The explosion of capitalism in China has many Westerners asking when political democracy – as the “natural” accompaniment of capitalism – will emerge. But a closer look quickly dispels any such hope.
Modern-day China is not an oriental-despotic distortion of capitalism, but rather the repetition of capitalism’s development in Europe itself. In the early modern era, most European states were far from democratic. And if they were democratic (as was the case of the Netherlands during the 17th century), it was only a democracy of the propertied liberal elite, not of the workers. Conditions for capitalism were created and sustained by a brutal state dictatorship, very much like today’s China. The state legalized violent expropriations of the common people, which turned them proletarian. The state then disciplined them, teaching them to conform to their new ancilliary role.
The features we identify today with liberal democracy and freedom (trade unions, universal vote, freedom of the press, etc.) are far from natural fruits of capitalism. The lower classes won them by waging long, difficult struggles throughout the 19th century. Recall the list of demands that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels made in the conclusion of The Communist Manifesto. With the exception of the abolition of private property, most of them – such as a progressive income tax, free public education and abolishing child labor – are today widely accepted in “bourgeois” democracies, and all were gained as the result of popular struggles.
So there is nothing exotic in today’s China: It is merely repeating our own forgotten past. But what about the afterthought of some Western liberal critics who ask how much faster China’s development would have been had the country grown within the context of a political democracy? The German-British philosopher Ralf Dahrendorf has linked the increasing distrust in democracy to the fact that, after every revolutionary change, the road to new prosperity leads through a “valley of tears.” In other words, after the breakdown of state socialism, a country cannot immediately become a successful market economy. The limited – but real – socialist welfare and security have to be dismantled, and these first steps are necessary and painful. For Dahrendorf, this passage through the “valley of tears” lasts longer than the average period between democratic elections. As a result, the temptation is great for leaders of a democratic country to postpone difficult changes for short-term electoral gains.
In Western Europe, the move from welfare state to the new global economy has involved painful renunciations, less security and less guaranteed social care. In post-Communist nations, the economic results of this new democratic order have disappointed a large strata of the population, who, in the glorious days of 1989, equated democracy with the abundance of the Western consumerist societies. And now, 20 years later, when the abundance is still missing, they blame democracy itself.
Dahrendorf, however, fails to note the opposite temptation: The belief that, if the majority of a population resists structural changes in the economy, an enlightened elite should take power, even by non-democratic means, to lay the foundations for a truly stable democracy. Along these lines, Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria points out how democracy can only “catch on” in economically developed countries. He says that if developing countries are “prematurely democratized,” then economic catastrophe and political despotism will soon follow. It’s no wonder, then, that today’s most economically successful developing countries (Taiwan, South Korea, Chile) have embraced full democracy only after a period of authoritarian rule.
Isn’t this line of reasoning the best argument for the Chinese way to capitalism as opposed to the Russian way? In Russia, after the collapse of Communism, the government adopted “shock therapy” and threw itself directly into democracy and the fast track to capitalism – with economic bankruptcy as the result. (There are good reasons to be modestly paranoid here: Were the Western economic advisers to President Boris Yeltsin who proposed this approach really as innocent as they appeared? Or were they serving U.S. strategic interests by weakening Russia economically?)
China, on the other hand, has followed the path of Chile and South Korea in its passage to capitalism, using unencumbered authoritarian state power to control the social costs and thus avoid chaos. The weird combination of capitalism and Communist rule proved to be a blessing (not even) in disguise for China.
The country has developed fast, not in spite of authoritarian rule, but because of it. With Stalinist-sounding paranoia, we are left to wonder, “Maybe those who worry about China’s lack of democracy are actually worried that its fast development could make it the next global superpower, thereby threatening Western primacy.”— — — — — — — — -
Today, the tragedy of the Great Leap Forward is repeating itself as a comedy. It has become the rapid capitalist Great Leap Forward into modernization, with the old slogan “iron foundry into every village” re-emerging as “a skyscraper into every street.” The supreme irony of history is that Mao Zedong himself created the ideological conditions for rapid capitalist development. What was his call to the people, especially the young ones, in the Cultural Revolution? Don’t wait for someone else to tell you what to do, you have the right to rebel! So think and act for yourselves, destroy cultural relics, denounce and attack not only your elders, but also government and party officials! Swipe away the repressive state mechanisms and organize yourself in communes!
And Mao’s call was heard. What followed was such an explosion of unrestrained passion to delegitimize all forms of authority that, at the end, Mao had to call in the army to restore order. The paradox is that the key battle during the Cultural Revolution was not between the Communist Party apparatus and the denounced traditionalist enemies, but between the Communist Party and the forces that Mao himself called into being.
A similar dynamic is discernible in today’s China. The Party resuscitates big ideological traditions in order to contain the disintegrative consequences of the capitalist explosion that the Party itself created. It is with this in mind that one should read the recent campaign in China to revive Marxism as an efficient state ideology. (Literally hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars are spent on this venture.)
Those who see this as a threat to capitalist liberalization totally miss the point. Strange as it may sound, this return of Marxism is the sign of the ultimate triumph of capitalism, the sign of its full institutionalization. For example, China has taken recent legal measures to guarantee private property, a move that the West has hailed as a crucial step toward legal stability.
But what kind of Marxism is as appropriate for today’s China? First, let’s look at the difference between Marxism and Leftism. Leftism is a term that refers to any talk of workers’ liberation – from free trade unions to overcoming capitalism. But the Marxist thesis says that developing the forces of production is the key to social progress, and it is this type of Marxist development that fosters the conditions for the continuing fast “modernization.”
In today’s China, only the Communist Party’s leading role can sustain rapid modernization. The official (Confucian) term is that China should become a “harmonious society.”
To put it in old Maoist terms, the main enemy may appear to be the “bourgeois” threat. But, in the eyes of the ruling elite, the main enemies are instead the “principal contradiction” between unfettered capitalist development that the Communist Party rulers profit from and the threat of revolt by the workers and peasants.
Last year, the Chinese government strengthened some of its oppressive apparatuses – including forming special units of riot police to crush popular unrest. These police are the actual social expression of what, in ideology, appears as a revival of Marxism. In 1905, Trotsky characterized tsarist Russia as “the vicious combination of the Asian knout [whip] and the European stock market.” Doesn’t this characterization still hold for modern-day China?
But what if the promised democratic second act that follows the authoritarian valley of tears never arrives? That is what is so unsettling about today’s China: Its authoritarian capitalism may not be merely a remainder of our past but a portent of our future.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
We've partnered with the publisher, Haymarket Books, and 100% of your donation will go towards supporting In These Times.