Chinese Economic Fire Drill

aka: From Communism to Capitalism in Two Easy Decades.

Before I went to see Munich, watched PBS Documentary China in the Red on Frontline. [Incidentally, Frontline, probably best described politically-socially as center-left is, I think, the best such show on television. NOW, particularly during the Bush years and since the departure of Bill Moyers has become increasingly just left-wing, as I see it. Frontline is more balanced, informative, and entertaining].

The Documentary covers different aspects of the late 1990s Chinese economic scene, refracted through the lens of a multiple characters–a rising Chinese middle class entrepreneur; a long-time office assistant at a state-run company in danger of losing her job; other workers at the state-run plant losing their jobs; farmers in villages shifting to a market economy; the mayor of a northern industrial city racked by the closures of inefficient, debt-ridden, state-run corporations, and so on.

Very interesting piece. Focuses especially on the transition from the state-controlled communist regime with its (in theory) lifetime job appointments and basic healthcare coverage to the individualist, no-holds-barred run of capitalism.

I think they could have done a better job of exploring exactly how well the State-system came through on lifetime job appointments and the other claimed benefits of communism. One factory manager says that the state would send him workers whether he needed them or not. There is a scene where during the early 90s as the factory has lost contracts, workers are just standing around. One woman (honestly) says, back then, if I wanted to do my work I did. If I didn’t, I didn’t.

As readers of this blog know, I am not anti-capitalist nor anti-liberal democracy. But on the other hand, I am not some naive capitalist dreamer. Nor a unilaterally, mythic pro-American.

As I have said before, they are the worst forms of economics and government—until you look at all the alternatives. They are the best of the worst in a way. Very darkly, the lesser of all other evils.

I live in a good world but so many standards. I can go out to the movies, like I did yesterday. Travel in a car (rickety albeit) on paved roads and normalized traffic patterns. I can watch a movie that criticizes (in part) the American government in America, then come home at write about it on this blog and not fear any reprisals to me or my loved ones.

These are all good things but they have come at a price. They come at the price, as I see everyday where I work, of the brutality of trying to make it in the capitalist world. I see this mega-corportation I work for (who will remain nameless) shift responsibility and become nearly cannibalistic at times in swallowing its own. You see the Unions, having lost so much influence and credibility try with all their might to simply hold onto what they have already gained, which in turn become abused by workers who play the system–never doing one bit of work more than is “required”. One might say, why should they? They are being exploited (let’s assume) and abused by the company who doesn’t care about them, so why put in the effort?

I work in a section where there is basically no supervision. The guys I work with have all been around for years and are hard-workers. Ok–I’ll give a hint, I load brown cardboard packages into cars that deliver these packages to homes and businesses. We work hard. There is a certain pride I take in that–they are good guys, very little bitching and moaning, no backstabbing, no Union vs. non-Union animosity. All these type of things happen in the main section where the loaders are supervised constantly. Its a chicken and egg kidna thing–do we not need supervisors because we do a good job or because there is no supervision does that force us to self-organize and achieve our goal? Conversely, do the supervised, act like children because they are supervised or do they act like children hence they require supervision.

Who knows. Anyway the point is, “exploited” is quite a sliding scale. There is of course exploitation and shady business practices I see everyday, just as there are all across the US, but we are making more money than the Chinese field workers brought into the cities who work 14 hour days and make (by our standards) literally nickels and dimes.

What I’m ancedotally describing is the vast, pervasive dark side of the capitalist-liberal democracy-modern project: namely meaninglessness. By separating out values from the public sphere, except criminal actions, the world becomes devoid of meaning.

But the alternatives, as I said, are worse. Look at the imperial mythic religious regimes. Value-laden in the public sphere, just one very specific set of values and anyone who does not adhere to those values is liable to be tortured, ostracized, or killed.

In Communism and Facism you have the state made transcendent. All other forms of transcendent are squashed. You can not have liberal thought in such a context because liberalism brings with it the inherent proviso that people are free to choose as they desire and many, either by dint of circumstances or consciously, will choose to segregate themselves from any projects any sense of common good. Or will participate but only in very specific, local, often single-issue pet projects. These projects, however good and well-intentioned, therefore are not really in a way critical of the market process of commodification. Volunteerism becomes simply another materiality, spiritual practice is commodified, bought and sold on the market.

In the documentary, the dying mother of the middle-class aspiring businessman (who himself work 14-16 hour days) talks about how she gave her entire life to the factory and the State, and now that she is dying of cancer, they won’t pay for her medical expenses.

The son of the secretarial woman, on the brink of joblessness, has been raised with liberal, capitalist values not the traditional Communist cum Confuncian traditional Chinese values his mother says are “5,000 years old.”

Once expression and libertarianism are given free reign, many will never develop beyond egocentric or ethnocentric, local drives.

Its a big mess. Obviously the state can not be transcendent. It is an idolatry against the higher self, the inherent dignity of all individuals. And we see what happens when those systems have taken control–mass genocide. Interestingly, as I promise I’m getting around to it, socialist bloc countries (Eastern Europe-China) were ecological apocalypses. By not being able to create efficient product and produce wealth, communist countries maintained earlier, more primitive, more polluting forms of technology. It is only now, in market-economy China that environmentalism (as detailed by Thomas Friedman) is starting to take root.

So environmentally, politically, and socially this modern system is currently without peer. But that does not make absolve it of its innumerable sins and failings. The transition from agrarian to industrial is brutal. It was in our country and continues to be in others going through the process now.

While the capitalist transition is brutal and leaves its own forms of destruction not seen on the farms, every farmer interviewed in the documentary all said that their children must get an education and leave the countryside. None of them wanted their children to have to go through the vicissitudes of their life. That to me is an extremely telling point. For while such farmers can not be considered to be experts on urban life and its dark sides, they certainly are well versed in their own problems.

Jacob Hacker, from New America has a short but excellent piece on the death of the worker pension health-care system in America. America, as opposed to the more state-welfare systems of Scandanavia, Western Europe, and Canada, has been predicated more out of industry. Fortunately, due to the union we still receive full medical and dental, even for part-time employees where I work. The one thing the union deserve much credit for.

America is a unique coutnry and due to its military spending and cultural values has not gone for higher taxes and state healthcare as have the Europeans. Still, as Hacker notes, for all the talk of the inefficiencies and burdens of the Euro Model (and God knows, there are) we are, in the US actually paying more per capita for healthcare than all other post-industrial nations and are getting significantly worse care than all others. It would be one thing to put in the least amount of money and get the least amount out; its quite another to put the most in, least out.

The Euro-model of course is plagued by the fact of declining birthrates and gerentologizing of society. The US birthrate, due to immigrantion, manages to just above retention and will in fact continue to increase.

The question of ageing and the State’s responsibilities in society are a huge mess. Clearly we can not go back to a pre-welfare libertarian model out of the 19th century or China now–with millions now unemployed and simply scrapping by (or not) however they do.

But the Welfare State as it was conceived in its heights is now dying a horrible death. The US budget will continue to be eaten up by Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security. It is not a solvent system. And Bush’s plan, however ignorant it was (and it was), was only a very cosmetic change. The Dems are so beholden to special interests and left-wing conservative movements (left-wingers who exist mostly to “conserve” gains already occurred, like the NYC Transit workers strike) that any talk of reforming the system is labeled as right-wing, cruel, and lacking in compassion. The right-wing, is of course, actually filled with economic libertarians who believe that the market is Divine, being without sin.

Pope John Paul II after the Fall of the Soviet Bloc, said basically one down, one to go. By which he meant, communism was now dead, it is now capitalism that must be demolished. He said this, in response, to an American priest Richard John Neuhaus (editor of the conservative First Things), who interpreted one his encyclicals to say that the Pope was on board with American neo-liberal market economy. Quite a response actually.

I dream of a possible future beyond capitalism not less than it. But what that is, is way beyond me. Maybe its just a dream. It would have to find a balance between the more atomistic Angl0-American model and the holistic (and hence possibly fascist-communist totalitarian) Hegelian Continental model.

There are very good ideas out there (see The Radical Middle and Matt Miller) for some very common-sense, creative solutions to America problems, mostly domestic. But let’s say that world comes about, it will still be deeply painful and filled with much anomie and meaninglessness.

Until then we live in this world doing the best that can be done under the circumstances.

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Published in: on January 21, 2006 at 7:32 am  Leave a Comment  

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