2
Oct

TWO REVOLUTIONS

Rough Notes

By Perry Anderson
New Left Review 118
July-August 2019

If the twentieth century was dominated, more than by any other single event, by the trajectory of the Russian Revolution, the twenty-first will be shaped by the outcome of the Chinese Revolution. The Soviet state, born of the First World War, victor in the Second, defeated in the cold replica of a Third, dissolved after seven decades with scarcely a shot, as swiftly as it had once arisen. What has remained is a Russia lesser in size than the Enlightenment once knew, with under half the population of the USSR, restored to a capitalism now more dependent on the export of raw materials than in the last days of Tsarism. While future reversals are not to be excluded, for the moment what has survived of the October rising, in any positive sense, looks small. Its most lasting achievement, huge enough, was negative: the defeat of Nazism, which no other European regime could have encompassed. That, at any rate, would be a common judgement today.

The outcome of the Chinese Revolution offers an arresting contrast. As it enters its seventh decade, the People’s Republic is an engine of the world economy, the largest exporter at once to the EU, Japan and the United States; the largest holder of foreign-exchange reserves on earth; for a quarter of a century posting the fastest growth rates in per capita income, for the largest population, ever recorded. Its big cities are without rival for commercial and architectural ambition, its goods sold everywhere. Its builders, prospectors and diplomats criss-cross the globe in search of further opportunities and influence. Courted by former foes and friends alike, for the first time in its history the Middle Kingdom has become a true world power, whose presence reaches into every continent. With the fall of the ussr, no formula to describe the turn of events it signified became so canonized as ‘the collapse of communism’. Twenty years later that looks a touch Eurocentric. Viewed in one light, communism has not just survived, but become the success story of the age. In the character and scale of that achievement, of course, there is more than one—bitter—irony. But of the difference between the fate of the revolutions in China and Russia, there can be little doubt.

Where does the explanation of this contrast lie? Despite the world-historical gravamen of the question, it has not been much discussed. At issue, of course, is not just a comparison of two similar but distinct upheavals, otherwise unrelated in their different settings, as in the once familiar pairing of 1789 and 1917. The Chinese Revolution grew directly out of the Russian Revolution, and remained connected with it, as inspiration or admonition, down to their common moment of truth at the end of the eighties. The two experiences were not independent of each other, but formed a consciously ordinal sequence. footnote1 That tie enters into any consideration of their differing outcomes. To explain these, in turn, involves reflection at a number of levels. Four of these will be distinguished here. Firstly, how far did the subjective political agencies of the two revolutions—that is, the respective parties in each country, and the strategies they pursued—differ? Secondly, what were the objective starting-points—socio-economic and other conditions—from which each ruling party set out on its course of reform? Thirdly, what were the effective consequences of the policies they adopted? Fourthly, which legacies in the longue durée of the history of the two societies can be regarded as underlying determinants of the ultimate outcome of revolutions and reforms alike? Since the PRC has outlived the USSR, and its future poses perhaps the central conundrum of world politics, the organizing focus of what follows will be China, as seen in the Russian mirror—not the only relevant one, as will become clear, but an ineludable condition of the rest.

1. Matrices

The October Revolution, famously, was a swift urban insurrection that seized power in Russia’s major cities in a matter of days. The speed of its overthrow of the Provisional Government was matched by the crystallization of the Party that accomplished it. The Bolsheviks, numbering no more than 24,000 in January 1917, on the eve of the abdication of Nicholas ii, had mushroomed to somewhere over 200,000 when they toppled Kerensky’s regime nine months later. Their social base lay in the young Russian working class, which comprised less than 3 per cent of the population. They had no presence in the countryside, where over 80 per cent of the population lived, having never thought to organize among the peasantry—any more than had the Social Revolutionaries, though the srs enjoyed an overwhelming rural following in 1917. Such rapid victory, from a still narrow ledge of support, was rendered possible by the shattering of the Tsarist state by German hammer-blows in the First World War—military failure detonating mutinies that dissolved its repressive apparatus, the February Revolution leaving only the shakiest lean-to of a successor authority.

But if power was taken easily in this vacuum, it proved hard to hold. Vast tracts of territory fell to German occupation. Once Germany was itself defeated in 1918, ten different expeditionary forces—American, British, Canadian, Serb, Finnish, Romanian, Turkish, Greek, French, Japanese—were dispatched to help White armies crush the new regime in a bitter Civil War that lasted till 1920. At the end of it, completing the destruction wrought in the World War, Russia was in ruins: famine in the villages, factories abandoned in the towns, the working class pulverized by the fighting and de-industrialization of the country. Lenin’s Party, its social base disintegrated or absorbed into the structures of the new state, was left an isolated apparatus of power suspended over a devastated landscape: its rule now associated with the miseries of domestic war rather than the gifts of peace and land delivered after October.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics that, by a supreme effort, it brought into being covered the larger part of the former Russian empire. But, the first modern state in history to reject any territorial definition, the emergent ussr laid no claim to patriotic pride or national construction. Its appeal was international: to the solidarity of the labour movement across the world. Having taken power in a huge backward country, whose economy was overwhelmingly agrarian and population largely illiterate, the Bolsheviks counted on revolutions in the more developed, industrial lands of Europe to rescue them from the predicament of a radical commitment to socialism in a society without the preconditions of any coherent capitalism. A gamble the beleaguered rulers soon lost, it meant nothing to the mass of the ruled from the start. The Soviet Party would have to hold out on its own, attempting to move as far as it could towards another form of society, without much support at home or any assistance from abroad.

2

The Chinese Revolution, although it was inspired by the Russian, inverted virtually all its terms. The CCP, created in 1921, still had less than a thousand members four years later, when it started to become for the first time a significant force, born of the explosion of working-class militancy in coastal cities with the May 30th movement of 1925, and aided by the vital role of Soviet advisers and supplies in the fledgling GMD regime led by Sun Yat-sen in Canton. Between that founding moment and the Communist conquest of power across China lay struggles that extended through a quarter of a century. Its milestones are well known—the Northern Expedition of 1926, joining Nationalists and Communists against the leading warlord regimes; the massacre of Communists by Chiang Kai-shek in Shanghai in 1927; the ensuing White Terror; the establishment of the Jiangxi Soviet in 1931, and the five annihilation campaigns waged against it by the gmd; the Long March of the Red Army to Yan’an in 1934–35, and the creation of Border Regions ruled by the ccp in the north-west; the United Front again with the gmd against Japanese invasion in 1937–45; and the final civil war of 1946–49, in which the PLA swept the country. continue

Category : China | Socialism | USSR
16
Sep

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By John Ross
Learning from China

June 2017 – The Hamburg G20 summit was a further stage in a process that has been developing strongly during the  2017: a recognition that a new stage in China’s international ‘thought leadership’ has developed.  For decades China had the world’s most rapidly growing economy, the world’s fastest increase in living standards, and was responsible for over 80% of the reduction of the number of people in the world living in poverty.

But now, as Edward Luce, the chief Washington correspondent for the Financial Times, noted: ‘ It was during Obama’s second term that China overtook the US as the world’s largest economy on a purchasing power parity basis. It is likely to overtake the US in dollar terms within the next presidential term, regardless of who is in office.‘ This gigantic economic development inevitably produced a growing global impact. But  the new stage, as confirmed below, is even Western analysts note that China, or to be more precise the Communist Party of China (CPC) and President Xi Jinping, are winning in the global ‘battle of ideas’. It is therefore important to analyse the reasons for this.

