This essay appeared in The Correspondent on 17th April, 2020.
The health of our domestic economies and the planet is tied to market forces that are largely invisible and little understood. As Covid-19 shakes the foundations of the world economy, rather than hope to restore it, let’s work to replace it.
I was born and grew up in a dusty, sparsely populated gold mining town on the bare and vast “veld” of the Orange Free State, South Africa.
As a child, my town’s dependence on the extraction of gold at a price fixed in Washington opened my eyes to the existence of an international financial system.
Most puzzling to me was why the price of gold, set at $35 an ounce by President Roosevelt in 1934, had not changed at all by the early 1970s. Why, when prices for everything else in our town had moved since then, had the price of a precious, scarce asset remained so low – especially since its extraction from some of the deepest mine shafts in the world proved so dangerous to the low-paid black and white miners who dynamited it out of rock?
My father, who had left school early to go to war, struggled to explain these concepts to me but that interest – in what I would later learn was the global financial system within which domestic economies are embedded – never left me. Especially since the stability of the Bretton Woods era of my childhood was long ago dismantled by Wall Street bankers and their friends in the White House.
In place of stability, what we have today is a ramshackle, largely deregulated system, widely known as “globalisation”.
Effectively lobbied for by economic cowboys with no interest in economic justice or environmental sustainability, the result of this system where “the world is governed by market forces”
is that since 1971 and the Nixon Shock, economies in the global north and south have staggered from one crisis to the next.
Now the coronavirus is shaking the pillars which underpin the temple of globalisation, causing the system to slide off its foundations. While such a collapse will in many ways be ruinous, it is also an opportunity to once again redesign and rebuild the international financial architecture so that it is more resilient to economic shocks – and works to counter climate breakdown and species extinction.
What was previously economically unthinkable, now becomes possible. The Overton Window has been opened up to enable a wider discourse.
Just as this opening for economic transformation has arisen, the defenders of the status quo have raised the alarm. One of the first to rise to globalisation’s defence is Branko Milanović, once lead economist of the World Bank’s research department.
In a recent article he warns that “globalisation could unravel” under pressure from the pandemic, and if it were to do so, societies could unravel too. To Milanović, this is the biggest danger posed by the coronavirus: that “the longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal”. In an apocalyptic analogy, he compares this “unraveling” of globalisation to “the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire”.
This fear of “globalisation unraveling” is shared by Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, who, while pursuing Brexit as an overtly nationalist agenda, thinks a Superman needs to come to globalisation’s defence. In a speech given in February of this year, he said: “When there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing … to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.”
As citizens we would not feel powerless if we understood that the private, globalised financial system depends utterly on public, taxpayer-backed resources
Across the proverbial pond, Donald Trump, for all his nationalist rhetoric, profits from hotels, golf course and fashion chains based in foreign jurisdictions – and from an international banking system that turns a blind eye to his serial and sometimes fraudulent bankruptcies.
The US leader presides over a United States Federal Reserve that continues to enjoy the imperial privilege of issuing the world’s reserve currency, and exercises historically unprecedented dominion over the global economy. Trump has used this privilege to unilaterally impose economic blockades on foreign powers and to violate international law.
But back on his home turf, Trump presents a different persona: as an anti-globalist. In a speech to the UN in 2019, he spelled out his new-found nationalism. “Each nation,” he said, “has a cherished history, culture and heritage that is worth defending and celebrating, and which gives us our singular potential and strength. The future doesn’t belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.”
Fake as it may be, this anti-globalisation stance has won Trump public support, and granted him extraordinary political power over the United States’s most powerful institutions.
Where do progressives stand on globalisation? Are Green and Social Democrat politicians as stunned and confused by this crisis as they were after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008? Are they once again willing to restore, bailout and preserve the globalised financial system – or do they agree with the economist Dani Rodrik that nation-states, democratic politics and deep international economic integration are mutually incompatible? If the latter, do those loosely defined as “the left” and as “greens” have a vision for a new global order that is radically different?
The evidence from recent left-wing election campaigns in Britain and the US is disappointing. Both the Jeremy Corbyn-led general election campaign and the Bernie Sanders-led presidential campaign appeared blind to the impact of the international financial system on their own policies and on the lives of their voters. Odd, given that their anti-globalisation electorates loathe the current system.
Both Corbyn and Sanders offered sound analysis, deep compassion and sincere solidarity to the victims of globalisation and climate breakdown. But they focused on domestic issues – health systems, affordable housing, nationalisation of the railways, kindness to the poor and homeless – and ignored the globalised financial infrastructure that makes reform of these sectors virtually impossible.
Anti-globalisation voters who backed Brexit or “America First” were clearly not impressed as neither man is today in a position to effect change, either as British prime minister or as the president of the United States.
While we may deplore Donald Trump’s double standards, the Covid-19 pandemic has restored “national foundations”.
In the absence of an international system of cooperation and coordination based on multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organization, countries have been forced to fall back on their own strengths, resources and institutions. Each country has responded differently to the disease – in line with their own distinct health systems, cultures, political institutions and financial capabilities.
Milanović acknowledges this development and warns against it: “The world faces the prospect of a profound shift,” he writes, “a return to natural – which is to say, self-sufficient – economy. That shift is the very opposite of globalisation. While globalisation entails a division of labour among disparate economies, a return to natural economy means that nations would move toward self-sufficiency.”
It is this very idea of self-sufficiency in steady state economies that I argue for in my book, The Case for the Green New Deal, coupled with greater international coordination and cooperation which remain necessary to prevent the breakdown of the earth’s and humanity’s life support systems.