Monday, October 22, 2018

What is to be done? Fifteen authors in search of a solution.

In a slender volume edited by Heinrich Geisenberger “The Great Regression”, fifteen, among  the most important left-wing social thinkers of today, ask the  following question:  what is the future of social-democracy now when global neoliberalism is crumbling and the forces of nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise? I would not be letting you on a big secret, nor do I think I would undermine the book’s appeal, if I say that they do not have an answer; neither individually, not collectively. The reason is simple: the answer, as of now, is elusive, and it might even seem that it does not exist.

The contributors to this very good volume which, as I said, gives an excellent insight into the intellectual thinking of the left are (in alphabetic order): Arjun  Appadurai, Zygmunt Bauman, Donatella della Porta, Nancy  Fraser, Eva Illouz, Ivan Krastev, Bruno Latour, Paul Mason, Pankaj Mishra, Robert Misik, Oliver Nachtwey, César Rendueles, Wolfgang Streeck, David Van Reybrouck and Slavoj Žižek.

Not all contributions are, in  my opinion, equally interesting, I find Zygmunt Bauman’s writing, as always, very convoluted and difficult to read. Ivan Krastev seems like an odd man out among this group of writers: he disagrees with Trump and Brexit but from what seem fully certifiable neoliberal positions.

It would not surprise the reader that the names that are often mentioned in the volume are Polanyi and Gramsci, with Erich Fromm with his “Escape from Freedom” coming back from a long oblivion. Be ready to see Fromm quoted more and more.

I would like to highlight three contributions that seem most interesting to me. Nancy Fraser has written an excellent and bold essay on the ideological background to Trump’s victory. She sees the main competitors to be “progressive neoliberals” and “reactionary populists”. Progressive neoliberals are the creation of Clinton’s “New Democrats” and his innumerable triangulations that eventually brought together “progressives” who cared about identity,  gender and racial equality, and sexual rights together with the most hard-nosed Wall Street types. This was, at the origin, an unlikely coalition: LBGTQ activists together with Goldman Sachs. But it worked.  The “progressives” enjoyed their newly-found influence. They got Goldman to pay lip service to equal rights, promote a few persons of “color” to top positions, and even realize the advantage, for its bottom-line, of being more open to diverse talent.* Goldman Sachs made the money. This is what in the 1990s and early 2000s went under the slogan of “socially liberal and fiscally conservative”.

Who played the serpent to  this “progressive neoliberal” paradise? Those left out of  economic success, that is, losers of globalization, and those unable or unwilling to accept the new screeds of “progressivism”. The alliance of progressives and financial-sector neoliberals created, almost by definitions, its counterpart among those who were maladjusted: either economically or socially, So long as “the maladjusted” accounted for 20% or so of the electorate  and made lots of noise with little political success (“The Tea Party”), they could be ignored by the winning coalition. It is one of the ironies of life that “the maladjusted” found in Donald Trump somebody who was able to express, and use that resentment.

But, as Nancy Fraser shows, this alignment of forces totally ignored the left. The left was co-opted by the Clintonite and Obama’s grand coalition of sexual liberators and money bagmen, and whenever it threatened to get out of that coalition it was faced with the specter of terrible things to come. It became a hostage of progressive neoliberals. This completely neutered the left. It could not get out of Clintonite coalition without bringing racists and xenophobes to power, and it could not nudge the Clinton-Obama coalition left.

In this excellent analysis Fraser openly puts the responsibility for Trump’s rise on the ”unholy alliance of ‘emancipation’ with ‘financialization’”. What to do next?: “To reach out to the mass of Trump voters who are neither racists nor committed ‘right-wingers’ but the casualties of a ‘rigged system’” (p.48).

Wolfgang Streeck analysis for Europe is very similar to Fraser’s for the United States. The costs of “la pensée unique” adopted by social-democrats  across the continent are being paid now through the absence of a credible social-democratic alternative that could attract the votes of “malcontents” and consequently check the  rise of the right. In the opinion of “the progressive neoliberal” alliance, Streeck writes, “the fact that the Great Unwashed, who for so long had helped promote the progress of capitalism passing their time with the Facebook pages of Kim Kardashian…had now returned to the voting booth, appears to be a sign of an ominous regression” (p. 161).

Streeck is very critical of the use of the term of “populist”.  He sees it, rightly in my opinion, as a useful shorthand to reject “en bloc” everybody who is against TINA (“There Is No Alternative”).  The term of “populist” is useful to the “progressive-neoliberal alliance” because it makes no distinction between the left and the right, and because  both Trump and Sanders can be dismissed as populists who are providing “simple answers to a complex reality”.  Everything but TINA is simple and wrong because that immeasurably complex reality is understood only by neoliberals.  “’Populism’ is diagnosed in normal internationalist usage as a cognitive problem” (p. 163). In other words, questioning TINA is seen by the elites as a symptom of some deep cognitive issue. Not surprisingly , there are calls to ditch the universal franchise and replace it by “gnosocracy”: vote given only to those who can show to be sufficiently smart. (Streeck quotes such instances).

