Has any major political movement been as thoroughly expunged from popular memory as the anti-globalisation movement? Two decades ago, the dominant opinion on the Left was that globalisation was a destructive and exploitative innovation of international capitalism to be fought. In Seattle in 1999, and in Genoa in 2001, thousands of protestors from across the world gathered to protest against the signing of the transnational trade treaties that accelerated the spread of globalisation, cheered on by the organs of Left opinion.
A BBC article from 2001 notes that opponents of globalisation believe “it leads to exploitation of the world’s poor, workers, and the environment; “makes it easier for rich companies to act with less accountability: and “that countries’ individual cultures are becoming overpowered by Americanisation.” On the other hand, “those in favour of globalisation claim it “should make everyone richer… [while] trade links can encourage countries to respect human rights”.
Twenty years on, it is clear that the opponents of globalisation were entirely correct, and the supporters were utterly wrong. And yet, their brains broken by Brexit, Britain’s liberal commentariat continue to advocate globalised food supply chains purely as a result of Remainer tribalism.
The BBC’s neutral tone at the turn of the millennium is almost unimaginable in today’s hysterical discourse, where opposition to globalisation has been re-coded as a political signifier, entirely randomly, from a reasoned Left-wing argument to an irrational prejudice of reactionary and probably racist deplorables. Likewise, the Left has seemingly abandoned its commitment to localisation and the preservation of unionised, national labour in favour of cosmopolitan dreams of unfettered globalisation.
In Britain this bizarre polar inversion is manifest in the political discourse over the current supply chain crisis. The fundamental problem causing empty shelves in Britain today is not Brexit itself, but the over-complexity of supply chains maximised for efficiency in good times, but which are dangerously fragile whenever the system meets a shock. By over attenuating supply chains on a global scale, and centralising food production for the benefit of the supermarkets, the system was unable to cope with the pandemic’s cascading aftershocks, from energy crises to labour shortages, still working themselves through the global economy.
This is a global supply chain crisis caused by a worldwide slow-motion, but accelerating collapse of globalisation. As the American economist Matt Stoller underlines, globalisation “has left us uniquely unprepared to manage a supply shock. Our hyper-efficient globalized supply chain, once romanticized by men like Tom Friedman in The World Is Flat, is the problem. Like the financial system before the 2008 crash, this kind of economic order hides its fragility. It seems to work quite well, until it doesn’t.” Now, we’re beginning to see what it looks like when it doesn’t.
Take meat processing as an example. For decades, in search of efficiency, supermarkets have centralised the processing of meat in gigantic mega-abattoirs, forcing small regional abattoirs to close and crowding out local farmers. The working environment in these places is so appalling and exploitative, and the pay so low, that they can only be staffed by immigrants from poorer regions of the world. As a result, more than two thirds of Britain’s meat processing labour force is made up of migrants, making the nation’s food supply dependent on the free flow of foreign labour, and on the nationwide distribution of live animals and processed meat to a tiny number of centralised hubs.
This is an entirely unsustainable as well as immoral state of affairs. As the commentator Richard North, an expert on the meat industry, observes, the number of abattoirs in Britain has shrunk “from 3,326 units in the 1960s to a mere 156 in 2020”, with the result that “the meat industry structure in the UK is already so concentrated as to be unsustainable”. As soon as the system meets a shock, as it has now, it is unable to cope..
Yet even before the current shock, the centralisation of meat production was eroding the resilience of Britain’s food supply. In 2018, 34 separate organisations, from the National Trust to the Women’s Institute and the RSPCA, lobbied the Government to halt the collapse of Britain’s network of small regional abattoirs, “a huge national asset” closing “at an alarming rate”. As Christopher Price of the Rare Breed Survival Trust observes has noted, “large scale abattoirs require workers to carry out highly specific, often highly mechanised, procedures as part of the slaughtering process and employ relatively large numbers of narrower skilled, lower paid people in one location”. Instead, the Government should support the creation of more local and smaller abattoirs, “where each worker is required to be more highly and multi-skilled, with the flexibility for part-time work”. This would benefit rural areas where local employment is rare and “facilitate the creation of new premium markets for distinctive meat products from local breeds and the expansion of related businesses such as butchers and farm shops”.
But instead, this vital opportunity to reform the sector into one dependent on high-skilled, high-paid labour working in significantly better conditions is being squandered. Instead, cheered on by their useful idiots in Britain’s commentator class, the corporate food lobby has leaned on the Government to re-open the floodgates to low-paid migrant labour, keeping a broken and exploitative system on artificial life support.
The current system is simply unsustainable and exploitative to agricultural workers. As the radical Left farming union the Landworkers’ Alliance noted in their 2016 manifesto, “the rural economy… is vulnerable to competition from global markets and to aggressive price bargaining from cartels of processors and distributors (supermarkets)” with the result that “less than ten per cent of earnings from the UK food industry go to UK farmers and fishermen”.
Already, the labour shortage is allowing farm workers to demand higher wages, a process which should be allowed to continue, not just because it’s fair but also because it builds resilience into the system. A Britain where the farming sector is forced into decline by global competition is a Britain highly vulnerable to global shocks of the kind we are experiencing now. And yet, as the Landworkers’ Alliance warned back in 2017, the corporate farming lobby is addicted to the current system, with organisations that have the Governments’ ear like the National Farmers Union “more focussed on developing super-efficient mega-farms capable of competing in a cut-throat global market, than in producing the bulk of the UK’s food supply through a network of secure family farms”.
The globalisation of supply lines according to the logic of the free market is also a disaster for the environment. As a Greenpeace investigation revealed last week, the growing consolidation of Britain’s dairy industry into a handful of American-style megadairies is allowing global food corporations to feed cows soybeans sourced from Brazil’s endangered Cerrado ecoregion. The impact has been profound: it has accelerated deforestation and global warming, forced cows to live in miserable and unnatural indoors conditions in giant sheds and driven small dairy farmers here in Britain out of business.
Yet aside from moral questions, the supply chain of soybeans is also extremely liable to disruption in times of crisis, such as the drought — the worst in over a century — currently devastating Brazil’s farming sector. Shortages of soybeans caused by environmental collapse in Brazil or by blockages in the global shipping system will mean future shortages of milk and cheese, an absurd situation in a country like Britain blessed with abundant rainfall and lush grass.
Such built-in vulnerabilities are dangerous as we head into an era of permanent crisis. Indeed, as the Left-wing economist James Meadway warns, though Brexit has exacerbated Britain’s exposure to supply chain disruption, “it is a parochial mistake to single out Britain’s leaving the EU as the primary cause of the crisis”. Rather, what we are experiencing “is the first tremors of the generalised environmental collapse of this century. Gas prices are not going to come down any time soon, and the supply chain crisis will not be resolved this year — or even next.”
Crisis is the new normal: and to sustain the very basic good of food security, Britain will have to become more self-reliant, decentralising supply chains in pursuit of resilience rather than efficiency and reshoring food production as far as is possible. This isn’t a leap back to the Middle Ages, as online critics howl: Britain was 78% self-sufficient in food as late as the 1980s, and returning to localised production and supply chains should be considered a vital strategic goal.
And yet, in a stunning example of cognitive dissonance, we see liberal commentators who warn of the looming catastrophe of climate collapse simultaneously arguing that fragile globalised supply chains are somehow both desirable and permanent. Like the famous quote that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it seems it’s easier for these people to imagine total civilisational collapse than not being able to eat Kenyan strawberries in midwinter.
The Left-wing anti-globalisation protestors of twenty years ago were right then, and their newly localist conservative successors are right now. Instead of mocking the Government’s tentative steps towards re-localisation of the nation’s food supply as the backwards fantasies of nostalgic Brexiteers, our stubbornly parochial Remainer comment class should for once step back and observe the changing world around them.
The global supply chain crisis is forcing the Conservatives to abandon their free-trading dreams as neoliberal ideology gets crushed by stark reality. This is an unalloyed good, and should be supported and encouraged as far as possible. The Government is correct to say that today’s supply chain meltdown is “a failure of the free market and not of the state” and that businesses “have become drunk on cheap labour”. The current crisis is an opportunity to rebalance Britain’s food system into a fairer and more resilient model, and the Government, finally being forced towards good policy by events outside its control, needs to hold its nerve.