TO be scientific: the global economy is throwing a wobbly. After a generation of prices being reasonably steady (or at least growing slowly), the word “inflation” is back in vogue. Gas prices are rising steeply, but – even worse – serious gas shortages have suddenly begun to appear. Fruit and veg are not being picked – or planted for next year – thanks to missing workers. Supermarket shelves are empty because there aren’t enough HGV drivers. Everywhere, our digital world is suffering from a lack of microchips. What’s gone wrong?

Most economists originally predicted a smooth recovery from the pandemic. The ever-complacent Bank of England is still predicting that UK output will be more or less back to normal by the end of the year. Is the current inflation merely a post-Covid blip? True, the world’s productive capacity – machines and physical resources – remains expansive enough to meet every consumer demand. But only in theory. Covid has thrown a spanner in the economic works.

Pre the pandemic, the global economy worked like a very-well-oiled watch: every wheel worked in unison. Components and finished goods whisked round the world more or less instantaneously, matching supply to orders. Factories did not need to keep stocks of anything because components arrived when needed. It was a “just in time” world. Now suddenly that clockwork economy has been exploded.

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The long Covid lockdown – exacerbated by occurring at different times, in different countries, with different rules – has effectively destroyed the world’s “just in time” supply chains. To this must be added the tendency for individual nations or business suppliers to take advantage of the emergency by hoarding or hiking prices artificially. Result: instant economic chaos. Let’s take some examples.

Start with shipping containers. The world probably has enough containers in total – they are mostly made in China, as you’d guess. But as a result of Covid disruptions, these containers have been left in all the wrong places. That creates artificial shortages. So, it is hard to rent enough containers in China to carry goods to Europe or America in the timeframe they are needed. The scramble to rent containers and ships has caused freight costs to go into orbit – in part exaggerated by port congestion.

Even if a firm’s orders do turn up as planned, you’ve got to have trucks and HGV drivers to get the goods to distribution centres and shops. But the disruption caused to container supplies counts for road haulage too. Add in the Brexit exodus of EU citizens and the UK is particularly short of drivers – perhaps 100,000 short! Putting wages up won’t help that much instantly and training new truckers takes time. Expect Christmas to be cancelled for lack of reindeer and trained elves.

All this has huge knock-on effects on manufacturing. The pandemic had a weird impact on microchip manufacturing. Just as chip factories went into lockdown, consumer demand for electronic gadgets shot up as folk worked from home. Result: demand for chips began to outstrip demand. The end of lockdown only made matters worse. Consumers want to buy cars again. But the average car these days uses more than a hundred micro-processors. No chips, no cars. In the UK this year, Mini has had to close its Oxford plant temporarily and Jaguar Land Rover was forced to pause production. Internationally, Stellantis (owner of Fiat, Peugeot, Vauxhall, Chrysler and Citroen brands) has slowed production while Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes and Mazda have also cut output. It is like a creeping paralysis disrupting the core sector of manufacturing.

But global capitalism is about politics as well as profits. In this disrupted world, nation states have begun to eye the main chance. Yes, President Biden wants to face down President Xi, but the new US-Australia deal is about robbing French boat builders of a $70 billion order for diesel submarines and handing General Dynamics in the States a prize that could be worth $400bn over the lifetime of the replacement nuclear subs. Biden’s Aussie deal is a reminder that even in post-Trump America, the White House puts its own economic interests before Europe’s. The UK beware.

Then there’s gas. Your gas bill is about to soar. The problem here is that the UK and EU have created a weird gas market – one that suits the profitability of the gas companies rather than your pocket. The price the UK consumer pays is determined by the immediate availability of supply to the gas retailer, rather than on long-term contracts between those retailers and the ultimate energy producer.

This is very different from the situation where a local gas retailer buys its supplies from abroad on a fixed-price contract, say over 20 years. In that latter case, the ultimate price to the consumer is also fixed for the next two decades. Of course, to take account of risk, these fixed-term supply prices are higher on average than when your provider just secures gas from anybody desperate to unload (the so-called spot price). It’s a form of insurance premium.

Here’s the difficulty. Your middleman gas supplier relies on hand-to-mouth purchases at an initially low spot price – to sucker you in as a consumer by passing on the low cost. Inevitably there comes a day when there’s no gas to be had. That’s happening now. Here in Europe, gas supplies have never recovered from last winter’s heavy domestic demand (itself a side effect of people being locked down). Now as we enter winter 2021-22, every gas retailer is scrambling for scarce supplies – so the retail price is skyrocketing, and minor retailers are going bust.

Some blame Gazprom, the Russian state gas producer, for deliberately starving Europe of extra supplies. There could be a certain truth in this story: Putin wants to put pressure on Germany and the EU to ignore US economic sanctions and allow the new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to operate. Equally, all over the globe, state actors are moving to protect their access to vital natural resources. Chinese companies are buying up agricultural land across the globe to secure food supplies. Also watch China move into Afghanistan, which has the world’s largest reserves of rare earth minerals needed in microchip and battery production.

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The post-pandemic world is going to be economically rocky for a much longer time period than British commentators originally predicted. This has major implications for Scotland. The June 2020 report produced by the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Economic Recovery (chaired by ex-banker Benny Higgins) assumed the post-pandemic world would look very much like it was before Covid. We know it won’t. All the evidence suggests economic disruption.

Priority #1 is to seek Scottish economic self-sufficiency where we can, but especially in food and in house-building materials (most of which, bizarrely, we import). That requires abandoning the neoliberal myth of “free trade” and that necessitates quitting the UK as fast as possible. A self-reliant Scotland could also switch to long-term energy contracts for consumers and businesses, instead of the uncertainties of the spot market.

All this requires a degree of public intervention and state direction of investment levels rather than the neoliberal free-for-all. Above all, it requires independence to shape our own future in a suddenly very different kind of world.