The Black Country

note: we will return to our regularly scheduled topic next time.

What is there to say about Brexit that hasn’t already been said?

Well, one thing, at least. One fact that I find of significance but haven’t seen pointed out anywhere else so far is that one of the highest proportions of places voting “yes” was the English Midlands:


Why is that significant? Well, mainly for symbolic reasons. You see, the English Midlands was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. A revolution that seems to have run its course.

One area of particular significance  to the Industrial Revolution was called the Black Country. The Black Country has a long history in industrialism; it was the site of significant proto-industrialization which laid the groundwork for Britain’s formal Industrial Revolution going as far back as the 1600’s. It is centered around Birmingham and consists of the boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, and Walsall.

And how did these areas vote in Brexit? All of them went for it, some by significant margins:

  • Dudley

    Leave 67.6%
    Remain 32.4%

  • Sandwell

    Leave 66.7%
    Remain 33.3%

  • Walsall

    Leave 67.9%
    Remain 32.1%

  • Birmingham

    Leave 50.4%
    Remain 49.6%

  • Wolverhampton

    Leave 62.6%
    Remain 37.4%

EU referendum: The result in maps and charts (BBC)

I’ve often remarked at the irony that the very places where civilization first began–Syria and Iraq–are the most dramatic exhibits in civilizational collapse right now. Another irony – Europe’s most collapsing state is the cradle of Western culture – Greece. Well, here’s another irony: the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution may be one of the first areas in putting the elites on notice that deindustrialization has been a colossal failure, and that the globalist paradigm cannot continue.

It is one of the standard tenets of this blog that the deindustrial economy has been a failure, and that furthermore, we have nothing to replace it with. Our leaders can do nothing under the existing paradigm. We have been in a concealed depression since 1972. All our current crop of leaders can do is to lie and obfuscate to cover-up this state of affairs even as society continues to unravel. They’ve been trying to convince us that the hollowing out of entire countries is just the normal state of affairs, and that it was not the effect of very specific political choices.

Economic “science” was deployed in the late nineteenth century to replace what was formerly known as political economics. Its role was to claim that the economy was totally separate from the political sphere, and subject to “natural” laws as pure as the laws of physics and chemistry. Global trade is one of these, they argued. Politics must never “interfere” with these laws, according to the economic priesthood. The messy democratic process can only hinder prosperity, which can only be developed by total freedom of the merchants to do as they please, the argument went. The core aim of the project was to remove all democratic oversight from the economy whatsoever, and to justify that state of affairs.

Once people finally got a voice in the political sphere, they took advantage of it. A protest vote to be sure, but when it’s the only one you’ve got, well…

The incompetence and self-serving mismanagement of the current crop of elites has done nothing but enrich a tiny group of oligarchs at the cost of the hollowing out entire societies for over a generation now. All they are doing is “managing decline” while telling us it will “eventually” get better, even though “eventually” has been absent for decades. Just like a South Sea cargo cult, we’re going through the motions hoping that prosperity will somehow return if we just do what we did before.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the industrial world’s “sacrifice zones”:

The term de-industrialisation crisis has been used to describe the decline of labour-intensive industry in a number of countries and the flight of jobs away from cities. One example is labour-intensive manufacturing. After free-trade agreements were instituted with less developed nations in the 1980s and 1990s, labour-intensive manufacturers relocated production facilities to Third World countries with much lower wages and lower standards. In addition, technological inventions that required less manual labour, such as industrial robots, eliminated many manufacturing jobs.

About those areas, a common theme emerges:

The heavy industry which once dominated the Black Country has now largely gone. The twentieth century saw a decline in coal mining and the industry finally came to an end in 1968 with the closure of Baggeridge Colliery near Sedgley. Clean air legislation has meant that the Black Country is no longer black. The area still maintains some manufacturing, but on a much smaller scale than historically. Chainmaking is still a viable industry in the Cradley Heath area where the majority of the chain for the Ministry of Defence and the Admiralty fleet is made in modern factories.

Much but not all of the area now suffers from high unemployment and parts of it are amongst the most economically deprived communities in the UK. This is particularly true in parts of the boroughs of Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. According to the Government’s 2007 Index of Deprivation (ID 2007), Sandwell is the third most deprived authority in the West Midlands region, after Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent, and the 14th most deprived of the UK’s 354 districts. Wolverhampton is the fourth most deprived district in the West Midlands, and the 28th most deprived nationally. Walsall is the fifth most deprived district in the West Midlands region, and the 45th most deprived in the country. Dudley fares better, but still has pockets of deprivation.