Such examination illustrates not only individual issues but demonstrates clearly the superiority of Xi Jinping’s Marxist analysis over Western thinking. This can be particularly clearly demonstrated by examining the wide international discussion which has contrasted China’s key recent global initiatives, such as Xi Jinping’s speech at the Davos World Economic Forum and the One Belt One Road summit in Beijing, with US attempts to articulate a general alternative foreign policy framework to China’s. Such analysis has the advantage it clearly demonstrates the way these concepts put forward by Xi Jinping both flow from Marxist ideas and simultaneously develop them in a new international situation – and why they can be clearly understood by a non-Marxist audience. In summary, as will be shown, the wide ranging international discussions in 2017 have clearly demonstrated the superiority of the CPC’s Marxist thinking over Western ideas.

China rising

Immediately following Donald Trump’s inauguration as US President his Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, admitted in practice what were the two most influential global views today: ‘I think it’d be good if people compare Xi’s speech at Davos and President Trump’s speech in his inaugural…. You’ll see two different world views.’

Indeed, it is widely understood in the Western media that the last period has seen a major shift internationally in both practical policy initiatives and ‘thought leadership’ towards China. Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator of the Financial Times, and one of the West’s most influential journalists, stated bluntly at the end of May that the question now being discussed in all countries was: ‘Would it not be wiser, they wonder, to move closer to China?’ Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group, the most influential Western ‘risk analysis’ company, noted regarding one of the key indicators of China’s success in projecting not only practical power but also ideas: ‘Davos reaction to Xi speech: Success on all counts.’

Merely to take in chronological order some of the landmarks of China’s sharply rising influence:

China’s initiative to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) was highly successful – with even close United States allies, such as the UK and Germany, participating and refusing to support US calls to boycott it.
Xi Jinping’s speech at Davos World Economic Forum was almost universally analysed in the West as encapsulating a major strategic success. In addition to Bremmer’s conclusion already cited, Hans-Paul Buerkner, chairman of the Boston Consulting Group, noted: ‘President Xi emphasized the importance of continued globalization, growth and equity, which impressed me the most.’ Khalid Al Rumaihi, chief executive of the Bahrain Economic Development Board concluded: ‘President Xi’s insistence to deepen globalization, to strengthen economic growth, and his warning against isolationism are extremely comforting and a strong endorsement.’

The recent Beijing One Belt One Road (B&R) summit’s significance was well understood in the West. The Financial Times, under a self-explanatory headline ‘Europe must respond to China’s Belt and Road initiative’, analysed: ‘Beijing is using the laws of economic gravity and physics to shape the global economy… The gravity metaphor is well established in the so-called “gravity models” of international trade, which relate the size of trade flows to the “mass” (economic size) and distance between trading partners. The indisputable finding is that physical distance remains monumentally important in international economics… as international supply chains have grown over recent decades, the most complex ones are regional more than global… As for physics metaphors, the relevant concept is friction. Gravity affects all bodies equally in a vacuum; friction, however, can change the speed at which they fall. So, too, in economics, where the frictions are the costs of trade. These can be physical — in the case of landlocked countries with poor infrastructure, say — and man-made. The most significant man-made trade costs are no longer border tariffs but regulatory, administrative and cultural barriers to doing business across national borders. They remain high…China… understands both concepts very well. The Belt and Road aims to overcome the bounds of gravity by reducing frictions, and to use the forces of attraction this unleashes to centre a growing part of global economic activity on China.’

China has long been influential among developing countries but the Financial Times has now noted that China’s overall influence is extending even into traditional US allies. EU officials noted for example: ‘the establishment of a 16-nation bloc of central and eastern European countries — many of them EU members. The bloc is sometimes used to frustrate EU decisions that could disadvantage China, said the officials.’ Regarding Singapore, another traditional US ally, the FT analysed reporting the recent Shangri-La dialogue,: ‘Ng Eng Hen, Singapore’s defence minister, was keen to build bridges with Beijing when he spoke to the assembled generals, diplomats and policy wonks at the Shangri-La hotel at the weekend. He made no mention of… the South China Sea and fawned over the Belt and Road project… “China has stepped on the pedal to push ahead with its plans to be a leader for trade in the Asia Pacific region, if not the world.”‘ Regarding Australia, another traditional US ally, Edward Luce noted: ‘Long before Trump’s victory, Australians were also debating whether their country should distance itself from the US to accommodate a rising China — a more important economic partner than the US. Now such arguments have gone mainstream. Former prime ministers, such as Paul Keating, make the case that Australia should hedge its bets.“’

China’s sharply rising international influence was certainly further aided by self-inflicted US wounds such as Trump’s virtually universally internationally condemned decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Even within the US this latter decision was attacked as weakening the United States – a pillar of the US establishment such as Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein taking to Twitter for the first ever time to declare: ‘Today’s decision is a setback for the environment and for the U.S.’s leadership position in the world.’ But, as is clear from the facts already noted above, the further weakening of the US’s international position by Trump’s position on the Paris Climate Accord simply followed from a period when China’s global position was already strongly strengthening. As Edward Luce summarised:

‘The world was already making adjustments before Trump… Almost two years before the UK’s Brexit referendum, David Cameron, Britain’s then prime minister, rolled out the red carpet for Xi Jinping on a state visit to the UK. Britain also enraged Obama’s White House by rushing to join China’s Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank… Others, such as Australia and Germany, hesitated but then followed suit. Almost every western power sent delegations, among them 29 heads of state, to China’s recent “One Belt, One Road” summit in Beijing. When China speaks, foreign governments listen.’

The shifting of the centre of global initiatives and thinking to China, analysed from the point of view of internal Chinese development in Wang Wen’s analysis is therefore fully confirmed by the analysis in the Western media itself.

A ‘Trump doctrine’?

Almost certainly in reaction both to the rise in China’s impact noted above, and to increased scepticism regarding US foreign policy views, immediately after President Trump’s first foreign trip, his National Security Adviser McMaster and his Director of the US National Economic Council Cohn jointly authored a Wall Street Journal article systematically setting out the principles of US foreign policy. The significance of this joint article, which could not have appeared from such high placed figures without approval of the President, was immediately recognised – CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, one of the US’s most important foreign policy commentators, noted: ‘We now have a Trump Doctrine.’ continue

Category : China | Globalization | Marxism
29
Aug

The challenge of Amin’s call for an Internationale of workers and peoples

By William I. Robinson
Globalizations

Samir Amin, a leading scholar and co-founder of the world-systems tradition, died on August 12, 2018. Just before his death, he published, along with close allies, a call for ‘workers and the people’ to establish a ‘fifth international’ [https://www.pambazuka.org/global-south/letter-intent-inaugural-meeting-international-workers-and-peoples] to coordinate support to progressive movements. To honor Samir Amin’s invaluable contribution to world-systems scholarship, we are pleased to present readers with a selection of essays responding to Amin’s final message for today’s anti-systemic movements. This forum is being co-published between Globalizations [https://www.tandfonline.com/rglo], the Journal of World-Systems Research [http://jwsr.pitt.edu/ojs/index.php/jwsr/issue/view/75] and Pambazuka News [https://www.pambazuka.org/]. Additional essays and commentary can be found in these outlets.

Aug 27, 2019 – Samir Amin’s call for an ‘Internationale of workers and peoples’ could not be timelier. If we are to face the onslaught of the neo-fascist right, the left worldwide must urgently renovate a revolutionary project and a plan for refounding the state. It must do so across borders under an umbrella organization that puts forth a minimum program around which popular and working-class forces can unite, and that establishes mechanisms for transnational struggle. While I concur with much of Amin’s call I also have some significant differences as well as specifications with respect to the call that I will attempt to explicate below.