Solution: None at the moment. We are in the Gramscian interregnum  when "familiar chains of cause and effect are no longer in force and unexpected, dangerous and grotesquely abnormal events may occur at any moment” (p. 166).

Paul Mason (whose excellent “Postcapitalism” I have reviewed here)  has  penned a beautiful  essay that draws on his, and his father’s, personal experiences. It is a story of the English working class, bound together in its contempt for the rich, swindlers and government, open to foreigners like themselves, and with strong social ties. All of that was, according to Mason, destroyed by Thatcherism. Companies went bust, coal mines were closed, work for which these people were prepared became hard to find, jobs got off-shored, social solidarity frayed, and atomization set in. Some left these now desolate places looking for better alternatives in the cities, others espoused the new dogma of financialization and easy money. Local rugby clubs folded. Instead of a rich social fabric, there was now a desert.

The description is strong and poignant. Mason wants things to go back to the way they were in the 1960s and 1970s. He is frank in stating that the left must undo globalization, bring back the jobs, forget about developing countries, and get rid of  East European immigrants. The latter come for a special critique, unlike the earlier African and Sub-Continental  immigrants because, through no fault of theirs, they came to the UK when the country was transiting from manufacturing to service economy: they thus could not be included into an essentially working-class ethos described by Mason because that world had by then ceased to exist. But Mason does not like them because he sees them also as being  too pliant to the demands of globalized capitalism and too acceptant of neoliberal dogmas. Forget about the blond Polish baristas, give us back a strong, beer-swelling Kenyan worker!

But what kind of leftism, one could ask, is that, so indistinguishable from Marine Le Pen’s Front National?

The question left to the reader at the end of the book is, should the social-democratic left maintain its internationalism, in which case it would have to go back to Wall Street elites and ditch national policies of redistribution, or should it focus on domestic malcontents in which case it would move towards policies of national socialism? Or will be able to find a narrow path, between the two, that would combine internationalism with domestic redistribution?

* Fraser (p. 41) speak contemptuously of “corporate feminism focused on ‘leaning in’ and ‘cracking the glass ceiling’”.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

“The most important relationship”: Kissinger on China…and America

Henry Kissinger’s “On China” (Penguin Books, 2012) is a magisterial book. Although it deals almost entirely with China, it contains many valuable lessons for foreign policy in general, and US foreign policy in particular. I will come back to that in a moment.
The book is divided in three parts.  In the first, Kissinger provides a bird’s-eye of China’s history with the emphasis on the “century of humiliations”, a period of China’s impotence towards the West, Japan and Russia which still strongly colors Chinese attitude toward foreign powers today. In the second part, Kissinger describes the Sino-American rapprochement in which he has, famously, played such a big role. Not only is the discussion of the diplomatic minuet into which the United States and China engaged before the first serious contacts were established riveting, so are transcripts of the conversations with Mao and Zhou Enlai, and Kissinger’s assessment of the two. The third part deals with Dengist and post-Dengist China when Kissinger played the role of a senior statesman and trusted intermediary between the two governments but no longer participated in  active policy formulation. It is there that Kissinger tries to distill the lessons for the conduct of US policy toward China, and where he provides a hopeful, but ultimately very somber, and at times even dark, assessment of the likely path the relations might take.
The book is self-limited in three ways. First, it is self-limited in Kissinger’s obvious reluctance to explicitly criticize US government policy toward China. The first slightly negative mention of US policy appears only on page 131, in regard to Eisenhower. Even when the assessment is strongly negative (as in the cases of Reagan’s and Clinton’s administrations) it is couched in a very nuanced, diplomatic language; it is stated with an almost Chinese indirectness and some veiled sarcasm.
The book is self-limited also in the detail with which Kissinger’s active role is discussed. The reader has the impression that Kissinger could have easily written hundreds of pages on his meetings with Mao and Zhou (as, other than on his memory, he can also rely on voluminous documents and transcripts of the conversations) but chose to be very concise.
Finally, the book is self-limited in that it deals with China only. Other “players” like Vietnam, Cambodia, the Soviet Union, India etc. are mentioned only when related to China. Europe, interestingly, since it had no political role in the China rapprochement, is entirely absent.
The book is suffused with admiration for the Chinese way of conducting diplomacy and one has at times the impression that Kissinger might have preferred to be a Chinese rather than American negotiator. As he wites, the West might have at times exaggerated the sophistication and depth of Chinese interlocutors—so he is aware of that possibility but it hardly affects the content of the book. Not surprisingly Zhou Enlai takes the pride of place:
In some 60 yeas of public life I have encountered no more compelling figure than Zhou Enlai…Mao’s passion strove to overwhelm the opposition. Zhou’s intellect would seek to persuade or outmaneuver it. Mao was sardonic, Zhou penetrating. (p. 241).

