Going round in circles

When in France, we are visited each autumn by an invasion of green scutal beetles, generally known as stink bugs, although ours don’t stink. They fly around the room like overloaded transport planes, lurk in the window frames and settle on ledges. One of their favourite tricks is to perch on the rim of a lampshade. The bulb throws a giant silhouette on to the ceiling that makes the bugs look like something from a horror movie. 

It is a moving picture, not a still life, because the bugs then walk round the lampshade rim. Round and round and round. “Why don’t I ever seem to get anywhere?” one imagines them saying. Round and round and round. “I’m sure I’ve passed this point 27 times before.” Round and round and round. Sometimes, there are two bugs on the rim, trundling in opposite directions. Eventually they meet. The rim is a single-track road so, having contemplated each other for a moment, they both turn around and then meet on the opposite side of the lampshade. Round and round and round.

Yes, of course this is a metaphor. For life. For history. For almost everything. The ability of the human race to repeat itself is unlimited. Today, for a variety of reasons – my continued research into post-civil war American history, watching Ade Adepitan’s recent TV series on Africa, reading about America’s trade spat with China – I am taking the topic in the direction of economic power, or the lack of it.

America is angry with China for stealing its technology. In the 1950s and ’60s, America was angry with Japan for stealing its technology. In the early-mid 19th century, America was stealing British technology. Envious of Britain’s cotton industry and of the inventions that had made it possible, America decided to start her own. Bribes were offered to technicians in Britain’s mills to copy plans and send them across the Atlantic, and to engineering firms to smuggle machinery out of the country. British experts were enticed to emigrate to Massachusetts. It produced the desired effect.

The fact is that if anyone, anywhere in the world, invents something that other people want and can make money from, they will find some way of laying their hands on it. It mightn’t be pretty, but it’s inevitable. And, since every economically advanced nation has at some point engaged in industrial espionage, it is hypocritical for anyone to get on a moral high horse about the practice. Besides, it’s also how poor countries stand some chance of becoming rich one day.

Most first world countries were, at some point in history, third world countries. After the American civil war, the American South had many of the characteristics of a third world country, notably debt-ridden poverty. The unique achievement of the Confederate states was not only to lose its black slaves, but also to impoverish much of its white population. The South had a near-monopoly of the exports of one of the world’s most valuable commodities, cotton, but – like third world countries today – it had no means of using its monopoly to enrich itself.

Instead, more and more cotton was grown, because there was no other means of earning a living in the countryside, and because the small-holders were mostly in debt and their creditors forced them to grow yet more cotton to pay it off. Prices tumbled, to the great benefit of the mill-owners of England and New England. The whole of the rural South operated on a vast system of payday loans, except that the payday came only once a year – when the cotton crop was harvested.

None of this is significantly different from how other parts of the world, especially Africa, have been exploited in the years since then. Power needs to be concentrated and collective to be of use. When it is diffused among a collection of disconnected individuals, it ceases to constitute a monopoly and it ceases to be effective. Even when it is concentrated in government hands, that is of little use if the government is broke.

Because power is inseparable from money. Those with no money have no economic power, even when they form governments, whatever other riches theoretically lie within their compass. Those with money use the power it gives them to make more money. Britain did it for ages; then America found the means to do it; now China is doing it. For some reason, when Britain and America did it, it was called exploitation, and now China is doing it, it is called investment.

Money has a further psychological effect. Those who don’t have it, and especially those who owe it, are in awe of those who do have it. They may hate them, but they are still in awe. This saps the belief that anything can ever change. It reinforces the dependency. It produces a culture of apprehension, a fear of upsetting the mighty. Britain was feared in the 19th century; America in the 20th; China is feared in the 21st. At earlier times in history, other empires have similarly been feared. While the fear remains, nothing substantial can change.

Round and round in circles. Everyone who possesses power uses it in some way or another, sometimes benignly, more often not. Power is based on money and it generates more money. There is no point railing against the blatant unfairness of this situation, because it stems from human nature. No idealistic system of government has yet found a way of avoiding it.

But, from time to time, the circle spins off on a slightly different trajectory, the stink bug falls off the rim of the lampshade, and new orbits begin.