The China Syndrome, Take Two

The China Syndrome, Take Two

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on August, 2010)

A Preamble

It never ceases to amaze me how one event can yield divergent interpretations. Let it be a lesson to those simple souls who say facts speak for themselves. They don’t.

Just like beauty, it’s all in the eye of the beholder!

The event in question is China’s rise to the world’s second-largest economy, only second to that of 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.” 1 

Mr. May presents a relatively rosy picture of this, not all-too-surprising, development. In the interest of brevity, I’ll call it “Mr. May’s Manifesto.”

“Workers of the world rejoice!” is the underlying message.

The Argument

I

What couldn’t be accomplished under the conditions of the industrial England or Germany [Mr. May continues] 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, they’re about to. The world has surely become a better place for all that.”

II

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 an objective, which has long eluded us for having been ridiculously splintered, fragmented, and ineffective. 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.  

The Four Scenarios

It’s an ingenious argument, no doubt about it. Nor are all parts of Mr. May’s rosy picture dead wrong either. He does make some valid points, points which would play out much better had he picked India instead of China. But since it’s the Peoples’ Republic, the argument suffers from several gross misconceptions.

By way of critiquing it, I will suggest four scenarios in the order of increasing gravity, but you be the judge.

I

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. But 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 their basic needs are met. And why shouldn’t they since America never cared for them?

II

The people rebel out of national pride and sentiment. I’m talking about true patriots, not the Tea Party folk whose only agenda seems to be “number one,” couched as it may be in their constitutional rights, freedoms, and liberties guaranteed thereby. All of which is grossly misunderstood with the all-too-predictable 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. 

III

The US government follows the Chinese example by nationalizing the major industries. Overnight, bank accounts are frozen, and major corporations are reduced to the status of legal charters — their initial condition. (See The Corporation., courtesy of Ms. Cindy Foltyn .) 

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 approximate fascism.

IV

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 I, things go on pretty much as expected, and I can’t even fathom the consequences of inaction. In II, we see a stimulus for change, any change. (Not from the Tea Party crowd because those voices only perpetuate the same old stalemate.) In III and IV, we discern a descend on a road to fascism, IV 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 unlikely result).

Interestingly, Mr. May’s rosy picture fails to consider any of that. Peaceful co-existence is the only future he envisages.

Incredible!

Critique

I

Let’s consider one of Mr. May’s main points. 

The complaint with the American labor movement may be right on. but it’s surely a purely American phenomenon — a direct result of a distinctively American experience whereby each person is for himself. 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, paid for by blood in the streets, many a head bashed, and many deaths besides. 

Mr. May must be oblivious of history to make a blanket statement like that.

II

From there, in Mr. May’s inscrutable mind, there comes an inescapable conclusion: we should all settle for less if we want 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 so ruminate. 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. And so, it stands to reason that we, the rich & and ugly Americans, ought to scale down our expectations to match the rest of the world’s rather unfortunate masses. 

III

But this is surely 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?

IV

In America and most of the West, 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

And although I disagree with Reich on many points, mainly regarding 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 our democracy and rights trump the economic system, any economic system, only to come to a realization it’s a myth perpetuated by the powers-that-be, all intent 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 free rein to do and act as we please, to pursue our destiny and our dreams, provided that we play by the rules. I’m speaking of 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 despite 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.

V

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 can be a powerful tool to reach those objectives. A similar effort by Germany (only 70 million strong) still stands as a paramount example: it had nearly conquered the world. The late Soviet Union had come to the same realization, but it had run out of steam. It was a different era besides. 

China can only gloat!

Closing Remarks

I

There has 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 the idea that we must provide for individual persons. 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 is intent on portraying us. Humans have always stood up against injustices, and the history of the species is living proof. Still, I don’t believe in exploitation, however sugarcoated or sweet it’s made out to be. I don’t believe in illusions. Even less do I believe in totalitarianism or fascism, which are well-proven ways of controlling the individual. 

Again, there has got to be a better way!

II

I’m somewhat perturbed by the recent development, not out of a 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 is the lingering uncertainty and a course of action that is likely to ensue. The four scenarios outlined above 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 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.

III

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, when it comes to her very constituents. 

In my book, it’s a distinction without a difference, the apparent difference consisting mainly of an illusion, the Bill of Rights, 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 truism 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-work,” but there are also such things as social and economic mobility, the freedom of movement, the freedom to go about and do as one pleases. And they matter!

IV

I would have never thought that I’d 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 faced with equally abhorrent alternatives of choosing between the two devils, I’d opt for the devil I know.

So perhaps we had better put our dreams on hold – dreams of egalitarian societies, of the international brotherhood of workers, and a peaceful world – and abstain from singing kumbaya, not while there are still bullies around with a score to settle.

V

I’m as idealistic as the next person, but I do recognize the wisdom of Metternich’s concept of Realpolitik, the hard-nosed politics in the real world. Well, the concept applies to economics as well — the present form of, if not the main force behind, world domination

We’re still at a stage when the dust is far from settled. Of one thing, however, I’m convinced: capitalism, whether American or Chinese style, is not going to go down quietly. There’s going to be a showdown. So for all of us who still hope, we may 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 fundamental realities. Not to mention that it also suffers from an idealized version of capitalism triumphant!

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