It never ceases to amaze me how one event can yield totally different interpretations. Let it be a lesson to those simple souls who say facts speak for themselves. No, they don’t! Just like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder.
The event in question is China’s rise to become the world’s second largest economy, slightly behind the US and edging Japan – an event ably covered by our own Corey May in his recent article, “China No. 2 Economy in the World: Good Sign for US Workers.” Mr. May presents a fairly rosy picture of this, not all-too-surprising, development. In the interest of brevity, let’s call it “Mr. May’s Manifesto.”
“Workers of the world rejoice!” is the underlying message. “What couldn’t be accomplished under the conditions of the industrial England or Germany is surely playing out, and with handsome dividend, in the present day and age of thoroughgoing globalization. Yesterday, everyone was playing catch-up. The preindustrial nations, which included most of the world, couldn’t even aspire to join a united front representing workers worldwide; they were out of the loop. Consequently, any labor movement of old, “combinations” was a popular term back then, was destined to remain hopelessly limited and local. But today . . .
“Today, it has all changed, so says Mr. May. “Those who were playing catch-up have all but surely caught up; and all those who haven’t, there’re about to. The world has surely become a better place for all that.”
Let’s think for a minute. The same wages, the same standard of living, equality and egalitarianism across the board – who could ask for more? It’s surely Marx’s dream come true, a Thomas Moore utopia become a reality. At last, we can entertain the idea that the working class will attain solidarity on a global basis, a sentiment, if not the real objective, which has long eluded it for having been ridiculously splintered, fragmented, and ineffective therefore. How sweet the sound!
“The American workers will be better off for the fact, and so will all workers, period. Viva la revolution! Viva la proletariat!” is the inescapable conclusion.
It’s an ingenious argument, I’ll vouch for that. Not all parts of Mr. May’s picture are dead-wrong either. He does make some valid points regardless, points which would play out much better had he picked India instead of China. But since the Peoples’ Republic it is, the argument suffers from what I consider a number of gross misconceptions. By way of critiquing it, I will suggest a number of scenarios in the order of increasing gravity, but you be the judge.
A. Things proceed on an even keel, same as before, with the least of resistance. Within a decade if not sooner, China becomes the economic powerhouse while America slides back into the second if not the third place, behind the India-UK complex, in progress, thanks to Mr. Cameron’s foresight. Bur it doesn’t really matter insofar as we the people are concerned because we’ve long since lost our country. The global corporations are running the show, and they’ve long since abandoned such foolish sentiments as national loyalty. They couldn’t care less who is the master as long as they rake in their profits; and that’s the whole story. As for the government, our government, it’s a government in name only, bought and paid for by those very corporations, destined to do their bidding. The people are complacent as long as they’re being provided for. And why shouldn’t they since America never cared for them?
B. The people rebel out of national pride and sentiment. I’m talking here about true patriots, not the simpleminded Tea Party folk whose only agenda seems to be “number one,” couched as it may be in their constitutional rights, the freedoms and liberties guaranteed thereby, all of which are grossly misunderstood with the all-too-predictable a result – lashing out at the federal government as the main cause of their troubles, preventing them from living a lifestyle they’ve been accustomed to, the American lifestyle. The leaders take heed.
C. The US government follows the Chinese example by nationalizing the major industries. Overnight, bank accounts are frozen and the major corporations are reduced to the status of legal charters they’ve all started as. (See the video, “The Corporation”, courtesy of Ms Jeannie Danna.) Imagine their privileges revoked and the government taking total control of the economy. (The Nazi example doesn’t quite apply because all Germans, regardless of social status, the industrialists and the plain folk too, they’ve all rooted for German supremacy.) Even so, the resulting conditions would come approximate fascism.
D. Here we’re upping the ante. The leaders decide to make a clean sweep. They carry out a nuclear strike against China, eliminating thus with one stroke our indebtedness to that ill-begotten nation and its unfathomable people, and at the same time, establishing our hegemony once and for all, America’s rightful place in the world to come, forever. It’s a double whammy and an enticing resolution to boot. In case you’re wondering, we do have the capability. Hiroshima Mon Amour will stand forever as a testimony.
Understandably, those are America’s responses, responses representing a progression of sorts. In “A,” things go on pretty much as normal, and I can’t even fathom the consequences of inaction. In “B,” we see a stimulus for change, any kind of change. (Not from the Tea Party crowd because those voices only perpetuate the same old stalemate.) In “C” and “D,” we’re seeing a descend on a road to fascism, “D” representing of course the final solution. I haven’t even alluded to responses issuing from other quarters, the possibility, for example, that the Chinese workers themselves might rebel against inhuman working conditions and conditions of exploitation (although another Tiananmen Square would be the most likely result).
Interestingly, Mr. May’s rosy picture fails to consider any of that: peaceful co-existence is the only future he envisages. Incredible!
Let’s consider one of Mr. May’s main points. The complaint with the American labor movement may be well taken for all that its worth. But it’s surely a purely American phenomenon, a direct result of purely American experience whereby each and everyone are all for themselves, screw everyone else. Still, it doesn’t disprove the idea as such. Indeed, even in America, once upon a time, the labor movement was instrumental, the key factor in fact, in securing the workers a decent living wage and a reasonable standard of living. And it was hard-earned for sure, paid for by blood in the streets, many a heads bashed, and many deaths besides. Mr. May is surely oblivious of history to make such a blanket-statement as that.
From there, in Mr. May’s inscrutable mind, there comes an inescapable conclusion: we should all settle for less in order for capitalism to succeed.
I’d like to think I understand the underlying motivation, that a liberal kind of mind, moved by the egalitarian spirit, would be prone to ruminate so. After all, there are so many in this world, the peoples who are far less fortunate than us, the Chinese, the Indians, the Filipinos, the whole of Africa in fact – you name it. It stands to reason therefore that we, the rich and ugly Americans, should scale down our expectations to correspond to the rest of the world’s rather unfortunate masses. But this surely is the most cockeyed kind of reasoning I’ve ever encountered. The order is all wrong. Rather than bringing us down to the poverty level, why not instead bring up the rest of the world up to snuff, to experience well-being for a change? If capitalism is indeed the greatest invention since sliced bread, guaranteeing wealth and prosperity to all, why not act on that premise and act accordingly? What’s wrong with all of us sharing in that prosperity?
In America, in most of the West in fact, we’ve allowed capitalism to run rampant and amok, in total disregard of our democratic institutions. See, for example, Robert B. Reich’s recent book, Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life. Though I disagree with Reich on many points, mostly as regards his superficial analysis, in this singular respect he’s dead right: the present day capitalism is inimical to democracy.
Yet we’ve been told time and again that democracy trumps the economic system, any economic system, only to come to a realization it’s a myth. Our so-called “rights” are still being espoused by the powers that be, all intent as they may be on making us believe that ‘tis so. Well, nothing could be further from the truth, from the consumer choices we make to our experiences in the voting booth. We’re being held captive, let’s face it, thanks to our advertising agencies and the political spin.
In the name of freedom, individual responsibility and self-determination, we’ve been allowed a free rein to do and act as we please, to pursue our destiny and our dreams, provided of course we play by the rules, the juridical rules defined by the system and designed for the sole purpose of protecting the system. In effect, however, we’ve been abandoned, left to our own devices in a dog-eat-dog world, though the illusion of freedom persists. For indeed, when the government let capitalism to its own devices and have its full sway, it had abandoned the people as well. It gave them up for lost. And that’s in spite of such highly praised devices as safety nets, social security, unemployment benefits, and the much maligned welfare, all of which, in the ultimate analysis, serve the all-useful purpose of providing a safety valve lest we face an open rebellion.
