Friday, November 18, 2016

Islands in the Sun: A Technical For Some Values of Technical Pre-Appendix to October, II, 1946, Part One

David Brown DB4. Per fandom, 110 were built in 1942--49. It was "basically a D4 clone," built "for the Ministry," because none could be imported under Lend-Lease.  The paint scheme is. . . I have no idea. Is it okay to be post-ironic about masculine things painted pink, or are we still ironic, pre-ironic. . Someone help me out here?
That's your labour-saving automation, right there, 1930s style. As I understand it, it's going to lead to mass underemployment, secular stagnation, and the collapse of capitalism. Too bad: I kind of liked civilisation.

I'm going to leave the big picture for a moment and try to drill down to specifics now. I need to, because I'm not really happy with the way this post is coming together. I want to talk about agriculture from the 30s through the post war years, about tractors, and, just when you think that the subjects of a single blog post can't get more diffuse, the Red Army. 

So, per Wikipedia, The Caterpillar D4 was introduced in 1936 as a diesel-powered alternative to the company's successful CAT 30 gas model. The fact that the company could deliver a successful gas-powered bulldozer perhaps suggests that the bar for "successful" was set a little low in the early '30s, but no-one would argue that the D4 wasn't successful. Certainly David Brown wouldn't. Whatever the context (wartime Britain was not exactly short of American bulldozers), when it got the opportunity to build the DB4, it most certainly ran with it. 

I'm probably projecting, but it sure seems as though David Brown was being pretty aggressive in elbowing its way into the industry. Well known for gearboxes, itentered into a business partnership with Harry Ferguson in 1936, possibly not coincidentally the same year that the company seconded research engineer H. E. Merritt to Woolwich to work on what became the Merritt-Brown transmission [pdf]. Ferguson was the British licensee of the Fordson tractor brand, descended from Ford's familiar, awful, but cheap --because dumped on the market-- "Hun of the fields." Not three three years later , David Brown politely served Ferguson notice that the time had come for the two interests to go their separate ways by rolling its top-secret VAK1 out into the Olympia showroom at the 1939 Royal Agricultural Equipment Show. David Brown went on to build 7700 VAK1s during the war, as well as the related VIG aircraft tug, clearly aiming to launch into a long career in building "agricultural engineering" equipment, so eating a bit of Caterpillar's lunch under the guise of complying with Lend-Lease would not be out of character. 

As for the bulldozers themselves, I'm inclined to privilege Leslie Hore-Belisha's "X Force" construction group, which was brought in to build pillboxes o the BEF's portion of the Franco-Belgian border during the Phony War, leading to the "Pillbox Affair" and Hore-Belisha's resignation, but that's because I'm a little frustrated that I can't easily learn more about this and would like some other historian to do the hard work of figuring out what was up with X Force. In reality, it probably all had far more to do with airfield construction, but, again, there's a lot we don't know. It's all a little vague, a little cloudy. We know the "operational level of war." Armies whiz around maps as fast as we can shuffle our old-fashioned die-cut counters, or right click on the little icons on the computer screen, but when it comes to actual machines on the actual ground, I would like to think that we're at least intermittently aware that it all turns out to be about shovels and boards stuck under wheels and tracks spinning. It's just --do you feel the intimation of absence, the nonexistent gap where a tooth came out, many years ago? That's the stuff we don't know. long lost. Tractors changed our lives, and we're not sure how. I mean, we're sure in one sense: they freed up a great deal of agricultural labour. 

But what happened then? Not what we're told to expect now (mass technological underemployment), that's for sure. Maybe technological change was different in the old days, back when the "lump of labour" was  a fallacy and there were new industries to soak up the excess labour. Not like now! It's a mystery, I must say.

Well, as a fellow once said, there's sometimes a reason for ignorance. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it." You'd think that it would be very, very hard not to understand a bulldozer. You'd be wrong.

