Four meals away from chaos

Philip Coggan
6 min readSep 1, 2022

Edinburgh during the fringe is a glorious celebration of the artistic spirit, with any tourist walking down the Royal Mile sure to be deluged with flyers from young people eager to promote their low-budget show. While having a coffee in George Square, I was approached by someone hawking a one-person re-enactment of the Titanic disaster, an improvised musical called Shamilton and a lady (with a haystack hairdo) impersonating Melania Trump.

But the image that most visitors will take away from the 2022 fringe is of overflowing rubbish bins and gutters strewn with discarded coffee cups and takeaway meal cartons. The binmen were on a two-week strike. The dispute has since spread through much of the rest of Scotland.

The refuse collectors are protesting about a 5% pay offer which they rightly point out will not match the rate of inflation. The pay “rise” is thus, in real terms, a pay cut. Small wonder that they are protesting.

But the speed with which Edinburgh descended into slovenliness is an illustration of the theme I wrote about in my last book, More; that our standard of living depends on the efforts and co-operation of millions of strangers. It is not just that we eat food that was grown on the other side of the world or rely on communication tools made in Asia. We depend on our fellow citizens to educate our children, keep us healthy, defend our borders and clean our streets.

This co-operation faces two interlinked threats. The first is that international trade in goods and services relies on a willingness to trust other countries, and to place economic interests above strategic desires. The first great era of globalisation in the late 19th century saw vast levels of migration from Europe to the “new worlds” of North and South America, and monetary co-operation that allowed the Bank of England to borrow from its counterparts in France and Russia when its gold reserves were low. But it all disintegrated with the outbreak of war in 1914; world trade (as measured by exports as a proportion of GDP) did not recover until the 1970s.

The late 19th century era has been dubbed the “pax Britannica” as Britain was the centre of the international monetary system (the gold standard) and, through its navy, ensured that global seaborne trade was safe from piracy. And the post-1945 era could be dubbed the “pax Americana” as the US supported its European (and Japanese allies) both militarily and economically. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the post-Mao change in Chinese economic policy brought most of the world into the global trading system.

Might we see another great reversal? There is little evidence of it in the data so far. But the rhetoric is headed in one direction: sanctions on Russia, tariffs on China and a determination in many countries, after the pandemic, to ensure that some strategically important goods are produced at home. The recent sabre-rattling of China over Taiwan might be an indicator of the next tipping point.

The second threat to co-operation lies in domestic politics. In part, this stems from globalisation which is perceived in many western countries as being good for the highly-educated elite but bad for ordinary workers. There has definitely been a slowdown in the growth rate of real earnings of the average worker in recent decades and in most countries, rising inequality. There is a vigorous debate among economists as to the causes of this shift with technological change playing at least as big a role as globalisation.

But this sluggish growth in real incomes has broken the contract between politicians and the people they govern, in which votes are supplied in return for increased prosperity. That has fuelled the disillusionment with politicians that was the subject of an earlier book of mine, The Last Vote. This discontent has meant constraints in democracy in some countries where its roots are shallow, such as Russia and Hungary. And in western countries it has led to the rise of “nativist” politicians like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, who imply that a “globalist” elite is plotting to undermine their countries.

How serious is this threat? It is easy to forget that Donald Trump lost the popular vote in both 2016 and 2020, taking office only because of the vagaries of the electoral college system. But his attempt to cling on to office in 2020 showed how tenuous are the institutional supports for democracy in the US; it was only the honesty of a few Republican officials in swing states that prevented him from stealing the election. In this category, one might add the outrageous attempt by the Conservative party to prorogue the British Parliament in 2019, a step that was blocked by the Supreme Court in an 11–0 decision.

In her book “How Civil Wars Start”, Barbara Walter details her research into the crucial factors that can cause a descent into chaos; excessive factionalism, the politics of resentment and the existence of armed groups. In particular, she refers to the existence of “anocracy” where a nominal democracy exists but the institutional structure that supports it (independent courts, a free press etc) have been undermined.

Anocracies can often descend into dictatorship, as Russia has shown. But they can head in another direction, as happened in Lebanon in the 1980s and Yugoslavia as the state’s authority disintegrates into regional and religious factions. Ms Walter is not predicting a re-enactment of the US Civil War of the 1860s, with uniformed armies fighting pitched battles, but a steady descent into chaos.

And if one looks at history, it is replete with examples of states disintegrating in the face of internal and external challenges. The western Roman empire was declining long before Rome was sacked in 410CE or Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor, was deposed in 476CE. The Hapsburg dynastic empire, steadily assembled over many centuries, disintegrated within weeks in 1918. Chaos is as likely an outcome as dictatorship.

The concept that Britain is only “four meals away from anarchy” has been used by MI5 to assess strategic risks and variations of the quote have been attributed to Lenin and the scifi writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The original quote seems to have come from Alfred Henry Lewis back in 1896 who wrote” that the only barrier between us and anarchy is the last nine meals we’ve had” .

Back in the 1970s, a time when the country was rocked by high inflation, strikes and energy shortages, there was talk that Britain was “ungovernable”. There have been moments since then, notably during the riots of 2011, when the veneer of society has worn very thin.

The very connections that supply us with our food, energy and gadgets are also a source of our vulnerability, which could come in the form of embargoes, blockades or cyberattacks. Specialisation, which is at the heart of the modern economy, means that few of us have the means or the expertise to support ourselves.

Turmoil in America also affects the rest of the developed world since the post-1945 global settlement is built on the US’s economic and military strength. In 410CE, faced with Saxon incursions, the British wrote to Rome to appeal for help (according to one historical account). The emperor Honorius replied that they must look to their own defence. Isolationists in the US argue that Europe should do the same.

One can map out a future for the world in which the bonds that tie together the US and Europe disintegrate in the face of Russian and Chinese pressure, declining living standards provoke unrest at home which leads to violence on the streets, and public services break down leading to an even further decline in welfare.

This outcome is still only a possibility rather than a probability. But it is an outcome we should all consider before voting for those who would destroy the global economic structure.

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Philip Coggan

Former Economist and FT columnist. Author of More, Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine