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
24
May

More study of the difference between exproriation, exploitaton, and their interplay at the ‘rosy dawn’ of capitalist and everything that followed.

By Nancy Fraser
Policss/Letters On May 20, 2019

Presidential Address delivered at the one hundred fourteenth Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Savannah, GA, on January 5, 2018.

Capitalism has always been deeply entangled with racial oppression. That proposition clearly holds for the slave-based plantation capitalism of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But it is equally true of the Jim Crow industrialized capitalism of the twentieth century. Nor can anyone reasonably doubt that racial oppression persists in the deindustrializing, sub-prime, mass-incarceration capitalism of the present era. Despite the clear differences between them, none of these forms of “really existing” capitalism was nonracial. In all of its forms to date, capitalist society has been entangled with racial oppression.

What is the nature of this entanglement? Is it contingent or structural? Did the capitalism/racism nexus arise by chance, and could matters have in principle been otherwise? Or was capitalism primed from the get-go to divide populations by “race”? And what about today? Is racism hardwired in the deep structure of contemporary capitalism? Or is a nonracial capitalism finally possible now, in the twenty-first century?

These questions are by no means new. They form the heart of a profound but under-appreciated stream of critical theorizing, known as Black Marxism. This tradition, which flourished from the 1930s through the 1980s, includes such towering figures as C. L. R. James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Eric Williams, Oliver Cromwell Cox, Stuart Hall, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, Manning Marable, Barbara Fields, Robin D. G. Kelley, Cedric Robinson, and Cornel West.1 Although their approaches diverged in specifics, each of these thinkers grappled deeply with the capitalism/ racism nexus. At least through the 1980s, their reflections were at the forefront of what we now call “critical race theory.”

Subsequently, however, the question of capitalism’s entanglement with race dropped off the critical-theoretical agenda. With the waning of New Left radicalism and the collapse of really existing Communism, capitalism ceased to be viewed as a topic of serious interrogation in many quarters, while Marxism was increasingly rejected as dépassé. As a result, questions of race and racism were effectively ceded to thinkers working in the liberal and poststructuralist paradigms. Although those thinkers made some impressive contributions to mainstream and critical race theory, they did not attempt to clarify the relation between capitalism and racial oppression.

Today, however, a new generation of critical racist theorists is reinvigorating that problematic. Comprising thinkers like Michael Dawson, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Cedric Johnson, Barbara Ransby, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, this generation is reconsidering the capitalism/ racism nexus anew, in light of twenty-first-century developments.2 The reasons are not hard to discern. The conjoint rise of a new generation of militant antiracist activists, on the one hand, and of an aggressively ethnonationalist and alt-right, white-supremacist populism, on the other hand, has dramatically raised the stakes of critical race theory. Many now appreciate, too, that the broader context for both those developments is a deepening crisis of contemporary capitalist society, a crisis that is simultaneously exacerbating, and rendering more visible, its characteristic forms of racial oppression. Finally, capitalism is no longer a taboo term, and Marxism is enjoying a revival. In this situation, the central questions of Black Marxism have again become pressing: Is capitalism necessarily racist? Can racial oppression be overcome within capitalist society?

Aiming to advance this problematic, I opted to use the occasion of my presidential address to revisit those venerable questions. The approach I propose scrambles the usual, sharp oppositions between structure and history, necessity and chance, which obscure the complexities of the capitalism/racism nexus. Contra the proponents of contingency, I shall maintain that there does exist a structural basis for capitalism’s persistent entanglement with racial oppression. That basis resides, as I shall explain, in the system’s reliance on two analytically distinct but inter-imbricated processes of capital accumulation, exploitation and expropriation. It is the separation of these two “exes,” and their assignment to two different populations, that underpins racial oppression in capitalist society. Contra proponents of necessity, however, I shall argue that capitalism’s exploitation/expropriation nexus is not set in stone. Rather, it mutates historically in the course of capitalist development, which can be viewed as a sequence of qualitatively different regimes of racialized accumulation. In each phase, a historically specific configuration of the two exes underpins a distinctive landscape of racialization. When we follow the sequence down to the present, we encounter something new: a form of capitalism that blurs the historic separation of exploitation from expropriation. No longer assigning them to two sharply demarcated populations, this form appears to be dissolving the structural basis for racial oppression that inhered in capitalist society for four hundred years. Yet racial oppression persists, I shall claim, in forms that are neither strictly necessary nor merely contingent. The result is new set of puzzles for Black Marxist theory and anti-racist activism in the twentyfirst century.

In what follows, I develop this argument in three steps. First, I defend the thesis that capitalism harbors a structural basis for racial oppression given that it relies on expropriation as a necessary condition for exploitation. Then, in a second step, I historicize that structure by sketching the shifting configurations of those two exes in the principal phases of capitalism’s history. In my third step, finally, I consider the prospects for overcoming racial oppression in a new form of capitalist society that still rests on exploitation and expropriation but does not assign them to two sharply demarcated populations.

1.1. THREE PERSPECTIVES ON CAPITALISM: EXCHANGE, EXPLOITATION, EXPROPRIATION

Is capitalism necessarily racist? Everything depends on what exactly is meant by capitalism—and on the perspective from which we conceive it. Three such perspectives are worth exploring. A first approach, taught in economics courses, assumed in business, and enshrined in common sense, views capitalism through the lens of market exchange. A second, familiar to socialists, trade unionists, and other protagonists of labor struggles, locates the crux of capitalism at a deeper level, in the exploitation of wage labor in commodity production. A third perspective, developed by critics of imperialism, puts the spotlight instead on capital’s expropriation of conquered peoples. Here, I suggest that by combining the second and third perspectives we gain access to what is missed by each of the three approaches considered alone: a structural basis in capitalist society for racial oppression.

Consider, first, the perspective of exchange. From this perspective, capitalism appears as an economic system simpliciter. Organized to maximize growth and efficiency, it is centered on the institution of the market, where self-interested, arms-length transactors exchange equivalents. Seen this way, capitalism can only be indifferent to color. Absent interference and left to follow its own economizing logic, the system would dissolve any pre-existing racial hierarchies and avoid generating any new ones. From the standpoint of exchange, the link between racism and capitalism is wholly contingent.

Much could be said about this view, but what is important for my present purposes is this: it delinks capitalism from racism by definitional fiat. By defining capitalism narrowly, as an inherently colorblind, utility-maximizing logic, the exchange-centered view relegates any racializing impulses to forces external to the market, which distort the latter’s operation. The culprit is, therefore, not (what it understands as) capitalism, but the larger society that surrounds it. Racism comes from history, politics, and culture, all of which are viewed as external to capitalism and as only contingently connected to it. The effect is to formalize capitalism, reducing it to a means/end economizing logic and stripping away its historical and political contents. In this way, the market-centered view obscures a crucial point that will be central to my argument here: for structural reasons, capitalist economies require “non-economic” preconditions and inputs, including some that generate racial oppression. Failing to reckon with that dependence, this view obfuscates the system’s distinctive mechanisms of accumulation and domination.

Some of those mechanisms are disclosed, by contrast, by our second perspective. Broader, less formal, and far less rosy, this view was originated by Karl Marx, who reconceived capitalism as a system of exploitation. Famously, he penetrated beneath the standard perspective of market exchange to the more fundamental level of commodity production. There he claimed to discover the secret of accumulation in capital’s exploitation of wage laborers. For Marx, importantly, capitalism’s workers are neither serfs nor slaves, but unencumbered individuals, free to enter the labor market and sell their “labor power.” In reality, of course, they have little actual choice in the matter; deprived of any direct access to the means of production, they can only secure the means of subsistence by contracting to work for a capitalist in exchange for wages. Nor does the transaction redound principally to their benefit. What from the first perspective is an exchange of equivalents is, in Marx’s, view a sleight of hand. Recompensed only for the average socially necessary cost of their own reproduction, capitalism’s workers have no claim on the surplus value their labor generates, which accrues instead to the capitalist. And that is precisely the point. The crux of the system, for Marx, is exploitation, viewed as a relation between two classes: on the one hand, the capitalists who own the society’s means of production and appropriate its surplus; on the other, the free but propertyless producers who must sell their labor power piecemeal in order to live. Capitalism, on Marx’s view, is no mere economy, but a social system of class domination, centered on the exploitation of free labor by capital in commodity production.

Marx’s perspective has many virtues, at least one of which is incontestable. By viewing capitalism through the lens of exploitation, it makes visible what the exchange perspective obscured: the structural basis in capitalist society for working-class domination. Yet this focus fails to disclose any comparable structural basis for racial oppression. On this point, at least, the exploitation perspective sits uncomfortably close to that of exchange. While demonstrating that capital is accumulated off the back of free waged labor, it sheds little if any light on how race figures in the system and why it plays such an outsized role in capitalism’s history. Failing to address that issue, it can only convey the impression that the system’s entanglement with racial oppression is contingent.

That conclusion is too hasty, however. The trouble is that in focusing so tightly on the process by which capital exploits wage labor, Marx failed to give systematic consideration to some equally fundamental processes that are bound up with that one. I have in mind two such processes that could, when probed, reveal deep-seated links to racial oppression. The first is the crucial role played in capital accumulation by unfree, dependent, and unwaged labor—by which I mean labor that is expropriated, as opposed to exploited, subject to domination unmediated by a wage contract. The second concerns the role of political orders in conferring the status of free individuals and citizens on “workers,” while constituting others as lesser beings—for example, as chattel slaves, indentured servants, colonized subjects, “native” members of “domestic dependent nations,” debt peons, and felons.3 continue

Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Racism | Slavery | US History
5
May

In his final years, Poulantzas seemed to be straining against the seams of his thinking— and perhaps even against the Marxist tradition itself.

Poulantzas tried to envision how the left could simultaneously champion rank-and-file democracy at a distance from the state and push for radical transformation from within it.

As Marxism’s old messianic character faded in the late twentieth century, too many forgot that wandering in the wilderness is often the precondition of a prophet’s appearance. With the collapse of “really existing” socialism came what seemed like a permanent triumph of capitalism and the slow, grinding destruction of whatever resisted the market’s advance. But the far-too-unexpected renaissance of socialism in the twenty-first century reveals not only how much ground has been lost, but how much baggage has been shed. The presence of an authoritarian communist superpower was not only an ideological ball and chain for left politics outside the Eastern bloc, but also a real geopolitical straitjacket: at the electoral peak of European communist parties in the 1970s, the Soviet Union never kept secret that it preferred reactionaries in power in the West.

Now that this old shadow has passed and socialists are making a slow exit from the desert, they have a chance to redefine themselves for a new century. That involves taking bigger and more difficult steps, and it is not surprising that the effort has sent contemporary democratic socialists back to the 1970s, the last historical moment when socialist thinkers enjoyed even the illusion of political possibilities. In the brief window before the neoliberal era, socialists were just beginning to ask what a left politics that could win elections in a democratic system would look like. Who would its base be—what sort of alliance between classes and identity groups would it appeal to? How would it act toward a “bourgeois” political system that communists had always seen as an unredeemable instrument of class domination? Is it even possible to be a democratic revolutionary?

These questions came together in the work of Nicos Poulantzas, a Greek thinker who spent much of the 1960s and 1970s in Paris. There, Poulantzas argued that a sophisticated understanding of the capitalist state was central to a strategy for democratic socialism. Pushing as far as possible toward a Marxist theory of politics while still holding onto the central role of class struggle, Poulantzas tried to combine the insights of revolutionary strategy with a defense of parliamentary democracy against what he called “authoritarian statism.”

Recent signs of a Poulantzas renaissance, including the republication of several of his books in French and English, have a lot to do with the fact that his dual strategy for democratic socialism resonates with the task of today’s socialists: to understand how to use the capitalist state as a strategic weapon without succumbing to a long history of failed electoral projects and realignment strategies. The tensions in Poulantzas’s thinking resemble the current tensions within the left: is winning back power a matter of casting the oligarchs out of government and restoring a lost fairness, or is a more radical transformation of the state required?

It is an open question whether Poulantzas himself was able to articulate a satisfying vision for democratic socialism. His work, nevertheless, goes straight to the heart of the problems that twenty-first-century socialism must face.

Toward a Structural Theory of the Capitalist State

Nicos Poulantzas was born in Athens in 1936. In his twenties, he began a law degree at the University of Athens as a back door into philosophy. Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings became a conduit for Marxism among young Greek intellectuals since, as Poulantzas later explained, it was difficult to get the original canonical Marxist texts in a country that had suffered Nazi occupation, then civil war, then a repressive anticommunist government. After a brief stint in legal studies in Germany, Poulantzas made his way to Paris, where he was soon teaching law at the Sorbonne and mingling with the editors of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s journal Les Temps modernes. Poulantzas was drafted among a crop of new, younger writers for the journal, which published his earliest writings on law and the state and his engagements with British and Italian Marxists, including the Italian Communist Party’s in-house theorist, Antonio Gramsci. His 1964 doctoral thesis on the philosophy of law was broadly influenced by Sartre’s existentialism and the thought of Georg Lukács and Lucien Goldmann, who harmonized with the Hegelian Marxism dominant in France.

Louis Althusser, then a more marginal French philosopher but soon to be famous across Europe, dissented from this Hegelian turn. Althusser’s 1965 seminar, “Reading Capital,” was a curious event in the history of Marxism that marked the intellectual itineraries of well-known theorists like Étienne Balibar and Jacques Rancière. The framework it launched into Marxist theory, usually described as “structuralism,” was inextricable from Althusser’s dual opposition to Stalinist economism and the humanism of thinkers like Sartre. In the classic Marxist schema, the economic “base” gives rise to political and ideological “superstructures”—in other words, most everything about capitalist society, from its political institutions to its culture, are ultimately fated by the laws of economics. The Althusserians argued that, on the contrary, all of the domains of capitalist society operate quasi-independently of one another in order to more flexibly reproduce capitalist domination. Of course, they are tightly interrelated, and the economic decides “in the last instance” whether economics or something else will take priority, but, according to Althusser himself, “the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes.” continue

Category : Capitalism | Fascism | Hegemony | Marxism | Strategy and Tactics
15
Apr

By Henry Giroux
CounterPunch, March 22, 2019

We do not live in a post-truth world and never have. On the contrary, we live in a pre-truth world where the truth has yet to arrive. As one of the primary currencies of politics, lies have a long history in the United States.  For instance, state sponsored lies played a crucial ideological role in pushing the US into wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, legitimated the use of Torture under the Bush administration, and covered up the crimes of the financial elite in producing the economic crisis of 2008.

Under Trump, lying has become a rhetorical gimmick in which everything that matters politically is denied, reason loses its power for informed judgments, and language serves to infantilize and depoliticize as it offers no room for individuals to translate private troubles into broader systemic considerations. While questions about truth have always been problematic among politicians and the wider public, both groups gave lip service to the assumption that the search for truth and respect for its diverse methods of validation were based on the shared belief that “truth is distinct from falsehood; and that, in the end, we can tell the difference and that difference matters.”[1] It certainly appeared to matter in democracy, particularly when it became imperative to be able to distinguish, however difficult, between facts and fiction, reliable knowledge and falsehoods, and good and evil. That however no longer appears to be the case.

In the current historical moment, the boundaries between truth and fiction are disappearing, giving way to a culture of lies, immediacy, consumerism, falsehoods, and the demonization of those considered disposable. Under such circumstances, civic culture withers and politics collapses into the personal. At the same time, pleasure is harnessed to a culture of corruption and cruelty, language operates in the service of violence, and the boundaries of the unthinkable become normalized. How else to explain President Trump’s strategy of separating babies and young children from their undocumented immigrant parents in order to incarcerate them in Texas in what some reporters have called cages.  Trump’s misleading rhetoric is used not only to cover up the brutality of oppressive political and economic policies, but also to resurrect the mobilizing passions of fascism that have emerged in an unceasing stream of hate, bigotry and militarism.

Trump’s indifference to the boundaries between truth and falsehoods reflects not only a deep-seated anti-intellectualism, it also points to his willingness to judge any appeal to the truth as inseparable from an unquestioned individual and group loyalty on the part of his followers. As self-defined sole bearer of truth, Trump disdains reasoned judgment and evidence, relying instead on instinct and emotional frankness to determine what is right or wrong and who can be considered a friend or enemy.  In this instance, Truth becomes a performance strategy designed to test his followers’ loyalty and willingness to believe whatever he says. Truth now becomes synonymous with a regressive tribalism that rejects shared norms and standards while promoting a culture of corruption and what former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg called an “epidemic of dishonesty.” Truth is now part of a web of relations and world view that draws its elements from a fascist politics that can be found in all the commanding political institutions and media landscapes. Truth is no longer merely fragile or problematic, it has become toxic and dysfunctional in an media ecosystem largely controlled by right wing conservatives and a financial elite who invest heavily in right-wing media apparatuses such Fox News and white nationalist social media platforms such as Breitbart News.

