Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Why was the First World War so bloody?

'Battle Of The Somme, Attack of the Ulster Division', by artist J.P. Beadle.
One hundred years ago the Fourth Army was getting ready to go 'over the top'. Dawn tomorrow would be the start of the Battle of the Somme, the big push that would break through the German line and mark the beginning of the end of the First World War.

It didn't happen. Instead it was the bloodiest day in the bloodiest battle in the bloodiest war the British Army had ever fought.

By the end of the day over 19,000 British soldiers were dead, nearly 40,000 were wounded and the Germans had recaptured nearly all the ground they had lost. Amongst the units decimated were regiments of Kitchener's volunteers, including the 700 men from the Accrington Pals, who suffered 235 killed and 350 wounded in about half an hour.

The battle is regarded as the epitome of the pointlessness of the First World War. Brave men sent to their deaths by incompetent and uncaring leaders in an utterly pointless battle.

There is a lot of truth in this, but it isn't the whole story. General Haig made mistakes, but he knew his army wasn't ready. However he also knew that if he didn't attack, the French to the south may well crumble.

But there were also wider reasons for the disaster. This was just one day in a war that was to kill twelve million combatants, the most destructive war in European history to that point.

Why?

A different scale of slaughter

Looking back from 2016 ,the First World War can appear just a grim prequel to the even more bloody Second World War. However to the people who fought in it, it came after a century that became known as Pax Britannia. 'Peace' was a very relative concept, as this was actually a time of almost continuous fighting around the British Empire, but those were battles of a very different scale to the Somme.

Typical colonial wars involved no more than a handful of combat deaths for the Imperial Forces.When 1300 British and allied soldiers were killed by Zulus at the Battle of Isandhlwana, it was considered a major loss. When it took three years and 6000 combat deaths to bring the rebellious Boer farmers to heel it was considered an unprecedented disaster.

The sort of the battle the British public was used to was the Battle of Omdurman in 1897, where the army of the Islamic state of the Sudan was destroyed for the loss of only 47 British and Egyptian dead.

New defence, old offence

However the butcher's bill of 1st July 1916 would not have been such a shock to the Sudanese. At Omdurman their 52,000 man army had lost 12,000 dead in a few hours, a casualty rate twice as high as the Fourth Army's.

The Anglo-Egyptian Army that had defeated them had been armed with the latest weapons of industrial warfare.

These included;

  • Field artillery guns with recoil mechanisms. Previously guns had to be manually wheeled back into position every time they fired. As well as having greater range, the new guns could now fire as fast as the crew could load them.
  • The Maxim machine gun. Older machine guns, like the Gatling Gun were bigger, heavier, fired more slowly and tended to jam when most needed.
  • Infantry rifles with high velocity bullets. These were lethal at a mile, and were fed by magazines allowing a rate of fire of twenty rounds as minute. They also used smokeless ammunition, so you didn't give your position away when you fired.
Against this new weapons the Sudanese had only swords, spears and courage.

Technology had given the British Army the advantage at Omdurman, but on the Somme it was turned against them. The German Army they faced had the same weapons they'd used against the Sudanese, plus barbed wire and concrete bunkers.

The only new offensive weapon of the war was the hand grenade, then called the Mills Bomb. They were useful for attacking trenches, but when you're facing a Maxim gun with a range of 2000 yards, a weapon whose range is as far as you can throw it is not much use. Apart from that Haig's men had bayonets that were little more use than African swords.

Attacks in the First World War therefore usually consisted of trying to pulverise the enemy with heavy artillery before the infantry went 'over the top'.

However even if only enough Germans survived to crew a single machine gun, they could stop a battalion.

The morale of Kitchener's volunteer army that morning was sky high. The men advanced into the fire just as bravely as the Sudanese had done. However in an age of industrial warfare this made very little difference. Whether a soldier was brave was of little more relevance now than whether he was handsome.

