Ralph Harrington: China's future is not Europe's past

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Dr. Harrington, an independent scholar with a degree in history from Oxford, was a lecturer in history at the University of York (1999-2003).]

In the current (3 December 2007) edition of In These Times, Slavoj Zizek of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, Essen, has an interesting article about the People’s Republic of China: ‘China’s valley of tears’. He argues that western expectations that democracy will follow in the wake of capitalism in China are profoundly mistaken, pointing out that economic development in China has occurred because of authoritarian rule, not in spite of it.

Zizek is surely right in seeing no essential contradiction between capitalism and authoritarianism in the Chinese case. Where he goes badly astray is in the parallel he draws between the development of capitalism in the People’s Republic of China today and its historical development in Europe. In short, he argues that the emergence of capitalism in early modern Europe was accompanied by precisely the kind of state authoritarianism that we see in contemporary China:

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.

E. P. Thompson and Christopher Hill might well have approved of this facile Marxism, but it really won’t do as history. ‘Democracy’ in early modern Europe meant something quite different to what it means today, in so far as it had (or has) a settled meaning in any case; as for ‘brutal state dictatorship’, no early modern state had the means to impose such a thing, even had it wished to do so. Capitalism in Europe was not imposed from above, it arose from below, from investment, invention and entrepreneurship. It arose first and most successfully in those countries which had political stability, surplus capital, availability of labour and natural resources, and in which governments enabled its development. An enabling government is a very different thing from an enforcing government. No Dutch merchant was forced by the state to trade with the East Indies; no English landowner was compelled at bayonet-point to dig for coal on his estate; no Scottish businessman was threatened with beheading if he did not open a bank. Even for the workers who provided the muscle which powered the development of capital, the economic imperatives of the market were far more significant in determining whether and where they worked than the coercive power of the state, which was minimal by modern standards.

Zizek’s characterization of the development of European capitalism is profoundly mistaken, and the parallel with contemporary China simply isn’t there. European capitalism arose organically from below, and the state developed to accommodate it. In China, capitalism is imposed from above by state decree (and what one decree gives, another can take away). European capitalism was driven by invention; no-one in China has invented anything for centuries, being content to copy. The development of western capitalism was bound up with philosophical and political notions of individual liberty and free will; in China these notions are absent, and have indeed long been officially despised and rejected.

Not only is the supposed parallel absent for the past, it is equally false for the future. The growth of the capitalist economies of Europe and America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was built on deep economic, financial and philosophical roots; it was real, it endured, and it changed the world. China’s recent growth is built on sand: it is illusory, it is short-term, and it will only change the world if the world is foolish enough to go on accepting China at its own valuation.

Where Zizek argues that there is a parallel between the contemporary Chinese situation and the conditions under which capitalism developed in early modern Europe, he is mistaken. He is correct, however, to argue that, far from authoritarian rule undermining contemporary Chinese economic development, it is the foundation of it, and to assert that (contrary to the claims of China’s cheerleaders in the west) there is no natural progression from capitalist economic liberalization to democratic political liberalization. That argument needs to be taken a stage further: given the artificial, state-imposed nature of contemporary Chinese capitalism, its continuing expansion - indeed, its continuing presence - cannot be relied upon.

Zizek sees modern China as a natural and consistent expression of Marxist economic and political philosophy. He is right, and the lesson is clear. The Marxist house of cards collapsed long ago; how long before the fragile edifice that is the People’s Republic falls down flat as well?

Read entire article at Greycat (Blog)

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Jeffery Ewener - 12/8/2007

Even the most fragile edifice doesn't just collapse on its own. Other, opposing forces, like gravity, pull it down. Wishful thinking doesn't count as one of these.

The article makes the very good point that history never does repeat itself. But there are recent and possibly analogous cases, right there in eastern Asia, of a developing capitalism creating a large, educated, and more socially independent class of citizens who slowly but successfully overthrew their socially, politically and economically authoritarian government -- South Korea and Taiwan stand out. China's future will not be their past either, but the similarities ought not to be ignored.

It's not clear why Dr Harrington calls the People's Republic or Chinese capitalism "fragile" or what forces he anticipates will gather to bring them to grief. This is a pretty bold prediction to make without any argumentation.