The picture of Mao who “would deal with his interlocutors from Olympian heights as if they were graduate students undergoing an examination into the adequacy of their philosophical insights" (p. 448) is less clear, despite many direct quotes from the conversations. Although Kissinger never says so, Mao at times even comes across not as a God who has descended from up above to spend some time with humans, but perhaps suffering from an inferiority complex as when he tries to display his broad-mindedness by ridiculing his own revolutionary slogans. I do not think that a serious politician should do that—unless he wants to kowtow to his interlocutor.
Deng was, of course, very different from both Mao and Zhou. His “acerbic, no nonsense style”, his “disdain for the philosophical in favor of the eminently practical” (p. 324) sets him apart. He busied himself by looking at how many meals should train conductors take, not with more lofty matters. He ruled entirely behind the scenes: “Deng held no major office; he refused all honorific titles; he almost never appeared on television, and practised politics almost entirely behind the scenes. He ruled not as an emperor but as a principal mandarin” (p. 334). And in a interesting detail, Kissinger mentions that the last foreign visitor whom Deng has met was Brent Scowcroft in 1989 (after Tiananmen). Deng spent the last several years of his life (he died in 1997) living as a recluse—an image of Deng that those who have seen him on TV screens bouncing with energy even in the his 70s have a hard time to conjure. After his death, Deng was cremated and his ashes disperses into the sea—in strong contrast to Mao.
The last several chapters covering the period of crisis in Sino-American relations after the Tiananmen massacre deal with US policy towards China, but more generally toward non-democratic regimes. Kissinger is politely but no less firmly critical of American establishment’s view that peaceful relationships are possible only with democratic governments:  
Americans were insisting that democratic institutions were required to guarantee a compatibility of national interests. That proposition—verging on an article of faith for many American analysts—would be difficult to demonstrate from historical experience. When World War I started, most governments in Europe (including Britain, France, and Germany) were governed by essentially democratic institutions. Nevertheless, [the War]… was enthusiastically approved by all elected parliaments (pp. 425-6).
Moreover, "If adopting  American principles of governance is made the central condition for progress in all other areas of the relationship, the deadlock is inevitable” (p. 452).
American Messianism of universal values which in practical language means that all countries have to adopt the American way and to be included in an international system headed by the United States, comes for criticism repeatedly. China, “a country that for most of its modern period—which in China starts two thousand years ago—regarded itself as the pinnacle of civilization, and that for nearly two centuries has regarded its uniquely moral world leadership position to have been usurped by the rapaciousness of Western and Japanese colonial powers” (p. 511) is unlikely to ever accept such a secondary role in the international hierarchy.
In the practically last page of the book Kissinger cautions American policy-makers that “Americans need not agree with the Chinese analysis to understand that lecturing a country with a history of millennia about its need to ‘grow up’ can be needlessly grating” (p. 546). With Trump administration consciously eschewing the Messianism of universal values in favor of a more realistic (but wrongly executed) policy of national interest, Kissinger’s admonitions have less of a relevance than usual. But, as is likely, the US returns, after next election or the one after, to its traditional Messianism such notes of caution may be more apposite.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Hayekian communism

You think it is a contradiction in terms, a paradox. But you are wrong: we are used to think in pure categories while life is much more complex; and paradoxes do exist in real life. China is indeed a country of Hayekian communism.

Nowhere is, I think, wealth and material success more openly celebrated than in China. Perhaps it was stimulated by the 40th anniversary of the opening up which is this year, but more fundamentally, I think, it is stimulated by the most successful economic development in history.  Rich entrepreneurs are celebrated in newspapers, television, conferences. Their wealth and rags-to-riches stories are held as examples for all. Ayn Rand would feel at home in this environment. So would Hayek: an incredible amount of energy and discovery was unleashed by the changes that transformed lives of 1.4 billion people, twice as many as the combined populations of the “old” EU-15 and the United States. People discovered economic information that was inaccessible or unknown before, organized in a Schumpeterian fashion new combinations of capital and labor, and created wealth on an almost unimaginable scale (certainly, unimaginable for anyone who looked at China in 1978). 