Facing the defensive weapons of the new century whilst using the offensive weapons of the old is one reason why the butcher's bill was so high in the First World War, but it wasn't the only reason.

Communication Breakdown

Haig was also burdened with the communication systems of the last century.


Although radio had now been invented and was used by the ships of the Royal Navy, there were no portable sets. Instead then army had to rely on telephone lines, which could be cut by artillery, runners who could get killed and carrier pigeons who could not only be killed, but eaten afterwards.

These systems worked reasonably well when defending, but were completely useless when attacking. As a result the much maligned British Generals had to fight most of their battles blind. On the rare occasions that the British forces broke through the German lines, they were often unable to let their commanders know. The Germans by contrast knew exactly where the British were and could direct reinforcements to where they were most need.

And that was the next big problem: there were always lots and lots of reinforcements.

Industrial Warfare

But first let's go back a century or so.

On 18 June 1815 Napoleon met his Waterloo. Three and a half thousand men died in Wellington's army. The chance of being killed on that day was actually higher than on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, but there are two important caveats.

Firstly, at Waterloo, there wasn't a second day. The Battle of the Somme lasted more than four months.

Secondly, the battlefield of Waterloo was only three miles wide, which was about the size battlefields had always been.

Fast forward fifty five years and The Battle of Sedan, the climax of the Franco-Prussian War, was fought on a front seven miles long.

In 1916 Haig attacked on a front of 17 miles, which was just a small part of the 440 mile long Western Front which stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border.

And the reason battlefields were getting bigger was because armies were getting bigger. In 1815 Wellington had faced 73,000 French. In 1870 the French faced 200,000 Prussians. By 1916 there were 2.85 million Germans soldiers on the Western Front. That's enough men for them all to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, four ranks deep, from the North Sea to the Swiss Alps, and that's not counting their Austro-Hungarian allies. 

There had been other times in history where commanders had come up against formidable defences. The solution then had always been you go round the flank. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution it was possible to feed and supply armies on a scale never before seen. As a result there simply were no more flanks.

Somehow these vast armies were fed and watered, supplied with bullets and shells, and the wounded and sick cared for. So well cared for, relatively speaking, that the First World War may actually be the first war in history in which more soldiers died from enemy action than from disease.

Even in the Boer War, only a decade and a half earlier, only a quarter of those that died did so in combat.

Conditions at the front were terrible, but somehow the men were kept alive long enough for the enemy to kill them.

This mass mobilisation of men into the trenches was unique to the Great War. Armies were just as large in the Second World War, but they were also more mechanised. This meant that for every fighting man there were at least two more working in a support roll servicing, repairing or refuelling the men and the vehicles. They were still soldiers and it was still dangerous, but nothing like as dangerous as going 'over the top' in 1916.

The rise of armoured fighting vehicles also brought back manoeuvre into warfare. Tank forces could be concentrated in a few miles of battlefront, and once the breakthrough had been made they could exploit the gap faster than a rifleman with a 50kg pack. Radios kept the front line in touch with HQ and the infantry would travel in lorries or, by the end of the Second World War, their own armoured vehicles. 
So it was historical changes in the nature of warfare which made the first day of the Battle of the Somme such a particularly horrible incident in a particularly horrible war. Brighter generals would not have made much difference.

The only way to avoid have avoided the slaughter would have been not to fight at all, but in 1916 there were few who were for that option.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

How Capitalism defeated the Left and then itself

Paul Mason and Kondratiev Long Cycles

Marx was wrong.

Not about everything. In fact, all told, not about very much. But he was wrong about something that has been at the very heart of Marxism for a century and a half: the prediction that capitalism will face a crisis which will see it destroyed, and then replaced by something better.

It hasn't happened, despite plenty of people wishing it. Why it hasn't happened is a very important question right now, as capitalism is undoubtedly in a very deep crisis yet is signally failing to die let alone be replaced by something better.

This essay isn't about how to make that happen. Instead it is about why this has not already happened.

Crisis, what crisis?

