Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Can globalization be “improved”?

 In an excellent just-published book “Six faces of globalization” Anthea Roberts and Nicolas Lamp, produce six plausible narratives of globalization and what, according to each, went wrong or right with globalization. Their approach is to take a given narrative, present all its points as its defenders would, with rather minimal outside (i.e. their own) interventions, and in the second part of the book discuss overlaps and differences between these various narratives.

Here, I will review the six narratives, saying perhaps little about each of them explicitly both because they are all rather well known by the general public and because I hope that my critique of each narrative will indirectly throw sufficient light on narratives’ main points.

The first approach Roberts and Lamp discuss is the establishment view according to which globalization ultimately benefits all participants even if the gains are uneven and in many cases take a long time to materialize. The establishment narrative is often self-serving as when it ignores the fact that the US did not become rich through free trade but rather through Hamiltonian protectionism, or that a number of trade agreements established after World War II were motivated less by some abstract free trade principles or “liberal international order” but rather by the US strategic desire to bind in a strong interdependent framework the nations of the “Free World” (conveniently defined to include everybody, regardless of domestic politics, who is not communist). The biggest advantage of the establishment narrative is that it can quite plausibly point out to the fact that tighter economic links between nations have since 1980 contributed to the doubling of the world per capita output and consumption of goods and services.

            The left-wing narrative (under which I combine both what Roberts and Lamp term the “populist” left-wing narrative à la Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and the “corporate-power” monopolistic narrative) is, in many ways, the most consistent. Its strong points are two: (1) domestic polices have been slanted in favor of capital-rich and high-income individuals, and (2) pro-corporate policies have allowed large companies to become monopsonist in the labor market (the only local employer), and not to pay their fair share of taxes. Not only are both points true, but they correctly direct one’s attention toward the political origins of the middle class malaise. The malaise was to a large extent (I will come back to this “large” qualifier) manufactured by the ability of rich companies and individuals to create favorable legal framework for themselves, including most importantly lower taxes. (Reading “The Wall Street Journal” allows one to very simply define the view of the world of that category of people: there are only two variables that matter: how high is the “market” and how low are taxes?)

But the qualified “to a large extent” was not there for no reason. The decline both in the size and relative income of the Western middle class is not only the product of domestic policies. It happened also because globalization allows companies to move to cheaper (lower wage) locations, or to replace production of domestic goods by cheaper imports.

The proponents of the left-wing view have hard time acknowledging a tacit coalition of interests which has been created between the capitalists of the rich world and poor people of developing  countries.  They both gain  by replacing more expensive  Western workers. In the chapter on corporate greed narrative, an accurate critique of large Western corporations for avoiding taxes is mixed up with an attempt to show that NAFTA or other similar arrangements have produced worse outcomes for workers in poor countries, and that there is thus an identity of interests between workers in rich and poor countries. This is very difficult to accept. Very low-paying jobs, from the Western point of view, are generally very well-paying jobs from developing country’s point of view. Workers from Vietnam, Thailand, Ethiopia, or Peru are not unhappy to be hired by North American or European or Chinese companies. In many cases, their alternative is not having a job at all, or living at the edge of subsistence through self-employment.  The attempts to argue for some kind of international workers’ solidarity simply fall flat on the hard grounds of self-interest.

That problem however does not bother what Roberts and Lamb call the “right-wing populists.” Right-wing populist do have a consistent view of the world. First, in it, the welfare of foreigners does not matter at all (hence, they are uninterested in whether Mexican workers are better off with trade or not). Second,  national cultural homogeneity –a largely fictitious recreation of the 1950-60s—is the ideal to strive for. Their problem is not lack of intellectual coherence. The problem of right-wing populists is that their supporters like parts of globalization that provide them with cheap goods, but do not like losing high-paying jobs which is a sine qua non for the production of cheap goods they like. In other words, their supporters love buying cheap HD television screens, but they also like having a $50 per hour manufacturing jobs. These two things cannot however exist together. The right-wing politicians therefore can, as Trump did, make lots of moves (and noise) to slant the playing field in favor of their countries, but they cannot disconnect from globalization. Their opposition to globalization will forever remain on a verbal level; they are tied to the mast of globalization by the attractiveness of achieving high real income through consumption of cheaper goods. Thus, the right-wing opposition should not be, in my opinion, taken seriously in matters of policies.

