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Saturday, 1 October 2016

Post-Geography

Following Douglas Carswell's confusion over Newtonian mechanics, it was inevitable that the hyperbole of leading Brexiteers would be closely scrutinised for more evidence of foolishness. Step forward Liam Fox and his claim that we are entering a "post-geography trading world". To give the good doctor his due, what he is actually suggesting is that "Today, we stand on the verge of an unprecedented ability to liberate global trade for the benefit of our whole planet with technological advances dissolving away the barriers of time and distance". In other words, we are not abolishing geography by fiat (as some of his critics too eagerly claimed), rather technology is making it less significant in respect of trade. Diving in head-first where others fear to tread, Daniel Hannan then claimed that services were largely independent of geography, so an economy increasingly dependent on services was one where physical location was increasingly irrelevant (perhaps he will move to Mars when he steps down as an MEP)

It is certainly true that technology overcomes the hindrances of time and space. This is a banal observation that has been made with regularity since the invention of the wheel. Prior to 2008, it was difficult to avoid the plethora of books, like Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, celebrating this continued development and urging us all to get with the neoliberal programme. Where Fox errs is in suggesting that there is a "verge" or threshold that reflects a qualitative shift in this process. Technology will continue to reduce the inconveniences of geography, but it will do so in different ways and at different rates across different sectors. Mp3s may have displaced physical media for the distribution of music, but bananas must still be shipped thousands of miles. The stupidity of Hannan's claim is not that you can't get your hair cut remotely (a robot barber is not impossible, and might be preferable if it cuts out the chat), but that the sort of premium-priced corporate services that UK Plc is meant to specialise in post-Brexit demand a physical presence for cultural and psychological reasons.

A good example of this is the job interview, or more specifically the interview for a job in which personality is relevant. We have had the technology to do this remotely for over a century, first in the form of the telephone and latterly using video systems like Skype, however most employers insist on a face-to-face interview as the culmination of the hiring process. The explanation for this is that interpersonal communication involves three channels: verbal (linguistic), visual (kinesic), and that indefinable something we call the "vibe" (proxemic). Despite advances in "telepresence" technology, the last of these only really works with actual presence (like the BO test). What surprises many people (but really shouldn't) is that the "vibe" is often more important in the final decision than the verbals (a scripted interchange designed to conceal rather than reveal). What this really shows is that the interview is not an objective assessment but a subjective reading of cues about class, reliability, cultural fit etc.


While the government remains unclear on its strategic preferences, there is no real cost for Brexiteers in demanding cake and the eating thereof, for example in insisting both that the EU will want to continue trading with us because of geographical convenience and that the UK can expand trade with the four corners of the Earth because geography doesn't matter. This unwillingness to think about economic geography might appear to be an intellectual failing of the free-market right, but it is also common among neoliberal centrists and even found on the left among those committed to an anglocentric perspective (i.e. AES revivalists as much as Blue Labourites). One non-partisan trope where this failing appears is the idea that technology creates more and better jobs than the ones that it destroys. You know the drill: field-workers once became factory-hands and blacksmiths became car mechanics, so today's drivers and clerks can expect to become robot designers and social media mavens.

The studies that look at the impact of technology on jobs are usually limited in scope to a nation state, or a combination of them. This is partly because the aggregate data needed to analyse the shifting composition of the workforce is usually gathered at a national level (censuses, workforce surveys etc), but it also reflects an ideological tendency to envisage the economy as a closed system. In the context of the UK, this means analysing the shift between sectors without considering the wider world except as a series of inputs and outputs (i.e. imports and exports) for production and demand functions. Industrialisation in 19th century Britain saw workers leave the fields for factories, but the demand for the product of those factories was often artificially created through empire. This took a number of forms. The most obvious was the deliberate destruction of pre-existing industries in conquered territories, such as the dismantling of the Indian textile industry to create a captive market for the produce of Lancashire cotton mills (what Sven Beckert, in The Empire of Cotton, describes as "war capitalism").

