Limits to Supply Chain Resilience: A Monopoly Capital Critique

As the COVID-19 pandemic expanded across the world in early 2020, it generated the “first global supply chain crisis.”1 Global supply chains represent the integrative structure of contemporary global capitalism, and any disruption to them potentially threatens the functioning of the system itself.

In response to the crisis, the global supply chain community, encompassing academics and policymakers keen to promote their purported benefits, are proposing ways to increase supply chain “resilience.” The notion has been defined by the World Trade Organization and Asian Development Bank as “the ability of these chains to anticipate and prepare for severe disruptions in a way that maximizes capacity to absorb shocks, adapt to new realities, and re-establish optimized operations in the shortest possible time.”2 Enhanced global supply chain resilience is to be pursued through a range of policies to be implemented by lead firm managers and supported by states.

While global supply chains are promoted as generating positive gains—for firms and workers, North and South—there is mounting evidence to suggest that they represent organizational forms of capitalism designed to raise the rate of surplus value extraction from labor by capital and facilitate its geographic transfer from the Global South to the Global North. As demonstrated in a previous Monthly Review article (“World Development under Monopoly Capitalism,” November 2021), global supply chains have contributed to dynamics of concentration in leading firms, and a marked shift in national income from labor to capital across much of the world.3

Capitalism, as Karl Marx observed, is rooted in the exploitation of labor by capital through the latter’s ability to extract surplus value from the former.4 It is characterized by dynamics of concentration and centralization of capital, where fewer and larger firms increasingly dominate each economic sector. These dynamics are intrinsically related to capitalism’s uneven geographical development and the reproduction of geopolitical tensions and rivalries. As Harry Magdoff once wrote:

Centrifugal and centripetal forces have always coexisted at the very core of the capitalist process.… Periods of peace and harmony have alternated with periods of discord and violence. Generally the mechanism of this alternation involves both economic and military forms of struggle, with the strongest power emerging victorious and enforcing acquiescence on the losers. But uneven development soon takes over, and a period of renewed struggle for hegemony emerges.5

In fact, a recent World Bank publication explicates how the COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating capitalism’s inner monopolistic tendencies:

COVID-19 could cause a further rise in corporations’ market power because large corporations are in the best position to withstand the economic downturn and deploy new technologies.… In the past three recessions, the share prices of US firms in the top quartile across 10 sectors rose by an average of 6 percent whereas the share prices of those in the bottom quartile fell by 44 percent. The same divergence has been evident since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.6

This article argues that the resilience agenda represents an ideological justification and fortification of these very same tendencies—of labor exploitation, of concentration and centralization of capital, and of an increasingly geopolitical dimension to capitalist competition.

Following this introduction, the first section of this article outlines the emerging notion of resilience as formulated within the global supply chain community. The next section discusses how the first response by firms and states to the COVID-19 crisis was to make workers bear the brunt of the crisis. The concluding section identifies the geopolitical dynamics of resilience, focusing on the White House’s 2021 report, Building Resilient Supply Chains, Revitalizing American Manufacturing, and Fostering Broad-Based Growth.7

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Hierarchies of Development podcast: Season 2

In collaboration with EADI and King’s College, London, Developing Economics has launched Season of the Hierarchies of Development podcast. The podcast offers long format interviews focusing on enduring global inequalities. Conversations focus on contemporary research projects by critical scholars and help us understand how and why structural hierarchies persist. Join hosts Ingrid Kvangraven (KCL/DE) and Basile Boulay (EADI) for this series of discussions on pressing issues in the social sciences.

The podcast was developed with editing support from Jonas Bauhof. Listen to old episodes and subscribe to get updates on new episodes here (you can choose your preferred platform).

In the first episode is on monetary hierarchies we speak to Karina Patricio Ferreira Lima (University of Leeds, UK) about hierarchies in money and finance, core-periphery dynamics of inflation, the role of the International Monetary Fund in assessing debt sustainability, and much more. Listen on Spotify with the link below.

The evolution of mainstream economics in five political-economic questions

The trajectory of mainstream economics can be understood in terms of how the discipline historically responded to moments of crises by attempting to “theoretically fix” the understandings related to five core “questions” of capitalist political economy – namely land, trade, labour, state, and legal-institutional framework. This involved legitimising improvements in land that led to the dispossession and the destruction of the commons, justifying free trade based on comparative advantage as opposed to mercantilist state intervention, reducing labour to a factor of production that was supposedly rewarded based on its marginal productivity and hence not being exploited, legitimising state intervention to stabilise capitalism and developing a legal-institutional framework to protect markets from popular democratic pressures. These “theoretical fixes” served to ideologically legitimise, preserve, and perpetuate the core content of capitalist social relations even as it corresponded with the modification of the surface-level appearances of capitalism.

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Colonialism and the Indian Famines: A response to Tirthankar Roy

Responding to Sullivan and Hickel’s recently published research article (in World Development) and an opinion article (in Al Jazeera), Tirthankar Roy, points out how the authors are wrong in claiming that British colonial policies caused several famines in India. All that is fine, except that these articles neither investigate nor come up with any original claim regarding the causes of famines in colonial India. The central claim in their research article is that capitalism did not necessarily result in an improvement of human welfare in the 19th century – contrary to the relatively popular belief that it did. In the opinion piece, they argue the same, but solely with a focus on the negative impact of British colonial policies in India in terms of excess deaths, decline in wages and living conditions. In order to support this distinct set of claims, among other supporting evidence and quantitative techniques, Sullivan and Hickel cite one existing claim (from prior literature) that colonial policies induced multiple famines in India. And yet, as the term colonialism has become a triggering point for Roy in recent years, he titles his shadow boxing exercise as “Colonialism did not cause the Indian famines”. If the intention of Roy is to refute Sullivan and Hickel’s original claim, he fails at it miserably. If the intention of Roy is to weaken Sullivan and Hickel’s set of supporting evidence, one may argue that he does so at least partially, but that’s true only for the opinion piece (and not the research article). However, I will argue in this response why Roy fails to achieve even that! This leaves one to speculate Sir Tirthankar Roy’s real intentions, which is not the task of the current article.

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Amartya Sen’s Work Shows Us the Human Cost of Capitalist Development

Indian economist Amartya Sen has posed a devastating challenge to the dominant capitalist understanding of development. But Sen’s own analytical framework doesn’t go far enough in exposing the inherently exploitative logic of capitalism.

Amartya Sen is one of the most influential thinkers about development in the contemporary world. Since the 1970s, he has published widely across the disciplines of economics and philosophy. He received the Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 1998. In 2010, Time magazine rated Sen as one of the world’s one hundred most influential people.

There is a predominant notion of development trumpeted by international institutions, many academics and journalists, and politicians of most stripes. It holds that economic growth provides the basis for human development. Given that under capitalism, economic growth is for the most part rooted in capital accumulation, “growth-first” notions of development are essentially capital-first notions.

This way of thinking places capitalist firms, managers, and the states that back them at the helm of the human development project. It conveniently excuses the ways in which such growth generates, and is often based upon, novel forms of poverty and oppression for workers. Sen’s writings pose a major challenge to the growth-first/capital-first idea of development.

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A Multilateral International Monetary System

By Paulo L. dos Santos and Devika Dutt

“One of the chief contributions to peace that the Bretton Woods program offers is that it will free the small and even the middle-sized nations from the danger of economic aggression by more powerful neighbours. The lesser nation will no longer be obliged to look to a single powerful country for monetary support or capital for development, and have to make dangerous political and economic concessions in the process. Political independence in the past has often proved to be sham when economic independence did not go with it.” —Henry Morgenthou Jr (1945)

The world economy has a Dollar problem. Reliance on the currency of a single country as the world’s chief way to organise trade, carry out financial settlements, and store value creates a series of inequitable economic imbalances and policy tensions—both within the US and across the global economy. It bestows disproportionate economic and political power on the US government and financial institutions; exposes world trade and finance to instability and disruptions originating in the Dollar zone; imposes huge costs on the world’s small and even middle-sized nations; and fuels disproportionate growth in the US financial sector, bolstering its influence in that country’s political economy.

A Historical Problem

This problem is not new. In fact, the inability to develop an equitable and genuinely multilateral international monetary system is one of capitalism’s most striking institutional failures, going back to the early days of the industrial revolution. The gold standard of that time and its successors have always privileged some economies at the expense of others, and created policy biases favouring the interests of creditors and capital, at the expense of debtors and wage earners. 

Only once in the history of capitalism did policy-makers from leading capitalist powers even consider the possibility of building a genuinely multilateral, equitable system: during the 1943-44 debates on the post-World-War-II economic order. But despite the aspirations and statements of participants like John M Keynes and then-US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthou Jr, the Bretton Woods conference led to the creation of a system centred on the US Dollar, under which foreign central banks could present dollars to the Federal Reserve for exchange into gold. 

That system effectively charged US authorities with the supply of the world’s ultimate international reserves. In this task they were constrained only by the willingness of central banks in other states to hold Dollars instead of gold. As French Finance Minister Giscard d’Estaing put it in the 1960s, this arrangement defined an exorbitant privilege for the US economy, which enjoyed a lot of space for effectively issuing Dollars to acquire goods and assets overseas.

By the late 1960s, it became clear that the US economy could no longer uphold its obligations under the Bretton Woods system. Its steady loss of competitiveness in international trade, fiscal pressures from its protracted, losing war in Vietnam, and increases in social spending in response to domestic political turmoil, led to growing trade deficits, mass outflows of Dollars, and concerns that US authorities would not be able to meet foreign demand for convertibility of greenbacks into gold. In response, the US unilaterally abandoned its commitment to convertibility in 1971.

Coming amidst a series of successful national liberation and anti-colonial struggles across the world, the US’s inability to sustain the Bretton Woods system fed hopes that a new, equitable international monetary order could be constructed. The 1974 call by the United Nations for a New International Economic Order explicitly pointed to the need for a new monetary system centered on the “promotion of the development of the developing countries and the adequate flow of real resources to them” as means to dismantle “the remaining vestiges of colonial domination” and removing the obstacles in the way of international convergence in measures of economic development and living standards.

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Whose Polycrisis?

‘if God the Father had created things by naming them, Elstir recreated them by removing their names, or by giving them another name’.

Marcel Proust (II, 566)

An emerging consensus originated in the US has declared 2022 as the year of the ‘Polycrisis’, with a view to marking the beginning of an era of turbulence and unrest in the global economy.  Under this conceptualisation, recent events including the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change catastrophes, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the rise in energy and food prices are generally postulated as separate crises, which can have an effect on each other but nevertheless have separate origins.  This centrifugal analysis of events predicates on the decline of the uni-polar world order, as well as acknowledging the emergent structural weaknesses in the traditional western powers; all of which can be loosely interpreted as occurring in a period during which power is dispersing and perhaps as a consequence of this dispersion, the current drivers of crisis have multiplied, leading to a multitude of crises, in contrast to preceding historical instances.

In spite of the current use of the term, the origins of the Polycrisis date further and can be more sparsely contextualised. However, there is no doubt that it has now become an important neologism for conventional western media and policy institutes, especially adopted by Bretton Woods Institutions, as well as other leading investors.

Civil society has also used this term as a neat summary, however, theirs is a critical response and is not interchangeable with how powerful International Financial Institutions (IFIs), policy think-tanks and investors use the term.  In this sense, the instrumentalisation of this neologism, seems to have more value than its meaning, with the discernible possibility that any perceived political mileage of the Polycrisis, is a complete transformation away from its intellectual roots. Nonetheless, as an artefact, the intellectual roots and the political role of the Polycrisis merits an integrated analysis beyond its instrumentalisation. 

A remarkable feature of liberal thought is the tendency towards identification of social phenomena through the selective elevation of their key distinguishing features, which are abstract enough to form ‘systems’ and neutral enough to subsume the inherent contradictions of capitalist development. Pandemics, climate breakdown, wars and global deflationary pressures are not mere externalities of the capitalist system but intrinsic to its operations- long predicted by a diverse group of thinkers. That these events converge in time is a political outcome, subject to planetary limits, not abstract systemisation, as the Polycrisis seems to imply.  

