I don’t generally give much credence to conspiracy theories. But in these times of “fake news” and “alternative facts” it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid them. George Monbiot is a journalist and commentator that I trust. He references all his claims to well documented real facts. So when he writes about a long term plan to undermine the European Union and promote the agenda of corporate America I believe him.
And the tragedy is that, in order to achieve their aim, this small but powerful group have conned the most disadvantaged citizens of both Britain and America into supporting their aim through the kind of deception of which the late Paul Daniels would be proud. Misdirection and sleight of hand were used in Britain to convince people living in its most deprived communities that their best interests would be served by divorcing themselves from the international body that has provided peace, prosperity and slow but steady advances in human rights over the last 40 years.
The same droit de main was employed by Donald Trump to convince the residents of rust belt USA that he would “clear the swamp” and bring jobs back to the homeland.
Of course, there are conspiracy theories at the other end of the political spectrum, too. A shocking number of Americans still believe that global warming is not the result of the burning of fossil fuels. Encouraged by the same think tanks that Monbiot exposes in his Guardian article, they choose instead to believe that, along with LBGT rights and Obamacare, it is all part of a left wing plot to bring about the Socialist takeover of America.
If history tells us anything it is that the last 150 or more years have witnessed an incessant battle between those who want to see the greatest good for the greatest number and those who want to use the advance of knowledge as a tool for their own enrichment. In Britain the former was traditionally represented by the Liberal and Labour Parties, backed by the Trade Union and co-operative movements, whilst the latter was always the motivating force of the Tory Party. In America, the Democrats, backed by the Labor unions, on the one hand, and the Republicans on the other, fulfilled similar roles.
Differences within each of these political movements were concerned more with the pace of change than with the direction it was taking, with moderates tending to favour gradual progress, fearing the damage that might be caused by too rapid an advance.
Education and the value of work
Fundamental to both ends of the political spectrum is a belief in the importance of education and the value of work. The difference is that the right seeks to keep down the cost of labour; not just the rates of pay, but the additional cost of providing training, health care, holidays, pensions, protection from potential work place hazards and sick pay. It also abhors attempts to protect consumers from any possible harm that might arise from the use of the products of labour, including over-pricing. The left campaigns for better pay and conditions for workers and greater protection for consumers.
By taking the lead in establishing rules and regulations that address the concerns of workers and consumers, the European Union is seen by the right as placing obstacles in the way of business success. The Obama administration in the USA is viewed similarly by Trump and the GOP.
And yet UKIP in the UK, and Trump in the USA, managed to convince people, not only that these regulations were responsible for the loss of traditional jobs, but also that both Brussells and Washington were in thrall to corporate lobby groups. You might be excused for concluding that these claims are mutually exclusive. In fact they are not. It is, rather, a question of which trend holds supremacy at any given point in time. Labour unions and human rights activists lobby for greater regulation whilst bodies representing big business lobby against such advances.
But corporations respond to increased regulation by moving manufacturing to less well regulated jurisdictions, thereby reducing their costs and destroying the traditional jobs of British and American workers . Meanwhile significant numbers of people from those jurisdictions choose to move to the US and the UK in order to take advantage of the many benefits available to the citizens of those countries. Employers in UK and US are happy to give work to foreigners who, being used to poor working conditions, are happy to turn a blind eye to minor infractions of those regulations that protect their British and American counterparts.
Sooner or later, however, as prosperity spreads to those less regulated jurisdictions, similar regulations, protecting the rights of workers and consumers, will be introduced. That is the only way that jobs might return to deprived communities in the North of England or the American rust belt. Removing the hard won rights of workers and consumers, the inevitable consequence of Britain’s exit from the EU and Trump’s plethora of EOs, will not do it.
A century and more of progress in human rights has been accompanied by advances in science and engineering that have served to reduce the need for manual labour in most traditional industries. An age in which machines did the work and men enjoyed greater leisure has been predicted since before I was born 75 years ago. And yet the number of people in employment has continued to rise throughout that time (see here for the latest UK employment figures and here for those for the USA). So I have even less faith in the possibility of such predictions coming true than I have trust in conspiracy theories.
There can be no doubt, however, that the nature of work will continue to change, as it has done throughout history. And governments wishing to keep pace with that change need to focus on education and training so as to equip their citizens to meet the challenge.
Notwithstanding any conspiracies dreamed up by big corporations, I remain optimistic that science and engineering will confound the worst predictions of the world’s pessimists. After all, one of the most successful and wealthy corporations the world has ever known – Microsoft – was a tiny operation 40 years ago and no-one back then, except, perhaps, it’s founders, could have imagined the technological revolution for which it has been responsible, or the nature of the hundreds of thousands of of jobs it has created.