Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Bad Weather and Bad Politics

The recent storms in Britain are once again being described as “unprecedented” by a news media that must always sensationalise everything, by describing it as “the worst”, “the best” and so on. That is a consequence of 24 hour news channels for whom News must be entertainment. If the news is not sensational, after all, what other justification is there for repeating it, ad nauseum, every fifteen minutes, rather than spending time to present a wider range of news, or to deal with the background to the news in more detail? But, the further consequence of this is that whatever is the latest “sensational” news story, tends to create also the latest “moral panic”, and electoral politics are driven by the need to provide quick fixes to such “moral panics”. Politics becomes a question not of rationality, but of morality, of the need not to think and pursue what is a rational course of action, but any course of action that can be seen as immediate. The idea that “something must be done”, becomes an imperative upon politicians to “do something now!”

Some of the first blog posts I wrote were on this theme. For example, in this post, I argued that it was precisely this moralistic approach that was behind Al Glotzer's rejection of the Marxist analysis and solution, in respect of the Jews, and there persecution, and his adoption instead of the nationalistic solutions of Zionism. Trotsky long ago described the social roots of such politics based upon moralism rather than Marxism. It is the petit-bourgeois milieu of its advocates, which acts upon them to pressure them into some form of palliative action, even if that palliative action is, in the longer-term detrimental. For example, it could be reasonably argued that the continued conflict and division in the Middle-East today, the strength of reactionary, nationalist forces, is itself a consequence of the nationalistic solution presented by Zionism, which promoted a nationalistic rather than socialistic response, feeding into a reactionary spiral.

In reality, in a bourgeois democracy, this moralism that “something must be done” is not just about a particular petty-bourgeois milieu acting as pressure to demand action. For parties for whom getting elected is the raison d'etre, this is an even more effective form of pressure, pushing down on elected politicians. It is a mistake to think of politics simply as some kind of organised conspiracy, whereby the elected government are merely dupes and cyphers, who mechanically do the bidding of the ruling class. For one thing, the ruling class does not constitute some homogeneous bloc, but comprises a range of different material interests. For another, the interests of the ruling class are more cogently pursued by the state, not the government. Finally, and the reason for the previous condition, is that governments have to get elected, and so respond to the wishes of electors, whereas the state does not.

It is precisely for this reason that politicians for whom the be all and end all is to be elected, the need to respond to each moral panic, whenever it arises, becomes a driving force, not to do the right thing (although they always claim that this is what motivates them) or the rational thing, but to do what they think is the most politically expedient thing. Yet, it makes no more sense, in the longer-term, to develop policy upon this basis that “something must be done”, when it comes to bombing Syria, as it does when it comes to dealing with the consequences of the latest piece of bad weather to hit the UK.

Although, the news channels keep telling us that the latest floods are unprecedented, it is only a matter of months since the last lot of “unprecedented” floods, and more or less every year for the last nine years that I have now been writing this blog has seen similarly “unprecedented” floods! Each time, the response is the same that the government must do more, to stop the flooding, just as his advisors told King Canute. The obvious political response from Labour politicians is to take short-term political advantage by attacking the government for failing to spend enough on flood defences, as a consequence of its austerity policies.

Yet, the reality is that a lot of the current flooding will have been itself caused by the flood defences that have previously been set up. Anyone who has studied even basic geography knows that rivers go through various stages. The river at its source is small and narrow. It flows rapidly, because it is falling steeply from high levels. The pace of the river causes it to cut more deeply into the ground. As it becomes more mature, falling less rapidly, as it reaches lower, less steep terrain, it not only slows down, but spreads out. It cuts less deeply into the ground. It is in these areas that flood plains develop.

What flood defences do is to keep the river in its more youthful state for longer, because they channel it more deeply, by building up artificially high river banks. But, at these lower levels, where the river would naturally flood, far more water is being transported than at its higher reaches, because it has, by this stage, been fed into by various other tributaries, and by water run off from surrounding land. What the flood defence does, by preventing this much larger volume of water from naturally flooding, is to force it to travel much faster than it otherwise would, and with much greater force than it otherwise would. It is like putting your thumb over part of the end of a hosepipe. The result is inevitable, areas lower down the river get large volumes of water thrown at them at high pressure, so that the flooding in these areas either occurs, where previously it would not have occurred, or else it is more devastating than it otherwise would have been.

Responding by introducing flood defences on those section of the river, only intensifies the problem for those areas even further down river. This is the reason that in the United States, where this problem was identified, existing flood defences were scrapped, in a number of places, allowing rivers to flood naturally, and thereby reducing the pressure of water that was dumped on to lower lying areas. But, what this requires is a recognition that either building on natural flood plains will result in frequent disruption, or else a recognition that its not a good idea to develop in such areas!