The first half of Marx's prediction was undoubtedly correct: capitalism always faces a crisis. Or rather crises, because there have been rather a lot of them. This is perhaps Marx's greatest insight, that capitalism is not stable and these problems come round regular as clockwork. What's more, every now and again they are not ordinary run-of-the-mill crises but huge, industrial strength crises that threaten its very existence.

Marx lived through only one of these, so he missed the pattern, but in 1922 the Russian academic Nikolai Dimitrievich Kondratiev spotted it.

Kondratiev was the son of a peasant who had never-the-less managed to get into St Petersberg University. In 1917 he served for a few days in the social democratic administration that followed the fall of the Csar. With the Bolshevik revolution he returned to academia.

What Kondratiev spotted in his numbers was a 50-60 year cycle in interest rates. Marx had shown how overproduction caused regular recessions, but those cycles were over a much shorter time scale than these cycles. This was something much bigger and more fundamental. When he looked at other economic indicators the cycle appeared to be repeated. He traced two of these since the dawn of industrialisation.

This suggested that Marx's theory was wrong, or at least incomplete. If capitalism had survived two major catastrophe's already, why should the next one prove fatal?

Spotting the existence of the cycle though didn't explain it. Academics who followed Kondratiev thought changes in technology explained the cycles. These theories were plausible, but also contradictory. It's rare to find two that agree.

However of ex-journalist and fellow Lancastrian Paul Mason, looking at the problem anew from the present day, thinks there is more to it than this. Having witnesses recent events in Greece first hand, he knows a thing or two about crises. He also knows a thing or two about Marx, which is rare for a journalist.

This is his view of K Cycles and what they mean.

On your cycle

Capitalism requires growth. This is created by the capitalists using their unequal power over workers
to generate profits from the surplus value of their labour. In order to increase productivity they mechanise the workplace. That is Marx in a nutshell.

However, there are limits to this, and it is these limits that cause the periodic crises in capitalism. There is only so much work you can get out of a human being and, at any given level of technology, there is only so much labour you can save by investing in machines. There are other ways out of the conundrum too, such as new markets, new commodities and even new workers, but these have their limits too. At some point there is nowhere else for capitalism to go and capitalism faces an existential crisis.

According to the economists who explain it all with technology, the new machines then appear like magic to solve the problem. However according to Mason, the reality is a lot more messy.

But before we come to that, let's just sort out the time frames we're actually talking about.

The First Wave: 1780 to 1848

The first Kondratiev cycle started when capitalism started at the end of the eighteenth century. A lot of things happen one after the other, the first factories, the canals, better steam engines, railways, steel and so on. This is capitalism raw and primitive. Men, women and children exploited in Dark Satanic Mills. Labour was is unskilled, hours long and management is scary rather than skilful.

This cycle begins quietly but it's trajectory is evident from British, French and US data - the rest of the world is not yet affected much by capitalism - and that data points to it all coming to crashing end in about 1848, the Year of Revolutions and the year that Marx, along with his drinking buddy Engels, publishes The Communist Party Manifesto.

The Second Wave: 1848 to 1898

The second cycle follows on. This is capitalism as we know it. The bourgeoisie in their top hats and the workers in the flat caps. But this is different to what we had before. Labour is not monolithic. There are skilled and semi-skilled workers, there are trades, there are guilds and there is a financial system keeping the wheels turning. There are also Imperialists, seeking out new markets and new resources for exploitation.

But by the 1890s though the wheels are starting to come off the wagon. Economic crises are more frequent, labour unrest is more common and by Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee there is no part of the earth left which had not been brought into the global market. We are at the second crisis.

The Third Wave: 1898 to 1948

What rescues capitalism is the Second Industrial Revolution. New technologies arrive by the score.
The chemical industry produces artificial fertiliser, artificial dyes and petrol, which in turn powers cars, planes and motorbikes. Electricity lights us up and the telephone wires us up.

But perhaps more profound is the change in the nature of capitalism itself. The main actors are now no longer the rich capitalists, but the big corporations. These entities themselves appeared to fly in the face of everything Marx had written. Huge in scale, they ware protected by tariff barriers and operate state sponsored monopolies. Internally their organisation is based on function rather than competition. Writers as diverse as Rosa Luxembourg and James Burnham would eventually look at these big companies and wonder whether there really is much of a difference between capitalism and communism now.

The start of the downward curve of this wave is very easy to spot: the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which heralded the Great Depression. The final end came with the Second World War, a global crisis which, despite killing tens of million of people, never-the-less ushered in the next wave of global capitalism.

The Fourth Wave: 1948 to ?

The exact year this begins is a bit arbitrary, but 1948 is a good one, as it is the year of the Marshal Plan and the invention of the transistor. New technologies abound once again, but perhaps more significant is the change in the nature of society. This is the era of social democracy and the welfare state. 

No longer are the workers exposed to raw capitalism with no protection, they have health care, trade unions, unemployment benefits and representation in the political process. Over the next twenty five years almost everything the Left has fought for since the time of Marx comes to pass, and in return for these gifts from the capitalists the workers embraced consumerism, which in turn makes the wheels of the economy turn faster than ever before.

And then it all goes wrong.

Twenty five years into the cycle is 1973, and there, sure enough, is a huge crisis - the oil shock of 1973. Actually we could have picked other dates in that decade: the Nixon Shock in 1971 when the USA dropping off the Gold Standard or the second oil shock in 1979. Which ever one we go for though, it is clear that by 1980 the good times are over.

No Fifth Wave

If history had followed the deterministic course it appeared to be set on, the next cycle should have
started in 1998. Looking back to that year you can see some evidence for this. Bill Gates launched the second incarnation of his Windows software, and in the next few years Google, Youtube and all the architecture of the information revolution would be up and running.  At the same time we have the Kyoto Agreement of the previous year, potentially ushering in a new green industrial revolution.

But if this was the start of a brand new cycle, then we should not have had the biggest financial crash since the 1920s just ten years later. Instead of recovery the problems of the 1970s just carry on getting worse. Instead of a 25 year downward curve we have a forty year one, with no end in sight.

So what went wrong?

How Cycles End

To answer this question we need to look back at how each of the previous cycles ended.

But first a recap on what is going on here. After twenty five years of growth fuelled by increasing productivity from mechanisation, the economy starts to stagnate. Capital needs to look elsewhere for profits. With all the known markets all full there is only one source left, more exploitation of the workers.

Winding back to the 1810s, here we first see the staggering growth rates of the early industrial revolution start to falter. Capital has to call in the army to deal with the Luddites in 1812, and again in 1819 when 80,000 people gathered at Peterloo to demand reform. By 1832 though the Establishment is getting rattled, and agreed modest reforms. By the 1840s the Chartists are marching and, although an army of Special Constables is drafted in to meet them (including future Liberal PM Gladstone) the government effectively gives in.

Fast forward fifty years and the workers are marching again. Anarchists, communists, socialists
and most of all trade union are fighting back. In organised labour capitalism appears to have finally met its match. Many of the bourgeoisie really think the end is nigh.

So here we have it. The new cycles of capitalism are not created by the fortuitous arrival of new technology, nor by the enlightened insight of the capitalists. Capitalisms natural instinct is more repression, and only when that is stopped by the workers fighting back against does it try a different direction. It was not quite how Marx predicted, but not that far off.

Now let's look at the end of the third cycle in the 1930s. Once again the workers are mobilising, here and around the world. But lets ignore for a moment this country. Here we have austerity, but after the Royal Navy mutinies over pay cuts we dropped off the Gold Standard, listen to Keynes and start on the road to recovery. It is bad, but it could have been worse.

And in Europe it is.