At a time of growing fascist movements across the globe, power, culture, politics, finance, and everyday life now merge in ways that are unprecedented and pose a threat to democracies all over the world. As cultural apparatuses are concentrated in the hands of the ultra-rich, the educative force of culture has taken on a powerful anti-democratic turn. This can be seen in the rise of new digitally driven systems of production and consumption that produce, shape, and sustain ideas, desires, and social relations that contribute to the disintegration of democratic social bonds and promote a form of social Darwinism in which misfortune is seen as a weakness and the Hobbesian rule of a ‘war of all against all’ replaces any vestige of shared responsibility and compassion for others.The era of post-truth is in reality a period of crisis which as Gramsci observed “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born [and that] in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”[2] Those morbid symptoms are evident in Trump’s mainstreaming of a fascist politics in which there is an attempt to normalize the language of racial purification, the politics of disposability and social sorting while hyping a culture of fear and a militarism reminiscent of past and current dictatorships. continue

Category : Democracy | Fascism
26
Mar
Inside China’s Internment Camps, Uighur Muslims Stitch US Sportswear

 

By Roland Boer
Stalin’s Moustache Blog

October 2018, Beijing – I begin with a caveat: for more than six months I have not read corporate (sometimes called ‘western’) news sources. Instead, I read more reliable and in-depth sources, for reasons I have explained elsewhere. I find corporate news sources given to selective sensationalism, in which they select a few items, give them a twist and distort them, so as to produce a sensationalist account that does violence with the facts, fits into a certain narrative and attracts a certain readership (some ‘western’ Marxists among them). It is like a toxic drip into the brain, with which I can well do without.

By word of mouth and from reliable sources, I have heard that it has become fashionable in some quarters to switch from the ‘vegetarian between meals’ (Dalai Lama) and focus on the Uyghurs, mostly concentrated in Xinjiang province in the far western parts of China. Supposedly, the whole of the Uyghur minority is kept under what some call a ‘police state’. The reason why is never articulated, except perhaps the inherent evil of the Communist Party of China.

Let us have a look at the facts.

To begin with, there is the simple historical question. Xinjiang was incorporated into the Chinese state in the 1750s and eventually became a full province in 1884, marking the western border of the Chinese state under the Qing. Obviously, Xinjiang has been part of China for centuries.

Further, for some international critics, the claim that radical Muslim Uyghurs are involved in terrorism is a smokescreen for the suppression of the Uyghur. But let us see how selective the terminology of ‘separatism’ and ‘terrorism’ is. From one perspective, the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 is ‘terrorist’, while the efforts by some in Tibet and Xinjiang are peaceful and ‘separatist’, seeking independence. In short, any attack on western sites are ‘terrorist’, but any attack in other parts of the world – whether China or Russia or Syria – are ‘separatist’. From another perspective, the attempted suicide attack on a China Southern flight in 2008, threats to attack the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a car ramming in Tiananmen Square in 2013 and the deadly knife attack in Kunming railway station – all perpetrated by Uyghur radical Muslims – are ‘terrorist’ acts. To add a twist to all this, the Chinese government typically uses a three-character phrase, “separatism, extremism and terrorism,” which indicates that they see a continuum and not an either-or relation.

Third, it is clearly not the case that the whole of the Uyghur minority nationality is engaged in separatism, extremism and terrorism. I have encountered a good number of Uyghurs who assert strongly and passionately that they are Chinese and decry the small number of their nationality who engage in terrorist activities. The fact is that a very small number of Uyghurs, influenced by radical Islam, have engaged in terrorist activities. By far the vast majority of Uyghurs see themselves as part of China and seek to contribute positively to it.

Fourth, a crucial feature of Chinese sovereignty is the resistance to all forms of foreign interference. This approach to sovereignty arises from the anti-colonial struggles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which Chinese independence from semi-colonialism developed a strong sense of the need to prevent foreign intervention. (It also influences China’s dealings with other countries, in which it avoids any effort to change political, economic and social patterns.) Thus, there has been a profoundly negative effect from the CIA’s intervention in Tibet in the 1950s, funding the Dalai Lama and inciting the ill-fated uprising in 1959, in which tens of thousands of Tibetans died and the Dalai Lama and his entourage fled to India. CIA operations wound up in the 1970s, only to be replaced with western propaganda, funding and organisation – especially by the United States’ National Endowment for Democracy that carries on the work of the CIA – of protests in Tibet, all of which are based on a particular interpretation of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’. These activities have also focused on Xinjiang, with the added dimension of a distinct increase in influence from Islamic radicalism from further west in the 1990s. The discovery of Uyghurs training with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, or links with militant groups in restive parts of Pakistan, as well as various radical fronts focused on Xinjiang and passing weapons, explosives and militants along drug routes, made it clear to the Chinese government that another form of foreign interference had arisen. All of these efforts are seen as profound challenges to Chinese sovereignty.