But, government policy has been to develop on these flood plains and other high risk areas. The reason for that is that land in these areas tends to be cheaper, because of these risks. That means that builders make bigger profits, and it also means that the government gets more houses built at lower costs. But, there is another reason, associated with the earlier discussion. Many people have been sold the idea of living cheek by jowl with rivers, because it appears to be a picturesque and desirable location. If you have been given to believe that the consequences of living in such a risky location will be borne by someone else – i.e. the taxpayer who will erect expensive flood defences, provide guaranteed, subsidised insurance, or pay out to cover any losses – why would you not only see the advantages of living in a picturesque location, and not bother setting against it the potential costs, when your property is inevitably flooded?

In addition, the policy of building on brown field sites, and encouragement of building in city locations makes the situation worse. Many cities, were originally developed alongside rivers. But, that was at a time when those cities contained a few hundred houses, and only a few thousand people. Moreover, large scale agricultural use of the land, meant that these rivers, frequently flooded on to flood planes, taking the volume of water and its pace down considerably, before it reached these cities. Today, thousands of additional properties have been built in the cities – some of them as the news coverage shows, literally metres from the river itself – and the surrounding development, means that not only is water not absorbed into the land, because its covered in concrete, but it runs off at pace, into the river.

The situation in Britain is not the same as the situation in say the Netherlands. The Netherlands are renowned for their flat nature, and lack of mountains. Water does not run down from mountains, as it does in Britain, and so it does not have the same kind of river profile. The main problem for the Netherlands is coastal flooding as a result of its low lying nature. Building substantial coastal flood defences, which have, in fact, reclaimed large amounts of land from the sea, can be rational there, because it can be focussed along its coast. Stopping the water ingressing from the sea, does not cause it to flood somewhere else, as happens with river defences.

The rational response in Britain, is actually to forget about flood defences on rivers, which are a waste of money, and ultimately counter-productive. The billions of pounds spent on flood defences would be better used, to develop replacement housing in areas that are not at risk of flooding, for people currently living in areas of flooding. That would mean a deliberate policy change to a long-term housing strategy that rejects the current straight jacket imposed by the Green Belt, and so on. But, it would also mean that the government would have to reject its current austerity policies, in order to pursue such a significant amount of investment in housing.

But, policy makers are not likely to adopt such a solution, because although it is a more rational solution, and a solution that is more sustainable in the longer-term, it is not an immediate solution; it is not a solution that deals with the current moral panic. Britain, has actually been bedevilled by such short-termism, for a long time. In a few weeks time, I will be dealing, in my series on Marx's Capital, with his analysis of rent. There it will be seen how the form of rent deterred capital investment on the land, because the more capitalist farmers invested capital in the land, the more rent they ended up paying, because at the end of leases that became increasingly shorter in duration, the landlord took possession of any such investment, without compensation, and on the basis of the higher productivity of the land, levied a higher rental upon it.

What is true of the mentality and actions of the lander oligarchy, is also true of the financial oligarchy, who as Andy Haldane has described recently, are interested in screwing as much in dividends out of companies, but not in companies making the required investment in productive-capital, that are required to increase the mass of profits, in the longer-term, out of which those dividends are paid. That same mentality lies behind the actions of governments too. The policy of austerity seeks to minimise government borrowing, so as to keep interest rates low, which keeps the prices of bonds, shares and land high, and thereby to keep the fictitious wealth of the financial and landed oligarchy inflated.

However, that same policy means that investment on necessary infrastructure is skimped. Britain is considering high speed rail, decades after other countries introduced it, and at a time when it should instead be investing in a 21st century communications infrastructure based on the Internet. Its proposals for high-speed broad band are laughable. Even when fully implemented it will mean that the UK will have broad band speeds less than a tenth of what already exists uniformly across Singapore. The same is true in a range of other areas of state investment, for example in education and training. The end result is that the economy grows more slowly, and so the basis of reducing government borrowing, and of paying the interest to government bondholders is reduced.

But, on all these areas of policy, politicians whose entire world revolves around the need to get elected, can only ever have a short-term vision, based upon dealing with the current fad, the current moral panic, in order to be seen to be doing something, because “something must be done”. If Corbyn's election has any longer term advantage, it should be to shift the emphasis for Labour members away from this short termism, based upon the need to get elected, and on to a longer-term perspective of developing sustainable rational solutions.

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