I will mention only briefly the other two narratives. The geoeconomic narrative looks at globalization through the bellicose eyes of national interest. It is not an attractive approach, but it is internally consistent. For its adherents, there is no such a thing as a good or bad globalization. There is only a good globalization for the United States or a bad globalization for the United States (or any other given country). This allows them to shift seamlessly from supporting using power to extract intellectual property rights, to using power to prevent sharing intellectual property rights; from being in favor of higher labor standards to being against them.  Thus its total intellectual inconsistency in detail is explained by full intellectual consistency at the higher level.

The last narrative is of the “we [everybody in the world, regardless of nation, income, class, gender, race etc. ] are in the same boat” type. There is not much to say about it except that, unlike any other narrative, it manages to lack both internal intellectual consistency and to be totally fluid in how things should be improved.

So, is it, taking Roberts and Lamb book’s approach, possible to “improve” globalization? The only narrative that shows some promise is what they call (in my opinion, mistakenly) “populist” left-wing. It sees the key problems at the level of national politics, in the national political systems, and it can, at least in theory, focus on these shortcomings and try to mend them. It cannot be, I think, too optimistic on all issues because of the natural propensity of globalization, either through capital movements or trade, to favor cheaper producers, and Western middle class is most often not that producer. But that approach can reduce the political and economic power of the top 1 percent, fund public goods, increase taxes for the rich and large companies, and improve the national political climate.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Nobody’s war

 Stephen Platt, Professor of Chinese history at the University of Massachusetts, has in “Imperial Twilight” written an excellent book on the origins of the first Opium War, and perhaps even more importantly, at this time of US-China tensions, he has shown how wars may occur not just because the two sides do not agree, not even because of miscalculations and misperceptions, but even when key decision-makers whose behavior led to war….agree on the main points.

Platt, as one of the commentators wrote, has an eye of a novelist, and the book  often reads like a combination of history and historical novel. A number of picturesque characters that have populated China trade in the early 19th century add to that impression. This is not the most important part of the book though. It makes the book readable and fun—but the quality of writing improves as we go further away from these personal episodes and closer to the War. Perhaps it was Platt’s editor who tried to make the book more attractive to the general public by insisting on introducing human stories in the beginning (the stories that indeed are interesting, but from historical point add very little), and preferred a straightforward narrative that seems ideal for an audiobook. But that straight narrative in the beginning mutes Platt, the historian, whose voice becomes strong only in the latter part of the book when he discusses historical contingencies, provides different versions of the same events, passes judgment on the main characters, and even engages in some counterfactuals. All elements the we expect from a first-rate historian are then there.

The book covers British, and more broadly international, trade with China from the end of the 18th century to the first Opium war (1839-42). It deals with the so-called “Canton period” where all foreign trade with China was localized in one small place, a depot (”factory”) outside the city-gates of Canton, an area the size of several football fields. The trade in opium makes a rather late appearance in the book, but it was going on throughout the entire period, in smaller quantities at first. The East India company was originally ambivalent about it, not because of moral scruples but because it tried, in order to preserve the valuable legal China trade in cotton and tea (on which it had a monopoly) to rather scrupulously observe Chinese laws, including the ban on opium trade, and the ban on missionary activity.  But in time, independent traders, not mindful of either of these two concerns, became significant opium providers, and then the lure of profit made Company join in, in a rather big way.

The starting point of the war (which  happened after the Company was stripped of its monopoly power) had much to do with two individuals who were both.…against the war.  British superintendent of trade George Elliot, only the second such person appointed by the British government, replaced William  Napier, a belligerent and arrogant individual who tried his best “to teach China a lesson.” But there was no support for the war Napier wanted; neither among the British public, nor British government. Palmerston, who would later prosecute the war with gusto, was against it. Earl Grey, the Prime Minister who appointed Napier, told him that “persuasion and conciliations should be the means employed—rather than anything approaching the tone of hostile and menacing language” (p. 286). Thus Elliot, an abolitionist with the previous career in the West Indies, foreswore to change the policies of his predecessors, to fully observe Chinese sovereignty, and to fight against the scourge of opium which he likened to the scourge of slavery.