Critical responses to the Polycrisis have pointed towards its disregard in accounting for the long and sustained crisis of the capitalist world order and a resort towards ‘brute empiricism’ to conceptualise things as they appear to be,  rather than questioning what is occurring beneath mere appearances. Prima-facie accounts often seek to capture the zeitgeist in the endeavour to simplify things. However, there is a need to differentiate between simplification and reductionism. As a concept, the Polycrisis is simultaneously all-encompassing as well as abstract.

In an attempt to grasp both these aspects, this short blog starts with a focus on three messages of the Polycrisis: a) the qualitative nature of change, b) the drivers or causes of crises and c) the role of Bretton Woods Institutions in adopting the concept. In addition, the blog proposes an alternative way of understanding the contemporary crisis, which hinges on the decline of the western capitalist model, followed by some thoughts on multipolarity and geopolitics. 

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The labor of land

Contemporary land grabs and agricultural investments have generated huge attention. The transformations in land tenure, production and social reproduction in the aftermath of land rushes have generated a rich literature. A central question is about labor, and its implications for structural transformation and agrarian futures.

Extraversion, exports and the labor question

In Senegambia, the intersecting pressures of food, land, and capital were historically linked to the quest for new labor and cash crops (cotton, then groundnut, followed by fresh fruits and vegetables) in frontier markets for Europe. Some of these transformations have been widely documented by Egyptian economist Samir Amin, Senegalese historian Boubacar Barry and American historian Sven Beckert. In 1819, the Ndiaw Treaty between France and the leaders of the Waalo Kingdom (in northern Senegal) was signed, allowing France to set up three agricultural bases in northern Senegal for export. This agricultural colonization project failed mostly because of the resistance of the inhabitants of the Waalo Kingdom (the Waalo-Waalo) and the inability of  French colonial leaders to secure land concessions they thought were automatically and permanently transferred to them through the treaty. The Waalo leaders, who managed the land on behalf of their community, understood otherwise. This conflicting interpretation on how land is governed became a recurrent source of conflict.

Another problem was the shortage of labor—the Waalo-Waalo refused forced labor and preferred to cultivate their subsistence crops rather than those for export. This refusal led to the return of clandestine slave trade and related abuses. The insecurity created by Waalo’s neighbors and the resistance of merchant capital added to the failure. These are key to understanding how various historical dynamics have sedimented to make the Senegal River Valley Region (historical Waalo) the site of the land rush that began in 2007-2008, especially for the production of export fresh fruits and vegetables.

Revisiting this rich history offers us a better understanding of relations of exploitation and contemporary resistance to extractivism by a number of communities in this region. It is a reminder of the violence of primitive accumulation, a violence that is ongoing. Tanzanian historian Issa Shivji puts it well:

The early encounter of Africa with Europe was not commercial involving the exchange of commodities, but rather the unilateral looting of human resources. African slavery was neither a trade, nor a mode of production. It was simply a robbery of a people on a continental scale perpetrated over four centuries through force of arms.

Despite the subsequent attempt to develop new crops in 1826 in Saint-Louis, merchant capital eventually prevailed with the failure of agriculture. As a result, post-colonial leaders “inherited a country organized by and for merchant capital” after 1960 as Catherine Boone puts it. In the same vein, Koddenbrock, Kvangraven and Sylla note how merchant capital subsequently established colonial and post-colonial structures of extraction.

Beyond processes of land acquisition, it is important to pay attention to how land becomes capital and how agricultural workers are included, excluded, or rather adversely incorporated into these agri-food networks.For instance, in her 2011 essay on land grabbing in Southern Africa, Ruth Hall provides a useful typology of agricultural transformations from subsistence to capitalist imperatives. Besides models that are based on the displacement of primary producers and the establishment of large export-oriented agricultural estates, Hall emphasizes “commercialization in situ” and “outgrower” schemes whereby petty commodity producers and other land users are incorporated into commercial value chains. This is a further invite to go beyond eurocentrism and methodological nationalism in our analyses of the genealogy of capitalism and of processes of exploitation.

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