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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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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Sanctions and the changing world Order: Some Views from the Global South

In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, major world powers including the United States and the European Union have introduced sanctions on Russia. These wide ranging sanctions have been approached diversely by states, leading to distinct  bilateral and  multilateral approaches. The marked absence of a global consensus is notable. As the invasion and the sanction regime continues, the global economy is also slowing down with the imminence of a global depression. While the majority of analysis debates the efficacy of the current sanctions, this Q&A with sociologist and author of the A People’s Green New Deal, Max Ajl, political scientist and author of the forthcoming Race, Nature, and Accumulation, Bikrum Gil, and historian and author of Finance in Colonial Zimbabwe: Money, Sanctions and War Economy, Tinashe Nyamunda, analyses the structural and political nature of sanctions situating its modern iteration in a historical light. We ask them about the history of global sanctions, whether they an effective deterrent to wars, why countries in the global south have abstained from the current sanctions, how should we understand the current sanctions in the global order of neoliberalism, and whether sanctions are leading towards a new round of a non-aligned movement.

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BLOG SERIES: State capitalism(s) – Interrogating the ‘return’ of the state in development

6a00d83452719d69e2014e86055c29970d-800wi.jpgFrom Quantitative Easing to neo-mercantilist policies, the renewal of industrial policy, the multiplication of sovereign wealth funds and marketized state-owned enterprises, increased state participation in global value chains and global networks of corporate ownership, the state seems to be ‘back in business’ everywhere. This raises a series of questions:

  • Are we witnessing a shift to state-led development? A return of ‘state capitalism’ under a globalised and financialized form? Are these processes challenging market ascendance and/or neoliberalism as a global development regime?
  • Has there been a transformation of the developmental state and of the logics and instruments of ‘catch-up’ development? New tools of state intervention for industrial and innovation policy?
  • What are the implications of the resurgence of ‘state-capital hybrids’ (state-sponsored investment funds, state-owned enterprises, development banks, etc.) as key actors in development? Are these transforming the global development finance architecture? What is the relationship between, on the one hand, state-owned, state-controlled, and state-directed capital, and on the other hand, private capital?
  • What are the wider geopolitical and geo-economic shifts in which the rise of the new state capitalism is embedded? What is new about the recent ‘wave’ of state capitalism across the global economy? What are the strategic, structural/epochal, and contingent drivers of its emergence?
  • What is the progressive potential of these developments, both in the global South and in the global North? What are the limits to the new state capitalism, and the various forms of resistance to it?

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