Fifth, it is asserted by some that Uyghurs are subjected to facial recognition cameras, social credit systems and political arrest. Let us set the record straight. Facial recognition cameras, first developed reliably in China (as with so much technological innovation these days) are used for the sake of social security – a fundamental feature of Chinese culture. I am told that some corporate media reports make much of the fining of jaywalkers. This is laughable. If the Chinese devoted their valuable time and energy to this pursuit, billions of fines would be given every day, for the Chinese love to jaywalk. Instead, facial recognition cameras are used for more serious purposes: criminal networks; fugitives from justice; or terrorist cells.

Social credit: the best example is a recent announcement on a high-speed train. The announcement stated that if you had not bought a ticket and did not contact the conductor as soon as possible, it would reflect negatively on your social credit record. In other words, the system is geared to ensuring conformity with the laws of the land.

Arrest for political purposes: this is usually framed in terms of ‘prisoners of conscience’, who are supposedly subjected to ‘brain-washing’ techniques. Again, let us deal with the facts. The fiction that one million Uyghurs are in ‘internment camps’ – spread by dodgy news services – is precisely that, a fiction. China has abolished re-education labour camps, although it could be argued that in certain circumstances (international interference) that they can be a good thing. Instead, a central feature of high-school and university is ‘ideological and political education’. This entails being taught the basics of Marxism, socialism with Chinese characteristics, and now Xi Jinping Thought. All worthwhile subjects that need to be taught well. And all Chinese people – including the 55 minority nationalities and even theological colleges – must study such subjects

Sixth, some sources – such as the ‘Human Rights Watch’ (affiliated with the US state department) trot out a standard ‘western’ approach to ‘human rights’. This tradition typically focuses on civil and political rights, such as freedom of political expression, assembly, religion and so on. In an imperialist move, this specific tradition of human rights is assumed to be universal, applying to all parts of the globe. Because some Uyghurs are denied Muslim practices, expressions of anti-Chinese sentiment, and subjected to ideological and political education, this is deemed to be a violation of ‘human rights’.

The problem here is that such an approach systematically neglects alternative approaches, such as the Chinese Marxist one. This tradition identifies the right to economic wellbeing as the primary human right. So we find that in relation to Xinjiang, Chinese sources have identified the deep root of the problem as poverty. Thus, when unrest in Xinjiang rose to a new level in the 1990s (under foreign influence), much analysis and policy revision followed. The result was two-pronged: an immediate focus on comprehensive security (which is a core feature of Chinese society at many levels); and a long-term effort to improve economic conditions in a region that still lagged behind the much of eastern China. Not all such incentives have been as successful as might have been hoped, with the various nationalities in Xinjiang – not merely Uyghur, but also including Han, Hui, Kazak, Mongol and Kirgiz – benefitting at different levels. The most significant project to date is the massive Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2014. Although its geographical scope is much vaster than the western parts of China, the economic effect is already being felt in these parts. In light of all this It is reasonable to say that there has been a marked improvement in the economic wellbeing of all those who live in these and other regions, such as Yunnan and Guizhou. The basic position is that if people see that their living conditions have improved, they will more willingly see themselves as part of the greater whole

The outcome: in the short-term the Chinese government has instituted various measures to ensure that the terrorist attacks of 2008, 2013 and 2014 do not happen again. The fact that they have not happened in the last few years is testimony to the effectiveness of these measures. In the long-term, previous policies to develop Xinjiang economically have been assessed and found wanting, so a whole new approach has been developed in terms of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Finally, we should be aware of the deeper level of the ‘preferential policy [youhui zhengce]’ in relation to all of the 55 minority nationalities in China. Since its revision in the 1990s (after careful studies of the breakup of the Soviet Union), the policy has developed two poles of a dialectic. On the one hand, autonomy of the minority nationalities was to be enhanced, in terms of economic progress, language, education, culture and political leadership. On the other hand, China’s borders were strengthened as absolutely inviolable. Secession is simply not an option. A contradiction? Of course, but the sense is that for the vast majority of the nationalities, it is precisely the benefits of increased autonomy that has led them to appreciate being part of China.

Category : China | Marxism | Socialism