Clowns and jokers are intended to amuse but some of us find them scary, especially when they pop up in the wrong place as happened on Thursday this week.

Boris Johnson may appear clownish, but he isn’t stupid. Reckless, yes, but stupid, no, not when it comes to protecting the class interests he represents. In a series of statements and actions, including his appointments to the cabinet, his intention to do so was crystal clear:

  •  Money for the NHS and schools? We cannot afford it. Tax cuts for the rich?  No problem!
  • Humanitrian relief for refugees? Too expensive. Military adventures to protect oil reserves?  No problem!
  • Social security instead of food banks? It would encourage laziness. Printing money to keep bankers’ bonuses flowing? No problem!

But perhaps the most chilling policy statement from our new Prime Minister came in his answer to a question from Anneliese Dodds MP in his first Prime Minister’s Question Time. Asked why he had said so little about global warming, he replied:

The Conservatives are the only party that believes that private sector driven new technology can provide a solution to the problem.

This astounding answer deserves unpicking. Why do Tories alone believe a technological fix will be discovered? Belief (for some) is a wonderful thing, but communists prefer scientific analysis and evidence and they indicate that no such technological fix is possible, at least not one that would result in a stable climate. Of course, it is possible to believe in anything -fairies with magical remedies for example – but even Tories are not that self-deluded. Some further unpicking is called for.

The emphasis on the private sector to find and implement the imagined technological fix assumes that markets can be relied on to do this. Markets are great for meeting the immediate, inessential needs of consumers but they cannot distinguish between immediate, containable costs in the medium term and catastrophic cost in the more distant and less certain future[1]. Are Tories really willing to leave global warming to a mechanism with such a serious defect to address global warming?

These extraordinary beliefs might better be explained by examining the nature of the ‘solution’ they seek. Could this be not global temperature containment but rather the survival of the 1% (0.1%?) on a mountain top (not necessarily metaphorically speaking) and the extinction of the rest of us? Such a solution might not be so implausible in a world in which automation and robotisation rendered most of the 8 billion world population redundant. In other words, could the solution be a ‘final solution’ in name and deed?

So don’t be amused and distracted by the grease-paint. Clowns and jokers can be really scary.

[1] By way of example, markets reflecting a risk adjusted discount rate of 10%markets, cannot distinguish between a cost of £1 million incurred in eighty years from now, when someone born today might expect to still be alive, and one of £480 incurred today.



The collapse of the class-based, slave -owning society of late antiquity might appear on casual reflection to hold few lessons about the future of capitalist society in the first quarter of the 21st Century, but a recent book by Professor Kyle Harper of the University of Oklahoma (The Fall of Rome – Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire, Princeton University Press) can give us pause for thought.

Professor Harper is no Marxist, but his approach is evidence-based, scientific and socio-economic. He does not directly address, as a Marxist might, whether the collapse of the social structures of Late Antiquity  arose from a failure of those structures to protect and grow the economy, but his findings can readily be considered from this perspective. The fundamental cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire, according to Professor Harper, was not, as has often been suggested, the growth of Christianity within its borders or Islam beyond its crumbling eastern edge; nor was it some intrinsic fault that only worked itself out in the fullness of time, suggestions for which have included contested imperial succession and the abandonment of the short sword and armour by Roman infantry. Drawing on both the latest archaeological and paleo-genetic evidence and on classical sources including judiciously assessed eye witness reports, Professor Harper convincingly demonstrates that the collapse was caused by climate change and pandemic disease: first the Antonine Plague in the mid-second century (probably a voracious smallpox pandemic), then the hammer blow of bubonic plague from 558 until 749. The way in which the consequences of disease and climate change interacted and undermined the economy of the Roman Empire, including its tax and fiscal structures, is dealt with in an admirably dialectical way; and the resulting class struggle– especially the efforts of the Roman land owning class to cling on and even expand their estates at a time of economic crisis and population decline is not ignored.

Professor Harper concludes his book with a muted but cautionary warning to the 21st Century reader. This concerns the recent discovery of the speed with which history’s great pathogens have evolved. This evolutionary facility to exploit opportunities opened up as society changes represents a threat to us today although it is one that Professor Harper only hints at. He is even more reticent about the threat today of climate change due to CO2 emissions even though the effect could be far greater than that which contributed so significantly to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire following the Antonine Plague.

We are indebted to Professor  Harper for an excellent book which helps us understand why the Roman Empire fell. We, his readers, need, however, to bear in mind Marx’s advice: it is not enough to understand the world – what we have to do is change it.