The following is an authorized English translation of a Chinese language interview originally published in the Beijing Cultural Review, no.4 August 2020. The original version was published with the title “Puzzles of the Twenty-First Century.”
Beijing Cultural Review: The current pandemic is transforming from a public health crisis into an all-around economic and social one, and it surely will have a major impact on the functioning of the global capitalist system. What kind of changes do you think this shock will bring about in the world? The contemporary international community is facing a neoliberal order in chaos and retreat, as well as confronting the rise of anti-globalization. There is, on the other hand, a cooperative, inclusive, and diverse international order and “new type of globalization” based on the ideal of “a community of shared destiny” promoted by emergent powers of which China is representative.[i] What do you make of the post-pandemic prospects for this “new type of globalization?”
Tuo Li: There have been many devastating pandemics in the past. Each time people managed to pull through them and take stock of things, they found their world completely transformed. After this pandemic, are we going to be confronted with a similarly strange new world? Quite possibly. Those from the right like Henry Kissinger to leftists like Slavoj Žižek have been making prognostic statements and there have been all sorts of assessments of the situation, mostly pessimistic and a few optimistic. I have been struck by how nearly all of them take familiar concepts, knowledge, or theories as their point of departure (intellectual resources derived from political science, economics, history, new technologies, international politics, etcetera), many seemingly unaware that these forms of analysis and reflection are bounded by their language and discourse. Their intellectual horizon is more or less predetermined and fixed, regardless of what concrete conclusions they draw by way of forecasts and predictions.
In my conversation with the scholar Li Ling in Beijing last October (prior to the pandemic), we discussed the future of the world, and I suggested the following: the current developments exhibited clear signs of East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia coming into closer economic and cultural relations and interchanges. There was a real possibility that Asia could be integrated into some kind of shared community or a single entity. Suppose we push the implications of this possibility further: what would happen if that momentum were to continue? I would say that it would most likely have a profound impact on Africa, bringing about further decolonization and modernization so that Africa would join the march toward the xiaokang (achieving a decent and dignified living for all people). Is that possible? Quite probable, even though it could be a journey with many detours and occasional interruptions. To push the thought further, would this lead to the emergence of some new community or interconnections founded in the shared interests between the two major blocks of Asia and Africa? If we take the shared historical experience of these two world regions seriously (our anti-imperial and anti-colonial struggles for independence, our painful experience with economic underdevelopment) as well as the exigencies of economic development, the scenario I have imagined is not only possible, but inevitable.
We might push this thought a bit further. If what I have described were to take shape, what then would become of Europe? Keep in mind, the combined GDP of China, Japan, and South Korea has already surpassed that of the European Union. Once the two sizeable continents of Asia and Africa become integrated, their economy will certainly attain an even greater size and scale. At such a time, how would the “continent” of Europe respond? What options would it even have? And how many options? Is it possible that the tide of history will have sucked Europe into its great whirlpool, ultimately making Asia, Africa, and Europe into a single integrated entity? If this were to happen, would our world be completely transformed? How much would our understanding of the world be transformed as well? To what extent would our existing knowledge be shattered, especially the fundamental ground of our knowledge about the world today? Looking back, for instance, how would people reassess Eurocentrism? What about the Atlantic and Atlanticism? Would there be an East and West even to speak of?
Undoubtedly, I am picturing an imaginary scenario, a kind of possibility. Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in recent months, however, the imaginary scenario appears to find powerful support in the worldwide developments that are unfolding before our eyes. Within a short time, not only have the legitimacy, functioning, and capability of nation-states been tested and questioned at multiple levels, but the constant interactions between China, Japan, and South Korea seem to imply the following in an objective sense: the economic force of geoeconomics, more than geopolitics, is fundamentally transforming Asia. Driven by the motor engine of the three East Asian countries, the integration of the two massive continents Asia and Africa will charge forward and cannot but continue. What will happen next, it seems to me, is that Europe cannot but be drawn into this process of integration, sooner or later.
To imagine the world historic transformations and to let the imaginary scenario guide our thought and reground our understanding of the world will require a few conditions. For example, can we step away, if even temporarily, from the perspective of the nation-state? Can we stop talking about the rise of China and consider the possibility of the rise of Asia? Can we temporarily free ourselves from the predetermined, binary opposition of East/West, a dubious conceptual framework? The realities in the twenty-first century are gradually eroding the stereotypical implications of “advanced” and “backwards” within the East/West binary. Can we propose new frameworks for thinking, alternative possibilities with greater depth of foresight? This isn’t easy. We must dare to interrogate familiar forms of knowledge, especially the theories and concepts that have structured our intellectual frameworks–dare to innovate our fields of knowledge.
To take your big question seriously “what kind of changes do you think this shock will bring about in the world”, I think we need to start from some new premises, a new conceptual map suitable for our reality, and new directions for thinking, to be able to ask new questions or invest old questions with new significance. For example, is the formulation of “a new type of globalization” appropriate? Does it suit our reality? Are we talking about a self-contained system when we speak of the “operating system of global capitalism,” or does the system contain ruptures and fissures, allowing for the space in which new systems could emerge or flourish (or endowing the word “system” with a new meaning)? What are the historical conditions for achieving the “community of shared destiny”? Does the new impetus for this undertaking exist outside the scope of known capitalist development? Where can we locate the impetus? And which of our current theories and knowledge will serve as our intellectual resources for new questions and reflections? Which ones can only limit our perspective, restraining the movement of thought, even to the point of preventing us from thinking about or coming to know the fast-changing reality and the novel circumstances? These questions require painstaking work and discussion.
BCR: There’s imaginative power in your line of thinking, but behind your “conceptual map suitable for our reality,” there seems to be a greater concern over the clash between old forms of knowledge and a new reality. So, if we want to come to fully know the world’s transformations following the pandemic, then the first thing to attend to is that we cannot maintain or proceed according to concepts and outlooks which are already unsuited to or in opposition with reality. Instead, we should question existing knowledge and theories. Only this way can we keep pace with the rapid changes of today’s world. Otherwise, we’re unable to raise new questions and cannot see the new reality. Is that right?
TL: Theory comes in shades of grey, and how could knowledge be any different? It often happens that our knowledge and theory have difficulty keeping pace with reality. Even before the pandemic, the world was already in the midst of a great rupture. The twenty-first century began not so long ago, but there have been signs pointing toward what appears like a huge earthquake separating the new century from the old. The changes in the lay of the land after the quake are more profound than the differences between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It’s as if the earth were sundered here and there into fragments, like so many ravines cutting across each other; but the split was not along a single fissure. The pandemic will not only deepen and remold extant crises of the twentieth century, but it will also bring to the fore new crises that erupted at the start of the twenty-first century. Under these circumstances, we won’t have a choice but consider first and foremost whether the concepts/knowledge/theories we have inherited from the last century remain valid or effective in coming to know our present reality.
Take Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Drawing on the method of data analysis, the author proposes to fix the problem of inequality in contemporary society by means by a global wealth tax. His argument appears fresh and inspires all sorts of daydreams at a time when the extreme disparity between rich and poor has caused widespread consternation the world over. Piketty’s work has created quite a stir amongst academics and many believe that his is a good, viable solution–through democracy, not revolution–to mitigate the frightening standoff between the 99% and 1%. Consider for a moment what has become of the US government’s first coronavirus bailout, adopted to alleviate the crisis of the pandemic in 2020—some of the forgivable loans for small business fell right into the hands of big corporations and publicly traded companies. The whole thing makes such a mockery of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century! Think about it: even at such a critical juncture of life or death, has the American capitalist system given an inch for Piketty’s suggestions? And keep in mind that this relief bill was solemnly passed by both the US House and Senate strictly according to democratic procedure.
What is new about a book that many have touted as theoretical innovation? It seems that it is “new” primarily in its use of data analysis to research contemporary economic disparity. In fact, there is nothing new about using mathematical modeling and mathematical analysis in economics. The rise of game theory in the mid-twentieth century, for instance, already set off major transformations in economics. It was from this that the discipline qualified as a “science,” taking the lead in a vogue of scientism. When Piketty takes this approach to studying wealth disparity, he employs the concepts and language of economics in numerous analyses of capitalist accumulation and concentrations of wealth, but his logical conclusion merely manages to indicate the lack of a transparent mechanism for the accumulation process. It follows that resolving wealth inequality would require establishing a transparent mechanism for distribution amidst operations of the market and capital. This is totally unlike Marx’s analysis, which sought to critique political economic categories like the commodity, relations of production, surplus value, the logic of capital’s movement, etcetera. Piketty’s work offers no more than the semblance of a new way of thinking which would use capitalism to free us from our current difficulties.
If we recall the critique of capitalism and its history, the idea of implementing “wealth equalization” through some redistributive scheme in order to achieve human equality–it’s not new at all. All you have to do is revisit Marx’s critique of Proudhon’s petty bourgeois socialism and view of equality; the links between Piketty and Proudhon are quite clear except that Piketty’s thinking better conveys the characteristic weaknesses of the new middle class. Contemporary theory and academia have come up with many “innovations” of this type: they don’t dare offend Capital on the one hand (compare for a moment with Proudhon’s bold stance in his day, which was quite fresh for his time. Although Piketty has made some revisions in his argument, there are no substantial modifications to the book’s overall point) and, on the other, they want to uphold justice. So they end up adopting a respectful, dutiful attitude toward capitalism whose self-inflicted wounds they claim to heal. Though Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an example, its meteoric rise and fall shows that if theoretical reflection is unable or unwilling to begin from reality, from new questions and new circumstances, it’s going to be an artifice of theoretical innovation. Current analyses of the world transformations which the novel coronavirus pandemic will bring about must address theory to reality; otherwise, it will be difficult to avoid making hollow predictions and deductions.
BCR: With the outbreak of this crisis, thinkers across the world have been moved to formulate various intellectual responses. How would you evaluate the discussions which have occurred amongst thinkers and academics amidst the crisis? What are the more pressing issues which you think we must attend to and examine?
TL: The intellectual responses you’re referring to reflect the complexity of the crises which this pandemic has brought down upon the entire world. Some crises were already there such as the sudden collapse of a global order directed and organized by an outmoded form of finance capital which has been around since the end of World War II (this destruction was a necessary condition for subsequent globalization); other crises, however, are altogether new. It’s as if a great earthquake created a new fault line, like the total bankruptcy of neoliberalism and the crisis of democratic governance.
Coming to know such complexity hasn’t been easy to begin with, but we’re facing a new difficulty: within and behind a bewildering array of kaleidoscopic opinions are the diverse dialogic relationships amongst political positions and amongst disciplinary knowledges which are at times evident, at times obscured. This chaotic jumble of dialogues is then taken up by old and new media networks to be reproduced, reworked, remolded, amplified, and inserted into other dialogues under the auspices of reliable knowledge when in fact many of them are a sham. This invasion comes to make up a whole secondary level of confusing information and discourse in which ideas get crisscrossed every which way, heaped into jumbles. This constitutes an unprecedented difficulty in coming to know the real world: serious knowledge on the one hand and media information blurring true and false on the other have all been mixed up and piled together to the point where it’s all congealed. This brings us to a bizarre circumstance in which the very bases and starting points of what we’d call knowledge are all mixed into a totally indistinguishable lump; and so we can’t stop most people, including scholars and thinkers, from letting the media lead them by the nose. The bases of their thinking, even if we’re not speaking of knowledge in the strictly traditional sense, do not reflect truly reliable facts; what we have instead is a kind of processed goods created by an amalgam of old and new media, online news, and a whole variety of social media. This leads to extremely intense conflicts amongst thinkers, confused and mistaken as they may have been from the outset, resulting in so many irreconcilable “divides.” The omnipresent forces of capital and politics, at the same time, take every opportunity to insert themselves, using all sorts of strategies to steer and manipulate things so that what were initially false divides eerily assume true substance.
