The most interesting commonality between capitalism and communism is that embedded within them is a desire to dilute some aspects of the sovereignty of nation states, one through a borderless vision of international trade, and the other through a ‘classless workers society’ where gratification would be based on needs rather than ability, as Marx famously promised.
Both scorn in a sense the nation state and its borders, and the language of common culture tied to a geography. The failure of communism needs no reiteration, but the coming to an end of this post-nation-state capitalistic dream requires greater contemplation.
Some believe that coming of the Coronavirus and sealing of borders is an end to the (a?) golden age of globalisation where a large part of the world’s conversation—if not necessarily population—believed that something akin to a global village can be created. The walls are coming up, say such analysts, and they won’t go down again in a hurry.
There are two problems with this analysis. First, we have crossed the tipping point of the digital integration of the world. No matter what walls (of tariffs and otherwise) are erected, our all-pervasive digital networks ensure a level of integration that cannot easily be curtailed. Then, the trade benefits of globalisation are too lucrative and too efficient to simply disappear.
But does that mean the post-Coronavirus would see the world go ‘back to normal’?
Not quite. My argument in this essay is that nations now have a new element to consider in our assessments of sovereignty. This is something I call ‘sovereignty manufacturing’. This concept is based on the simple understanding that while sovereignty is usually considered based on elements like secure borders and the ability to counter military threat effectively, it must now be asked—how does the manufacturing basket of a country affect its sovereignty?
The disruption of a supply chain, we now know, is the disruption the economy, and as Gautam Sen has written recently, there is no doubt that terrorist organisations would be studying the bio-terror potential of the Coronavirus (and others in its family) for future use.
In such a world, our old globalisation affectations that it does not matter if a country is not agriculturally secure—or doesn’t grow most of the food it needs, rather buys them from another country—is shown up once again for what it always was, a silly dream.
Understanding manufacturing and supply chains now becomes an integral part of assessing sovereignty. What kinds of manufacturing, we are urged to ask through the pandemic, are integral to reinforcing the sovereignty needs of a country? And is the country concerned in complete charge of that manufacturing? Can they ensure minimum disruption to the supply chain of that kind of manufacturing?
Even before the coming of the Coronavirus, we were being compelled to study the connections between sovereignty and manufacturing, for instance through the controversy of China’s tech major Huawei and its participation in 5G deployment in various countries. The arguments on data localisation, too, are centred around this notion—who produces data, how is that data disseminated, can those channels be easily disrupted, and who can disrupt them?
The pandemic has brought new urgency to this debate. Nations are being forced to ask themselves which parts of the economy should be ‘entirely home-based’ to ensure security. For instance, should there be a list of ‘essential’ drugs that each country needs to ensure adequate production at home?
One area where this kind of connection between sovereignty and manufacturing has always been clear, of course, is in fuel supplies. Fossil fuels have empowered (and imperilled) nations; their lack has certainly proved detrimental for many countries. If the world starts to move away from fossil fuels in any significant way after the pandemic, the question now will be of renewable energy storage. Which country can build and maintain what kind of renewable energy story, alongside the manufacturing of batteries, are now questions not only of economics but geopolitics; they are questions of sovereignty.
This shift in thinking is not a closing of the world’s mind, nor is it parochial or xenophobic. It is merely an acceptance of the new world to which we now belong and where maintaining sovereignty means dealing with new novel challenges. Novel, like the virus.
Views are personal.
The author is a historian and a multiple award-winning author.