Jul 20, 2010

A crisis of imagination

Those who harp on about China refuse to pay the same kind of attention to the experiments currently being undertaken elsewhere in the world

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

China is increasingly becoming the poster-child of a new 21st century model of economic development. Without doubt, the 'miracle' that began with Deng Xiaoping's reforms in 1978 following the end of the Maoist era is staggering for just how long it has been sustained. China dominates world trade, and is widely viewed as the engine of world growth. Where economists once talked about the 'Washington Consensus' they are now waxing lyrical about the 'Beijing Consensus' (although the World Bank and its sister institutions appear to be remaining loyal to the former).

More generally commentators have, for some time now, been predicting that the balance of economic and political power in the world will shift to the Asia-Pacific region in upcoming decades. The political and economic crises currently afflicting North America and Europe have reinforced the notion that the forthcoming century will be Asia's; China, with India close behind, is touted to become a bonafide challenger to the United States as global superpower.

I do not share the optimism of the Asian nationalists who downplay the fact that the fate of China, India and the rest of the continent's 'emerging economies' is inextricably tied to the fortunes of everybody else, including North America and Europe. Even if stylized economic growth statistics were an adequate measure of overall social progress, the interdependence of all of the world's economies is such that that economic recession in the Western countries has and will dampen growth prospects in Asia. China and India may have survived the global financial crisis relatively unscathed (alongside special cases such as Australia), but this does not mean that there is nothing to worry about.

How different is the Chinese model from the American or European one? After the 2nd World War, three distinctive capitalist trajectories evolved in the United States, Western Europe and Japan. The differences between these three capitalisms - and the various permutations in other countries that followed the lead of the three major protagonists - were not insignificant. Yet at the same time there was no fundamental divergence in terms of the principles that underlay the development model in all three countries. Today these capitalisms are crisis-stricken, while the liberal democratic regime that exists in all three heartlands is facing a major legitimacy crisis.

China is far from a liberal democracy, and is unlikely to become one anytime soon. Chinese capitalism is also at least as different from the American, European, and Japanese versions as the latter three were from one another. Academics emphasise that China's 'success' derives from its grooming of powerful technocratic elites, a strong work ethic which derives from cultural homogeneity (driven in large part by the unique language structure in spite of differences in dialect across the length and breadth of the country), and the balancing of private and public enterprise.

But there are inescapable contradictions that are emerging, and fast. While absolute poverty may have been reduced in China, relative poverty is increasing rapidly. Very few 'experts' singing the praises of post-Mao China are willing to acknowledge that without the infrastructural and social base that was created between 1949 and 1979 China would not be where it is today. But while Deng and future leaders embraced capitalism and are accredited with being architects of the 'miracle', they also initiated a process through which China went from being one of the most equal to one of the most unequal societies in the world.

Even the Chinese government admits to a lot of rural unrest - it is the rural poor who are the biggest victims of Chinese capitalism. Meanwhile responses to the brute exploitation of neo-liberal capitalism are becoming more and more acute in other Asian 'success stories' such as India (Naxalites) and Thailand (Red Shirts).

Then there is the very real prospect that even if China continues to grow fast, it will sooner rather than later face decisive constraints due to an increasingly acute shortage of energy resources globally. The Copenhagen conference only scratched the surface of the sustainability problems that burden global capitalism. It is another matter that the western industrial countries continue to demonstrate outrageous hypocrisy in calling attention to the carbon emission levels of China and India while refusing to acknowledge historical responsibility for the precarious state of the environment. But the point is that as far as ecological imperatives are concerned China and India appear to be acting more and more like irresponsible 'Great Powers' themselves.

In charting the history of the economic ascendancy of western Europe and then later the United States, serious scholars always come across the small matter of colonialism/imperialism. China's dumping of cheap consumer durables on third world markets is a practice that cannot help but revive memories of bygone eras of 'free trade imperialism' in which the rhetoric of mutual benefit was employed by Britain and the United States to give license to blatant economic exploitation. Those who believe that China will be at the forefront of the challenge to American imperialism would do well to ask whether or not they may be unwittingly calling for the establishment of Chinese imperialism in place of the incumbent.

It is telling that those who harp on about China refuse to pay the same kind of attention to the experiments currently being undertaken in Latin America by popularly elected regimes. Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba and Brazil (among others) have operationalised a regional economic integration strategy which features an alternative continent-wide financial system. In at least some of these countries attempts are afoot to at least counter-balance the profit-motive which powers capitalism with non-material incentives that emphasise human needs and promote social solidarities.

All in all I believe that there is ultimately little to distinguish Chinese capitalism from the other prototypes. Capital is, by definition, prone to short-termism and unable to create a balance between profit and the imperatives of human and nature's survival. Combined development on a global scale is always uneven, and thus social and political conflict can never be transcended. Whether or not humanity's imagination has become too stunted to think beyond capitalism is another debate altogether. If so we should be prepared for conflict to escalate and for nature to turn on us.

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