The intellectual conflicts instigated by Capital in the Twenty-First Century are indeed a representative example of this “divide” in which the false becomes true. At its core, Piketty’s so-called theoretical contribution just wants to shore up capitalism; it’s an intellectual effort to squeeze blood from a stone without an iota of innovation. The title of his book got connected to Marx’s Capital as a purely commercial strategy, owing to the commotion kicked up in the media along with a dose of shameless manipulation and fraud. As a result, intellectual circles on the left and right were all compelled to come out with a flurry of pronouncements, leading to a muddled debate which counted as neither big nor small and ultimately of no meaning at all. This is the twenty-first century’s unique brand of the absurd; and this absurdity constitutes a major feature of contemporary ideological struggles.
To return to the global pandemic, the absurd reigns supreme here, too, and in how the West came to understand and critique the Chinese government’s drastic lockdown of Wuhan; the bizarre theatricality of cooperation (or opposition to cooperation) in the epidemic prevention between countries under the auspices of “facemask diplomacy”; the conflicts over human rights and freedom ignited by “stay-at-home orders” in the West, especially when it comes to humanism’s sacred “universal values,” leading to the chilling question of whether one should “prioritize human life or the economy” in the midst of a pandemic, debasing such values in the name of order or even ethics to the point where they are utterly worthless…the instances of the absurd are endless. While of course the media have gotten right wingers up on their toes, it’s been really shocking for us to see European and American intellectuals facing this normalization of the absurd right down to its penetration into daily life with astonishing apathy. Even when there is a voice of dissent, it amounts to hushed, private whispers. All of this really makes you wonder whether they’ve completely forgotten that great author of the absurd who emerged from their own history– of course I mean Kafka.
For this reason, the first question we need to consider when discussing the consequences of the pandemic is what practical difficulty we are facing here. Does our knowledge support our thinking, or does it in fact prevent us from knowing reality? Philosophically speaking, have we arrived at an epistemological obstacle without knowing it?
BCR: Since the outbreak of the Covid crisis, Western media has almost collectively chosen to present China’s measures for combatting the epidemic in a negative light, with objectively rational reports in the extreme minority. Amongst them, apart from long-establish prejudices in thinking fixed by ideology, there has truly been an “epistemological obstacle.” Confronted with the phenomenon of China’s rise, with that of Trump, with the whole wave of populism sweeping the world, Western thinkers (no matter whether they are left or right) seem to have progressively lost their grip on an ability to process things in an objective way. They always presuppose a set of values which are out of touch with objective facts. What is ultimately the reason for this?
TL: In general, knowledge must be tested by social practice to demonstrate its validity (although it gets more complicated when we get into philosophical thought). Now an interesting set of circumstances has emerged: the pandemic seems to have given us a scanning device to examine the validity of knowledge. After a few months of crudely scanning about, we have made the terrible discovery that what you call “progressively losing grip on an ability to process things in an objective way” is not only extremely widespread but has reached a level of global proportions rarely seen in history. It’s the case for average people just as it is for experts and scholars, to the point where we can ask: is there a problem with our human collective capacity for grasping the truth? This is a grave issue; it won’t be easy to find an answer. I just mentioned the “epistemological obstacle” (an idea from Gaston Bachelard’s The Formation of the Scientific Mind which I’m appropriating for our purposes); perhaps this is a possible perspective on the problem. Now, where is this obstacle? What is it an obstacle to? What constitutes this obstacle? If you keep pursuing questions like this, you can go on at some length.
We discussed in the above the online super-factory made up of old and new media which is working every second of every minute to process, distort, and remold actual information and discourse. It takes the processed goods or “pseudo-knowledge” and jams it or mixes it into our actual thinking. Do not underestimate the destructive effect this creates. A concrete example would be efforts to trace the origins of the novel coronavirus. In the past, such a task would have fallen upon the medical and scientific community. The intellectual authority of medical and scientific specialists would have acted as a kind of guarantee. They would have final say over the inquiry’s conclusions, irrespective of the methods or means used in the process. But over the last few months, the involvement of different kinds of media has led to truly bewildering developments. It seems the experts have been cast aside while new and old forms of media are making a big racket, with a whole lot of chatter about taking responsibility for finding the origins of the virus. Lots of officials and politicians, along with public intellectuals plus a big number of online hecklers somehow all became decisive figures, with all the confidence and arrogance to take themselves as authorities capable of disclosing the truth.
Under such circumstances, Western media has fully entered a Cold War mode in which it no longer moves along with or aims to “run” general developments; rather, the media outright sets the course (the various political machinations behind this have abandoned all reticence, no longer playing at the coy ingénue, but this is a different topic). If all you do in the face of such absurdity is denounce it as absurd, what’s the point? Has something gone horribly wrong with the modes of knowledge centered in universities and research institutions? Are they degenerating? Does it mean that the military-industrial-academic complex consolidated during the Cold War is becoming increasingly important for contemporary academic knowledge production? In broader terms, have the circumstances of knowledge undergone fundamental changes? If this is the case, how do the new circumstances factor into today’s epistemological obstacle?
Regarding major transformations in the circumstances of knowledge, one important aspect has been the increasingly fine distinctions drawn in knowledge by disciplines over the twentieth century. I will confine myself to just a few remarks. Academic disciplines have evolved over the past two or three hundred years to achieve greater precision in the twentieth century. This has brought about numerous great advantages, but the refinement of knowledge has also caused serious issues. Chief amongst them is that each discipline cannot avoid an extreme narrowing of the intellectual perspective, incessantly parceling out fields of knowledge so that they are ultimately like little occupied mountaintops. It’s like a whole bunch of European medieval strongholds all separated by deep trenches and towering walls (each one an ivory tower unto itself). Yet at the same time, the scholars and theorists holed up in their respective forts want to take their disciplinary research findings and invest them to the utmost with universal importance. Even if they are not recognized as true, they can at least offer a key to explaining some dimension of people and the world. So not only are nature, humanity, and society no longer the totality of objects for understanding and knowledge, but knowledge itself has been fragmented like a shattered mirror–– although most people proceed as if the mirror has not been broken and diligently cast about its glimmering shards in search of truth and reality.
As a result, many consequential figures in contemporary knowledge production, including professors, scholars, theorists, media figures, and scientists disregard objects of knowledge in their totality. They don’t see the forest for the trees. Perhaps if we meticulously research and understand something in the forest – some stretch of swamp or some rare plant very thoroughly–then it will make a great contribution to our understanding of the forest. But where is the forest? And where does knowledge of the forest in its totality reside?