Global capitalism is facing a spiraling crisis of hegemony that appears to be approaching a general crisis of capitalist rule. In the face of this crisis there has been a sharp polarization in global society between insurgent left and popular forces, on the one hand, and an insurgent far right, on the other, at whose fringe are openly fascist tendencies (Robinson, 2019 Robinson, W. I. (2019). Global capitalist crisis and twenty-first century fascism: Beyond the Trump hype.). Yet the far-right has been more effective in the past few years than the left in mobilizing disaffected populations around the world and has made significant political and institutional inroads. It would seem that Rosa Luxemburg’s dire warning at the start of the World War I that we face ‘socialism or barbarism’ is as or even more relevant today than when she issued it, given the magnitude of the means of violence worldwide and the threat of ecological holocaust. If left, popular, and working-class forces are to regain the initiative and beat back barbarism they need a transnational umbrella organization with a minimum program against global capitalism around which they can coordinate national and regional struggles and transnationalize the fightback.

The international of capital and the specter of 21st century fascism

The theme of transnational struggles from below has been discussed at great length for several decades now. Capital has achieved a newfound transnational mobility yet labor remains territorially bound by the nation-state. In the wake of the structural crisis of the 1970s, emergent transnational capital went global as a strategy to reconstitute its social power by breaking free of nation-state constraints to accumulation, to do away with Fordist-Keynesian redistributive arrangements, and to beat back the tide of revolution in the Third World. continue

Category : Capitalism | Fascism | Globalization | Hegemony
10
Aug

Lowwagecapitalism.com

During the Cold War and the struggle that put the USSR and China on one side and imperialism headed by Washington on the other side, revolutionaries used to characterize the conflict as a class war between two irreconcilable social systems.

There was the socialist camp, based upon socialized property, economic planning for human need and the government monopoly of foreign trade on the USSR-China side, and capitalism, a system of production for profit, on the other.

That the two systems were irreconcilable was at the bottom of the conflict dubbed the Cold War. In light of the current sharpening economic, diplomatic, political and military conflict between U.S. imperialism and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it is time to revive the concepts that were applied during the height of the Cold War.

Of course it is necessary to make modifications in these formulations with respect to socialism in China, with its mix of controlled capitalism and guided socialism.

Nevertheless, the conflict between imperialist capitalism, headed by Washington, Wall Street and the Pentagon, and the Chinese socialist economic system, which has state-owned industry at its core and planned economic guidance, is becoming much sharper, and imperialism is growing more openly hostile.

U.S. imperialism’s long-standing effort to overthrow socialism in China, Chinese capitalism notwithstanding, has been concealed beneath sugary bourgeois phrases about so-called “common interests” and “economic collaboration.”  But this kind of talk is coming to an end.

Washington’s first campaign to overthrow China — 1949-1975

This struggle has been ongoing since 1949, when the Chinese Red Army drove U.S. puppet Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalist army from the mainland as it retreated to Taiwan under the protection of the Pentagon.

The conflict continued through the Korean War, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. high command drove the U.S. troops to the Chinese border and threatened atomic war. Only the defeat of the U.S. military by the heroic Korean people under the leadership of Kim Il Sung, with the aid of the Chinese Red Army, stopped the U.S. invasion of China.

The struggle further continued with the U.S. war against Vietnam. The war’s strategic goal was to overthrow the socialist government of Vietnam in the north and drive to the border of China to complete the military encirclement of the PRC. Only the world-historic efforts of the Vietnamese people under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh stopped the Pentagon in its tracks.

The Pentagon’s plans for military conquest failed

With the rise of Deng Xiaoping and the opening up of China to foreign investment beginning in December 1978, Wall Street began to reevaluate its strategy. The U.S. ruling class began to take advantage of the opening up of China to foreign investment and the permission for private capitalism to function, which could both enrich U.S. corporations in the massive Chinese market and at the same time penetrate the Chinese economy with a long-range view to overturning socialism.

U.S. multinational corporations set up operations in China, hiring millions of low-wage Chinese workers, who flocked to the coastal cities from the rural areas. These operations were part of a broader effort by the U.S. capitalists to set up low-wage global supply chains that integrated the Chinese economy into the world capitalist market. The U.S.’s recent sharp turn aimed at breaking up this economic integration with the Chinese economy, including the witch hunt against Chinese scientists and the U.S. Navy’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea (called the Eastern Sea by Vietnam), is an admission that the economic phase of the U.S. attempt to bring counterrevolution to China has failed.

China is now a growing counterweight to Washington in international economics, high technology, diplomacy and regional military might in the Pacific, which the Pentagon has always considered to be a “U.S. lake” ruled by the Seventh Fleet.

The attack on Huawei

A dramatic illustration of the developing antagonisms is the way the U.S. had Meng Wanzhou, the deputy chairwoman and chief financial officer of Huawei, arrested in Canada for supposed violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran — an outrageous example of imperialism exercising extraterritoriality. The Trump administration has also leveled sanctions against Huawei electronics, the world’s largest supplier of  high-tech operating systems in the world. Huawei employs 180,000 workers and is the second largest cell phone manufacturer in the world after the south Korean-based Samsung.

The sanctions are part of the U.S. campaign to stifle China’s development of the latest version of data-transmission technology known as Fifth Generation or 5G.

The Trump administration has barred U.S. companies from selling supplies to Huawei, which has been using Google’s Android operating system for its equipment and Microsoft for its laptop products — both U.S.-based companies. Huawei is contesting the U.S. ban in court.

Meanwhile, as a backup plan in case Washington bans all access to Android and Microsoft, Huawei has quietly spent years building up an operating system of its own. Huawei developed its alternative operating system after a 2012 finding by Washington that Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese giant cell phone maker, were in criminal violation of U.S.“national security.” ZTE was forced to shut down for four months. (South China Morning Post, March 24, 2019)

But the conflict is about more than just Huawei and ZTE.

The new ‘red scare’ in Washington

The New York Times of July 20, 2019, carried a front page article entitled, “The New Red Scare in Washington.” A few excerpts give the flavor:

“In a ballroom across from the Capitol building, an unlikely group of military hawks, populist crusaders, Chinese Muslim freedom fighters and followers of the Falun Gong has been meeting to warn anyone who will listen that China poses an existential threat to the United States that will not end until the Communist Party is overthrown.

“If the warnings sound straight out of the Cold War, they are. The Committee on the Present Danger, a long-defunct group that campaigned against the dangers of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, has recently been revived with the help of Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, to warn against the dangers of China.

“Once dismissed as xenophobes and fringe elements, the group’s members are finding their views increasingly embraced in President Trump’s Washington, where skepticism and mistrust of China have taken hold. Fear of China has spread across the government, from the White House to Congress to federal agencies.”

The Trump administration has opened up a tariff war against the PRC, imposing a 25-percent tariff on $250 billion worth of Chinese exports and threatening tariffs on another $300 billion. But there is much more to Washington’s campaign than just tariffs.

The FBI and officials from the NSC (National Security Council) have been conducting a witch hunt, continues the Times article, “particularly at universities and research institutions. Officials from the FBI and the National Security Council have been dispatched to Ivy League universities to warn administrators to be vigilant against Chinese students.”

And according to the Times there are concerns that this witch hunt “is stoking a new red scare, fueling discrimination against students, scientists and companies with ties to China and risking the collapse of a fraught but deeply enmeshed trade relationship between the world’s two largest economies.” (New York Times, July 20, 2019)

FBI criminalizes cancer research

According to a major article in the June 13, 2019, Bloomberg News, “Ways of working that have long been encouraged by the NIH [National Institutes of Health] and many research institutions, particularly MD Anderson [a major cancer treatment center and research institute in Houston], are now quasi-criminalized, with FBI agents reading private emails, stopping Chinese scientists at airports, and visiting people’s homes to ask about their loyalty.

“Xifeng Wu, who has been investigated by the FBI, joined MD Anderson while in graduate school and gained renown for creating several so-called study cohorts with data amassed from hundreds of thousands of patients in Asia and the U.S. The cohorts, which combine patient histories with personal biomarkers such as DNA characteristics and treatment descriptions, outcomes, and even lifestyle habits, are a gold mine for researchers.

“She was branded an oncological double agent.”

The underlying accusation against Chinese scientists in the U.S. is that their research can lead to patentable medicines or cures, which in turn can be sold at enormous profits.

The Bloomberg article continues, “In recent decades, cancer research has become increasingly globalized, with scientists around the world pooling data and ideas to jointly study a disease that kills almost 10 million people a year. International collaborations are an intrinsic part of the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s Moonshot program, the government’s $1 billion blitz to double the pace of treatment discoveries by 2022. One of the program’s tag lines is: ‘Cancer knows no borders.’

“Except, it turns out, the borders around China. In January, Wu, an award-winning epidemiologist and naturalized American citizen, quietly stepped down as director of the Center for Public Health and Translational Genomics at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center after a three-month investigation into her professional ties in China. Wu’s resignation, and the departures in recent months of three other top Chinese-American scientists from Houston-based MD Anderson, stem from a Trump administration drive to counter Chinese influence at U.S. research institutions. … The collateral effect, however, is to stymie basic science, the foundational research that underlies new medical treatments. Everything is commodified in the economic cold war with China, including the struggle to find a cure for cancer.”

Big surprise. A world famous Chinese epidemiologist, trying to find a cure for cancer, collaborates with scientists in China!

Looking for the ‘reformers’ and the counterrevolution

For decades, the Chinese Communist Party has had changes of leadership every five years. These changes have been stable and managed peacefully. With each changeover, so-called “China experts” in the State Department in Washington think-tanks and U.S. universities have predicted the coming to power of a new “reformist” wing that will deepen capitalist reforms and lay the basis for an eventual full-scale capitalist counterrevolution.

To be sure, there has been a steady erosion of China’s socialist institutions. The “iron rice bowl” which guaranteed a living to Chinese workers has been eliminated in private enterprises. Numerous state factories and enterprises have been sold off to the detriment of the workers, and in the rural areas land was decollectivized.

One of the biggest setbacks for socialism in China and one which truly gladdened the hearts of the prophets of counterrevolution, was the decision by the Jiang Jemin CCP leadership to allow capitalists into the Chinese Communist Party in 2001.

As the New York Times wrote at the time, “This decision raises the possibility of Communists co-opting capitalists — or of capitalists co-opting the party.” (New York Times, Aug. 13, 2001) It was the latter part that the capitalist class has been looking forward to and striving for with fervent anticipation for almost four decades.

But on balance, this capitalist takeover has not materialized. Chinese socialism, despite the capitalist inroads into the economy, has proved far more durable than Washington ever imagined.

And, under the Xi Jinping leadership, the counterrevolution seems to be getting further and further away. It is not that Xi Jinping has become a revolutionary internationalist and a champion of proletarian control. But it has become apparent that China’s status in the world is completely connected to its social and economic planning.

China’s planning and state enterprises overcame 2007-2009 world capitalist crisis

Without state planning in the economy, China might have been dragged down by the 2007-2009 economic crisis. In June 2013, this author wrote an article entitled, “Marxism and the Social Character of China.” Here are some excerpts:

“More than 20 million Chinese workers lost their jobs in a very short time. So what did the Chinese government do?”

The article quoted Nicholas Lardy, a bourgeois China expert from the prestigious Peterson Institute for International Economics and no friend of China. (The full article by Lardy can be found in “Sustaining China’s Economic Growth after the Global Financial Crisis,” Kindle Locations 664-666, Peterson Institute for International Economics.)

Lardy described how “consumption in China actually grew during the crisis of 2008-09, wages went up, and the government created enough jobs to compensate for the layoffs caused by the global crisis,” this author’s emphasis.

Lardy continued: “In a year in which GDP expansion [in China] was the slowest in almost a decade, how could consumption growth in 2009 have been so strong in relative terms? How could this happen at a time when employment in export-oriented industries was collapsing, with a survey conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture reporting the loss of 20 million jobs in export manufacturing centers along the southeast coast, notably in Guangdong Province? The relatively strong growth of consumption in 2009 is explained by several factors.

“First, the boom in investment, particularly in construction activities, appears to have generated additional employment sufficient to offset a very large portion of the job losses in the export sector. For the year as a whole the Chinese economy created 11.02 million jobs in urban areas, very nearly matching the 11.13 million urban jobs created in 2008.

“Second, while the growth of employment slowed slightly, wages continued to rise. In nominal terms wages in the formal sector rose 12 percent, a few percentage points below the average of the previous five years (National Bureau of Statistics of China 2010f, 131). In real terms the increase was almost 13 percent.

“Third, the government continued its programs of increasing payments to those drawing pensions and raising transfer payments to China’s lowest-income residents. Monthly pension payments for enterprise retirees increased by RMB120, or 10 percent, in January 2009, substantially more than the 5.9 percent increase in consumer prices in 2008. This raised the total payments to retirees by about RMB75 billion. The Ministry of Civil Affairs raised transfer payments to about 70 million of China’s lowest-income citizens by a third, for an increase of RMB20 billion in 2009 (Ministry of Civil Affairs 2010).”

Lardy further explained that the Ministry of Railroads introduced eight specific plans, to be completed in 2020, to be implemented in the crisis.

According to Lardy, the World Bank called it “perhaps the biggest single planned program of passenger rail investment there has ever been in one country.” In addition, ultrahigh-voltage grid projects were undertaken, among other advances.

Socialist structures reversed collapse

So income went up, consumption went up and unemployment was overcome in China — all while the capitalist world was still mired in mass unemployment, austerity, recession, stagnation, slow growth and increasing poverty, and still is to a large extent.

The reversal of the effects of the crisis in China is the direct result of national planning, state-owned enterprises, state-owned banking and the policy decisions of the Chinese Communist Party.

There was a crisis in China, and it was caused by the world capitalist crisis. The question was which principle would prevail in the face of mass unemployment — the rational, humane principle of planning or the ruthless capitalist market. In China, the planning principle, the conscious element, took precedence over the anarchy of production brought about by the laws of the market and the law of labor value in the capitalist countries.

Socialism and China’s standing in the world

China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. According to a United Nations report, China alone is responsible for the global decline in poverty. China’s universities have graduated millions of engineers, scientists, technicians and have allowed millions of peasants to enter the modern world.

Made in China 2025

In 2015, Xi Jingping and the Chinese CP leadership laid out the equivalent of a ten-year plan to take China to a higher level of technology and productivity in the struggle to modernize the country.

Xi announced a long-range industrial policy backed by hundreds of billions of dollars in both state and private investment to revitalize China. It is named “Made in China 2025” or “MIC25.” It is an ambitious project requiring local, regional and national coordination and participation.

The Mercator Institute for Economics (MERICS) is one of the most authoritative German think tanks on China. It wrote a major report on MIC25 on Feb. 7, 2019. According to MERICS, “The MIC25 program is here to stay and, just like the GDP targets of the past, represents the CCP’s official marching orders for an ambitious industrial upgrading. Capitalist economies around the globe will have to face this strategic offensive.

“The tables have already started to turn: Today, China is setting the pace in many emerging technologies — and watches as the world tries to keep pace.”

The MERICS report continues, “China has forged ahead in fields such as next-generation IT (companies like Huawei and ZTE are set to gain global dominance in the rollout of 5G networks), high-speed railways and ultra-high voltage electricity transmissions. More than 530 smart manufacturing industrial parks have popped up in China. Many focus on big data (21 percent), new materials (17 percent) and cloud computing (13 percent). Recently, green manufacturing and the creation of an “Industrial Internet” were given special emphasis in policy documents, underpinning President Xi Jinping’s vision of creating an ‘ecological civilization’ that thrives on sustainable development.

“China has also secured a strong position in areas such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), new energy and intelligent connected vehicles. …

“Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) continue to play a critical role for the development of strategic industries and high-tech equipment associated with MIC25. In so-called key industries like telecommunications, ship building, aviation and high-speed railways, SOEs still have a revenue share of around 83 percent. In what the Chinese government has identified as pillar industries (for instance electronics, equipment manufacturing, or automotive) it amounts to 45 percent.”

