The HGV Crisis and The Contradictions of Capitalism – Labour Article
Crisis? What crisis?
You wake up, on a day like any other, rub your eyes and step out of bed. You head downstairs to consume about 3 pounds of meat, fat and grease you call breakfast but you notice you’re short of some milk. With the rumbling of your empty belly mistaken for determination you leave your front door, your breath just starting to turn visible on this early autumn morning. You walk into your local co-op to mostly barren shelves. Approaching the nearest overworked teenager in the store you ask: “What the hell happened here? How are the shelves empty at this time in the morning?”
“Not enough people are making or delivering the food, it’s happening everywhere.” the teenager replies.
“Well when’s it going to be fixed?” you inquire.
“Can’t say, but we’re conscripting prisoners to work the meatpacking plants so it might be alleviated a bit by Christmas.” the spotty service worker says. Not to be defeated you walk down the near desolate high street to the local Mcdonalds. Greeted by the familiar smell of french fries and bile you stroll up to the counter to talk to another anxious-looking teenager.
“Milkshake please.” you bark over the murmur and occasional child cry of the McDonalds.
“Sorry sir, we haven’t got any” the teen yelps. “Shortages of everything, even the Nando’s and KFC across from here are having the same problems.” You throw up your arms and curse, “This is ridiculous! Does no one want to work anymore?”
You swiftly exit the store, the rush of cold air on your skin as you pass through the doors cools your sweating face and the autumn sun hangs low in the sky. It’s nearly noon, you’re tired, annoyed and defeated. With no other options, you plunge the depths and go into the one place you said you wouldn’t ever go back to again.
“Hello, welcome to the cavalier. Have you got the Wetherspoons app installed on your phone?” you are greeted by. “Just to let you know we are experiencing a shortage of Carlings, Coors, and Bud Light” the teenage greeter added.
“Of course you are.” you acquiesce “is there no solution to fixing all of this?”
“Nothing apart from rejoining the EU or making concessions for foreign HGV drivers to come back. Over 25,000 of them have left.” the teen replied
“Isn’t the rest of Europe experiencing shortages of drivers though?” you retort.
“Well yes, everywhere in the world is dealing with the same hand here. But the only shortages they’re experiencing are of British goods.” the teen replies. “But that’s only one side of the problem. Overcoming the shortage of foreign nationals means appealing to domestic workers, the 80,000 of them that aren’t driving. They’re overworked, underpaid, and subjected to poor health conditions. And that’s not just HGV drivers. It’s everyone in hospitality right now” the teen continues.
“But won’t cutting universal credit and mandating longer hours bring people back in?” you plea.
“Sure it will if you want a miserable workforce. You got to understand that in a system where nearly everyone picks the only job they can get over the job they want and forcing them back into that job with the threat of starvation in exchange for longer hours is a system that can make people angry.” the teen explains “Now, can I offer you a seat and our complimentary newsletter.” The teen offers you a beer-soaked magazine with Tim Martin’s wrinkled face on it “Did you know that catching covid in a pub actually makes men better lovers?”
You decide not to stay for lunch. In the quiet hours of the evening later on you slump on the sofa, staring at the cold blue light on your phone complaining about the food shortages on Twitter. Paul Embery quote retweets you and calls you middle class for wanting food. As you drift off to sleep you’re comforted by a solitary thought “it’s ok, we nearly won the Euros a few months ago.”
We find ourselves in a difficult time, we’re already starting to feel the pinch at various shops. I ask any reader to pick any place where goods are sold in their local area and to count how much is missing from our shelves. This is not normal and it’s only going to get worse. At my own place of work, IKEA, I would find myself coming in for the day only to stand around and tell people what I can’t sell them.
Do we even think for a second that the government had a reasonable adjustment plan for dealing with the inevitable shortage of drivers as they returned back to Europe? Of course they didn’t, they haven’t planned for anything since they came to power in 2019.
Tory incompetence is Tory incompetence, however, what this crisis might give us an opportunity to talk about is the question: is production too developed for capitalism?
We live in an abundant world, where most of humanity from country to country can now broadly afford the same consumer goods. Neoliberals will tell you that this comes from the free market, deregulated policies and while those do play a part they pale in comparison to the real power behind this explosion in production: labour.
Let’s take a cup of coffee for example (or in my case as I write this, a lovely matcha latte). The costs of one company growing the coffee beans, harvesting, roasting, packaging, shipping and selling would be astronomical. Meanwhile, a Guatemalan land owner employing Honduran farmers to grow and roast the beans, shipping them on a Malaysian ship to the UK to be transported by a Hungarian lorry driver to a Welsh corner shop keeps costs low. This is because of the division of labour, where more workers breaking down production into smaller and smaller tasks means more output overall. Every explosion in living standards in history from the rise of the first settled societies to the invention of the production line is due to the innovations in how labour can be further divided.
As we can see, as productive forces become more advanced more of the global economy becomes interdependent, from production to consumption. But here’s the main problem.
Capitalism crashes all the time.
This isn’t a fringe socialist theory but a question that economists have been trying to figure out since the modern profession was founded. The socialist interpretation is that over time these crashes will get more and more severe.
As an example, let’s say that suddenly the US stops extracting all oil overnight which causes a spike in oil prices. For our Guatemalan coffee farm from the earlier example that makes machinery costs higher and output of coffee lower. Because of this, the farm might need fewer labourers who in turn might stop spending money on other commodities such as household cleaners or going to the bar. The disruption of one industry can quickly spiral out of control and affect people’s livelihoods wherever there is a link in the vast web of global production. The UK left the EU, there are fewer HGV drivers, there is less to sell on the store shelves. A simple connection.
This is a sign we have reached the late stage of capitalism and it cannot be ignored any longer. The only question now is where can we go next. A peaceful transition of power? Violent revolution? There are many answers. What we can say for sure is that the Tories incompetence at preventing economic disaster may do much to wake people up to the inherent contradictions of capitalism.
Written by Senior Labour Writer, Joseph Mclaughlin
Point of Information
Capitalism isn’t the Bogeyman you’re looking for – A Conservative Response
I too have been as disappointed as Joseph to be deprived of my pint of Carling in the local ‘spoons. But having gotten over myself and ordered something else I found an article telling the story of dairy farmers having to pour away milk because no one would come and collect it. I know a few dairy farmers and know how difficult it is. Milk is bought off them for barely more than they can produce it for and throwing away hundreds of litres must have been horrific, pouring away revenue they cannot afford to lose.
The shortage of HGV drivers is a consequence of a number of things. The market for HGV drivers has been hit with a number of shocks: Brexit meant a loss of a number of foreign workers; poor conditions leave little incentive for new ones, but the biggest and most overlooked is the pandemic. The Road Haulage Association estimates around 30,000 tests have been lost due to cancellations, and travel restrictions between the UK and Europe have restricted cross-border travel. All these build upon and exacerbate one another, but there is no single cause. The answer to the cause of problems is most often nuanced.
Joseph also cites “late-stage capitalism”, an ill-defined and nebulous term, now used as a catch-all term for the left’s dissatisfaction with the economic system. But is it the fault of the economic system that brought Joseph his Matcha Latte? His job at IKEA? The phone into which he sought refuge? No, it is not.
The Government itself could have done more, true, but we don’t live in a communist, centrally planned economy. Our government cannot get involved in every industry and solve every problem, that’s what a market economy is for. If HGV companies had foreseen the shortage, they should have raised wages and offered more incentives, and in fairness, they are trying just that. But with all the issues building on one another, they were doing so with their hands tied.
No system is perfect, but the global economic issues are a consequence of the pandemic, and other exacerbating factors. Exploiting it to attack capitalism as fundamentally flawed is a little cheap.
I think I’m more optimistic than Joseph. I’m not going to grab my pitchfork and march on London because I can’t get a new bookshelf. Modern supply chains are large, complicated, and vulnerable. But globalisation has brought on a period of technological development and global growth that has benefitted billions of people, including Joseph. I can do without my Tesco sparkling water for the time being, I still had a lovely sausage sandwich for breakfast, I’m still alive. These shortages will be temporary, and eventually, the markets will adjust, and when the pandemic is behind us, things will return to normal.
Written by Senior Conservative Writer, Alex McQuitty
Social Democracy is the Answer – A Liberal Response
Who could have predicted that Brexit would lead to economic fallout? Oh wait, our economists did. Unanimously. But regardless, we have to adapt to the situation we find ourselves in. To make things worse, we have both a capricious pandemic and an incompetent Tory government working against the British people. Alex is right to stress the impact of the Coronavirus but mixed with Brexit it has produced a toxic brew that has shattered our supply chains – for the time being.
Whilst much of Joseph’s criticisms of Capitalism are salient, and highly warranted, an integral part of its system is innovation. A desire for profit, combined with human ingenuity, is currently leading to our supply chains adapting, rather than wallowing in failure. Yet, I’m sure both Joseph and I can agree that an unmitigated pursuit of profit without regard for human welfare is harmful and morally corrupt. Even Alex has concurred that the system needs some regulation. So whilst readjustment here is beneficial, its path must be guided (but not micromanaged) in order to be sustainable.
Ultimately, our new, unregulated, globalised, system of capitalism is very flawed. Culturally, it has led to an atomized society where individual attainment is prized at the expense of other human beings. Economically, as Joseph notes, unregulated capitalism has led to increasingly catastrophic crashes and boom cycles. Crisis theory on steroids, if you like. I agree with Alex that globalisation has been a net positive. However, as our current shortages (and their future resolutions) are showing, we need a system with balances and checks.
Unfortunately, all three of us may have to hold off on the San Miguels for months to come. As Ian Wright, CEO of the Food & Drink Federation notes, these shortages are going to last much longer than Alex predicts. In the meantime, we need to alleviate the more serious toll on livelihoods that this will inflict. We must return to Social Democracy, on a global scale. Whilst we must give Capitalist innovation some room, it has to be guided by a competent system of worldwide regulations and a robust set of social policies at home. At the risk of sounding like a technocrat, this is the most logical thing to do. But more importantly, it is the moral thing to do.
Written by Chief Liberal Writer, Frank Allen