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The world to come: The cycles of history

The left should not welcome the fantasy of decoupling. Neither climate change nor future pandemics stop at borders. 

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Bazookas, heart attacks and artificially induced comas. The war over the economics of the Covid-19 crisis has been fought in metaphors. The future will be too. Which ones should we expect? Which ones should we hope for?

The three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 were dominated by metaphors of frictionless movement: flows, scapes and webs. We were presented with a latticework of circuitry strewn across the Earth’s surface, constructed with great precision to line up consumer demand and supply.

This year another metaphor became inescapable: supply chains. And the chains were heavy. Fights over face masks, hand sanitiser, testing kits and rubber gloves revealed simmering conflicts over economic dependency, especially between the US and China.

The US-China trade wars of the past three years had pointed in two different directions: either towards a globalisation rebooted under the fist of American unilateralism, or a reduction in the volume of cross-border flows. Despite predictions from commentators and economists, the latter has not yet happened. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, global trade contracted by 1 per cent in 2019 – but this still left it the second biggest year on record.

If the pandemic does provoke a reversal of globalisation, the metaphor primed to capture it is in the headlines of the financial press: “decoupling”. A battle cry for some, and a death knell for others, decoupling has come to mean the mutual disengagement of the US and Chinese economies and the  “reshoring” of supply chains and manufacturing capacity to the US.

Although the chief proponent of decoupling in the US is Peter Navarro, an economic adviser to Donald Trump, the idea is also preached by the US trade representative Robert Lighthizer. They seem to have popular support. A recent survey showed that nearly 60 per cent of Americans believe that the US should “withdraw manufacturing from China”, and more than half of US businesses based in China thought that decoupling was possible (an increase of 22 per cent from October 2019).

One of the low-key accomplishments of the Trump administration has been shifting the cross-party consensus on China from business partner to economic threat. The Democratic candidate Joe Biden has joined the anti-China chorus.

If decoupling becomes the new horizon for political common sense, it is worth asking about the origins of the term. Decoupling was first used widely after the last global financial crisis in 2008. Observers felt that the rising industrial economies of China and India were showing remarkable resilience even amid a US slowdown. They speculated (incorrectly as it turned out) that these countries, like train carriages, had successfully “decoupled” from the locomotive of the US economy and may be running under their own power.

The decoupling of the early 2000s was the vision of a multipolar world originating from the Global South. That vision has now been co-opted by the Global North. But visions of autarky are far-fetched. As prominent political scientists put it in Foreign Affairs in December, “it’s too late to decouple” without intolerable levels of disruption to people’s lives. The left should not welcome the fantasy of decoupling. Neither climate change nor future pandemics stop at borders no matter how high the tariff wall, while any kind of effective internationalism would be undermined by a zero-sum logic of competition.

Instead of seeing supply chains as bonds to be snapped, we should re-envision them as circuits of mutual dependence, testaments to our inability to opt out of the world. Rather than entertain the fantasy of self-sufficiency, which will only be used as a bludgeon to beat out better terms from competitors, we need to see supply chains as eco-socialists do, as strings of opportunities for transnational labour. Speaking at the World Social Forum in 2004, Marcos Arruda of the Brazilian Solidarity Economy Network offered his own metaphor: instead of supply chains, “solidarity chains”.

The last cycle of world history between 1989 and the present was based on sunny depictions of “unfettered markets” and win-win globalisation that flew in the face of the facts – and the facts won’t stop whatever narrative comes next. Without our own metaphors, we’ll be forced to live with the ones the nationalist right makes for us.

Read the rest of the "world to come" series here

Quinn Slobodian is an associate professor of history at Wellesley College, and the author of Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism

This article appears in the 28 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid