This is an important and thoughtful article from Aditya Chakrabortty, obviously a very well-rounded thinker. It's well worth the read, and touches on some of the themes in my side bar below titled "Selected Posts." I've been going on about issues of industrial decline, particularly where they relate to green technology, for years now.
I was lucky enough to have had one of those superb technical educations in my youth, the kind that no longer exists, where I was taught to do pretty much anything in the engineering fitter/fabricator's pantheon.
This wasn't trivial. My high school gave all of us two whole years of classes in each of Metalwork, Woodwork, and, just to make sure we were up-to-date, Plasticwork. The young men (this was back in the days of sex discrimination in education) had to take Technical Drawing (the women took Needlework, but then, thanks to the then-burgeoning women's movement, we all took Home Economics).
Then I won a place in the Royal Air Force's vaunted aircraft technician pipeline at RAF Halton. Eight hours a day, for a whole year, of everything you ever wanted to know about, and do with, aircraft engine technology -- hands-on. We literally took apart whole airplanes and put them back together, all day long. I'll never regret that time.
(Except for the daily drill and parades and PT three times a week, just to remind we were still in the military. And oh, how those drill sergeants and corporals hated us baby techies -- they could lord it over us for the length of the course, while we were mere LACs, but almost as soon as we graduated, we went right over their heads on the pay scale.)
But then came Thatcher.
Britain was supposed to wake up and smell the post-industrial coffee, give up on three hundred years of engineering technology predominance, which in Thatcherite terms was fatally and permanently associated with socialism, and step boldly into the post-modern world. Britain was no longer to be run by grumpy northern and western working class industrialists like Nye Bevan or Ernie Bevin, but instead suave smooth suburbanites from the home counties, preferably with aristocratic connections sufficient to woo the Iron Lady (who in my view had a rotten inner core of inferiority complex), would lead us into the bold new future.
The unemployment of the Thatcher years would end, we were told, when all the market distortions were wrung out of the economy, and then we'd all have well-paid roles in the Service Sector and the Information Age.
We took three hundred years of technological supremacy, in which analysis and data and destructive testing could tell you, with effort, what was true or not. And we discarded it. We threw the baby of technology out with the bathwater of socialism, and instead swallowed the Newspeak of spin as our new Authorised Version.
It's a pity George Orwell was dead by 1984. He would have worked with wondrous satire on Thatcher and her spinmongers.
What followed was the Stalin-esque purging of whole northern and western British communities. If you want to see what this looked like, the film Billy Elliot is a good way to do so. Just watch what's going on in the background, instead of the ballet in the foreground.
Oh. And enjoy The Clash on London Calling, permanently part of the soundtrack of my youth. They don't make 'em like that anymore, either.
My own personal discombobulation at this wholesale change in national ideology, which was admittedly only partly-thought out at that point, led me out of the RAF and even out of the country, never to return. Twelve years of a superb American liberal arts education, and ten years research into renewable energy technology and climate change mitigation policy, and I'm just about beginning to understand it all.
Meanwhile, the world turned, and the general lack of internal western agreement on industrial policy has made it so we've invented whole industries since then, industries by the bucket load, and turned them over to the Chinese.
And now we have ten per cent unemployment. Again.
So what's the solution?
This may be where I part company with Chackrabortty. He seems to think, although he doesn't quite come out and say so, that those manufacturing jobs can somehow be clawed back from the Chinese.
This is a conceptual error. We need a more nuanced view of what has actually happened, and then we'll realize that this isn't likely or even possible. Sure, we've given the Chinese, and continue to give them, the technological information, and even the specialized equipment needed to create vast new industries. They're building massive new cities of millions of people around the factories that now house our older industries.
But we didn't give them what they really should have wanted, which was the robotics, and the code, and the builders of robotics and code, and then the engineering and materials science and chemical and biological design, that they would need to build any truly modern industry.
There are no legions of workers in a modern factory. There are legions of computers, connected to laser cutters, robots, and computerized assembly lines. Someone has to design and build all this stuff, of course, often from scratch, which is one reason that those few of the old fitters and tool-and-die makers that learned how to use the new machines are so highly paid. But that's not very many people. A team of a few hundred up-to-date western technologists, Germans or Brits or Americans, armed with millions of gigabytes of ROM, can design and build a factory that can make enough solar panels for a small city in a year, and then go on to build another factory, and another.
But these are factories that have virtually no workers.
Check out this Nanosolar video here to see what this really looks like.
All those miners in Billy Elliot? There aren't jobs for them in a Nanosolar world.
It isn't that the west's ability to imagine things and build them has declined. It's actually been enhanced and refined by the addition of cybernetics and nano-engineering and biology, whole new electronic and materials technologies invented wholesale in our universities and industrial laboratories.
And we didn't give that stuff to the Chinese. We couldn't give it to them, even if we were foolish enough to want to do so.
That kind of truly modern technological supremacy comes from the one thing the Chinese don't have, which is the freedom of speech and thought represented by our democracy, still standing despite the attacks from Citizens United and the Koch brothers; and the intellectual freedom represented by our glorious and still supreme higher educational system, still standing despite all the dumbing-down that No Child Left Behind and our ridiculous commercial media can throw at it.
And it's that freedom and that educational system that ultimately leads to these technologies.
As long as China is a closed society with a closed political system, all they will get will be our secondhand technology, not the good stuff.
Because no-one that smart wants to live someplace where your vote doesn't count.
Now the Indians, however, are another story. They do have an open society, and they are easily capable of learning to do what we do, once they've figured out how to end the corruption in their political system.
But they're on our side. I don't fear the Indians. They're not a threat to freedom and democracy. Despite their burgeoning revolutionary movement led by Gandhi, two and a half million Indians volunteered to fight for Britain during the Second World War. Indian people are thoroughly integrated into both British and American society. We'll go forward together.
None of this is helpful for the nine or ten per cent of Americans and Britons that are currently unemployed.
Even with our technological and yes, manufacturing prowess, there aren't, and won't be, well-paid jobs for badly trained or untrained workers who can't read, write, think, figure, understand science and technology, use a computer, and most importantly of all, imagine.
And the really well-paid jobs will be for people who can do all these things at a very high level of intellectual ability.
We have to figure out what to do with these other people, the folks who don't or can't think.
But in the absence of the mass industrial employment of old, figuring out what to do with the New American and British lumpenproletariat is no longer a manufacturing problem.
It's a social problem. A huge social problem.
It's not that there aren't useful things for them to do. There's plenty of useful, undone work in our society for people who can't or won't learn technology and science: in health care and non-science education and the environment and social work.
It's instead that we seem to think we would rather have unemployed, untrained people crowding our capital parks and demonstrating, or worse, in the unemployed and drug-infested underclass, than to simply raise our upper-income bracket taxes a little to pay them to do some of this useful work that the commercial market can't or won't do.
Do the Koch brothers and their ilk really think that they will enjoy living in a society where so many people are so permanently unemployed and not provided for?