As with many urban areas in the UK, there is also a significant ethnic minority population in parts: in Sandwell, 22.6 per cent of the population are from ethnic minorities, and in Wolverhampton the figure is 23.5 per cent…Resistance to mass immigration in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s led to the slogan “Keep the Black Country white!”.

The Black Country suffered its biggest economic blows in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when unemployment soared largely because of the closure of historic large factories including the Round Oak Steel Works at Brierley Hill and the Patent Shaft steel plant at Wednesbury. Unemployment rose drastically across the country during this period as a result of the Thatcher government’s neo-liberal economic policies…

Unemployment in Brierley Hill peaked at more than 25% – around double the national average at the time – during the first half of the 1980s following the closure of Round Oak Steel Works, giving it one of the worst unemployment rates of any town in Britain.

The sillon industriel was the first fully industrialized area in continental Europe. Its industry brought much wealth to Belgium, and it was the economic core of the country. This continued until after World War II, when the importance of Belgian steel, coal and industry began to diminish. The region’s economy shifted towards extraction of non-metallic raw materials such as glass and soda, which lasted until the 1970s. The days of prosperity were gone, however, and a trend of unemployment and partial economic dependence on the formerly poorer Flemish Region began, and continues to this day.

In the twentieth century local economies in these states specialized in large scale manufacturing of finished medium to heavy industrial and consumer products, as well as the transportation and processing of the raw materials required for heavy industry. The area was referred to as the Manufacturing Belt, Factory Belt, or Steel Belt as opposed to the agricultural Midwestern states forming the so-called Corn Belt, and Great Plains states that are often called the “breadbasket of America”.

The flourishing of industrial manufacturing in the region was caused in part by the close proximity to the Great Lakes waterways, and abundance of paved roads, water canals and railroads. After the transportation infrastructure linked the iron ore found in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Upper Michigan with the coal mined from Appalachian Mountains, the Steel Belt was born. Soon it developed into the Factory Belt with its great American manufacturing cities: Chicago, Buffalo, Detroit, Milwaukee, Gary, Cincinnati, Toledo, Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown, St. Louis and Pittsburgh among others. This region for decades served as a magnet for immigrants from Austria-Hungary, Poland and Russia who provided the industrial facilities with the inexpensive labor resources.

Following several “boom” periods from the late-19th to the mid-20th century, cities in this area in the end of the century started to struggle to adapt to a variety of adverse economic and social conditions. They include: the US steel and iron industries’ decline, the movement of manufacturing to the southeastern states with their lower labor costs, the layoffs due to the rise of automation in industrial processes, a decreased need for labor in making steel products, the internationalization of American business, and the liberalization of foreign trade policies due to globalization. Big and small cities that struggled the most with these conditions soon encountered several difficulties in common, namely: population loss and brain drain, depletion of local tax revenues, high unemployment and crime, drugs, swelling welfare rolls, poor municipal credit ratings and deficit spending…

Look, this isn’t esoteric knowledge, this is Wikipedia, for crying out loud! Yet our elites seem to not be aware of any of this, proclaiming with a straight face that we’ve never had it better. Do they seriously not know the above facts? Could they really not see this coming? Did they seriously think that putting their citizens in head-to-head competition with billions of the world’s poorest workers would somehow not have this effect? Could anyone be that stupid?

The voters aren’t stupid. They know this system has been a failure. They can see it with their own eyes! It’s led to:

  •  Low-wage service jobs.
  • “Bullshit” jobs that seem to have no reason to exist.
  • Temporary and precarious employment. Multiple jobs just to make ends meet.
  • Underemployment.
  • Overwork and underwork (too few or too many hours).
  • Absurd and extreme hoop-jumping for even the simplest jobs.
  • Refusal to invest so much as a penny in training new hires.
  • Dumping all the costs of training onto the backs of already strapped workers.
  • Ghettos.
  • Mass layoffs.
  • A rollback of employee benefits. Elimination of guaranteed pensions and retirement.
  • Extreme wealth and income inequality.
  • An exponential rise in consumer debt.
  • Soaring housing costs and gentrification.

We’ve been waiting for the “next big thing” for forty years now. It’s like waiting for Godot. Name one thing that’s gotten better in the social sphere in the past two decades.

IT delivered some relief, but that is clearly gotten to the point where it a net job destroyer. New industries in biological and materials science, engineering and programming require a small fraction of the labor of old. There are far more newly-minted lawyers, doctors, and MBA’s than there are spots available for them.