Maybe you will object that others have already said all of this before, that it’s a bunch of platitudes. So let’s make what I’m saying a bit more concrete by taking up Foucault for a moment. In truth, Foucault has had the biggest influence on my efforts to study and comprehend both the contributions and advances of semiotics, structuralism, and poststructuralism in the latter part of the twentieth century, especially the wave of academic and theoretical innovations (which a lot of people consider to be “postmodern” but that’s inaccurate) constituting trends and the general experience of the 70s and 80s. Whenever I examine other intellectual luminaries from that period’s currents, I always evaluate and compare them from Foucault’s theoretical perspective. On the one hand this helps me find my footing in understanding these theories; on the other, I’ve gradually come to a deeper understanding of his thinking, to the point where I feel that even amongst those who boldly ventured into perilous terrain, he yielded the greatest contributions.
But here we are, already in the twenty-first century, caught unawares. The break between this new century and the old one has ushered in problems of such acute prominence that we are now past the point of no return. The most urgent amongst them is: what finally is the relationship between the many crises we are facing (“like so many ravines all cutting across each other,” as I said above) and contemporary capitalism? On a related note, if the formation and mechanisms of capitalism today clearly differ from those of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (the classic capitalism of old was incapable of today’s gigantic expansion in global wealth disparity, but this is merely the first symptom amongst the new problems of contemporary capitalism), where are the differences? What is the relationship between these differences and the crises we are facing? And what is the necessity in said relations? Do all of these questions urgently require a response? What could we gain if we turn to Foucault to pursue these concerns? I’m afraid the results would be quite limited.
Foucault’s deepest critique of capitalism is found in his work on biopolitics. He conducted a historical investigation of methods and strategies for state governance as they relate to controlling life, investigating the gradual formation of biopolitics under the modern state’s adaptations to capitalism’s development, indicating that this special technology of governance was both unprecedented and challenging to perceive. Furthermore, he linked this technology with a twentieth-century capitalism enveloped by neoliberalism, revealing how neoliberalism provides a framework for the domination of life by economic and political systems, exerting the maximal extractive pressure upon life. He also showed how biopolitics are constituted under neoliberal governmentality. Of course, these arguments are a major theoretical contribution to the broader critical history of capitalism, adding novel perspectives to our understanding of new forms and mechanisms of capitalist domination.
If you continue with Foucault’s thought, however, you’ll wind up a bit discouraged. You’ll find that his criticism ultimately persists along the route of subjectivity (following the figures of Nietzsche, Freud, and Lacan), or that its core theme is the question of the subject: asking how does the method of capitalist domination “enter deep into the heart and mind” so as to construct each individual subject, bundled into an “ego” which is more easily and efficiently “governed.” From there, this domination sets about smoothly conducting the whole of the social body, from the micro to the macro. Quite brilliant, isn’t it? But when your thinking adopts such strategies, it can only help us understand one level of capitalist domination. And once you enter this level, you’ll find that it’s filled with sideroads and crossroads, each little route tangled with proliferations of flora. It’s a sight that can mystify and make you lose your way.
This has consequence: we don’t even realize that the object of our thinking is being shrunk down to a micro-perspective, fragmented or localized, such that we can no longer see the big picture. How does the structural transformation of twentieth-century capitalism bring about the “de-classicalization” of the capitalist tradition? How has finance capital’s expansion and evolution made it into the hidden headquarters of world governance? And how have science and technology become ideology (arguments of Habermas in this respect are also very important, though Foucault went much further)? How did this new ideology surpass neoliberalism to construct a new, contemporary order within the last twenty years? All of these macrocosmic, possible objects of knowledge have been subtly diminished. Of course Foucault is important, but if we situate him amongst such reflections, then this importance must be reevaluated. Ultimately, this thinker’s foundation is a knowledge steeped in twentieth-century semiotics and structuralism. This brings us back to the previous problem of the excessive disciplinary parceling of knowledge. Regardless of whether we’re speaking about semiotics, discourse analysis, psychoanalysis, or matters related to subjectivity within each intellectual position and school of thought, all of them are overtly or covertly bounded by said problem. Even though interdisciplinarity is extremely salient within Foucault’s theory and scholarship and he expresses a kind of awareness about breaking disciplinary boundaries, his critical perspective still falls short of responding to the colossal monstrosity presented by the abrupt transformations in contemporary capitalism.
None of this is to diminish Foucault’s work; rather, it’s to emphasize that disciplinary specialization in the humanities today has already imposed formidable setbacks on intellectual activity and knowledge production. If the intellectual capacities of a thinker with such intense critical consciousness as Foucault are still limited by disciplinary specialization, then how far could other critiques ever hope to go? It’s by no means incidental that, with the start of the twenty-first century, people are beginning to appreciate Marx, with Capital becoming a “hot topic” once again. In truth, the amount of twentieth-century academic research and theory on capitalism hailing from both the left and the right has been quite substantial. If we compare this research with Marx, we feel as if it’s missing something. But what exactly is missing? This demands careful thought.
BCR: How should we understand and analyze the movements of post-World War II capitalism amidst this global crisis? In your view, what are post-World War II capitalism’s major stages? What are the major characteristics distinguishing each stage?
TL: These are all big questions, each requiring specific attention and research. I think I’d like to return to what we were just talking about from a different angle, posing instead the following: if we want to analyze capitalism’s contemporary development, what then are the essential conditions for this development? There are many things we can examine, but first and foremost, I insist that capitalism has never developed on its own; it is always shadowed by something else–that is socialism. Not only do capitalism and socialism share a history, not only have they been entangled in historical development, but this remains the case even today.
Several northern European countries are receiving a lot of attention during this pandemic. People believe that these countries’ governments responded quite appropriately and that their responses are deeply connected to the “welfare state” of northern Europe. Let’s pursue this point a little further: how does the welfare state come about? For that, you must trace the history of the socialist movement and proletarian resistance all the way back to Europe’s 1848 revolution. Could something like the welfare state have come to be without the sustained working-class revolutions against the bourgeois domination over nearly a century, without prior instances of bloody repression (just how much insurrectionist blood was spilled in Paris alone? No need to mention the sacrifice of revolutionaries across Europe prior and subsequent to the First World War), as well as the horror inflicted on the bourgeois class amidst all of this reeking bloodshed, to say nothing of the more profound terror visited upon Capital with the success of the October Revolution? We cannot ignore the history of capitalism’s successive victories against socialism nor can we ignore the many concessions that capitalism has had to make to the demands of socialism. It is a history where socialism has imposed continuous self-reform on capitalism (if you neglect this self-reform, you would not be able to understand Capital’s twentieth-century reformulations, variations, and transformations). In short, these both constitute essential conditions for the historical development of Capital through much of the twentieth century.
You could say that in its status as a capitalist country par excellence, Germany offers an even more compelling explanation. Why is it that Merkel’s administration has shown itself to be so competent in its management of this global crisis, providing such a stark contrast with the US government? I don’t think we can get a full account from just looking at Merkel’s abilities, nor from merely considering the remarkable performance on this occasion by Germany’s public health system. We have to return once again to history: workers’ movements rose, collapsed, and rose again in rapid succession throughout late nineteenth-century Germany; further, though the Weimar period was brief, it left enduring traces, not to mention the Social Democratic Party of Germany’s profound influence over the long course of its history as well as during its extended period in power after World War II. These all posed serious challenges, profoundly marking capitalism in contemporary Germany at the systemic level. These marks constitute elements of socialism within that country (though they are always avoided or selectively “forgotten”). It’s these elements that have played an essential function throughout the present crisis, keeping the government cool-headed.
My point is that today’s capitalism does not issue from a pure, independent course of development. There has been no such a thing in history, nor is there any such thing now. No matter what capitalist system exists in our present world, it has arrived by facing socialism’s constant challenges. Socialism is indispensable for the understanding of capitalism in history and in reality. We cannot afford to overlook this if we want to understand or critique capitalism. Blind spots in this regard have led to the belief that there is some kind of pure, singular, independent capitalist development. It is from this supposition that many scholars have constructed their object of research, inventing all kinds of arguments and theories of democracy, human rights, globalization, and the end of history. This is not to say that things do not differ in traditions of socialist and leftist thought. From Marx to Hobsbawm, the “two histories” are precisely the requisite, basic condition for thinking modern history. This has been richly demonstrated in numerous books and documents, ever since the Communist Manifesto. If we examine twentieth-century research on capitalism, however, the longstanding, mutual entanglement between these “two histories” is diluted into a history of an increasingly insubstantial sort. It is no accident that in 1989 Fukuyama triumphantly declared “the end of history.” There are two implications buried deep in this “end” and similar theories from earlier texts: the first is to forget the history of the mutually entangled “two histories” in its entirety and forget the challenges and struggles waged by socialism against capitalism; and the second is to bring to an end all actual versions of socialism, irrespective of whether they be utopian or entail the implementation of real experiments.
The pandemic has given us an opportunity to draw back the curtains layer upon layer on the world stage, revealing the phony tap dance and momentarily expose the numerous mechanisms hidden backstage. The observer, whoever they are, has to use their intellect to understand and reflect anew on this world which they had taken to be familiar. One might be attracted by the novelties on this stage (artificial intelligence, for instance), but the most urgent matter that requires our attention is how to rethink capitalism–which has taken the rosy path to flourish in advancing to globalization (to borrow Hobsbawm’s words, “with the fall of the Berlin Wall capitalism could forget how to be frightened”) and declaring its ultimate victory in the final decade of the twentieth century.[ii] This is a new kind of capitalism that has gone through a process of self-renewal in its form and content. We need to identify and grasp it again.
BCR: Why is it that the global 99% versus 1% movement which occurred under conditions of a worldwide crisis in capital didn’t bring about new directions for the socialist movement? How do we situate twenty-first century Latin American socialism and Sanders-style socialism within broader socialist movements? What course could we take to break new theoretical ground in socialism?
TL: Frankly, your questions have hit the nail on the head. Each one of them urgently demands an answer, but I am unable to offer clear or reasonably complete responses. All I can speak to are the observations I have made over the past several years, as well as to several concerns they’ve inspired.
First, let’s deal with the global 99% versus 1% movement. The movement reached its peak with “Occupy Wall Street” in 2011. At the time, I had the opportunity to be an observer and take in the situation around Zuccotti Park for myself. Throughout the whole process, New York’s young people were animated with a spirited self-confidence, especially the ferocious zeal they displayed in setting their sights on Wall Street. Looking back today, the young people who occupied the park were by no means daydreaming; they wanted to imitate the tempest of May 1968. The students in Paris who occupied the Sorbonne had roused all of France, showing that the revolutionary tradition of 1848 had only fallen into a deep slumber. Red banners flew over Paris once again. American university students, similarly undertaking an occupation, did not, however, manage their goal of rousing the people. Though Zuccotti Park witnessed two months of fervent activity, they never managed to incite people like the May 68 protest. Just a few blocks away from the park, life in Manhattan was still aglow with its sumptuous indulgence and ceaseless hustle and bustle.
There are many reminiscences and historical studies on these Occupy movements to assess their successes and failures, and they come to all sorts of different conclusions. Most authors concur that when it comes to the greater goal of overcoming capitalism, these youths have failed. Why did they fail? One factor of particular importance for me is that the core members of the Occupy Movement, like the youths in Paris before them, were more or less “children of the middle class” (to borrow the title of a book called Children of the Middle Class: the Sixties and Cultural Hegemony by Cheng Wei).[iii] The whole of the Occupy Movement was profoundly marked by the middle class, such that it never came up with a profound critique of the root cause for the 99% vs. 1%. What we had instead were battle cries and accusations, and such denunciations can easily fade into far-off echoes, unable to threaten so much as a single hair on capitalism’s head.
You asked what course we could take to make a true breakthrough in the theory of socialism. That is also a big question! Look at the socialist movements in Latin America. something that our intellectuals in China often overlook. Those movements have staged some of the most spectacular and tragic moments of the twentieth century. Those who do pay attention have remarked on their setbacks and failures whereas, as a matter of fact, the experience of such failures could be extremely valuable toward enriching the development of socialist thought and theory, certainly deserving more consideration than the contemporary academic discussions within the Euro-American academy. My knowledge on these issues is rather limited and I would like to see more Chinese scholars devoting their time researching this, especially those who study Latin America. One scholar named Sao Sa published a book Fertile Hardships: Notes on Latin America in the 1990s that continues to be influential, but focused and in-depth research remains far too scarce.[iv] I think many of us continue to work under the shadow of Eurocentrism and are persuaded that the cutting edge of the world of thought is still defined by Europe’s new concepts and theories. This is not confirmed by what’s on the ground. At the present, the cutting edge of the world of thought might be migrating to the “south,” Africa, Latin America, and to China.
As for Sanders’s socialism, this is indeed a novel phenomenon for the United States. Garnering intense support amongst a sizeable number of young people, it has become quite a surging trend. But I see no fundamental difference between the ideas and positions of Sanders and those of Piketty. They both approach issues by focusing on mitigating wealth disparity while leaving the roots of inequality untouched. If we compare these voices to critics of capitalism such as Samir Amin, it becomes crystal clear that Sanders represents the demand for reform from the moderates of the middle-class whereas Amin’s direct and sharp critique is completely different. A salient feature of Amin’s theory is the conviction that the history of capitalism is the history of imperialism (he places particular emphasis on this distinction from Lenin’s theory of imperialism). This history constitutes the political economic structure of “center and periphery,” producing a relationship of dependency between those on the underdeveloped periphery and the imperialist countries. An unbounded, relentless exploitation that spans many centuries has advanced against peoples and regions across the world, continuing up to today. If you work through the many levels of Amin’s analysis, you’ll find exploitation at its core; that is to say, contemporary exploitation under the current conditions of capitalism. Amin does not limit the question of contemporary exploitation within a single country or region, nor does he take the nation-state as a unit for observation and analysis. In his perspective, China is included within a vast Third World “world factory” embedded within relations of globalized exploitation. And it is China’s massive working class and migrant workers who occupy the lowest rung of this modern system of exploitation and, on top of the relations of exploitation, globalization has erected its “superstructure.”
My brief summary cannot do justice to Amin’s argument. It is merely intended to highlight the differences between Amin and Sanders at a glance. The polarization of the rich and the poor has been Sanders’s main concern; for Amin, inequality is but the material consequence of capitalism’s worldwide exploitation and looting. Sanders will not be able to explain how the 99% vs. 1% came into being. Does it have something to do with capitalism’s worldwide exploitation in our times? If the answer is no, where did the astronomical wealth of the 1% come from? If it is yes, what does the relationship of exploitation look like? Sanders cannot ask such questions, nor would he want to.
On the other hand, one should not deny the positive significance of the socialist demands that Sanders represents. Decades after the “red thirties” of the twentieth century, such voices have been extremely feeble in American society, almost tainted by something like original sin. Being able to boldly call out like this and winning the ardent support of so many young people (the main part of which remain “children of the middle class”) is very important. It suggests a profound change in American society, which we may at the very least regard as part of what Amin termed a “movement toward socialism.” I want to reiterate, however, that such an appeal is stamped with the temperament of the American middle class who used to enjoy their happy days in the postwar era through the 1970s and are scared of a dim future where there are horrifying instances of those who drop down into the rungs of poverty with each passing day.
BCR: This kind of evaluation of Sanders’s socialism, particularly comparing Sanders with Amin like that, really sharpens the question of how to innovate socialist theory. Upon the breakup of the Soviet Union, it was a completely capitalist world within Europe’s borders, but socialist concepts and demands were quite alive, with some space assured for the activities of socialist groups of all sorts and with leftist thinking leaning toward socialist thought (including Marxist thought). All of this has continued to develop over recent years and there have appeared important scholars and theorists. In the twenty-first century, especially following this pandemic, do you think that Europe can produce breakthroughs in socialist thought, given its history as having the oldest socialist movements, as well as being the site of the legendary Paris Commune and the glorious October Revolution?
TL: As a writer and literary critic, literature is my primary field. But contemporary literature is confronted with many difficulties and impediments, all of which are deeply embedded in our current struggles in ideology and intellectual debates and closely bound up with the big issues of our century. The question of whether there can be “breakthroughs in socialist thought” seems to be at a certain distance from literature, but in actuality it is directly related to the development of literature and its future direction. Especially given the conditions under which worldwide consumerism has progressively diluted the relationship between literature and politics, this question also relates to whether we can redefine the position of literature amidst the intense transformations of our current reality. And more, it implicates the future of literary imagination. So I’m quite happy to engage with these questions.
So, how can we bring about breakthroughs in socialist thought under our present circumstances? There are many discussions of some aspects of this issue, and there’s theory and there’s practice. Earlier, you mentioned that socialist thought in Europe is a sustained practice, continually spurring on new developments. There, postwar leftist thought was vibrant, giving rise to a myriad of contending views, so that Marxist thought constituted its own discursive field. The liveliness and tensions within the field formed an important intellectual landscape in the academic circles of Germany, France, Italy, and so on. From today’s point of view, especially with regards to the new realities brought about by the transformation of global conditions since the pandemic, many aspects of the (postwar) Marxist tradition–their strengths and weaknesses–need to be rethought and reassessed.
We talked earlier about the blind spots and limits in Foucault’s thinking. If we pursue the origins of these limits, we’d quickly discover that in spite of Foucault’s attempt to overcome and surpass the influence of received intellectual traditions and knowledge, his theories require a great deal of disciplinary attention. It is his disciplinary knowledge that constitutes his analytic style and strategies as well as structures the hidden logic of his argument. The problem is that this is by no means unique to Foucault’s thought. The majority of the postwar left and Marxist theorists in the West appear to adorn themselves with a layer or layers of disciplinary soft armor, such that their movement is inevitably restrained by it. Even the theoretical activity of a Frankfurt School founder like Adorno self-consciously operates within the bounds of philosophy and aesthetics, not to mention Foucault’s contemporaries or the subsequent generation of leftist thinkers and theoreticians who come with a clear disciplinary background: psychology, sociology, history, semiotics, intellectual history, and so on. In the latter half of the twentieth century, a large number of them began to take up positions at universities, academic or semi-academic institutions as professors, researchers, or specialized producers of knowledge (with the exception of a few practitioners like Gramsci who threw themselves headlong into the frontline of revolutionary struggles).