Breakup of U.S.-China relationship inevitable

The tariff war between the U.S. and China has been going back and forth. It may or may not be resolved for now or may end up in a compromise. The Pentagon’s provocations in the South China Sea and the Pacific are unlikely to subside. The witch hunt against Chinese scientists is gaining momentum.

The U.S. has just appropriated $2.2 billion for arms to Taiwan. National Security Adviser and war hawk John Bolton recently made a trip to Taiwan. The president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, made a recent stopover in the U.S. on the way to the Caribbean and is scheduled to make another one on the way back.

All these measures indicate the end of rapprochement between Beijing and Washington. This breakup between the two powers is not just the doing of Donald Trump. It flows from the growing fear of the predominant sections of the U.S. ruling class that the gamble they took in trying to overthrow Chinese socialism from within has failed, just as the previous military aggression from 1949 to 1975 also failed.

High technology is the key to the future

Since as far back as the end of the 18th century, the U.S. capitalist class has always coveted the Chinese market. The giant capitalist monopolies went charging in to get joint agreements, low wages, cheap exports and big superprofits when China “opened up” at the end of the 1970s.

But the stronger the socialist core of the PRC becomes, the more weight it carries in the world and, above all, the stronger China becomes technologically the more Wall Street fears for its economic dominance and the more the Pentagon fears for its military dominance.

The example of the stifling of international collaboration on cancer research is a demonstration of how global cooperation is essential not only to curing disease, but also to the development of society as a whole. International cooperation is needed to reverse the climate disaster wrought by private property — none of this can be carried out within the framework of private property and the profit system. Only the destruction of capitalism can bring about the liberation of humanity.

Marxism asserts that society advances through the development of the productive forces from primary communism, to slavery, feudalism and capitalism. Marx wrote: “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.” (“The Poverty of Philosophy,” 1847) And now the revolution in high technology lays the basis for international socialism.

The bourgeoisie knows that the society that can advance technology to the highest degree will be triumphant in shaping the future. This is why imperialism, headed by the U.S., imposed the strictest blockade of the flow of technology to the Soviet Union, as well as the Eastern Bloc and China. This was done by COCOM, an informal organization of all the imperialist countries, which was created in 1949 and headquartered in Paris.

The main targets were the USSR and the more industrialized socialist countries, such as the German Democratic Republic, the Czech Republic, etc. Detailed lists were drawn up of some 1,500 technological items that were forbidden to export to these countries.

Marx explained that developed socialist relations depend upon a high degree of the productivity of labor and the resulting abundance available to the population (“Critique of the Gotha Program,” 1875).

However, as Lenin noted, the chain of imperialism broke at its weakest link in Russia — that is, the revolution was successful in the poorest, most backward capitalist country. The result was that an advanced social system was established on an insufficient material foundation. This gave rise to many, many contradictions. The countries that revolutionaries correctly called socialist, were in fact really aspiring to socialism. Their revolutions laid the foundations for socialism. But imperialist blockade, war and subversion never allowed them to freely develop their social systems.

The great leap forward in technology in China today has the potential of raising the productivity of labor and strengthening the socialist foundations. It is this great leap forward that is fueling the “new cold war” with China and the real threat of hot war.

Category : China | Cold War | Hegemony | Trump | Uncategorized
16
Jul

The Systems We Depend On Are Upside Down

By Ian Angus
Climate & Capitalism

June 25, 2019 – A frequent C&C contributor, Martin Empson regularly reviews new and old books on his blog, Resolute Reader. Recently, he reviewed Barry Commoner’s 1971 classic The Closing Circle, calling it “an important contribution to our understanding of the struggle we need.” He says he wishes he had read it years ago.

My only disagreement is with his statement that Commoner was not a Marxist. True, he did not use the label, but I can’t find much in his work that a serious Marxist could disagree with.

Commoner was a remarkably good writer, a scientist and political activist who had a gift for explaining complex ideas clearly and concisely. The Closing Circle is a classic that every ecosocialist should read. Click here to read Martin Empson’s review.

Reading that review spurred me to re-read another of Commoner’s books, The Poverty of Power, published in 1976 when the capitalist world was being shaken by a recession and soaring oil prices. While much of the data and analysis is specific to that period, it did a wonderful job of presenting a radical critique, in terms that would be accessible to any reader. As the excerpts below show, what Commoner wrote is still very relevant today.

Commoner opened The Poverty of Power (which was a mass market paperback, by the way) with this fine account of a social order that puts first things last.

“In the last ten years, the United States — the most powerful and technically advanced society in human history — has been confronted by a series of ominous, seemingly intractable crises. First there was the threat to environmental survival; then there was the apparent shortage of energy; and now there is the unexpected decline of the economy. These are usually regarded as separate afflictions, each to be solved in its own terms: environmental degradation by pollution controls; the energy crisis by finding new sources of energy and new ways of conserving it; the economic crisis by manipulating prices, taxes, and interest rates.

“But each effort to solve one crisis seems to clash with the solution of the others — pollution control reduces energy supplies; energy conservation costs jobs. Inevitably, proponents of one solution become opponents of the others. Policy stagnates and remedial action is paralyzed, adding to the confusion and gloom that beset the country.

“The uncertainty and inaction are not surprising, for this tangled knot of problems is poorly understood, not only by citizens generally, but also by legislators, administrators, and even by the separate specialists. It involves complex interactions among the three basic systems — the ecosystem, the production system, and the economic system — that, together with the social or political order, govern all human activity.

“The ecosystem — the great natural, interwoven, ecological cycles that comprise the planet’s skin, and the minerals that lie beneath it — provides all the resources that support human life and activity.

“The production system — the man-made network of agricultural and industrial processes — converts these resources into goods and services, the real wealth that sustains society: food, manufactured goods, transportation, and communication.

“The economic system — the recipient of the real wealth created by the production system — transforms that wealth into earnings, profit, credit, savings, investment, taxes; and governs how that wealth is distributed, and what is done with it.

“Given these dependencies — the economic system on the wealth yielded by the production system and the production system on the resources provided by the ecosystem — logically the economic system ought to conform to the requirements of the production system, and the production system to the requirements of the ecosystem. The governing influence should flow from the ecosystem through the production system to the economic system.

“This is the rational ideal. In actual fact the relations among the three systems are the other way around. The . environmental crisis tells us that the ecosystem has been disastrously affected by the design of the modem production system, which has been developed with almost no regard for compatibility with the environment or for the efficient use of energy: Gas-gulping cars pollute the environment with smog; petrochemical factories convert an unrenewable store of petroleum into undegradable or toxic agents. In turn, the faulty design of the production system has been imposed upon it by the economic system, which invests in factories that promise increased profits rather than environmental compatibility or efficient use of resources. The relationships. among the great systems on which society depends are upside down.

“Thus, what confronts us is not a series of separate crises, but a single basic defect — a fault that lies deep in be design of modern society.”

Throughout The Poverty of Power, Commoner brilliantly expanded on those ideas, showing that “our current crisis is a symptom of a deep and dangerous fault in the economic system.” He concluded with these words.

“Here we come to the end of the blind, mindless chain of events that transformed the technologies of agricultural and industrial production and reorganized transportation; that increased the output of the production system, but increased even more its appetite for capital, energy, and other resources; that eliminated jobs and degraded the environment; that concentrated the physical power of energy and the social power of the resultant wealth into ever fewer, larger corporations; that has fed this power on a diet of unemployment and poverty. Here is the basic fault that has spawned the environmental crisis and the energy crisis, and 1 that threatens — if no remedy is found — to engulf us in the wreckage of a crumbling economic system.

“Now all this has culminated in the ignominious confession of those who hold the power: That the capitalist economic system which has loudly proclaimed itself the best means of assuring a rising standard of living for the people of the United States, can now survive, if at all, only by reducing that standard. The powerful have confessed to the poverty of their power.

“No one can escape the momentous consequences of this confession. No one can escape the duty to understand the origin of this historic default and to transform it from a threat to social progress into a signal for a new advance.”

Every socialist with an interest in environmental issues (and that ought to be every socialist!) can benefit from reading Barry Commoner. Although his books are out of print, they can be found in libraries, and used copies are readily available online at reasonable prices.

For more about Commoner’s idea, and an overview of his major works, see Barry Commoner and the Great Acceleration.

 

Category : Capitalism | Climate | Ecology
6
Jul

Slavery and the Racialization of Capital, from Bottom to Top

The Lehman Durr & Co. offices in Montgomery, Alabama, 1874

New York Review of Books

 

In 2013, the Italian playwright Stefano Massini turned this exemplum into The Lehman Trilogy, an epic five-hour play that was adapted and condensed last year by the director Sam Mendes and playwright Ben Power for the National Theatre in London. The play received rapturous reviews, and further plaudits after a limited run this spring in New York; it has just returned to London’s West End, where its continued success seems assured. The story begins in 1844, when Hayum Lehman emigrated from Bavaria to Mobile, Alabama. He changed his name to Henry and worked as an itinerant peddler before opening a small dry-goods store upriver, in Montgomery. Soon, two of his younger brothers, Mendel (Emanuel) and Mayer, joined him, and the dry goods store gradually evolved, first into a brokerage, and then into a bank. The play presents this arc as a parable of moral decline, from selling “goods,” to selling financial abstractions. “We are merchants of money,” second-generation Philip Lehman declares in Power’s translation: “our flour is money.”

The drama built around this story is an impressive theatrical experience, but also a deeply partial one, as some critics have noted—for the simple reason that some of the “goods” originally traded by the Lehman brothers, before their spiritual decline into mere merchants of money, were human beings. The play acknowledges, briefly, the company’s origins in the cotton markets of the antebellum South—profoundly underplaying not only the firm’s deep entanglement in the slave economy, but also that of the brothers themselves, who held slaves for at least twenty years. When I was invited by the National Theatre to write for its playbill an essay about the Lehman brothers as exemplars of the American Dream, my original draft mentioned the brothers’ connection to slavery, but this was cut from the final edit. When New York’s Park Avenue Armory asked if they could reuse the essay, I inquired if we could restore the issue of slavery, and offered an expanded draft with more detail. They preferred the National Theatre’s version, citing length.

The elision is not sinister, but it is symptomatic. No one involved in editing the playbills is defending or apologizing for slavery; they were doing their jobs, putting together a program of necessarily brief essays about the play as it has been produced, which does not address slavery. But the erasure of slavery from the play matters: it distorts the history of Lehman Brothers’ beginnings in the antebellum South, allowing the play to evade the question of whether making money out of money is really more reprehensible than making money out of slaves. That erasure is, ironically enough, perhaps the most allegorical aspect of the entire story: a history of American capitalism that disavows the central role slavery played in that history.

It was a problem several American reviewers noted, at least in part. The New York Times observed: “By completely omitting something terribly obvious—that the original fortune was made on the backs of slaves—the play suggests that the real evildoers were not the kindly young men from Bavaria who sold cloth,” but the wizards of Wall Street several generations later. For The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, it was an astonishing flaw that the play “fails to mention that Henry, Emanuel, and Mayer Lehman were slave-owners.” No American writer today would make such an excision, Cohen argued: “it would be tantamount to writing a play about Germany in 1933 and not even mentioning what was happening to the Jews.” But The Lehman Trilogy is not merely tantamount to a play about Germany in 1933 that never mentions the Jews; it is a play about a dynasty founded in the Nazi era that thinks the family’s role in the Holocaust doesn’t matter.

For a century and more, the conventional wisdom about the evolution of the financial systems embodied in institutions like Lehman Brothers was that modern American capitalism was built not on the slave economy, but on its collapse. That story retains its cultural grip. “The great rise of Northern industry took place after the Southern slave economy was destroyed,” Jonathan Leaf insisted in an April “Dispatch” for the New Criterion defending The Lehman Trilogy against criticisms of its treatment of slavery, “and after the Confederacy’s wealth was obliterated” (his emphasis). But for half a century and more, historians have shown that this neither accurately describes the cotton economy of antebellum Alabama generally, nor the Lehman brothers’ particular role in it.

Since at least as long ago as 1944, with Eric Williams’s groundbreaking Capitalism and Slavery, historians have debated the complex intermingling of slavery and capitalism, while a wave of recent scholarship has argued for the centrality of slavery to the history of American economic development. Edward Baptist, Robin Blackburn, Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert, Calvin Schermerhorn, Michael R. Cohen, and others have contended that mid-century Southern slavery was far from the pre-industrial, agrarian economy of popular wisdom, inevitably defeated by the industrial power and modern financial systems of the North. The two systems were considerably more interdependent and mutually advantageous than that simplistic picture allows. Nor was the Civil War the product of a simple conflict between modern and premodern economies, although it was a conflict between wage labor and slave labor. Rather, between 1830 and 1860, the slave economy itself became increasingly modernized, its growing profits leveraged by the economies of scale afforded by new financial systems.

The cotton economy of the nineteenth century, accounting by most measures for more than half of the total goods exported from the US between 1820 and 1860, helped form many of America’s current economic and social institutions: the carceral system, property laws, insurance industry, modern finance systems—all have roots in the Southern slave economy. The profits created by the cotton business helped fund vast empires of trade and industry, including shipping and railroads. They also enriched middlemen: insurers, brokers, investors, and speculators, which is where the Lehmans enter the story.

Henry Lehman came from a farming family, perhaps one reason he chose to settle in the agrarian South; but he also grew up near the city of Mainz, a center of the German textile trade. He knew the value of cotton, and went straight to Mobile, Alabama, then second only to New Orleans as a cotton trading port. Jews settled less frequently in the antebellum South, and those who did tended to assimilate as fast as they could—indeed, the stark racial hierarchy of the South, divided into its ruthless binary of “black” and “white,” made it easier for Jewish immigrants to assimilate as “white.” (That said, antebellum anti-Semitism is another question that The Lehman Trilogy sidesteps.)

The American economy of the 1820s and 1830s was undergoing a transformation thanks to the development of new debt instruments secured by the use of slaves as collateral. The value of chattel slaves could be transferred into mortgages, securities, and bonds, like any other financial asset that could then be sold to investors nationally and internationally. The financialization of slave-assets thus allowed profiting from slavery even in places that had formally outlawed the slave trade—as had the United States, in 1808. The complex, sophisticated commercial systems that had developed along with colonial slave economies did not die when the slave trade was abolished; they merely operated from a greater distance.

All this easy credit helped fuel an American slave-asset and land bubble in the 1830s, driving an economic boom backed by Southern state governments that collapsed in the panic of 1837, the country’s worst financial crisis of the nineteenth century. Between 1837 and 1842, banks failed, credit disappeared, and the economy stagnated. The Lehmans arrived in the 1840s, just in time to capitalize on the cotton economy’s desperate need for investment and credit, quickly establishing themselves as cotton factors, a factotum role that combined brokerage with financial and marketing advice, insurance, transportation, logistics, and sometimes the supply of enslaved laborers. Cotton factors sold to farmers on credit, often accepting cotton as payment, which they could sell directly to Northern manufacturers. Some cotton factors, in turn, acquired financing from Northern banks, recycling profits from the Southern slave system back to those Northern and international financiers. Every link in the financial chain profited.

Between 1840 and 1860, the American cotton crop expanded hugely for several reasons, including improvements in seeds, while the industrial revolution, powered by immigrant labor, was taking hold in the North. By the middle of the nineteenth century, much of the American economy was entangled in networks of capital that were profiting from enslaved people. The prosperity created by enslavement extended far beyond cotton, as world capital markets leveraged the collateral held by enslavers; but so did the financial and commercial structures those markets helped develop and perfect. Slave-traders, for example, as Calvin Schermerhorn has shown, created integrated systems of supply and credit that anticipate concepts like vertical integration and supply-chain management a century later. Small merchants like Lehman Brothers repackaged credit and debt, selling it on to other investors; like plantation owners, they also borrowed against human collateral, thus profiting not only from the slaves they personally owned, but from the system’s shared mortgaging of human property.

The Lehman brothers’ own possession of slaves has long been part of the historical record, though not as central to critiques about the firm’s cultural symbolism after its collapse as it should have been. When, in 2003, descendants of slaves sued Lehman Brothers (and other firms, including R.J. Reynolds) for reparations, Lehmans was “forced to admit,” it was reported at the time, that the founding brothers “bought a slave in the 1850s” named Martha. A further affidavit acknowledged, though only provisionally, that the Lehman brothers “may have personally owned other slaves,” making the firm reportedly the first American bank to admit, however grudgingly, a role in institutional slavery. (Two years later, J.P. Morgan acknowledged that it had accepted some 13,000 slaves as collateral, and taken possession of 1,250 more as capital.) A year before Lehmans’ collapse, the House Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing on the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, noting some of the historic companies that had benefitted from that trade, including Lehman Brothers, among others such as Aetna Casualty insurance, New York Life Insurance, Brooks Brothers, and J.P. Morgan Chase.

As far back as 1996, Roland Flade’s study The Lehmans noted that the 1860 census identified Mayer Lehman, the youngest of the brothers, as the owner of seven slaves in Montgomery. In partial mitigation, Flade remarked that people living in antebellum Alabama could not easily oppose slavery, which is quite true. But failing to combat, or even merely censure, slavery is one thing; purchasing one’s own enslaved humans, or trading in their enslavement, is another. The Lehman brothers did both. Two of their former slaves traveled with Mayer’s family when they moved to New York in 1868, a fact sometimes offered by the family’s defenders on the grounds that it would suggest the Lehmans treated their slaves with comparative decency. Not only a low bar for moral exculpation, this also avoids any account of the complex reasons freed slaves sometimes chose to stay with families that had formerly held them in bondage.

The question of how to include slaves in the American record has plagued the nation since its founding. The Constitution’s notorious “three-fifths clause” was a function of the agreed provision for a decennial census, for purposes of political apportionment. Representatives in Congress would reflect “the whole number of free Persons” and “three fifths of all other Persons” in each state, excluding natives (who were treated as separate nations). This construction does not, in fact, grant slaves any humanity, even fractionally; it merely counts a proportion of them as bodies for the census. As the size of both slave and immigrant populations grew, so did problems in census-taking. For the 1850 and 1860 decennial censuses, the government decided for the first time to count all slaves held in the United States in separate “slave schedules.” Following the Constitution’s logic, slaves were enumerated—by age, sex, and color (black or mulatto)—but only slave-holders were named.

According to the 1850 slave schedule, “H. Lehman” had already purchased two slaves within six years of arriving in Alabama: a fifty-year-old black man, and a forty-five-year-old black woman. In his 2006 history of the Lehmans, Peter Chapman noted that family archives show the Lehman family also bought a fourteen-year-old slave in 1854 (the one named Martha); the deed of sale, for $900, bound her as a “slave for life.” Six years later, the 1860 slave schedule identifies Mayer Lehman in Montgomery as the owner of four slave houses and seven slaves: two adult males, a fifty-year-old listed as black and a nineteen-year-old listed as mulatto; three adult females, all black, aged forty-five, thirty-five, and twenty-eight; a nine-year-old mulatto girl; and a five-year-old black boy. But even this inadequate record is vexed, implying, as it does, that slaves always knew their ages with certainty; some did, but the system was designed to keep them from all such sense of self-possession. The historical ironies are intense: the slave schedules reflect a society struggling to identify Americans from whom it had systematically stripped identity, while granting new immigrants like the Lehman brothers the status of free citizens.

Slave-holding was the most direct, but hardly the only, way in which the Lehmans were implicated in the slave economy.It was not simply that the Lehmans profited from the labor of those they had enslaved, or that their firm depended on the sale of cotton produced by other slaves, but that their entire business was imbricated in institutionalized slavery from start to finish. Contemporary accounts record the brothers’ accepting profits from slaves traded as chattel in lieu of debts—in 1859, a newspaper in Troy, Alabama, reported that a sheriff had sold “one negro woman, Beckey, about twenty years old, and her child Gus, about two years old,” to “satisfy a fifa in my hands in favor of Lehman Brothers.” (“Fifa” stood for fieri facias, a legal instrument that empowered a sheriff to levy the possessions of a defendant to make good a debt.) From such seemingly routine transactions an entire political economy arose.

Thus, while it is perfectly true that the Lehman brothers’ embroilment in slavery was commonplace in their time and place, that makes it all the more problematic to suggest that slavery can be marginal to their story. The embedded ordinariness of slavery is the point: to efface that, as the play does, is to miss everything. The triumphalism of the classic American immigrant success story here works to occlude the question of complicity in slavery, fashioning a familiar myth of hard work rewarded by social mobility that is superimposed over the actual system, in which the total deprivation of the rights of citizenship and humanity for some enabled others to enjoy precisely the rewards and mobility that slaves were so violently, and absolutely, denied.

Henry Lehman died in 1855, but when the Civil War came, the two surviving brothers were staunchly on the side of the Confederacy. Mayer Lehman was a committed Southern Democrat, friendly with the governor of Alabama, and knew Jefferson Davis socially. In October 1861, Lehman Brothers, “Merchants of Montgomery,” advertised in local papers that they had stockpiled “almost every article of necessity” during the war. Promising to “be reasonable as to prices,” they added that “owing to the hardness of the times, they are compelled to demand the cash.” Cash, appropriately, was italicized. During the war, the firm successfully ran blockades while issuing the Confederacy with free credit; the Governor of Mississippi sent a public note of thanks in 1864 to “Messrs. Lehman & Brothers,” for accepting “Confederate Treasury notes,” while “charging nothing for their trouble,” to supply the army with cotton and wool for uniforms—despite the blockade that “prevented a larger supply.” In October 1865, “Lehman & Brothers, rich Jews, and merchants,” were pardoned by President Andrew Johnson for doing so, one of the raft of pardons Johnson issued to white Southerners after the war in the name of restoring the Union, but in fact easing the cost of defeat for the embittered white South (and contributing to his eventual impeachment).

The latitude Johnson granted the South enabled the outrages of Reconstruction, as “black codes” establishing segregation replaced slavery in all but name. Southern lands and assets were restored to prewar owners; once again, the Lehman brothers benefited along with the system they upheld, their property reinstated after the war. The Lehmans had not only survived the conflict, they had profited directly from it, without paying any penalty for their support of the Confederacy. The moral exemplum about capitalism and the American Dream to be found in the story of Lehman Brothers is primarily the way in which the South’s investment in the cotton economy profoundly shaped American history from the antebellum period onward, particularly in the slave economy’s legacy of white wealth and black impoverishment, white privilege and black disenfranchisement.

Within two decades, the Lehmans had quit cotton factoring and the South, transforming themselves into a Northern finance powerhouse on Wall Street. They continued to broker deals between Southern cotton planters and the merchants and exchanges of the North after the war, while expanding their business to other commodities, before taking a seat on the newly formed New York Stock Exchange in 1887.

It is that process of transformation—leaving slavery behind but banking its profits—that is the story not only of Lehman Brothers, but also of the formation of modern American capitalism. The Lehman Trilogy wants its audiences to agree that an “abstracted” economy is somehow more morally objectionable than a “real” one, but this fable requires actively repressing the source of the “real” wealth. The Lehmans always traded in “derivative” capital; there was no golden age in which they traded innocent “goods” that became degraded by late capitalism into mere financial tools of decadent speculation.

If The Lehman Trilogy holds up a mirror to our moment, it is by registering slavery in a peripheral glance only to look away. Early in the play, Emanuel tells Henry, “I don’t want to sell buckets and spades to slaves.” Henry responds: “We sell to whoever will buy. Here in America, everything changes.” As an instance of the disavowal so often at work in popular accounts of slavery’s influence on modern America, this exchange is staggering. Slaves did not buy and sell; they were bought and sold. In endorsing the great American myth of transformation, the play implies that capitalism itself is emancipatory, that it might magically transform chattel into customers—and just as magically transform a dubious refusal to talk about slaves into a virtuous refusal to sell to slaves. The play thus succumbs to the abstraction it deplores, evading the material conditions that produced wealth to focus on capitalism as a transcendent promise of freedom and empowerment, endorsing the logic of a consumerist political economy.

Similar mechanisms of disavowal run throughout our cultural mythologies. Proslavery propaganda in the antebellum South insisted that Northern wage slaves were worse off than Southern chattel slaves. As wage slavery was conflated with an emerging trope of white slavery, bondage was rewritten as a universal condition. In the nineteenth century, even antislavery white writers were apt to suggest that capitalism made all Americans into slaves, rather than admit that American capitalism was partly made from slavery. Ishmael famously demands in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), “Who ain’t a slave?” Henry David Thoreau agreed, declaring in Walden, “It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one.” In 1863, the year in which American slaves were emancipated, Emily Dickinson likened an author in the marketplace to a slave at auction: “Publication—is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man,” her poem begins; it ends by urging: “reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price—.” In Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s 1873 The Gilded Age, the slave trade is just another market for the speculator Beriah Sellers to try to exploit, while Stewart Denison argued in his 1885 novel An Iron Crown: A Tale of the Great Republic that monopoly capitalism was trapping all Americans into economic bondage:

When four or five railway kings can steal one hundred and sixty millions in twenty years; when an oil company can pile fabulous millions on millions in ten years; when a Wall-street pirate can steal from the American people one hundred millions in twenty years by wrecking railroads… when the rich daily grow enormously rich, and the poor daily grow poorer; when all these things can occur, under the sanction of law, in a great republic, is it not time to stop and think? Having reflected, is it not time to act, before our slavery is complete and irremediable?

While scholars painstakingly examine the interconnections of slavery and capitalism, showing the complex traffic between Northern industrial and Southern cotton economies, too many of our popular accounts still view slavery as the South’s “peculiar institution” and treat it as a discrete, if horrifying, historical anomaly. This is how disavowal manages cognitive dissonance: it means conceding the existence of slavery, while refusing to believe that it has anything to do with the story you are telling; it means willfully pushing slavery to the edges of your consciousness and being saved by the logic of exception. The musical Hamilton does the same thing in its ambivalent dynamic of denouncing slavery’s iniquities while suggesting that its own protagonists were exempt from them. Anyone who didn’t know better would finish Hamilton innocent of the fact that George Washington owned slaves, much less that Alexander Hamilton himself bought and sold them on behalf of his wife’s family. Such stories try to have it both ways: for their heroes to be representative Americans, while erasing the vicious ways in which they truly were representative. The fact that everyone was doing it is not a defense, it merely measures the scale of the crime.

 

Category : Capitalism | Racism | Slavery | US History
11
Jun

Washington Squandered the Unipolar Moment

By Fareed Zakaria
Foreign Affairs, July-August 2019

Sometime in the last two years, American hegemony died. The age of U.S. dominance was a brief, heady era, about three decades marked by two moments, each a breakdown of sorts. It was born amid the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in 1989. The end, or really the beginning of the end, was another collapse, that of Iraq in 2003, and the slow unraveling since. But was the death of the United States’ extraordinary status a result of external causes, or did Washington accelerate its own demise through bad habits and bad behavior? That is a question that will be debated by historians for years to come. But at this point, we have enough time and perspective to make some preliminary observations.

As with most deaths, many factors contributed to this one. There were deep structural forces in the international system that inexorably worked against any one nation that accumulated so much power. In the American case, however, one is struck by the ways in which Washington—from an unprecedented position—mishandled its hegemony and abused its power, losing allies and emboldening enemies. And now, under the Trump administration, the United States seems to have lost interest, indeed lost faith, in the ideas and purpose that animated its international presence for three-quarters of a century.

U.S. hegemony in the post–Cold War era was like nothing the world had seen since the Roman Empire. Writers are fond of dating the dawn of “the American century” to 1945, not long after the publisher Henry Luce coined the term. But the post–World War II era was quite different from the post-1989 one. Even after 1945, in large stretches of the globe, France and the United Kingdom still had formal empires and thus deep influence. Soon, the Soviet Union presented itself as a superpower rival, contesting Washington’s influence in every corner of the planet. Remember that the phrase “Third World” derived from the tripartite division of the globe, the First World being the United States and Western Europe, and the Second World, the communist countries. The Third World was everywhere else, where each country was choosing between U.S. and Soviet influence. For much of the world’s population, from Poland to China, the century hardly looked American.

The United States’ post–Cold War supremacy was initially hard to detect. As I pointed out in The New Yorker in 2002, most participants missed it. In 1990, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher argued that the world was dividing into three political spheres, dominated by the dollar, the yen, and the deutsche mark. Henry Kissinger’s 1994 book, Diplomacy, predicted the dawn of a new multipolar age. Certainly in the United States, there was little triumphalism. The 1992 presidential campaign was marked by a sense of weakness and weariness. “The Cold War is over; Japan and Germany won,” the Democratic hopeful Paul Tsongas said again and again. Asia hands had already begun to speak of “the Pacific century.”

U.S. hegemony in the post–Cold War era was like nothing the world had seen since the Roman Empire.

There was one exception to this analysis, a prescient essay in the pages of this magazine by the conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer: “The Unipolar Moment,” which was published in 1990. But even this triumphalist take was limited in its expansiveness, as its title suggests. “The unipolar moment will be brief,” Krauthammer admitted, predicting in a Washington Post column that within a very short time, Germany and Japan, the two emerging “regional superpowers,” would be pursuing foreign policies independent of the United States.

Policymakers welcomed the waning of unipolarity, which they assumed was imminent. In 1991, as the Balkan wars began, Jacques Poos, the president of the Council of the European Union, declared, “This is the hour of Europe.” He explained: “If one problem can be solved by Europeans, it is the Yugoslav problem. This is a European country, and it is not up to the Americans.” But it turned out that only the United States had the combined power and influence to intervene effectively and tackle the crisis.

Similarly, toward the end of the 1990s, when a series of economic panics sent East Asian economies into tailspins, only the United States could stabilize the global financial system. It organized a $120 billion international bailout for the worst-hit countries, resolving the crisis. Time magazine put three Americans, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, and Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, on its cover with the headline “The Committee to Save the World.”

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

Just as American hegemony grew in the early 1990s while no one was noticing, so in the late 1990s did the forces that would undermine it, even as people had begun to speak of the United States as “the indispensable nation” and “the world’s sole superpower.” First and foremost, there was the rise of China. It is easy to see in retrospect that Beijing would become the only serious rival to Washington, but it was not as apparent a quarter century ago. Although China had grown speedily since the 1980s, it had done so from a very low base. Few countries had been able to continue that process for more than a couple of decades. China’s strange mixture of capitalism and Leninism seemed fragile, as the Tiananmen Square uprising had revealed. continue

Category : Globalization | Hegemony | US History