Just like an ecosystem, if the base of the pyramid – the autotrophs–fail, everything in the food chain is threatened. The removal of manufacturing jobs killed the base of the economy, and we’ve nothing to replace it with. The old, agrarian economy was destroyed, as was the family structure, in the service of industrialism. Now, those who profited want to walk away from the destruction they’ve wrought as though entire societies were no more than an abandoned mine or exhausted coal seam.

We’ve also seen an unprecedented assault on social safety nets all around the world, even as jobs continue to vanish and poverty metastasize. Governments all over are perennially “tightening their belts,” even as the private sector makes record profits and washes its hands of the need for labor. Desperate people have nowhere else to turn. Local governments respond by criminalizing homelessness and jailing and fining large portions of their populations.

What often forgotten is that even the “winners” of this system are having a horrible time of it. Even for the celebrated “college educated professional” or “STEM worker” the following conditions apply:

  • “Always on duty” thanks to the digital tether. “Laptop on the beach” syndrome.
  • Must show “passion” and dedication” just to have a job at all. Arrive early and leave late. Be an eager beaver. Cult-like atmospheres predominate.
  • Escalating education requirements. Master’s degrees and pH.D’s required for jobs which formerly only required a Bachelor’s degree or less.
  • Neverending certifications and “lifetime learning” just to keep your job
  • Staggering student debt burdens.
  • Stakhanovite work ethics; sacrificing one’s physical and mental health and social relationships for the job.
  • Workplace bullying and Machiavellian office politics.
  • Abuse of employees too scared to quit. This is especially bad where healthcare is tied to the job (the U.S.)
  • Impossible work deadlines. Stress.
  • Overspecialization.
  • The constant threat of replacement, and having to train that replacement.
  • Cost cutting measures to boost stock prices (laying off people and expecting the remainder to pick up the slack).
  • Self medication using Ritalin, Adderall, Modafinil, energy drinks, and other stimulants and psychotropic drugs. Widespread antidepressant use. Medication of children as young as five.
  • Extreme pressure on the children of elite professionals to excel from birth or be labelled a failure and an outcast. Intense competition driving many children to suicide.

That doesn’t sound that great to me, how about you? And those are the much-vaunted “winners” who justify the devastation wrought on those who “can’t keep up.” Thus, the idea that the “cognitive elite” are somehow doing great is baffling to me: they are burned out, heavily in debt, and stressed to the breaking point.

The proliferation of low-wage service jobs has made people desperate to get into the few remaining “good” jobs available where they can accumulate some savings and aren’t treated like a drooling meat sack, in a vicious zero-sum game. And those who are already in those positions know that their middle class status is always conditional and can vanish at any time without warning. One stumble and you might find yourself in a debt snowball that will last the rest of your life. A feeling of terror permeates workers in the economy except for those safely ensconced in the one percent or with dynastic wealth.

As colleges became the tollbooth to any job at all thanks to corporate America, they have became predatory institutions (ludicrously blamed on government education spending – why doesn’t Europe have the same problem, then?). Access to education is primarily located in expensive urban areas and costs a small fortune. No wonder there are such stark class divisions. All the post-industrial economy seems to create are “summer jobs.” It creates a number of supervisory positions, but only for the wealthy and well-connected. For the rest of us, there is a lifetime of stress and uncertainty.

The deindustrialization of the West has left a hollowed-out two-tier society that is unraveling. It is a way of life with no future.

There simply aren’t enough jobs for everyone in a post-Fordist system. Period. full Stop.

When we mechanized agriculture, we absorbed the people into the factories. Allegedly, we’d all be in “services” by now. But as services are automated away, no one can offer a reasonable alternative besides just, “wait and see.

Workplace participation has been declining for decades for men as women displaced them in the workplace, and for workers across the board in the last few years.

Low wage service work is not going to sustain an economy.

Unemployment and the tragic waste of human potential is driving everything from crime to drugs to terrorism to reactionary nationalism to racism to Jihad.

As the agrarian/rural way of life continues to be destroyed thanks to industrialized agriculture, millions have no choice but to continue to flee to the overcrowded slums of the world’s megacities, even as such cities are running low on water and being devastated by climate change, with entirely new diseases emerging. Now there will be no jobs for people when they get there. What are they supposed to do besides form gangs and militia movements like the Taliban, Boko Haram, the Islamic State? Maybe it’s time for a rethink.

And the response of our so-called “leaders” has been nothing more than palliative half-measures, distractions, and meaningless platitudes:

  • Calls for more education and worker retraining.
  • School “reform”.
  • “Enterprise zones”.
  • Generous subsidies to big business and the wealthy.
  • Startups.
  • Entrepreneurship.
  • Mass immigration to “grow” the economy.
  • 3D printing, smartphones, electric cars and solar power (i.e. “Elon Musk will save us!!!”).

Come on, does anyone take any of the above things seriously anymore? Eyerolling is the appropriate response.

Globalism and open borders have been forced upon people from above, and the people have had no say in it whatsoever to this point. It is a standard tenet of Neoliberalism to make sure that democratic forces can never have any effect on economic forces. Neoliberalism ensures that “natural” economic forces are free from all government “interference” (such as tariffs, industrial policy and job creation). It ensures that governments are perennially starved of funds and stripped of real decision making power, meaning citizens have no voice (except to buy or sell in the Market). And it demands that labor is appropriately “disciplined” to keep inflation at bay. Did no one see the problems with this concept?

Is it any surprise that people will take any opportunity to reassert the self-determination that has been denied them under the aegis of Neoliberalism? People have had no way to vent their anger and impotence, until now. It’s a minor blow, and perhaps even irrational on some level, but people who are hurting will take any chance to inflict punishment upon those they don’t like, even if they themselves wind up as collateral damage, as the ultimatum game demonstrates. When you have very little, you don’t care if you suffer as long as someone else suffers more.

So, to state another essential premise of this blog: we are long overdue for the next major social change–technocratic fiddling around the edges just won’t cut it anymore. We are living through a civilizational crisis. We are on the cusp of a historical transition, and the flash points are in the places where the old order has been around the longest and has apparently run its course.

6 thoughts on “The Black Country

  1. fan-forking-farking! You own the wheel-house today. I dig your work. Just look at Brexit’s 5 trillion losses over a few days and imagine the global fragility, despite the apparent bounce-back. The global elite have shat a few bricks; but nothing compared to the coming running-bond brick-laying ahead. It’s tempting, but impossible to say, “yee-haw!” at the impending doom.

    If nothing else, I find your work reassuring, which is immensely helpful psychologically and in, perhaps, practical ways, because I discuss such topics with loved ones. Like-minded individuals having clarity of thought help me move that needle.

  2. Regarding the idea of their being enough jobs to go around, I often show just one chart to shut up the elitist “everything is beautiful’ nonsense:

    Just 2 million more people working full time now than in 2008….8 damn years later!!!!…
    Also consider real median family income:

    its been dropping since 2000..we are back where we were in 1989…27 years ago. Granted this chart is a year old but we haven’t had a miraculous explosion of salaries in the last year(ie everyone getting a 10% raise)

  3. how can it be ‘progress’ when we are getting worse off and not better? The slight hiccup of improvement in the last few years…is the equivalent of putting a bandage on a bullet wound

  4. One thing I find a bit galling about Brexit is its portrayal as being supported by xenophobic racists with hardly a mention of how many have been burned by globalization and the underlying neoliberalism of the EU.
    I would be willing to wager that if the influx of immigrants into Britain was omposed not of’brown skinned people’ but of say white Swedes or Germans the working class British people would be just as upset at having to compete at lower wages for the jobs available.

  5. Poem you might find interesting as you seem to share similar ideas(as do I)

    I Am the People, the MobRelated Poem Content Details
    I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.
    Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
    I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.
    I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. And then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns.
    I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand for much plowing. Terrible storms pass over me. I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted. I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and makes me work and give up what I have. And I forget.
    Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then—I forget.
    When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.
    The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then.

  6. I just ‘got here’, so maybe this notion has been thoroughly discussed already, but, if not, how about the dark heart in the belly of the neoliberal beast.. the monetary system, i.e., debt money. When the current financial system goes up in smoke, we have an alternative (Thatcher’s TINA is a big fat lie)…. check out ‘The Chicago Plan’, also on Wiki ;); and the IMF white paper “Revisiting the Chicago Plan”; Kucinich’s bill N.E.E.D.; Zarlenga’s etc, etc. etc.

    A major problem is how to explain the basics to other non-choir folks, i.e., how money is created; historical success such as Colonial Scrip, Lincoln’s Greenbacks, Worl’s interwar currency, etc., etc.; the Chicago Plan/N.E.E.D. Bill, etc.

    So… how do we turn the critical learning into sound bites, etc… as Occupy Wall Street created the ‘1% vs 99%’ meme.

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