Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. World
26 August 2020updated 05 Aug 2021 9:12am

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. 

By Quinn Slobodian

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.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

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).

Content from our partners
The truth about employability
Why we need a Minister for Citizen Experience
Look at the person, not the CV

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

Topics in this article :

This article appears in the 26 Aug 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid