By RT / Slavoj Žižek**
Official Chinese social theorists paint a picture of today’s world which basically remains the same as that of the Cold War.
Thus, the worldwide struggle between capitalism and Socialism goes on unabated, the fiasco of 1990 was just a temporary setback and, today, the big opponents are no longer the US and USSR but America and China, which remains a Socialist country.
Here, the explosion of capitalism in China is read as a gigantic case of what in the early Soviet Union they called New Economic Policy, so that what we have in China is a new “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” but still Socialism. The Communist party remains in power and tightly controls and direct market forces.
Indeed, Domenico Losurdo, the Italian Marxist who died in June this year, elaborated this point in detail, arguing against the “pure”Marxism which wants to establish a new Communist society directly after the revolution, and for a more “realist” view which advocates a gradual approach with turnarounds and failures.
Roland Boer, a Beijing-based professor, evokes the memorable image of Losurdo drinking a cup of tea on a busy Shanghai street in September 2016: “In the midst of the bustle, traffic, advertising, shops, and clear economic drive of the place, Domenico said, ‘I am happy with this. This is what socialism can do!’ To my quizzical look, he replied with a smile, ‘I am strongly in favour of the reform and opening up’.”
Boer then goes on to resume the argument for this “opening up”: “Most efforts had been directed at the relations of production, focusing on socialist equality and collective endeavour. This is all very well, but if everyone is equal simply because they are poor, few would see the benefit. So Deng and those working with him began to emphasise another dimension of Marxism: the need to unleash the forces of production.”
For Marxism, however, “unleashing the forces of production” is not “another dimension” but the very goal of transforming relations of production.
And here is Marx’s classic formulation: “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.”
The irony is that, while, for Marx, Communism arises when capitalist aspects of production became an obstacle to the further development of the means of production. Which means this development can be secured only by (sudden or gradual) progress from a capitalist market economy to a socialized economy.
But Deng Xiaoping’s “reforms” turn Marx around. At a certain point, one has to return to capitalism to enable the economic development of Socialism.
Of course, there is a further irony here that is difficult to surpass. The 20th century Left was defined by its opposition to two fundamental tendencies of modernity: the reign of capital with its aggressive individualism and alienating dynamics and authoritarian-bureaucratic state power.
What we get in today’s China is exactly the combination of these two features in its extreme form: a strong authoritarian state and wild capitalist dynamics.
Orthodox Marxists liked to use the term “dialectical synthesis of the opposites”: suggesting true progress takes place when we bring together the best of both opposing tendencies. But it looks like China succeeded by way of bringing together what we considered the worst in both opposing tendencies (liberal capitalism and Communist authoritarianism).
Years ago, a Chinese social theorist, with links to Deng Xiaoping’s daughter, told me an interesting anecdote. When Deng was dying, an acolyte who visited him asked him what he thought his greatest act was, expecting the usual answer that he will mention his economic opening that brought such development to China.
To their surprise, he answered: “No, it was that, when the leadership decided to open up the economy, I resisted the temptation to go all the way and open up also the political life to multi-party democracy.” (According to some sources, this tendency to go all the way was pretty strong in some Party circles and the decision to maintain party control was in no way preordained.)
We should resist here the liberal temptation to dream about how, in the case China were to open up also to political democracy, its economic progress would have been even faster: what if political democracy would have generated new instabilities and tensions that would have hampered economic progress? Such as were witnessed in most of the old USSR?
What if this (capitalist) progress was feasible only in a society dominated by a strong authoritarian power? Recall the classical Marxist thesis on early modern England: it was in the bourgeoisie’s own interest to leave the political power to the aristocracy and keep for itself the economic power. Maybe something homologous is going on in today’s China: it was in the interest of the new capitalists to leave political power to the Communist Party.
The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk remarked how if there is a person to whom they will build monuments a hundred years from now, it is Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean leader who invented and implemented so-called “capitalism with Asian values.” (Which, of course, have nothing to do with Asia and all to do with authoritarian capitalism.)
Nevertheless, the virus of this authoritarian capitalism is slowly but surely spreading around the globe. Before setting in motion his reforms, Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore and expressly praised it as a model all of China should follow.
This change has a world-historical meaning. Because, until now, capitalism seemed inextricably linked with democracy. There were, of course, from time to time, recourses to direct dictatorship, but, after a decade or two, democracy again imposed itself (recall just the cases of South Korea and Chile).
Now, however, the link between democracy and capitalism is broken. So it is quite possible that our future will be modelled upon a Chinese “capitalist socialism” – definitely not the socialism we were dreaming about.
Slavoj Žižek is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London.
*The opinion of this author is his/hers alone. It is not necessarily the views of Beyond Deadlines.