None of this could have happened overnight. When we reflect on how academic knowledge and Marxism developed, we can observe a process of transformation over the course of the twentieth century: a gradual shift in the center of gravity toward the critique of “hot” issues like modernity, subjectivity and its construction, the rational and the unconscious, identity politics, cultural semiotics, etcetera. Although the many theories and arguments produced amidst this shift maintained a more or less critical stance vis-a-vis capitalism, and some gave impetus for a more probing critique (postcolonialism stands out in particular), most of them have moved away to some extent from the direction of Marx’s Capital, whether it be in the object of these theories, in constructing an understanding of that object, or in the conceptual systems posed according to said object. This becomes a source of dilemma any time that we need to explain the opposition at a world-scale created by the massive wealth disparity between the 1% and 99%; or any time that we need to analyze how the relations of exploitation differ between contemporary capitalism and the capitalist system in the past; or any time that we need to draw on the relations of exploitation as a point for breaking through to the production of a theoretical account of contemporary capitalism’s newest developments and manifestations. All these moments will leave us feeling that these theories not only fail to be particularly helpful, but they fill us with doubts. When the youth in Zuccotti Park held high placards declaring “We are the 99%,” “Give us back our future,” or “Power to the people,” they were expressing their confusion and uncertainty at an unconscious level, unaware that they were actually asking: “Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?” This is because they did not know what historical objectives they wanted to write on their own protest banners.
This reminds me of a few lines from Ouyang Jianghe’s poem, Autumn in Zuccotti Park:
Were the puzzles of Capital to be
as easily decipherable as 1+1
the young people would spurn 2
just as they spurn reality
The question has gone bad, not the answer.
The key is how to pose the right question. This bring me to Althusser. In Reading Capital, Althusser repeatedly discusses and analyzes a crucial topic: in order to understand and know a theory, it is essential first and foremost to grasp what “problematic” it presents. This means understanding and studying the object of knowledge’s theoretical determinations as well as the problems posed from said object’s determinations. To pose a problem like this necessitates establishing a series of fundamental concepts. The movement of these concepts as well as the shared movement amongst concepts naturally constitutes a space of thought with its own logic. Thus, the problematic’s presentation and determination are decisive, delimiting a kind of theoretical field of vision as well as boundaries of thought.
Frederick Jameson’s thinking and research, for example, touches upon a broad number of fields with wide-ranging interests across the disciplines, aiming to overcome the limits of the academy. As we know, the most important facet of Jameson’s theoretical work is “the cultural logic of late capitalism” and “postmodern society” (though there have been some shifts in his most recent studies). The parameters of this object determine the fundamental concepts he studies such as late capitalism, consumer society, modernity/postmodernity, time and space, text/narrative, fragmentation, psychoanalysis, etcetera (a kaleidoscopic conceptual grouping). These all constitute a theoretical field that manages to scan the vast postmodern terrain of capitalist society’s cultural production and ideology: striving on the one hand as much as possible to discover the internal logics which thread through or mutually overlap within said terrain; and on the other hand, conducting a comprehensive and detailed analysis of how capitalism accomplishes the colonization of the heart, mind, and spirit (quite a few theorists have worked exhaustively on this problem, but I think Jameson’s is the most meticulous and penetrating). This has presented us with a new map for understanding twentieth-century capitalism.
However, any attempt to rely on Jameson’s theories in order to formulate an understanding of how today’s globalized capitalism accomplished the miracle of the 1% versus 99% will only end in disappointment. How, you may ask, have we come back once again to this topic? My answer is that the 1% versus 99% is not a number; it’s at once a symbol or indicator of how unequal the contemporary world is, as well as a point of entry for thinking. The secret of contemporary exploitation is hidden in this number; the secret of how contemporary capitalism has come to dominate the world is hidden in it. The 1% versus 99% is a worldwide phenomenon–how did it come about? Is there a global network of exploitative relations that are omnipresent, extending to all regions? In our contemporary globalized world, how can we grasp the relationship between brutal exploitation and global capitalism? In my estimation, these are issues that those on the left and people pursuing socialist ideals cannot avoid or dodge in their thinking. So you will see why I became disappointed by Jameson’s research on “late capitalism,” even though I like his work very much and feel naturally drawn to it (this has to do with my many years of work on literary criticism).
Returning to Amin, if we compare him with Jameson—perhaps some people will feel this doesn’t make for a good comparison, that it’s inappropriate. Since both are critiques of capitalism, they are in the lineage of Capital and I think there are areas where we can compare them. Between Jameson and Amin, who can better clear up our confusion? Who affords a better understanding or presents more penetrating reflections on capitalism in the late twentieth century and the newest developments in recent decades since the turn of the century? It’s Amin. I think Amin’s direction of thought is more closely aligned to the general direction indicated by Capital. This closeness warrants reflection. Amin not only has a background growing up in Egypt, during which he took active part in the Third World anti-colonial movement, but his academic engagements were never particularly academic. He participated in the practices of economic development in Egypt and other African countries, serving for example as specialist in Mali’s Ministry of Planning for three years. Such experience inevitably shaped Amin, lending an altogether different luster to his situation as a leftist intellectual.
I spoke of Jameson as a mere example of academic thinkers. It often happens that disciplinary specializations (forms of knowledge production and standards for modernization are actually behind this, and such specialization is the consequence of reforms in knowledge by capitalism’s evolution since the eighteenth century–scientific knowledge production has gradually become the model which the humanities must emulate) prevents us from explaining/revealing the obscured conditions of contemporary capitalist development. But this type of “prevention” cannot be wholly attributed to the problem of knowledge. If we analyze this further, we will find a more complex reason. Let me turn to another example: Sartre.