At a large banquet in Beijing, we were presented first-hand stories of five Chinese capitalists who started from zero (zilch! nada! ) in the 1980s, and became dollar billionaires today. One spent years in countryside during the Cultural Revolution, another was put in prison for seven years for “speculation”, the third made his “apprentissage” of capitalism, as he candidly said, by cheating people in East Asia (“afterwards I learned that if I really wanted to become rich, I should not cheat; cheating is for losers”). Hayek would have listened to these stories, probably transfixed.  And what news would he have loved better than to read in today’s Financial Times that the Marxist society at the Peking University was disbanded because of its support of striking workers in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen.

But there is one thing where Hayek went wrong. These incredible personal (and societal) successes were achieved under the rule of a single party, Communist Party of China. Celebration of wealth comes naturally to Marxists. Development, widespread education, gender equality, urbanization, and indeed faster growth than under capitalism, were the rationale, and sources of legitimacy, of communist revolutions as they took place in the less developed world. Lenin said so; Trotsky confirmed it when he canvassed for large-scale industrialization; Stalin implemented it: “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this difference in ten years. Either we do it, or we shall be crushed”.

I remember, as a precocious high-school student in Yugoslavia, how I scanned the newspapers for the indicators of industrial growth. Since Yugoslavia was then among the fastest growing economies in the world, I was deeply disappointed when the monthly growth rate (annualized) would fall below ten percent. I thought ten percent was the normal growth rate of communist economies: why would you care to become communist if you would not grow faster than under capitalism?

So the celebration of growth—new roads, new super fast trains, new housing complexes, new well-lit avenues and orderly schools—comes naturally to communists. Not any less than to Hayekian entrepreneurs. (As an exercise in this, read Neruda’s beautiful memoirs Confeso Que He Vivido where he exudes enormous pleasure at seeing Soviet-built dams.) The difference though is that the Hayekinans celebrate private success which also helps society move forward; in communism, success too was supposed to be socialized.

But this did not happen. Collectivist efforts worked for a decade or two but eventually growth fizzled out and the efforts flagged. Cynicism reigned supreme. It was left to China and to Deng Xiaoping to stumble (in the immortal phrase of Adam Ferguson) on a combination where the rule of the communist party would be maintained but full freedom of action, and social encomium, would be given to individual capitalists. They would work, become rich, enrich many others in the process, but the reins of political power would firmly remain in the hands of the communist party. Capitalists will provide the engine and the fuel, but the party will hold the steering wheel.

Would things be even better if the political power too was in the hands of capitalists? This is doubtful. They might have used it to recreate the Nanjing government of the 1930s, venal, weak and incompetent. They would not work hard but would use political power to maintain their economic privileges. It is one of the key problems of US capitalism today that the rich increasingly control the political process and thus skew economic incentives away from production and competition into creation and preservation of monopolies. Much worse would likely have happened in China. It is precisely because the political sphere was largely insulated from the economic sphere that capitalists could be safely kept busy with production, and at arm’s length (as far as possible because the party is exposed to growing corruption) from the politics.

How did China stumble on this combination? There may be many reasons including millennial tradition of being run by imperial bureaucracies, the historical alliance --even if it got unraveled—between the Communist patty and Sun Yat-sen’s KMT (an alliance the like of which never existed elsewhere in the communist world)—but one cannot but ask oneself, could it have happened elsewhere too? Perhaps. Lenin’s New Economic Policy was not much different from Chinese policies of the 1980s. But Lenin saw NEP as a temporary concession to capitalists—because he believed that socialism was more progressive and thus “scientifically” generated higher growth. Perhaps it is only the failures of the Great Leap Forward and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution that chastened Chinese leadership and convinced Deng and others that private initiative was more “progressive” than social planning and state-owned enterprises. Lenin could not have seen that. It was too early.

I also wondered what Stalin would have made of China. He probably would have been glad that his name is still enshrined in the official pantheon. (In a large bookstore in downtown Beijing, the first row of books are translations of Marxist classics: Marx himself, Engels, Lenin..and Stalin. Very few people look at them. The next rows that display books on wealth management, finance economics, stock market investments etc. are much more popular.) Stalin would have been impressed by Chinese growth; by the extensive power of the state and the country (for sure, no longer a country to which he could send his advisors to help it technologically), by the party’s ability to control in a very sophisticated and unobtrusive manner the population.

Stalin would have loved economic success and the military power that comes with it, but would have probably been shocked by private wealth. It is hard seeing him coexist with Jack Ma. Hayek’s reaction would have been the opposite: he would have been delighted that his claims about the spontaneous market order have been vindicated in a most emphatic fashion, but would have failed to understand that this was possible only under the rule of a communist party.

No one would have been left indifferent by the most successful economic story ever. And no one would have fully understood it.