The era of peak globalisation is over. For those of us not on the front line, clearing the mind and thinking how to live in an altered world is the task at hand.
The deserted streets will fill again, and we will leave our screen-lit burrows blinking with relief. But the world will be different from how we imagined it in what we thought were normal times. This is not a temporary rupture in an otherwise stable equilibrium: the crisis through which we are living is a turning point in history.
The era of peak globalisation is over. An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were. A more fragmented world is coming into being that in some ways may be more resilient.
The once formidable British state is being rapidly reinvented, and on a scale not seen before. Acting with emergency powers authorised by parliament, the government has tossed economic orthodoxy to the winds. Savaged by years of imbecilic austerity, the NHS – like the armed forces, police, prisons, fire service, care workers and cleaners – has its back to the wall. But with the noble dedication of its workers, the virus will be held at bay. Our political system will survive intact. Not many countries will be so fortunate. Governments everywhere are struggling through the narrow passage between suppressing the virus and crashing the economy. Many will stumble and fall.
In the view of the future to which progressive thinkers cling, the future is an embellished version of the recent past. No doubt this helps them preserve some semblance of sanity. It also undermines what is now our most vital attribute: the ability to adapt and fashion different ways of life. The task ahead is to build economies and societies that are more durable, and more humanly habitable, than those that were exposed to the anarchy of the global market.
does not mean a shift to small-scale localism. Human numbers are too large for local self-sufficiency to be viable, and most of humankind is not willing to return to the small, closed communities of a more distant past. But the hyperglobalisation of the last few decades is not coming back either. The virus has exposed fatal weaknesses in the economic system that was patched up after the 2008 financial crisis. Liberal capitalism is bust.
With all its talk of freedom and choice, liberalism was in practice the experiment of dissolving traditional sources of social cohesion and political legitimacy and replacing them with the promise of rising material living standards. This experiment has now run its course. Suppressing the virus necessitates an economic shutdown that can only be temporary, but when the economy restarts, it will be in a world where governments act to curb the global market.
A situation in which so many of the world’s essential medical supplies originate in China – or any other single country – will not be tolerated. Production in these and other sensitive areas will be re-shored as a matter of national security. The notion that a country such as Britain could phase out farming and depend on imports for food will be dismissed as the nonsense it always has been. The airline industry will shrink as people travel less. Harder borders are going to be an enduring feature of the global landscape. A narrow goal of economic efficiency will no longer be practicable for governments.
The question is, what will replace rising material living standards as the basis of society? One answer green thinkers have given is what John Stuart Mill in his Principles of Political Economy (1848) called a “stationary-state economy”. Expanding production and consumption would no longer be an overriding goal, and the increase in human numbers curbed. Unlike most liberals today, Mill recognised the danger of overpopulation. A world filled with human beings, he wrote, would be one without “flowery wastes” and wildlife. He also understood the dangers of central planning. The stationary state would be a market economy in which competition is encouraged. Technological innovation would continue, along with improvements in the art of living.
In many ways this is an appealing vision, but it is also unreal. There is no world authority to enforce an end to growth, just as there is none to fight the virus. Contrary to the progressive mantra, recently repeated by Gordon Brown, global problems do not always have global solutions. Geopolitical divisions preclude anything like world government. If one existed, existing states would compete to control it. The belief that this crisis can be solved by an unprecedented outbreak of international cooperation is magical thinking in its purest form.
Of course economic expansion is not indefinitely sustainable. For one thing, it can only worsen climate change and turn the planet into a garbage dump. But with highly uneven living standards, still rising human numbers and intensifying geopolitical rivalries, zero growth is also unsustainable. If the limits of growth are eventually accepted, it will be because governments make the protection of their citizens their most important objective. Whether democratic or authoritarian, states that do not meet this Hobbesian test will fail.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.