While I'm a little lost on what the National City Bank of New York is trying to communicate in this late October, 1946 ad, I am a little struck by the fact that the main exports of the island of Puerto Rico  are, apparently, the cash crop, tobacco --and "needlework."

You see, Puerto Ricans wanted imports, and the only way they could afford them was to export things.  So they did needlework, and paid for them. 

That's your old world. It went away at some point, and we're not entirely clear how. 

Here's something that's not entirely a non-sequitur: The Red Menace. 
You know, the part where the Red Army that beat the Nazis steamrollers over NATO and reaches the English Channel in three days, and then invades England and, before you know it, Soviet tank armies are thrusting towards Houston?

So the idea that the Red Army was going to launch a conventional offensive against the former Western Allies (in 1946) or NATO (after 1948) was always crazy, and the idea of a Soviet Communist conventional land campaign in the Americas belongs strictly in fiction. It is still worth exploring the idea that this was the kind of thing that Soviet Russia could do, because it reveals some things about how we looked at the world, back in the day.

Here's the  Red Army Order of Battle on 22 June 1941. It's a little hard to parse in detail, but a top down look shows 21 armies with somewhere around seven divisions under each army headquarters. Throw in independent units, and that might be somewhere on the order of 150 divisions, which, in Canadian Army practice would be 14 manoeuvre and additional supporting units --13000 men and. going a bit further afieled, I'm going to cite a 1914 "divisional slice" of 10,000 horses per division --that's all the horses, pulling wagons, army-level siege artillery, in depots, in the cavalry divisions. That's how a divisional slive works. There's a lot of other ways of doing the counting; but the manpower slice of a Canadian army division is 93,150. This seems to be a bit high, with the American slice at 71,100, and British at 84,300, and the French, in 1940 (a little more on this below), 43,000. So while there's a great deal of room for motivated number fudging here, we have the numbers for some spitballing.

I'm not holding this out as normative. The Red Army has a right to organise itself as it pleases. Historically, late war Soviet and German divisions were quite a bit smaller than Canadian units. The Red Army seems to have fielded between 2.6 and 2.9 million men "frontline" for Barbarossa, with a total of 303 divisions and 22 separate brigades, comprising 6.8 million soldiers, so you can see that this is a pretty small divisional slice. 

It is also a very small number --6.8 million men for a nation officially of 170.6 millions in 1939 (although this is controversial and the number might have been as low as 162 million.) France, upon mobilisation in 1940, called 5 millions to the colours, one quarter of the male population, or 12% of the population, of whom 1.5 million were immediately available, and  2.776 million men at the disposal of the Etat-major on all fronts on completion of mobilisation in 117 divisions, a divisional slice of 23,726 men. 

By this standard, the Red Army, on the basis of the 1939 census, would have had, on completion of mobilisation, 20,03 million men, of whom some 11.3 million would have been available under STAVKA, for somewhere between 110 and 460 divisions, depending on where you set your divisional slice between the French and Canadian extremes.  

A caveat here: if the claimed low figure for the population of the Soviet Union is correct, then, for whatever demographic reason that lurks behind it, these numbers overstate the Red Army's manpower pool at the dawn of this existential struggle for the future of the Soviet state by 5%. This is why you do not starve, deport, and execute your citizens by the millions, aspiring world-conquering dictators!

These numbers are a bit unreal. The Red Army never had a chance to mobilise according to its prewar plans. Instead, it fought a desperate, fighting withdrawal during the initial phases of Barbarossa while attempting to mobilise in the rear. This cost it 200 divisions and 4 million men, including a disproportionate number of its skilled and trained military manpower, with which it was not oversupplied to begin with due to the poor state of the Sovier educational system. 

So here's the thing: there's no magic people factory: not on the inner steppe, not in the beyond-Roman North, not in remotest India or squalid Irish peasant settlements, not even in colonial New England. In this case, this basic facts of arithmetic apply: on the afternoon of 21 June 1941, Generalissimo Stalin could depend on 11.4 million guns, bayonets and sabres to defend his rule, unless the suprressed census was right, in which case the actual number is 10.9 million. Twenty-four hours later, although the fine details had yet to be worked out, it had to be clear that the new number, whenever, if ever, the German advance were stabilised, would be 7.4 million (6.9 million.) Under an honest accounting of the books, the number of divisions available to fight the Germans would be, and would continue to be, a maximum of 343 divisions. The moment that this force began taking more casualties by, say, defending Stalingrad or destoying Army Group Centre, the number of available divisions would decline again! Because every man and woman who had been lost to this point was gone, and was not coming back until the hospitals, German POW camps, or natural increase yielded their replacement. 

It is often suggested, as sort of a guilty acknowledgement of the sacrifices of the Soviet peoples in World War II that by means of those sacrifices, the main part of the German armed forces were engaged, ground down, and destroyed in a titanic conflict that dwarfed the scale of combat on the Western Front. It was this limitless human potential that lay behind the global Red Menace of the postwar era. If only given a chance, the limitless manpower of the Red Army would steamroller from the Elbe to the Channel.

Publicity still from The Red Menace (1949)
As military history, this is nonsense. In its own shambolic way, the Red Army did, indeed, fight a series of major offensives that steadily drove the Germans back to Berlin, but once the manpower was gone, it was gone. As for the minute divisional slice, it is being achieved by not having any reserve manpower. This is why the Red Army fought short offensives, and shut them down quickly. The only way it could field 300+ divisions was to not fight them for very long.

The Soviet Union did not have the human resources to spare. It's not magic! The men who were in the Red Army also could not work in factories or fields. Those weren't magic, either. And it is worth emphasising that it would never have those resources. Certainly it did not have them in 1946, and even in 19990, when the population of the Soviet Union peaked at 286,730,819, there was no way that the whole of the Red Army could have been more than five times larger than the German Federal Army. Sure, the Soviet Union (and its Warsaw Pact allies) could have pulled off some shenanigans by mobilising well ahead of the western allies, but that's a nightmare scenario that does little credit to the military planners of 1914, and is ludicrous to contemplate in 1990. 

So when we wave our hands and talk about the tanks of the Red Army reaching the Channel in three days, we're, I don't know, we're not talking about reality. 

Yes, yes, I wrote that in part because I have a bee in my bonnet about claims that the REd Army won World War II single-handed. Actually, I have several bees, some of which have been there for a while, and some because I've just recently cracked a book I've been meaning to read for  a while. If the thought I'm trying to unburden myself of by applying demographic logic to the Red Army isn't obvious now, appreciate it for what it is and I'll get back to it. 

So, away from tractors and pillboxes and the Red Army for a moment and on to Mauritius, an Indian Ocean island republic of 2040 square kilometers and 1.26 million people in 2014. 

On 27 September, 1943, Mauritius was a dependency of the United Kingdom, with a population of 415,462 people, and the labourers of Belle Vue Harel Sugar Estate were on strike for higher wages. This was the day that the colonial police settled the strike by firing into the crowd and killing "three labourers including a boy of ten and a pregnant woman, Anjaly Coopen."

That anything like this might have happened is difficult to discern from a series of letters published in The Economist in January of 1944 by one Major Orde Browne, the "Labour Advisor to the Colonial Office."
Cassava bread. Source.

Major Browne notices that the population of Mauritius consists of 415,462 people, including 268,885 Indians, and the remainder Africans, Chinese, Europeans and mixed blood. They are, he reports, “poorly paid, undernourished, sickly…” 

There is a reason for this. Mauritius was a sugar-producing island, and while the world had, to begin with, a surplus of sugar production in the 1930s, wartime brought a much more serious crisis. First, the blockade of mainland Europe cut off a very large proportion of the global sugar industry's potential First World market. Second, sugar exemplified the kind of luxuries that a wartime population could reasonably asked to go without. Third, and for reasons that, as I write, I can see will require at least another posting on this topic, wartime inspired increased sugar beet plantings in North America and the United Kingdom. "The island was left with a crop which nobody wanted," writes Lizzie Collingham, in a brilliant book this blog has too long neglected.*

Then it got worse, because of course it can. Prewar, Mauritius' sugar monocrop had been supported by the annual import of 50,000 tons of Burmese rice, a very small part of the total story of Southeast Asia's role as rice bowl to the world at mid-century. When the Japanese overran Burma in the spring of 1942, they set light a terrible chain of events in motion. Between  TORCH, the climax of the Battle of the Atlantic, and the success of German and Japanese raiders in the remote Indian Ocean, in the fall of 1943, the Allies felt that they had no choice but to reduce the amount of shipping available in the Indian Ocean, the second prerequisite for mass famine on Mauritius was set.

Now, the idea of mass starvation in an agricultural economy producing a crop it couldn't sell is . . . strange. The precursor was a British decision to buy Mauritus' entire sugar crop, in return for the Mauritians undertaking to "replant a third of the land under sugar with other crops." The Mauritians responded by planting enough land in manioc (cassava/tapioca), maize, sweet potatoes and rice to  yield a 49,000 ton crop, enough to make up the lost 50,000 tons of rice. Cyclones, weeds, and "despondency caused by malnutrition" resulted in a disappointing harvest. In March of 1943, a single ship carrying 3000 tons of wheat was diverted to the islands, and in the fall of 1943, a larger emergency delivery of Australian wheat staved off starvation; but, as Doctor Collingham points out, the islands received not a single wartime shipment of lentils and pulse, the primary sources of protein in the local diet, and the malnutrition and lethargy continued through the end of the war, perhaps exacerbated by the tragic loss of a long-awaited peanut processing plant, sunk by submarine attack when in sight of the islands. 
Just another dhow of Kilwa, picture probably from Villiers (1940.). This one might have a 200 GRT capacity. 

Now let's turn to Major Browne. Without mentioning the strike specifically,, Major Browne has no time for it. There is no point in increasing labourers' wages, since this offers “little prospect of improved performance.” He also notes that unemployment is high. This is a little curious: 2000 square kilometers is a little more than an acre of land per person. A single acre (or 4 acres per notional nuclear family) is a bit low, but even in the deepest depths of ancient times, not everyone lived on the land! On the other hand, Browne points out, secondary industries scarcely exist, so there is nothing to employ these idle hands, and, of course, not all the land is going to be arable. 

But let's stop here for a second. Leaving aside the fact that this island was the arsenal of the French Indian empire, and is now an important link in the Imperial Reserve air route to Australia. The paradox here, as Browne puts it, is that wages have fallen behind the cost of living, and have since 1938, when colonial authorities discontinued the previous practice of issuing a free ration. The problem is defined as people not being able to buy enough to eat, and that the productivity of the labour force is being held back by congenital diseases of poor nutrition. So why not pay them more, so that they can buy more food? 

Major Browne, to his credit, can point, like Professor Collingham, to the shipping shortfall; but that shortfall is hardly irremediable. The Middle East Supply Centre is paying a competitive price for food, and is therefore seeing a glorious sunset of the "dhows of Zanzibar" as they haul the Indian Ocean's food production surplus into Basra, Aqaba and Port Suez. The Indian Ocean is a world system of its own: its coasts are filled with trading towns and brave sailors, and dhows are not subject to the Combined Shipping Adjustment Board. It is very possible that there is not a food surplus available in the Indian Ocean to meet Mauritius's needs, a point that deserves further exploration in Collilngham, but there is at least one farming sector, one archipelago of the Indian Ocean which quite clearly does have an under-employed agricultural sector. If there's not enough food in the Indian Ocean for Mauritius to import it, then there is an opportunity for export. 

