Homogeneous, Self-Contained, Self-Sufficing Units

Monday, October 17th, 2011

In previous wars, each nation had been a homogeneous, self-contained, self-sufficing unit, but that was no longer true by the Great War, Ivan Bloch noted:

Consider for one moment what nations were a hundred years ago and what they are to-day. In those days before railways, telegraphs, steamships, &c, were invented, each nation was more or less a homogeneous, self-contained, selfsufficing unit. Europe was built in a series of water-tight compartments. Each country sufficed for its own needs, grew its own wheat, fattened its own cattle, supplied itself for its own needs within its own frontiers. All that is changed; with the exception of Russia and Austria there is not one country in Europe which is not absolutely dependent for its beef and its bread supplies from beyond the frontiers. You, of course, in England are absolutely dependent upon supplies from over sea. But you are only one degree worse off than Germany in that respect. In 1895, if the Germans had been unable to obtain any wheat except that which was grown in the Fatherland, they would have lacked bread for one hundred and two days out of the three hundred and sixty-five. Every year the interdependence of nations upon each other for the necessaries of life is greater than it ever was before. Germany at present is dependent upon Russia for two and a half months’ supply of wheat in every year. That supply would, of course, be immediately cut off if Russia and Germany went to war; and a similar state of things prevails between other nations in relation to other commodities. Hence the first thing that war would do would be to deprive the Powers that made it of all opportunity of benefiting by the products of the nations against whom they were fighting.”

“Yes,” I objected, “but the world is wide, and would it not be possible to obtain food and to spare from neutral nations?”

“That assumes,” said M. Bloch, “first that the machinery of supply and distribution remains unaffected by war. Secondly, that the capacity for paying for supplies remains unimpaired. Neither of those things is true. For you, of course, it is an absolute necessity that you should be able to bring in food from beyond the seas ; and possibly with the aid of your fleet you may be able to do it, although I fear the rate of war premium will materially enhance the cost of the cargoes. The other nations are not so fortunate. It was proposed some time ago, I know, in Germany, that in case of war they should endeavour to replace the loss of Russian wheat by importing Indian wheat through the Suez Canal—an operation which in the face of the French and Russian cruisers might not be very easy of execution. But even supposing that it was possible to import food, who is to pay for it? And that is the final crux of the whole question.”

“But,” again I objected, ” has the lack of money ever prevented nations going to war? I remember well when Lord Derby, in 1876, was quite confident that Russia would never go to war on behalf of Bulgaria because of the state of the Russian finances; but the Russo-Turkish war took place all the same, and there have been many great wars waged by nations which were bankrupt, and victories won by conquerors who had not a coin in their treasury.”

“You are always appealing to precedents which do not apply. Modern society, which is organised on a credit basis, and modern war, which cannot be waged excepting at a ruinous expenditure, offer no points of analogy compared with those times of which you speak. Have you calculated for one moment what it costs to maintain a soldier as an efficient fighting man in the field of battle? The estimate of the best authorities is that you cannot feed him and keep him going under ten francs a day—say, eight shillings a day. Supposing that the Triple and Dual Alliance mobilise their armies, we should have at once confronting us an expenditure for the mere maintenance of troops under arms of £4,000,000 a day falling upon the five nations. That is to say, that in one year of war under modern conditions the Powers would spend £1,460,000,000 sterling merely in feeding their soldiers, without reckoning all the other expenses that must be incurred in the course of the campaign. This figure is interesting as enabling us to compare the cost of modern wars with the cost of previous wars. Take all the wars that have been waged in Europe from the battle of Waterloo down to the end of the Russo-Turkish war, and the total expenditure does not amount to more than £ 1,2 50,000,000 sterling, a colossal burden no doubt, but one which is nearly ^’200,000,000 less than that which would be entailed by the mere victualling of the armies that would be set on foot in the war which we are supposed to be discussing. Could any of the five nations, even the richest, stand that strain?”