The Chinese side, which after many vacillations between the idea of full legalization of opium to the energetic ban on its use, including capital punishment for the most stubborn users, decided to go with the latter option. Lin Zexu, the governor-general of Hubei and Hunan who distinguished himself by reducing opium consumption in his provinces as well as his personal incorruptibility,  was appointed imperial commissioner in Canton with the brief of “obliterating opium trade”.  What united Elliot and Lin was their loathing of opium traders, their appreciation of the aboveboard legitimate trade, and their agreement that China’s laws should be respected. But then things went awry.

How did then the two countries get into a war? Lin, in order to send a message that he is serious, decided, as it was done several times before, to temporarily shut down all trade in and out of Canton and to establish an effective blockade of the “factory” area until opium trade cease and accumulated opium is surrendered to the Chinese authorities. Although the blockade was implemented half-heartedly (the food and drinks being brought in by the Chinese Hong  merchants who were the dealers on the Chinese side), it continued without a clear end-date. Lin’s objective was that the blockade force British traders to deliver opium which would be then publicly destroyed. He succeeded beyond expectations.  Elliot, who, as we have seen, loathed opium trading asked that all opium, including that which was not near Canton, be brought to one place, and delivered to the Chinese. It led to the delivery of 20,000 chests of opium (1,000 tons), an enormous quantity, for which Elliot, on his own, issued to British traders, IOUs for the full market value. To understand the enormity of that quantity, it is worth noting that it was equal to total annual exports of opium from India to China, and had the market value of 2 million which was one-tenth of the entire compensation paid by the British parliament to slave owners (when the slavery was abolished).  The quantity of collected opium surprised Lin (who, according to the Hong merchants, expected  at most 4,000 chests) but did not lead him immediately to lift the blockade. In the end, the blockade lasted six weeks and ended in May 1839. Elliot who panicked first when he “over-delivered” opium, was now enraged at the continuation of the blockade and panicked again, and in one of his fits asked for British naval support from India, effectively calling for war.

            From that point onward, the forces of war take over: there was always a small bellicose faction in London that now found additional reasons to advocate for war. Palmerston was shocked by the idea that, after government had to raise huge funds to pay slave-owners, it now had to pay opium traders too. The slide into war continued despite the preponderance of the public opinion which was against it. The war was voted by the House of Commons by the slimmest of the margins (with 9 votes of majority out of more than 500 MPs). It was declared eleven months after the blockade of foreign merchants in Canton had ended.

            Like in similar circumstances elsewhere, neither the casus belli, nor the objective of the war were clear. The less clear the reasons, the more of them were piled up: some thought the war was fought for British honor, others referred  to the Chinese demands that the British envoys kow-tow  to the Emperor (the demand more than 40 years old by the time the war was declared); yet, others thought it was the war for civilizations, Chinese being “barbarians”; another faction however saw the war as the revenge for Chinese calling the British “barbarians”; some (perhaps more clearly than others) saw it as the war on behalf of opium traders, which –to add to irony—were generally reviled in Britain. For some, it was fought so that China, rather than Britain, pay the indemnity to traders so rashly promised by George Elliot.

            Nobody’s war then lumbered on for almost three years, its objectives unclear, involving mostly unprovoked attacks on Chinese civilians by British ships. Terrorizing civilians (which had nothing to do with the war, nor with Canton, nor with opium) was a means a sending a message to the Emperor that he was no longer in control, and had to acquiesce to British demands—which lengthened as the war went on. Eventually, the Chinese capitulated, but as some people at the time warned, the war made China realize that if wanted to remain independent it had to possess an equally strong military deterrent. It took a “century of humiliation” to come to that, but eventually it did.

This silly war, fought  for the objectives that were either unacceptable to  openly acknowledge or difficult to formulate, is now the only 19th century event mentioned by Xi Jinping in his recent 100th CPC anniversary speech. It has acquired its place in history and nothing seems likely to dislodge it. The more time passes, the more important it becomes.  And it should have never happened. 


PS. It is somewhat strange that Platt does not discuss the diplomatic implications of Britain deciding, after the East India Company lost the monopoly of trade and representation in Canton, to send an official representative to represent the traders. As Platt explains, the Canton system was for more than a century based on the rules where foreign traders deal with their “equals”, the Chinese traders. Only through the latter could they convey whatever requests or problems they had  to the Chinese (Cantonese) government. The Cantonese government therefore dealt only with its own citizens, not with foreigners. The appointment of an official British representative upends this system in two ways.  First,  the  British government representative understandably wants to interact with Chinese officials which is unacceptable to the latter. Elliott was never able to deliver his letters of introduction. Second., as long as British traders dealt with Chinese traders and the latter with the Canton government, the question of sovereignty could never arise. But now that the British have an official representative for  “the factory”, the position of the piece of land on which the factory is located, becomes less clear. The Chinese rightly saw it as a potential affront to their sovereignty.



Thursday, August 5, 2021

Trotsky after Kolakowski

 As people who follow my feed know, I have recently reread the three volumes of Leszek Kolakowski’s magisterial Main Currents of Marxism. I read them first in the mid-1980s (the date when I bought them, inscribed on my copy, is June 1982), and rereading them almost forty years later. It is even more impressive now—because I know more and because the world has changed. I will write more about that in another post.

Kolakowski discusses many writers, from the Greek founders of dialectics and Hegel to Mao Zedong. His knowledge is simply astounding. With many of them he disagrees strongly, and yet Kolakowski is –discussing them on their own terms, not his—at times admirative. This is the case of Lukacs (especially) and Lenin. Lukács indeed is, after Marx, the most impressive thinker, among more than a hundred discussed in the three volumes. Young Kolakowski was, it seems evident, very influenced by Lukács.

But the person of whom Kolakowski is probably the most contemptuous (leaving aside Marcuse—who is not worth discussing) is…Trotsky. If I were to summarize it in one sentence, I would say that it is because Trotsky was Stalin without Stalin’s convictions, or rather without Stalin’s readiness to make difficult decisions when left alone (i.e. without having Lenin to back him up).  

How do we reconcile this with (I think) undeniable fact of Trotsky’s brilliance in many spheres, from writing to war-making, and his particular attraction to intellectuals? Indeed, when intellectuals who dream to change the world, think of an exemplary life, it is hard not to see that Trotsky’s probably fits the bill as one of the most brilliant such lives in history. How many intellectuals are there sipping coffee in Café Zentral in Vienna on a Friday, and leading to victory the largest army of workers and peasants in the world next Monday? How many are there writing book reviews on a Saturday, and taking hostages on the next Tuesday? Is it common to go to an art exhibition in Paris on Sunday, and to negotiate a peace treaty that gives away a third of a country’s industry on Wednesday?

The extraordinary combination of a brilliant intellectual life (for Trotsky was indeed an excellent writer) with the life of a man of action, not being afraid or deterred by obstacles, is straight out of Greek playbook of heroic lives

What went wrong? Why is that that the architect of Bolshevik victory, already by 1924 received the second least number of votes in the elections for the Central Committee? A person who was clearly number 2 to Lenin was already in May 1924, No. 2 from the bottom in terms of Bolshevik’s top echelon’s preferences.

The reason is that Trotsky’s manifold abilities could only be fully displayed  and used so long as he was put in position of command, and was ultimately controlled by, a person whom he saw as his intellectual and political equal or superior. That was Lenin. As soon as Lenin was gone from the scene, all the negative features of Trotsky’s came to the fore: his haughtiness, conceit, arrogance. His ideologically extreme positions (collectivization, willing contempt for the trade unions and workers)  were later applied by Stalin, and Trotskyists—many of them in labor camps across the Soviet Union—briefly rejoiced in their ideological victory over the “grey blur” of bureaucracy, Stalin.

It was never clear if that extremism in the 1920s was true or fake. And this is where we come to Kolakowski’s contemptuous judgment: Trotsky was a poseur. After the anchor of Lenin was gone, he did not want to take any responsibilities: he was the head of the Red Army, technically commanding millions of people, yet he refused to attend meetings; he would decline positions he was offered, including the one of Prime Minister; he would treat his comrades with contempt, so much so that they would stop talking to each other as soon as they would see him walking the corridors of the Kremlin, afraid of his biting remarks. (All of these examples are from other writings, not Kolakowsk’s book.)

His unwillingness to take charge when it was manifestly his duty to do so sowed the seeds of later defeatist outlook, and not only of the Trotskyist movement, which broke up in ever smaller groupuscules. It affected many left-wing movements that preferred to claim grandiose ideas, but were unwilling to even try to take power. Examples include the French and Italian Communist parties in the 1960-70s which totally gave up the idea of winning elections, or gaining power.

Trotsky personally did not want this to happen: he continued fighting to the end, including against his own assassin, a strong men thirty years his junior, whom Trotsky, with his bleeding head, was able to wrest to the ground. Yet by avoiding the responsibility when it was his for the taking, he charted the future path of many left-wing parties. It was reinforced by Gramsci’s oft-repeated defeatist “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. All of that meant that many left-wing politicians lost any desire to win.

“Trotskyism” eventually became a “movement” (if this term can at all be applied) of Western intelligentsia that wanted to pretend they were doing something—while in reality doing nothing. It made no inroads anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of the Spanish POUM in the 1930s. It became after World War II a useful “movement” to have nice dinner conversations and to meet clever girlfriends and boyfriends—it might have served as an eHarmony of post-war Western Europe—but it was little else.  Even worse, in its US form, it converted itself from the left to the extreme right as many formerly young Trotskyists ended up, not only supporting, but defining, the neocons’ imperialist project.

Trotsky still haunts the left: if you really do not want to win, you never will.  If it is more fun to drink cappuccinos on a square at noon then to get up at 6 am to canvass support, you will end up drinking cappuccinos.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The long NEP, China and Xi

Many journalists, commentators and political scientists see the recent policy changes in China as “the return to communism”. They in particular point out to a number of measures whose objective was to limit lending by internet companies, to ban for-profit tutoring, and to put a squeeze on companies producing internet games (the latter were, tellingly and ominously, likened to  “the spreaders of the spiritual opium among the Chinese youth”). Western commentators are shocked by Chinese government’s apparent indifference to what such measures might do to the stock markets in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. (In effect, they have all declined during the last month). This is in signal contrast with government’s concern, and even panic, when the Chinese stock market went through severe turbulence in the Summer of 2015.

The commentators “transfer” or impute to China their own ideological biases. That bias consists in an excessive focus on the stock markets as almost sole indicators of an economy’s health. This of course is not surprising in a country, like the US, where 93% of financial assets are held by 10% of the population (see E Wolff, A Century of Wealth in America). The latter are also the richest people and consequently things that affect them will be –given that they control the media either directly (as Bloomberg) or indirectly, because they are the main buyers of the news—reported much more extensively than things that affect the other 90% of the population. All of this makes stock market acquire an hypertrophied importance compared to what is its real relevance. It gives us though an excellent insight into who really controls social and economic  life of a country.  

Donald Trump was merely an extreme example of the ruling class’s singular (and fully reasonable, from the point of view of their financial interests) obsession with the stock market. Trump often decided on his policy moves, not merely domestic but even foreign,  in function of their effect on the stock market. One might recall that Thump’s only reason for not allowing infected patients to disembark from a ship in the waters off Long Beach in March 2020 was not to spook the stock market.  (Little did  he—and all of us with him—know what will happen next.)

            Let me give you a personal story that encapsulates the  importance of the stock market for the rich. In August 1991, I was on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, the island rightly known as the abode of very rich democrats. (The most recent house owner there is Barack Obama.) The vacation coincided with the anti-Gorbachev coup in Moscow (August 19-22). So everybody, in  that small enclave where I was, rushed in the morning to watch TV news (these were the years before the Internet and smart phones).  Absolutely dramatic  events, with global and historical consequences,  were unfolding in Moscow: the coup leaders were giving a badly-organized press conference, the army had seized main buildings in Moscow, demonstrators began to descend in the streets, Yeltsin seized the Russian Parliament building, it was unclear if Gorbachev was arrested or not….One was watching history happening in front of his own eyes. But after about half-an-hour of live coverage from Moscow, the liberal elite decided that it was enough, and switched the channels: they tuned in on the New York Stock Exchange, and most attentively watched the developments there probably mentally calculating how good (or bad) were the events in Moscow for their portfolios.  Some of us who were more interested in the fate of the Soviet Union, communism and the world than in stock quotations were in the minority, and we had  to divine the events in Moscow from the gyrations of the stocks in the New York.

            China wants to be different. In a society of political capitalism, as I argued in Capitalism, Alone, the state tries to maintain its autonomy. In the United States, the state generally acts as a custodian  of the capitalist interest “managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.”  In political capitalism, though, the state must not allow to co-opt or to be “contaminated” by capitalist interest. In other words, capitalist interest is one of the interests to consider—but not the only one, or even perhaps not the chief one.  

            This approach is consistent with the long Chinese tradition of the state keeping merchant and capitalist interests at arm’s length. Ho-fung Hung, for example, nicely describes how the Qing bureaucracy sided in industrial disputes with workers, and not with “masters” as was commonly the case in the nineteenth century Britain (my review). The same arguments were made by Giovanni Arrighi (reviewed here), Jacques Gernet (on Southern Song China), Kenneth Pomeranz (reviewed here), and Martin Jacques (reviewed here).

Furthermore, if one looks at the current Xi-led party from a Leninist perspective (which Xi may not be loath to do), the same conclusion is reinforced. The Chinese capitalism may be seen as one “long  NEP”—which might last a century or even two--wherein  capitalists are given free hand in practically all areas of economics, but the commanding heights of the economy are preserved for the state (which means they are under CPC's control) and the political power is not shared with anyone, least of all with capitalists. Thus the state maintains freedom of action vis-à-vis socially the most powerful group (capitalists), and can ignore their complaints when an overarching social interest is at stake; as in the three examples of regulatory and legal crackdown was arguably the case.

            Can the autonomy of the state end, and will bourgeoisie take over the Chinese state as it did in the West? It is quite possible. The modernization theory argues that. There are, I think, three ways in which it could happen.

            First, there could be a middle-class or bourgeois revolution. It should be noted however that no revolution against  communist regime had ever succeeded. The one that came closest was the Hungarian revolution in 1956, but it was crushed externally, by Soviet arms. So that possibility, so long as the Party-state is united is, I think, extremely unlikely.

            The second possibility is “Gorbachevization.”  This means that the top echelons of the party move towards social-democracy. This ideologically makes lots of sense given that originally communists were part of social-democracy. So the ideological gap between the two is not very wide. The end of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union came when several communist parties, became, either at the top (like CPSU) or throughout its membership  social-democratic. The latter was the case, by 1988-88, for at least the Hungarian, Polish and Slovenian communist parties. They came close to the Italian CP, ideologically and politically.

            The third possibility is “Jiang Zeminism” whereby the party increasingly accepts among its top members capitalists, and reflects their interests. In a recent paper in the British Journal of Sociology Li Yang, Filip Novokmet and I find indeed that while CPC membership (by the end of Jiang Zemin’s rule) was more similar to the overall composition of China’s urban population than before, the top (richest) CPC members were increasingly  diverging from the rest of the membership and the population. Here is our conclusion: “While the structure of CPC membership in the recent period approximates better the population structure than in 1988, the CPC top is moving further away from both CPC overall membership structure and that of the urban population as a whole” (see here).

The “insinuation” of the rich into the top party ranks was rationalized by Jiang Zemin under the  ideology of “the three represents”. One does not hear much about “the three represents” nowadays (it seems to have been replaced by Xi Jinping Thought) so that path to change is currently being blocked.  

            The future will tell us if in one of these three ways the Chinese state gets taken over by the rich, or not—that is, whether it remains autonomous in its decision-making.