The naive solution to Mauritius' problems is a more aggressive self-sufficiency campaign. Major Browne even points to unused, reclaimed land in the northern corner of the island which might be employed in subsistence (sweet) potato farming. In the long run, he thinks that the island should diversify its economy to include --more kinds of plantations. And he's quite right, becacuse that's what eventually happened, resulting in the island republic's modern "middle income economy." 

His view is not limited to the present crisis. The Mauritian labourer might be starving now, but they were both underemployed and "listless" before the war, and will be after it. Recall that one of the strikers killed on 27 September was a ten year old boy. The island's problems go deeper than a wartime crisis.


-Mauritius is participating in the global market economy by specialising in sugar production;
-It is feeding itself by importing Burmese rice, since Southeast Asian rice growers have a competitive advantage in producing this vital food crop, which cannot be driven out of the market by local manioc, peanuts, maize, etc.
-The labourers cannot earn enough money from working in the sugar plantations to feed themselves adequately, and have not been able to since before 1938. Nor can they generate enough money to bring in provisions from the rest of the Indian Ocean basin when Burmese rice fails, as it has in 1942--45.
-No secondary industry exists to generate offshore exchange and bring in food. This is in spite of underemployment that would, one would think, depress wages.
-The "underemployed" plantation labourers are being expected to grow their own food. 
-But they do not, perhaps cannot, work hard enough to feed themselves.

Mauritius was locked into a perverse economic model, poised to tip over into a secular decline at the least external disturbance. One possible is an abandonment of the market economy, and probably depopulation. Economic apocalyse --the "collapse of a complex society," as the historians of the Bronze Age Collapse say. It's like a parable about "secular stagnation--" just in case anyone missed that.

The amazing thing is that it's not unique. This systemic failure makes no sense if it is not extended to the whole Indian Ocean basin --Africa, India, Australia. That entire sweep of land cannot generate 40,000 tons of rice to pay for whatever "needlework" Mauritius might be able to export. This is insane. If there is a failure of the market so complete that it is impossible to live in Mauritius and be in the global market, than we are basically talking about the global market. The world doesn't work!

The second possibility, and you can call me crazy if you like, is that Mauritians need a pay raise. I mean, it's at least a possibility worth exploring before we embrace the alternative of shutting down the global economy. In fact, it's such an obvious possibility that one wonders how Major Browne failed to think of it. Assuming that the answer is the one that Sinclair Lewis suggests, one wonders what kind of outside factor might engage Major Browne's attention. . . 

Okay, sure. That's a story. The threat of global communism inspires the capitalist ruling classes to share their monopoly profits, etc, etc. Trente ans glorieux, and all due to our illusions about the Red Army. No wonder we cultivate them instead of exposing them! 

But what if it turns out that once we increase Mauritians' wages, their sugar becomes uncompetitive? Isn't that why Major Browne is sure that a pay raise is impossible? Isn't this a story about the global agricultural economy? Tractors are making sugar super cheap! 

So automation dooms the economy by . . . making things too cheap? We can bring in tractors to make Mauritian sugar production cheap; but then what do you do with all the surplus Mauritians? Apparently, "needlework" isn't an option, and you can see why. If everyone, everywhere, is being replaced by tractors, then there's no money to pay for the needlework, right?

This seems like a plausible story. It's 1938, there's tractors. Sugar is too cheap to pay for itself. It's time for civilisation to end. Of course, that didn't  happen. We're missing something in this story. 

I don't usually quote Laugh In. Not my thing, but this one's just too appropriate.

*The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food (Penguin, 2011; publisher's link to buy your copy.)

1 comment:

  1. Graydon points out over on Google+ (tumbleweeds chirping, crickets bouncing in the wind) that the weird pink/peach paint job seen on more than one war-built David Browns might have its origin in the limited palate of rust coatings available.

    This seems more plausible than social commentary.