A second form was the repetition of the process of enclosure, and the shift from subsistence to industrialised agriculture, that had been pioneered in the UK in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Whereas displaced agricultural workers in Britain had been absorbed into growing urban industries, albeit at high short-term cost, from the workings of the New Poor Law to the Irish and Scottish potato famines, this same process was curtailed in colonial territories whose administrations were committed to advancing agriculture over manufacture. The imperial vision of goods travelling one way and foodstuffs the other necessarily implied growing unemployment among native populations in the colonies as agriculture became ever more efficient. It also meant the growth of shantytowns as rural workers sought marginal employment opportunities in the growing cities (usually entrepots and government centres, which explains some of the structural roots of corruption). Much of the impetus for political independence, both the dominion status sought by white colonists and the complete rejection of empire sought by natives, came from the pressure of the emerging domestic bourgeosie for industrial development.


We imagine globalisation to be a modern development, the product of telecommunications and containerisation, and it is certainly true that technology has hugely amplified it, but the dynamic is not new. Even when we concede that there were earlier eras that can be described using the same term, such as the 1890-1914 period, we tend to characterise them by the free movement of capital and goods. We rarely think about the movement of jobs. In the long century between 1780 and 1929, we successfully exported the unemployment produced by technological change to the third world (and specifically to non-white populations). Since then, employment has been gradually rebalancing spatially, not just through the process of offshoring but through the localisation of many goods and services (Amazon may be supra-national in its online presence and tax affairs, but it is inescapably local in its delivery). The net effect, becoming ever more apparent after 1980, is that we have started to repatriate technological unemployment.

We have also started to repatriate the characteristics of marginal employment found in shantytowns, even if we haven't reverted to the slums and ash-pits of Charles Dickens's time. High youth unemployment, under-employment, low wages, the need for multiple jobs and persistent insecurity have come to be described as the new phenomenon of "precarity", but this has been the norm for much of the urban working classes of the developing world since the 19th century. This failure to think in global terms, both historically and geographically, leads to delusions about British history and thus contemporary capability. According to Liam Fox, "A small island perched on the edge of Europe became the world’s largest and most powerful trading nation", essentially because "trade is in our DNA". This not only ignores the role of the military in securing an empire, but it suggests the country's position was a disadvantage that we pluckily overcame, rather than a primary reason (dominating the Atlantic sea routes) for success.

Today, the UK's chief geographic advantage is that it is handily-placed by timezone to dominate the capital trade routes between Eurasia and the Americas, an advantage significantly amplified by the historic good fortune of English becoming (through empire) the global language of business, which will probably prove sufficient to prevent Frankfurt eating the City's lunch for a while yet. The geographic reach of UK business services depends on the accessibility and attractiveness of London to foreign business people, hence the importance of Heathrow expansion and Crossrail and the sensitivity of successive mayors. Up until the 23rd of June this year, another key advantage was the UK's bespoke relationship with the EU, i.e. the single market without the euro, which meant it provided proximity to the continent with a built-in currency hedge, an attractive proposition for non-european foreign investors. Technology may well dissolve some barriers of time and distance, but short of a Star Trek-style transporter, the UK's geographical advantages will remain critical. The question is, are we about to sabotage them?

2 comments:

  1. Herbie Kills Children2 October 2016 at 10:58

    "Technology may well dissolve some barriers of time and distance, but short of a Star Trek-style transporter..."

    Spot on. This is also the reason that when someone orders a Kebab it comes from just down the road rather than straight from Turkey! Even the just down the street vendor will only offer free delivery if you live within a 3 mile radius!

    There is a point about how technology can be liberating but when put in the hands of people who see no barriers whatsoever, environmental or otherwise, then technology becomes a huge danger to us all rather than the liberating force it should be.

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  2. Didn't imperial Britain also export its unemployment in a far more direct way, for example by transporting petty criminals to Australia?

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