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25 November 2020

Why we must abandon the myth of self-sufficiency

The pursuit of national self-sufficiency is an understandable reaction against a rapacious globalised economy – but it is neither possible nor desirable.

By Julian Baggini

Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, the world was already heading down the path of isolationism and nationalism. Brexit was under way, the US was in the midst of a trade war with China, and populist governments everywhere were showing contempt for international law and institutions.

The pandemic seemed destined to accelerate this trend towards insularity. It gave nativists’ calls for greater autonomy a new sense of urgency. Here was a filthy, foreign disease spread by international travel which exposed our reliance on other nations for food and basic medical supplies.

But enthusiasm for self-sufficiency is not confined to right-wing nationalists; it is a value that appeals across the political spectrum. Advocates of sustainable agriculture have long been banging the drum for shorter supply chains and less dependency on imports and multinational agribusiness. Local currencies have been championed in places such as Bristol and Totnes as antidotes to global capitalism.

Donald Trump’s desire to throttle trade with China in the name of saving US jobs has its twin on the left. Left-wing protectionists want to move production from dangerous, badly paid sweatshops abroad to well-paid, highly skilled workshops at home. There is also an environmental case for more domestic production: to reduce emissions from long-haul transportation and counter the disposable culture fuelled by cheap imports.

Both left and right see self-sufficiency as a means of reclaiming power. For conservatives, it is a way of protecting national traditions from erosion by foreign forces. For progressives, it checks the power of unaccountable, tax-dodging multinationals.

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But for conservatives and progressives alike, the case against economic self-sufficiency should be clear. The liberal economic tradition has rightly argued that international trade, when conducted fairly, benefits everyone. The most cogent critiques of neoliberalism, meanwhile, are not attacks on trade per se, but its capture by corporations.

Economic self-sufficiency would harm everyone but it would harm poor nations most. Wealthy countries can take the hit of reduced GDP in order to regain “economic sovereignty”. Developing economies do not have that luxury. Self-sufficiency is in essence an ethic for the powerful. It’s easy to believe everyone should take care of themselves when you don’t have chronic health conditions or disabilities, or when you have the financial security to feel confident you’ll never need to call on the resources of others. “I don’t need others” is false and damaging for everyone, but its corollary, “others don’t need me”, is much more damaging for the most vulnerable.

[see also: The new age of autarky]

It’s also easy to imagine we’re more self-reliant than we are when our wealth and comfort depend on the infrastructures and cheap labour to which affluent societies are habituated, from the couriers who deliver our takeaways to the refuse collectors who take away their remains. Nations, too, fall for this illusion, ignoring the inconvenient truth that though the colonial era may be over officially, the West’s prosperity still depends on its citizens’ paying a pittance to people overseas to grow their coffee beans and assemble their smartphones.

Of course, there is such a thing as over-dependence on others and we should take care of ourselves as much as we can. But aspiring to eliminate our dependence on others is not a way of overcoming our human frailty – it is a denial of it. The idea that we can go it alone is a romantic myth with deep roots in the individualism that has prevailed in the West arguably since Christ rejected the primacy of clan and clerics, and prioritised the individual’s direct relationship with God. Modern capitalism accelerated this atomisation, but it did not create it.

One of the upsides of the lockdowns has been a widespread sense that the fragmentation of society was being reversed, as people pulled together, rediscovering their neighbours and communities. But instead of challenging the value of self-sufficiency, this experience of solidarity simply changed its parameters. The basic units of autonomy shifted from the individual and the family to the community and nation. The “self” in “self-sufficient” was enlarged but it remained closely bounded.

In time-honoured fashion, the price of this kind of collectivity has been exclusion. The more communities and nations come together, the more they tend to push outsiders away. Our sense of security becomes tied to what is near, at the expense of what is far, which often appears as a threat. Thus the same people who were “all in it together” when shopping for neighbours or clapping hospital workers turned away desperate refugees from the Kent coast, calling them invaders. We’ve also seen the rise of vaccine nationalism, in which nations seek to protect their own first, most egregiously with Trump’s hoarding of the anti-viral drug, remdesivir (which, in a karmic twist, the World Health Organisation has now advised is ineffective).

As a truly global crisis, the pandemic has highlighted our interdependence. But instead of embracing this, the reaction has too often been to flee from it, accelerating the retreat behind national borders. The folly of this is apparent in the NHS itself, which relies on foreign workers, many of whom came to the UK as refugees. A House of Commons report published in June revealed that 13.8 per cent of NHS workers are non-British. The proportion was even higher among hospital doctors, 38 per cent of whom received their medical training outside the UK.

The pursuit of national self-sufficiency is in part an understandable reaction against a rapacious, under-regulated, globalised economy. But its appeal rests on the false premise that life without any need for others is both possible and desirable. Rather than fuelling the desire for greater national autonomy, the pandemic should make us realise that our interdependence places severe limits on how self-sufficient we can be. 

[see also: Is neoliberalism really dead?]

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This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump