In the broadest sense we are dealing with an old phenomenon. Carthage fell, Rome fell; now it is Britain’s turn.footnote More narrowly it is a new phenomenon, the first instance of the threatened absolute decline of a fully capitalist social formation. The last phase of the internationalization of capital has finally subjected whole national economies of industrialized countries to the unforgiving judgments of the law of value. During the first two phases (the internationalization of the circuit of commodities and the internationalization ofthe circuit of finance) Britain, as the first industrializing economy, enjoyed large absolute and comparative advantages in production which permitted its commodities to undersell those of non-capitalist producers and also allowed it to appropriate surplus labour abroad.footnote1 The last phase, the internationalization of production, has exposed all domestic economies to the law of value, including those of the former metropolises. The increasing flexibility afforded manufacturing capital in its choice of production sites—due to technological changes making commodities lighter, production processes easier to disaggregate, transport costs lower, and (perhaps most important) the accumulated skills of specific national labour forces less crucial—has meant that the production process itself has become internationally mobile. Production can now be more and more easily shifted from one global site to another, and those which offer conditions of production below the standard of the most attractive will experience a tendency todecline. The intra-national ‘unevenness’ of capitalist production (e.g. in Britain, the decline of the old northern industrial heartlands and the rise of the south-east) is now matched by international unevenness (rise of the nics, decline of the least efficient older economies).footnote2

These tendencies might be limited, in theory, by regional or other combinations—regional protectionism, common markets with regional compensation mechanisms, etc.—whose purpose would be to bring all the national economies of a region or bloc up to a common level of productivity and consumption norms, and to exclude products from elsewhere. Thus every European economy could aim to align its production and consumption (including ‘welfare state’ consumption) withthe norms set by the Germans, while Japanese commodities, not to mention those produced by South Korea, Brazil or other low-wage, authoritarian nics, would be excluded. But even if this were practicable—and the political and military contradictions involved are likely to prove irresoluble—a problem would remain for the weaker national economies within such blocs. How are they to create the conditions for a rate of accumulation capable of yielding the continuing levels of consumption needed for a viable liberal democracy—in face of the continuous improvement in productivity, set by the pacemakers for the bloc as a whole, which results from the inherent dynamic of capitalist production itself?

A range of different ‘accumulation strategies’ exists in theory,footnote3 but the practical possibilities are limited not only by the current balance of economic and political forces in a given country, but also by a much more complex and intractable web of norms and practices inherited from the past, which are crucial for what the French ‘regulation school’ has termed the ‘mode of regulation’ necessary for any strategy to be stabilized and sustained as a ‘regime’ of accumulation. The response of British manufacturers to the economic project of the Thatcher administration provides a striking affirmation of the contemporary importance of this constraint.

On A. Singh’s definition of an efficient industrial sector, British manufacturing has been inefficient for about a century. It is no longer able to yield in the long run ‘sufficient net exports to pay for import requirements at socially acceptable levels of output, employment and the exchange rate’, and throughout the 1970s the evidence showed clearly that this inefficiency was increasing.footnote4 The result has been a dramatic contraction of the manufacturing sector, leading to a steadily worsening balance of payments constraint. Although the measures taken by the Thatcher government to remedy the long-term weakness have undoubtedly accelerated contraction in the short term, the bulk of the decline since 1960 is attributable to long-term structural-cultural causes.

Between 1970 and 1980 (i.e. before the Thatcher government’s measures had begun to take significant effect) manufacturing output stagnated, as did gross fixed investment in manufacturing (see Table I). Employment in manufacturing contracted while productivity per person employed rose sluggishly, compared with major competitors. Private investment overseas gradually increased but was offset, during the late 1970s, by foreign investments in Britain, largely in oil exploration and extraction, which tended to conceal the extent to which manufacturing industry was no longer attracting the long-term investment needed to improve or even maintain its international competitiveness. Domestic oil and gas production eventually expanded to yield a visible trade surplus in oil and gas of some £6 billion per annum. This in turn covered the underlying deficit on the visible trade balance caused by the chronic and growing competitive weakness of British manufacturing (until the deficit re-emerged in 1983 on a scale too large to be covered by the surplus on oil).

Some people—including senior executives of manufacturing companies—still envisage a stable ‘post-industrial’ British economy based on a switch to service employment. However, there are several reasons why this should be considered wishful thinking. Private service employment rose by only one million over the two decades 1960–1980, compared with a loss of three million jobs in manufacturing, and there are many signs of substantial over-manning which will tend to lead to stagnation or decline in service sector employment as productivity increases. There is a discrepancy between the expanded service sector employment that has occurred through state employment, and effective demand for services, even without the short-term effects of public spending cuts.footnote5 Moreover, the prospects are poor that services will draw in sufficient foreign exchange to replace earnings from commodity exports (or offset increased import penetration) on the scale required. World competition in traded services has increased. Britain has no invulnerable absolute advantage in service provision, and to the extent that services are constantly being replaced by the sale of new material commodities (e.g. through telecommunications technology) they are transferred to thesphere of manufacturing where Britain is weak.

Another alternative is continued decline. This is visualized by some people as realistic (even, in some cases, acceptable). But even if the ‘cushion’ provided by domestic oil and gas production were to prove more long-lasting than originally foreseen (owing to overestimates of future demand and underestimates of exploitable reserves), a very large step downwards in the decline remains to be negotiated as the reserves run out. Moreover, industrial decline means, over time, a decline in consumption, which takes various forms: unemployment caused by industrial contraction and productivity increases under conditions of deflation due to balance of payments constraints; reduced real wage levels to offset productivity gains in other countries; increased tax levels on those in employment; reduced levels of social security, and so on. It is hard to envisage this as an evolutionary process, let alone as a politically ‘stable’ one. The problem has rarely been formulated explicitly in these terms by the party leaders in Britain. Nonetheless an implicit awareness of what is at stake lies behind both ‘corporatism’ and ‘Thatcherism’, the two opposing attempts so far made to find a solution to ‘Britain’s economic problem’ by rapidly raising productivity. Here weare concerned only with the second of these attempts.