In China, by contrast, all illusions are stripped. The corporations and the workforce are controlled with an iron fist, to do the state’s bidding and only the state’s bidding. China’s brand of capitalism, if you want to call it capitalism, is but an instrument of the state, a means to an end; and that end is hegemony. China recognizes that capitalism, when used for state’s purposes, can be a powerful tool to reach those objectives. A similar effort by Germany, only 70 million strong, still stands as a paramount example; they’ve nearly conquered the world. The late Soviet Union had come to selfsame realization, but it had run out of steam; it was a different era besides. China can only gloat.
There’s got to be a better way than being faced with two equally unattractive alternatives, total abandonment (of the individual) on the one hand, and total control on the other. It’s like being stuck in an abyss, between both ends of a false dichotomy. One should think there ought to be a middle ground.
I’m not advocating, don’t get me wrong, the idea that individual persons should be cared for. I have more than sufficient faith in human resiliency, and yes, in human self-determination. We’re not as docile or as inept as our media and its advertising arm are intent on portraying us. Humans have always stood up against injustices of any kind, and the history of the species is the living proof. Still, I don’t believe in exploitation of the mind or the body, however sugarcoated or sweet it‘s made out to be. I don’t believe in illusions. Even less do I believe in totalitarianism or in fascism, which are well-proven ways of controlling the individual. Again, there has got to be a better way.
I’m rather perturbed by the recent development, not out of sense of patriotism or a misguided belief that the end of America’s supremacy would mean the end of the world. Quite the contrary, I think that part of it would be just fine. For one thing, it would surely do wonders to our national psyche to be cut down to size. What worries me, however, is the lingering uncertainty, a course of action that is likely to follow. The scenarios outlined in section II aren’t that far-fetched. They’re not outside the realm of the possibility, add or subtract a detail or two. The potential threat to world’s peace is far greater than any that is likely to result from any act of terrorism. A World War IV, the war to end all wars, is a distinct possibility.
Let’s face it – both America and China are bullies in their respective spheres. America exercises her bullying rights when it comes to other nations and peoples; China, with respect to her own constituents. As far as I am concerned, it’s a distinction without a difference, the apparent difference consisting mainly of an illusion, the Bill of Rights we’ve been sold on, the Constitution, etcetera and etcetera – in short, the ideology of liberal thought and liberal democracies with capitalism at the helm.
Still, there is something to be said for the fact that true freedom is contingent on some measure of financial independence. One can be free in spirit, or when it comes to one’s life’s work, but there are also such things as mobility, the freedom of movement, the freedom to go about and do as one pleases.
I would have never thought that I’d ever come to defend America on that score but yes, compared to places like China, we have been able to afford such freedoms to a great many, an existential kind of freedom, perhaps the only kind of freedom that counts (which isn’t to say it doesn’t come without a price). Well, I’d just hate to see it disappear; and the way I read China, I’m certain it would. Consequently, when being faced with equally abhorrent alternatives, between the devil and the deep blue sea, I’d choose the devil.
So perhaps we had better put our dreams on hold – dreams of egalitarian societies, of the international brotherhood of workers, and of a peaceful world – and abstain from singing kumbaya, not while there are still bullies around with a score to settle.
I’m as idealistic as the next person, I can assure you, but I well recognize the wisdom of Metternich’s concept of Realpolitik, the hard-nose politics in the real world. (Needless to say, it applies to economics as well, the present form of, if not the main force behind, world domination.) We’re still at a stage, I’m afraid, when the dust is far from settled. Of one thing I’m convinced, however: capitalism, whether American or Chinese style, is not going to go down quietly; there’s going to be a showdown. So for all us who still hope, we’ll have to rebuild from the ashes.
Meanwhile, Mr. May’s rather idyllic vision of the near future, of peaceful co-existence among the world’s bullies, ignores some basic realities. (Not to mention that it suffers from an idealized version of capitalism triumphant.)