way of life is still a relative novelty is likely to lead to the steady decline of our manufacturing industries that were once the basis of or material prosperity.

The textile industry is already dying, as is ship building and also machine tools. Import penetration is growing fast, indeed the market for shoes in this country has been largely taken over by the Italians; that for cutlery by the South Koreans; and even a seemingly peripheral market such as that for shrubs and ornamental trees is now firmly in the hands of the Dutch. Much more serious is the plight of our motor industry which is losing ground every year. If British Leyland is forced to close down most of its operations as seems probable, this enormous market will also largely be taken over by foreign companies. The fact that Japanese, Italian and German cars are better designed, better manufactured, better marketed and better serviced than ours is simply symptomatic of the fact that attitudes (both on the part of our management and of our workers) are no longer those of a successful industrial nation.

The notion that the micro-electronics revolution will be of benefit to us is sheer wishful thinking. To succeed in this field we would need above all the most ingenious engineers. British engineers are indeed among the world’s most ingenious but it is the Americans who are likely to benefit from their ingenuity for they will offer them much more exciting jobs at a very much higher salary. Also there is little reason to suppose that we can mass-produce high precision electronic devices better than can the Japanese. If there is anything to go by it must be our record in the manufacture of transistor radios. It is a poor one.

We will be tempted to protect our declining industries by introducing more and more protectionist measures. Indeed the reaction against free trade is likely to be a radical one, for Free trade must favour the most efficient and the most competitive. Such measures can only encourage other countries to do the same, which must lead to a reduced level of world trade. This would only be tolerable if our government took the necessary measures to encourage self-sufficiency and this it is unlikely to do, though self-sufficiency is likely to become a key value among a large section of the population, but this I shall come back to later.

The level of international trade is likely to be reduced for another reason. In the last thirty years every country in the world has sought desperately to ‘develop’ and ‘industrialise’. We have encouraged them to do so and by doing this have signed our own economic death warrant. Material prosperity in this country was achieved by importing raw materials and selling finished products, a formula that was very effective so long as it was applied by one or two countries only, but which cannot work once every country in the world is trying to do the same thing.

They cannot all import raw materials, for who will export them? Every country will now require the raw materials it produces for use in its own manufacturing industries. Nor can they all export finished products for if every country manufactures its own why should it import other peoples’? What we are likely to see is a tremendous pressure on raw materials which will grow as the world’s limited economic sources become depleted together with a massive world surplus of manufactured goods only the most competitive of which are likely to find a market.

World trade is likely to be affected in still another way. Our planet cannot support its present population of 4.5 billion people even in the short-term. Official forecasts of a world population of 6-7 billion by the end of the century are naive and irresponsible. During the 1980s world population would indeed increase by an extra five or six hundred million people if it proved possible to feed them, but it will not be. There is practically no useful land left to bring under the plough and few farmers in the Third World can now afford the increasingly expensive chemical inputs required to increase yields any further.

At the end of the 1980s the world population is unlikely to have increased above the present level, famine will have seen to that. Half a billion people are in fact likely to die of starvation or rather from the infectious diseases to which starving people tend to succumb.

The main causes of starvation are population growth, soil erosion, desertification and international trade, and it is the latter which is the easiest to deal with. At present a vast proportion of the agricultural land in Third World countries is used to produce food for export and the foreign currency earned in this way is spent on manufactured goods, increasingly high technological installations such as dams, and power stations and also armaments—none of which they have yet learnt to produce themselves. As famine becomes more widespread however, so will Third World countries have to spend more and more of their foreign currency to buy food and it cannot be long before they realise that it is to their advantage to produce the food themselves. To do this however would mean correspondingly reducing their exports of cash crops and would have the effect of depriving industrial countries of all sorts of commodities such as rubber, coffee, sugar, jute and much of the feed for our livestock. It would also considerably reduce the market for our finished products, as Third World countries would no longer have the foreign currency with which to pay for them.

Inflation must also continue to soar. It will increasingly be of the new type—that which is reconcilable with economic stagnation—and which is due to long-term rather than to short-term maladjustments between supply and demand.

This “structural inflation” as it might be referred to (on a parallel with “structural unemployment”) largely reflects ever less propitious conditions for the economic process (changing attitudes, increased competition, growing pressures on scarcer energy and mineral resources, water shortages, land shortages, capital shortages etc.).

Energy must remain a critical question during the eighties though in the early part of the decade we might well find an oil glut leading to a price cut. This might occur partly because of increased production spurred on by rising prices but also because of the world decline in economic activity. The OPEC countries might well become desperate to maintain their current income without digging into reserves that they have been accumulating for a rainy day, and this will force down the price of oil still further. As a result there is likely to be reduced investment in North Sea oil and a reduction in oil exploration which will seriously aggravate the much more serious oil crisis that is likely to occur later on in the decade.

It is difficult to see the medieval regimes of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States surviving into the late eighties. The process of modernisation or ‘westernisation’ which they have set in motion cannot but cause all sorts of serious social problems which must lead to a revolution of some sort, perhaps along the lines of that which has just occurred in Iran, but which in any case must seriously threaten Western oil imports from this the richest oil producing area of the world.

The crisis is likely to be exacerbated by the predictable failure of Western Governments to introduce the indispensable crash programme of energy conservation of the sort proposed in this country by Gerald Leach in his Low Energy Future for Great Britain. This must provide the only road to energy salvation, the only one that does not require long-term research and technological development for which there is not time, and massive capital outlays which we cannot afford.

The nuclear industry is likely to make but a small contribution towards filling the energy gap. Indeed if there is one thing one can be certain of, it is that the 1980s will see the end of the nuclear adventure. It is indeed extremely unlikely that any nuclear power stations will be built after this ten year period.

The Austrians have already voted against building nuclear reactors. Every year an ever greater proportion of the population of most European countries joins the ranks of the anti-nukes. In most states of the USA it is now politically impossible to build a nuclear power station and in that country the nuclear industry is as good as dead. Efforts to go ahead with our nuclear programme are likely to be impeded at each level by the anti-nuclear movement. Uranium miners will increasingly refuse to mine uranium, dockers will refuse to load it on to ships, sailors to transport it and workers in nuclear installations to process it into fuel, use it to produce energy and reprocess, stock or dump the wastes.

Accidents must continue to occur. One can predict at least one major accident within the next ten year period. It is in France that it is likely to take place. In this country the nuclear programme is being given such high priority that even the most serious technical hitches are not allowed to interrupt the present crash building programme. If a pressurised water reactor somewhere doesn’t free its entire contents of radioactive material into the atmosphere in the next few years, we will be very lucky. However, once the Superphoenix breeder reactor starts operating at Greys Malville in about 1983, the risks will be of a different order of magnitude. Many nuclear scientists regard this experimental device—because that is what it is—as unworkable and a major accident as unavoidable. When it occurs and it releases its contents of 4.6 tons of plutonium into the atmosphere, perhaps some 500 times more than that released by the bomb that exploded at Hiroshima, the consequences will be too horrible to contemplate. This of course will mean the end of the nuclear adventure. No government will be able to build another such plant—public opinion would not allow it. In any case, as is becoming increasingly apparent, the breeder reactor is a very poor breeder. Its spent fuel must be retreated and more plutonium is probably used during retreatment than is gained during the lifetime of the reactor. This means that with or without accidents the nuclear industry has no future.

Clearly all responsible people will have realised well before the end of the 1980s that there is no alternative to oil, at least on the scale required to power an expanding world economy. This means that economic growth is simply no longer feasible. It also has another consequence. So far, to each new problem that has confronted us, we have applied ever more sophisticated technological solutions requiring increasing energy inputs. This shall no longer be possible. For the first time for many decades we shall be forced to apply solutions to our problems that make use of less rather than more energy. Because of the capital shortages already referred to, these solutions will also have to make use of less capital. This means setting our society on a very different course. In particular it will mean making use of our singularly neglected biospheric resources constituted by living things. The human family for instance is such a resource, and it will be found that if reconstructed it would be able to provide for itself many of the services that, in the last decade have had to be provided by elaborate, costly and energy-intensive state services. A forest is another such resource. Not only does it provide timber for building, for making furniture and also for fuel, but it also harbours wildlife, controls run-off to rivers, thereby preventing floods, and provides a multitude of other free services. During the 1980s one can predict a massive rebirth of forestry with a possible doubling or trebling of the existing forested areas in this country.

With a declining economy, a high rate of inflation and growing unemployment, wages—if they were determined by market forces—would inevitably fall, but they are not, they are largely determined by trade-union pressures and political exigencies.

This means that many classes of workers will simply price themselves out of the market. This is already happening to farm workers in the US and elsewhere. In the UK very few farmworkers would remain in employment if they were granted the £100 a week salary that they are at present demanding. From the farmers’ point of view this creates serious problems today since the price of the machinery and chemicals that have, up till now, been introduced to replace labour, is increasing just as fast.

This means a reversal of trends towards higher agricultural yields and high production as it must become economic to aim at achieving lower yields by reducing expenditure on machinery, chemicals and labour.

Some labour is nevertheless required and this will have to be obtained outside the formal economy. There will undoubtedly be a return to the family farm which must now come into its own since it does not have to pay a formal salary to its various members. It must also make the commune movement more attractive. This development however will be slow. In the meantime farmers will tend to employ people who are officially unemployed and thereby have access to unemployment benefits which makes it possible for them to work for a lower wage. In Italy this is already occurring on a massive scale. In general, if the system is unworkable then more and more things will take place outside it—not just agriculture.

Learning to live outside the system will become a necessity in view of the massive rise in unemployment that can be expected in the 1980s.

More and more people, in particular women, will seek jobs—two or more jobs per family will in fact be required if people want to maintain present lifestyles in ever less propitious conditions.

On the other hand, less and less jobs will be available because of our declining industry and because of increasing automation. As the micro electronics revolution gets under way we shall soon see, to quote the present French Minister of Industry “a countryside without farmers . . . factories without workers, offices without employees and hospitals without doctors.” Inevitably this must mean unemployment on an unprecedented scale.

As the numbers of unemployed escalates so will it prove increasingly difficult to provide them with unemployment benefits, the sums required being simply too massive. In any case, unemployment benefits are unlikely to increase as rapidly as inflation which must lead the unemployed to find alternative methods of sustaining themselves. Indeed if the unemployed are to survive they will have to learn to live with unemployment. To do this will mean building up an informal sector of the economy. More and more people will work unofficially. Payments in general will increasingly be made under the table, people will tend to produce their own food and make the things which they would previously have bought. All sorts of new associations will be formed within the informal economy and communes during the eighties should really come into their own. Indeed as the formal economy contracts—as it ceases to provide opportunities for investment, consumer goods and services that people can afford and employment on a socially significant scale—so must the informal economy correspondingly expand. The only alternative, it might be appropriate to point out, would be revolution.

To maintain control the government will have to become increasingly authoritarian. Only an authoritarian regime, indeed a police state, would be able to implement the planned nuclear programme in the face of increasing public opposition.

As things get worse, however, one can expect an increasing polarisation between the main political parties. The Conservative Party may well move further to the right and the Labour Party will clearly move further to the left. The formation of a Centre Party consisting of moderate Conservatives, Liberals and moderate Labour seems more and more likely. It will attempt to hold the balance between the two extreme groups and may indeed do so for a while. This Party of the Centre may well win the next general election. Hopefully the growing successes of the Ecology Party at local and national elections will encourage the Centre Party to adopt many of its ideas. These will appear increasingly attractive since they provide the only set of solutions to our worsening problems that do not involve massive expenditures of energy, resources and capital that in any case will not be available.

If its leaders remain closed to ecological ideas, then it is possible that the Ecology Party will become an important political force, its power-base being derived from the young, from women, who seem very much more concerned about the future than are men, (except Mrs Thatcher) and from those living within the informal economy.

In the meantime, the USSR during the 1980s must be in for a rough time, its role of provider of petroleum to its satellites will be compromised as economic sources of oil are depleted. There is probably a lot of oil in Siberia but it is very expensive to extract and to transport. The USSR will also be plagued by recurrent food shortages which could well be seriously aggravated by the growing instability of world climate—that is largely the result of atmospheric pollution. Another of its problems will be the massive costs of its armaments programme and of its overseas adventures. In Angola, Ethiopia and Afghanistan the USSR has backed the wrong side: the degenerate urbanised minority against the much more virile tribal peoples who must win out in the long run.

Russia’s growing troubles will also encourage increasing agitation among ethnic minorities within the Soviet Union in particular the Asiatic ones.

Their European satellites are also likely to make life very difficult for them. The massive Russian Empire will be well on the way to disintegration by the end of the eighties. The trouble is, so will the USA and the rest of Western society. It is not clear what the Russians could gain by conquering the West, though this does not mean that they might not try to do so, as such a move—the ultimate ‘pork barrel’ operation—might be forced on them by an all powerful military pressure group.

What is certain is that a nuclear war would trigger off, among the survivors, the final and most extreme stage of the reaction against Science, which will have provided—in this case as in all the others we have considered—the tools of our destruction.


  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Diaspora
  • email
  • Add to favorites
Back to top