As our familiar world crashes around us, possibilities are emerging for a better one.
In the so-called United States of America, states compete with each other to buy ventilators for COVID-19 victims. The Trump administration bids against states for facemasks from China, bumping up the price to 15 times normal and robbing European countries which had signed deals.
This Chinese success is no victory for communism over capitalism, but the work of the global free market, cornerstone of modern capitalism, operating according to laws of supply and demand. Competing for essential medical equipment in a pandemic is ridiculous, but that’s capitalism.
In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union disintegrated and China started out on its own reform path, the capitalist-communist paradigm was already falling apart. Yet successive US governments used it to hail these developments as a triumph for capitalism.
It was a triumph, but they missed an important extra insight: the triumph would not be theirs, but China’s. You don’t have to be a “free country” to make a killing on the global free market.
Over Easter Charles Wooley wrote in these pages of a proud boast by the Tasmanian Chinese community that when China was heavily under the COVID-19 pump it had rallied to the cause by buying 17,000 facemasks from pharmacists around the state and sending them off to the homeland.
Knowing how scarce these items have become I felt indignant about that, as I’m sure did other readers. But the Chinese Tasmanians who did it were resourceful and loyal to the land of their ancestors – values held in high esteem by both Australians and capitalists.
If America kick-started global capitalism, China became its leading 21st century exponent. It got there not by subterfuge but because Western countries, including Australia, were only too glad to acquire manufactured products at lowest price regardless of their source. But the relentless and unfettered rise of global capitalism has left us all losers, even China.
Once, parties to an economic transaction lived in the same community or in communities not far apart. If they didn’t already know each other, they soon would. In those times, economy was local, wealth depended on sustainable production, and waste was something only the richest could afford.
All that ended in industrial-scale economies with ever more complex goods and services. National laws that once offered participants a measure of protection are ineffectual in a global economy controlled by corporations that have bigger budgets than many nation-states. Capitalism today is more lawless than it’s ever been.
Capitalism in its extreme form, the global free market, has created yawning gaps between supplier and purchaser. Its hallmarks are social inequality and almost total irresponsibility. It concentrates financial power in the hands of a tiny few while treating the planet as its own unlimited resource, for both raw materials and people as customers.
This has to change. Consider this scenario:
The world is shocked by a global pandemic which government and commerce with their vast array of resources cannot control. To limit the contagion, governments are forced to shut down economic activity, and many corporations, including some of the biggest, must endure hibernation or financial meltdown.
The urgency of the moment forces administrations to jettison treasured ideologies and enact measures they once despised, including enhanced financial support for the poor and unemployed. Suddenly, both politicians and the people they lead feel unmoored from familiar economic beliefs and begin questioning the entire basis of those beliefs.
Leaders initially talk of an economic “snap-back”, a rapid return to business-as-usual when the virus is contained. But the virus proves an elusive target for a vaccine, and the contagion keeps breaking out afresh with every tentative lifting of restrictions.
Far from snapping back, the old economy continues to languish, largely on life support, with governments deep in debt. But public attention is turning to other things.
The continuing threat of infection and a fractured global economy make travel difficult and expensive, but a functional internet enables individuals, communities and businesses to build and maintain some online commerce and stay in touch with peers elsewhere in the world.
People find that sourcing services and goods within their region gives them more control over quality and supply. They rediscover the satisfaction of growing, processing and making things locally. They seem to want to build on that.
Not least, they’re pleasantly surprised at the improved quality of their lives and environment. They resolve to apply the pandemic’s lessons about heeding scientific warnings to flatten another rising curve, global warming.
All quite impossible, of course. For a start, whoever heard of a virus crippling the global economy?