Less than two months ago the Atlantic Council, a think-tank founded half a century ago to “promote cooperation” between North America (i.e. the US and Canada) and Europe, predicted that the virus was on its way to replace the nation-state. Until the coronavirus struck, three trends were already threatening if not dislodging the (17th century) Westphalian notion of the nation-state: the internet, increased global trade, and international flows of humans and the transmission of viruses. COVID-19, the Council argued, will result in a downturn in global trade, but it will also lead to a rise in, inter alia, digitalisation. Accordingly all technological and economic trends linked to the virus could become “the collective straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back when it comes to the post-World War II international order.” That may well imperil the realist approach to international relations: as Foreign Policy has bluntly admitted, “the realist approach to international politics and foreign policy does not devote much... to the issue of potential pandemics.”
Much of Sri Lanka’s growth is driven by trade in overpriced goods, which locks consumers along with companies into imports. COVID-19 has encouraged countries like ours to rethink priorities, to reduce the import content in national output by shifting to local production and industry
TIME Magazine has come out differently on the issue. Globalisation, Arjun Appadurai argues, is here to stay. Thus any attempt at reinforcing the nation-state at the expense of free trade, free flows of resources, and access to information will lead to the world being enveloped in a zero-sum game, leaving no winners. The Left, according to Appadurai, is championing the pandemic as a corrective to capitalism, “a potential cure for the damaged planet”, while the Populist Right in the US and in Brazil are denying the reality of the epidemic, trivialising its impact on marginalised communities (Latinos and Blacks in the US, indigenous groups in Brazil) and searching for scapegoats. Appadurai suggests that both sides are wrong. Globalisation is too big to fail.
Foreign Policy has bluntly admitted, “the realist approach to international politics and foreign policy does not devote much... to the issue of potential pandemics
Now the Atlantic Council, Foreign Policy, TIME, and The Economist remain firm, staunch supporters of free trade and globalisation, albeit from different policy angles. They see both the cloud and silver lining in the virus when it comes to international relations: the virus will lead to diminishing trade between nations, but technology and digitalisation will continue to flourish unhindered. Of course, the latter can be a dark cloud too, since greater access to information, and fewer restrictions on free speech, can fuel calls for isolationist nationalism in certain countries as much as censorship on the flow of information can in certain others. Freedom from censorship has led to white nationalism, the “America First” narrative, gaining a foothold in “liberal democracies”, while countries considered as autocratic and authoritarian resort to censorship to propagate their nationalisms. The end result has been the same: louder calls for isolation, of which Brexit was a microcosm. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s threat to withdraw from international organisations if war heroes are hounded is the latest retread of it. In that context, though, the Third World faces its own silver lining.
The moral legitimacy of the US (still the world’s most powerful superpower, in that it, unlike China, Russia, and India, has the last say on deploying the military to other parts of the world and pressurising weaker nations to comply or be compelled to comply with a directive) has been tested
Development economists and dependency theorists of the 1980s and early 1990s told us that the solution for much of the Third World also lay in isolation, from the capitalist order: essentially, self-isolation from the capitalist framework. For much of the Third World, its post-independence history offered little compensation for centuries of brutal exploitation. The Non-Aligned Movement, starting from Bandung 1955, had attempted to reach a consensus between most developing nations, but as dependency theorists, especially Samir Amin, suggested, however laudable its objectives were the NAM devolved the task of taking these countries on the path of delinking on bourgeois elites. Amin has critiqued the NAM from this perspective in his highly influential work, Re-reading the Postwar Period (“The Bourgeois National Project in the Third World: 1955-1990”). With the effective collapse of the Movement, symbolised by Mexico’s debt crisis spiralling into the rest of the under-developing world, he suggested that the task of delinking the Third World periphery from the First World centre should be devolved on intellectuals. There he made a distinction between “operatives”, who served the status quo, and the “intelligentsia proper”, who
Amin was right in making this distinction, yet he was wrong in assuming that intellectuals in much of the Third World could be split into those two camps. The line between operatives and intelligentsia proper has, for reasons which will be sketched out later, tended to blur. This has largely been due to the emasculation of the Left in the 1980s, which led to an intellectual void that would be filled, not by a radical intelligentsia, but by post-Marxist formations that ostensibly opposed capitalism without actually providing a constructive critique of it. In that regard the operatives who provide fodder for the establishment have become no different to the intelligentsia who make no attempt to prevent the establishment from feeding on that fodder and marginalising impoverished communities even more. The rise of militant Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka can be attributed to the failure of post-Marxism (or postmodernism) to a) appeal to the broader populace and b) subject economic, political, and cultural structures to critique. Instead of arguing against modernity as is espoused by one half of the world which holds disproportionate power over the other – imperialism in disguise – the postmodernist or post-Marxist intelligentsia, no different to right wing operatives, argue that we must embrace it. For the Right, it’s a way of perpetuating the interests of merchants; for the “Left”, it’s a way of cutting down their favourite bogey, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.
Here we must accept a simple truth: globalisation for the Third World remains a bitter deal and not a better one. Most of these countries are at the mercy of global commodity markets, and commodity prices tend to oscillate and are seeing a particularly bad dip due to the pandemic: the World Bank in recent reports has revealed that, since January, industrial commodity prices have reduced by more than 15%. Oil prices have been hit tremendously too, and that was BEFORE the lockdowns: by May they had fallen by two-thirds. The economic structures in many countries in this part of the world remain as they pretty much were when they were granted independence, and some have worsened, being unable to go beyond a basic plantation
With that bitter truth comes another. The only way out for the Third World, as before, is to do what Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore did before they became championed as beacons of free markets and free trade: industrialise. Japan laid the foundation for its economic success story in the 1930s, as did Taiwan and South Korea, while Singapore laid its foundation throughout the early and mid 1960s, on account of heightened industrialisation. Singapore’s move into manufacturing, which contributed to 29.4% of output by 1979, was led by State control over savings and very high rates of investment, and not by liberalising imports. Japan’s incredible breakaway success story would not have happened if, during the Edo period (as I pointed out weeks ago in this column), the Tokugawa shogunate had not broken the stranglehold of merchant capital and thus released capital for use by industrialists. By contrast, much of Sri Lanka’s growth is driven by trade in overpriced goods, which locks consumers along with companies into imports. COVID-19 has encouraged countries like ours to rethink priorities, to reduce the import content in national output by shifting to local production and industry. This is the opportunity I have been referring to.
I believe the pandemic has compelled the rise of isolationist nationalism, if not permanently then for a long time, and I believe that this has been accompanied by the resurgence of the nation-state. By nation-state I don’t particularly mean the Westphalian notion of a “state-centric notion of the world order”, as Richard Falk put it 18 years ago, though I don’t exclude it either.
These calls for isolationism as opposed to greater international integration are ironically being made by the same world powers which were until recently championing greater trade and flows of human beings and information. The moral legitimacy of the US (still the world’s most powerful superpower, in that it, unlike China, Russia, and India, has the last say on deploying the military to other parts of the world and pressurising weaker nations to comply or be compelled to comply with a directive) has been tested. It is tempting to view Donald Trump as an anachronism in that light, but he is really a successor to a long trend of increasing market and religious fundamentalism in the Republican Party, which began with the two Bushes and Ronald Reagan.
We’ve hence come around full circle, from globalisation in Reagan’s time to isolationism in Trump’s, and in this contradictory scheme of things, the rise of the nation-state does spell out an opportunity for countries in the Third World, the so-called periphery, to restart their economies with a different prescription and program. This isn’t nativism. This is common sense. And it must be devolved, not on the elite, not on the “intelligentsia”, but on a stable State led by popular support.