The Death of Labour

When Hitler came to power in 1933 his first target is organised labour. When Dachau opens the first people to be enslaved there are 5000 communists and social democrats. Between 1933 and 1946 3.5 million Germans are interned for political reasons and 77,000 judicially executed.

The Left lost a civil war in Austria in 1934, resulting in the Social Democratic Party being outlawed, whilst between 1936 and 1939 Franco kills 350,000 anarchists, communists and republicans during the Spanish Civil War, and more in the repression that follows.

In Greece the dictator Metaxas bans all political parties (including his own, which was a somewhat unique move), arrests the communists and embarked on a war on Greek culture which sees even Plato put on a list of banned authors.There are other crackdowns in Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states.

In Russia the gulags have even more inmates than the German concentration camps, and a similarly terrifying death rate. For good measure the NKVD sends a team over to Mexico to put an ice axe through Trotsky's head.

What Orwell called "the flower of the European working class" is dying. Had Hitler stuck to exterminating his own people, and not had a go at the Poles as well, it may well have died completely. In the First World War many socialists became conscientious objectors, refusing to fight a war for capitalism. That does not happen in the Second World War. The survival of the Left depends on an allied victory.

Capital Wins

Fortunately the allies do win. Organised labour survives, but it is a close run thing.

For a while it prosperes too, but with the fourth cycle starting on its downward spiral this isn't going to last forever. The USA had thought it had been fighting communists since 1950, but really it was fighting nationalists. In 1973 though they have a real working class enemy in Salvador Allende of Chile.

Allende is deposed in a military coup and commits suicide. 3000 of his followers are killed and 27,000 are locked up, many being raped or tortured. Chile, meanwhile, is subject to a radical experiment to try to save capitalism. Now we call it free market reforms, or neo-liberalism, or austerity, but then it was known as the Chicago School model, as that is where its architects came from.

Taxes are be lowered, the state is shrunk, corporations are be given free reign, money is set free and organised labour is crushed. The capitalists ledgers are back in the black again, with the hit being taken by the working poor or the work-less even poorer. 

It works, sort of. Actually the free markets bits aren't that great a success, and Chile has capital controls in place for longer than Milton Friedman's fans like to admit, but crushing the trade unions proves to be a tremendous success. The model works, now it just needs to be rolled out.

The election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA allows this to happen. Reagan has striking air traffic controllers led away in chains whilst Maggie crushes the miners. Environmentalism, which for a while in the seventies had seems almost as big a problem as the oil price, is brushed aside, as Reagan tells us that most pollution is caused by trees.

Capitalism is back in business.

By the 1990s it appears that even the Left agrees. Clinton is elected to balance the budget and New Labour sweeps into power boasting that it doesn't mind if people get "stinking rich". The EU, which has been a bastion of social democracy for so long, goes with the flow.  

Then comes the credit crunch.

New exploitation, new technology and new financial products, it turns out, can't keep creating new money out of nowhere forever. The Left has been defeated, but still the problems of capitalism have not gone away.

Marx is suddenly being disinterred.

The Future

Kondratiev himself had paid a high price for his insight. His theory that capitalism wasn't inevitably doomed, but could reinvent itself with enough of a push, did not play well in Stalin's Russia. He was imprisoned in 1932 and then, on a cold September day in 1938, he is led out to the firing squad. He is the age I am now, 46.
 
His theory's status in economics is mixed. The Right had no interest in capitalism having a crisis, whilst the Left had no interest in capitalism surving a crisis. A handful of futurologists read him, but it took a journalist of the credit crunch to bring him into the twentifirst century.

Mason's view of what happens next is clear. We need to start the delayed fifth cycle. We need a new version of capitalism that will be based on information technology and a green industrial revolution. What's more, just like in the previous four cycles, we also need to redefine the nature of work. Mason believes that a new vision of intellectual property will set information free and a universal income will set people free.

He may be wrong on the details, but I do not believe he is wrong on the fundamental problem. The left's defeat was ultimately capitalism's defeat as well. The sooner we all, left and right, see this and move on, the better.