“But could they not borrow and issue paper money?”

“Very well,” said M. Bloch, “they would try to do so, no doubt, but the immediate consequence of war would be to send securities all round down from 25 to 50 per cent., and in such a tumbling market it would be difficult to float loans. Recourse would therefore have to be had to forced loans and unconvertible paper money. We should be back to the days of the assignats, a temporary expedient which would aggravate the difficulties with which we have to deal. Prices, for instance, would go up enormously, and so the cost, 8s. a day, would be nearer 20s. if all food had to be paid for in depreciated currency. But, apart from the question of paying for the necessary supplies, it is a grave question whether such supplies could be produced, and if they could be produced, whether they could be distributed.”

“What do you mean by ‘ distributed ‘?” I asked.

“Distributed?” said M. Bloch. “Why, how are you to get the food into the mouths of the people who want it if you had (as you would have at the beginning of the war) taken over all the railways for military purposes? Even within the limits of Germany or of Russia there would be considerable difficulty in securing the transit of food-stuffs in war time, not merely to the camps, but to the great industrial centres. You do not seem to realise the extent to which the world has been changed by the modern industrial system. Down to the end of the last century the enormous majority of the population lived in their own fields, grew their own food, and each farm was a little granary. It was with individuals as it was with nations, and each homestead was a self-contained, selfproviding unit. But nowadays all is changed. You have great industrial centres which produce absolutely nothing which human beings can eat. How much, for instance, do you grow in the metropolitan area for the feeding of London? Everything has to be brought by rail or by water to your markets. So it is more or less all over the Continent, especially in Germany and France. Now it so happens (and in this I am touching upon the political side of the question) that those districts which produce least food yield more Socialists to the acre than any other part of the country. It is those districts, rife with all elements of political discontent, which would be the first to feel the pinch of high prices and of lack of food. But this is a matter on which we will speak later on.”
“But do you think,” I said, “that the railways would be so monopolised by the military authorities that they could not distribute provisions throughout the country?”

“No,” said M. Bloch. “It is not merely that they would be monopolised by their military authorities, but that they would be disorganised by the mobilisation of troops. You forget that the whole machinery of distribution and of production would be thrown out of gear by mobilisation; and this brings me to the second point upon which I insist—viz., the impossibility of producing the food. At the present moment Germany, for instance, just manages to produce sufficient food to feed her own population, with the aid of imports from abroad, for which she is able to pay by the proceeds of her own industry. But in the case of war with Russia she would not be able to buy two and a half months’ supply of wheat from Russia, and therefore would have to pay much more for a similar supply of food in the neutral markets, providing she could obtain it. But she would have to buy much more than two and a half months’ from Russia, because the nine months’ corn which she produces at present is the product of the whole labour of all her able-bodied agricultural population; and how they work you in England do not quite realise. Do you know, for instance, that after the ‘ Busstag,’ or day of penitence and prayer, at the beginning of what we call the farmers’ year or summer season, the whole German agricultural population in some districts work unremittingly fifteen hours a day seven days a week, without any cessation, without Sundays or holidays, until the harvest is gathered in; and even with all that unremitting toil they are only able to produce nine months’ supply of grain. When you have mobilised the whole German army, you will diminish at least by half the strong hands available for labour in the field. In Russia we should not, of course, be in any such difficulty, and in the scrupulous observance of Sunday we have a reserve which would enable us to recoup ourselves for the loss of agricultural labour. We should lose, for instance, 17 per cent, of our peasants; but if those who were left worked on Sunday, in addition to weekdays, we should just be able to make up for the loss of the men who were taken to war. Germany has no such reserves, nor France ; and hence it is that, speaking as a political economist, I feel extremely doubtful as to whether it would be possible for either Germany or France to feed their own population, to say nothing of their own soldiers, when once the whole machine of agricultural production had been broken up by the mobilisation en masse of the whole population.”

Bloch was a financier turned political-economist, in case that wasn’t clear.

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