I have a special respect for this philosopher. Following the tumultuous period of “Stalinism,” when many were talking about how horrendous socialism had become, he maintained a critical position toward capitalism while openly declaring support for socialism. During the years of protest in France, when the leftist youth publication La Cause du peuple was closed down by the state and its head editor arrested, Sartre not only sought to take responsibility as director of the publication, but also distributed it in the streets of Paris with Simone de Beauvoir, declaring support for the student rebellion. Such behavior was quite rare amongst leftist intellectuals of the era, truly uncommon. However, one cannot deny that Sartre’s existential philosophy, literary works, or his quotidian ethics and behavior also clearly bore the hallmarks of a middle-class intellectual. I’ll go so far as to say that if you are interested in the connection between the development of twentieth-century humanist thought and middle-class ideas, Sartre might be a good specimen. But this brings us to the situation of the intellectual in capitalism over recent centuries and the transformation of this figure, which already goes well beyond our current topic.
BCR: The intellectual pedigree you’ve described offers a clear view of what you call the middle-class tendency’s considerable presence in the Euro-American left, clear in both their critical work and their militating against earlier capitalist contradictions. Could you explain more generally the development of this intellectual tendency on the European left?
TL: This entails a whole series of difficult questions: where is the middle class in contemporary capitalism? How do we define it? How do we determine its social position? Particularly vexing is the question of how to subject it to class analysis. There are too many texts and theories broaching these issues in the fields of sociology, history, literary theory, cultural studies, Marxism, etcetera. Some of them are popular and have provoked a range of responses. Even if I tried to “explain more generally,” it would be extremely difficult to clarify the matter.
All I can speak to is my own decision: I not only acknowledge the historical existence of the middle class, but recognize to a high degree the description and critique of the new middle class in Charles Wright Mills’s 1951 book White Collar: The American Middle Class (although it’s about America, the argument is generalizable). I think that the new middle class which first appeared in developed countries following World War II ushered in a new reality: on the one hand, it delivered a massive blow to what formerly was the basic framework for understanding the opposition between capitalist and proletariat classes as well as to received ideas about the constitution of classes in capitalist society; on the other hand, as an actually existing class, this new class intervenes in many aspects of the real world, especially cultural politics and ideology. It is difficult to measure the major impact this new class has had on society, be it constructive or destructive. The relationship between this impact and the evolution and revitalization of contemporary capitalism is a major topic which warrants its own program of study. Your question would fall within such a program.
To avoid abstract talk, I prefer to draw on concrete examples. A few days ago, I reread Sartre’s Words. His autobiography is taken to be Sartre’s application of psychoanalytic method to his own intellectual development. Since it’s an autobiography, much of the book is filled with realistic details and I was struck by many of these details. What did his childhood hardships amount to? Nothing more than other children refusing to include him in their games at the Luxembourg Gardens. Sartre was removed from the many sufferings and feelings wrought by the anxieties of poverty. As a child, he only had two concerns: reading—too many books at his grandfather’s, too many old books and journals to choose from amongst the bouquinistes along the Seine; and writing—he already believed he was an author at ten years of age, and what concerned him was whether his grandfather and mother would appreciate his writing. Did he have other worries? Of course, but they’re a bunch of little melancholic sentiments bound deep inside his ego. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but isn’t it natural that a thinker who enjoyed the tranquility and safety of a happy childhood would choose to dedicate his life’s intellectual energies to the beautiful and attractive concept of “freedom?” Isn’t it reasonable? Or could we at least say that it’s necessary (on this point, his plays like Dead without Burial are an even clearer expression than his philosophy)?
You might object that Sartre is just an example. When we look the École Normale Supérieure, that cradle of French thinkers, it’s apparent that many thinkers who emerged from there, on both the right and left, have all more or less the same background as Sartre. They are all children of the middle class or upper class and excepting those who lived through the Second World War, they all shared the experience of crossing the same three thresholds: entering school, exiting school, and lastly entering academia to become members of the intellectual elite who went on to dominate the world of thought in the latter half of the twentieth century. I often wonder if these things deserve closer scrutiny and if they might yield many potential research topics worth exploring.
Another interesting specimen would be the intellectuals of the Bloomsbury Group, of whom Virginia Woolf was a representative (maybe some would think that members of this group are a bit too distant from our present, but such “classics” never go out of date). Although the members of this group are all well-known, they hail from every manner of profession. Within the set was author E. M. Forster, art critics and aesthetic theorists Clive Bell and Roger Fry, and economist John Maynard Keynes. In addition, there were those extremely close but outside the group proper like the philosopher Bertrand Russel, T.S. Elliot, and James Joyce—all of them crème de la crème. What is it that brought these people together, and in such an intimate fashion, that their association has all but become an enchanting myth? If we pursue this question, of course there are many factors. But one thing is important, which is their shared middle-class cultural interest.
I have come across research on the middle class that considers cultural interest to be the primary element in constructing the middle class (John Smail’s The Origins of Middle-Class Culture is a representative example, posing cultural interest as a special mechanism constituting the middle class). I don’t agree, but I think we can make “cultural interest” into a point of entry for class analysis. From this perspective, what brought the Bloomsbury Group together is precisely their shared cultural interest. It is not only embodied in their origins at Cambridge, the Cambridge culture shared amongst “Cantabrigians” is world famous; what’s more, it’s incarnated in daily life through the refined quality of their aspirations, in their transformation of passion into literary and aesthetic practices. In addition, the sum total of Bloomsbury intellectuals’ practices has made an indelible contribution to twentieth-century modernist cultural development.
In my view, modernist literature and art are cultural constructions through which the middle class (it would be a bit more apt to say the new middle class) articulate their political aspirations and social ideals. It is a novel culture distinguishing this new class from the bourgeoisie, the old middle class, and from the urban petty bourgeois class. It instigated a complex, longstanding intellectual clash in the ideological realm over the course of the twentieth century which extended to philosophy, aesthetics, and literature. It continues to exert its influence even today. Although there has been a considerable amount of research on this topic, there is actually a dearth of dedicated class analysis. In sum, if the Bloomsbury group is a mere example, it would follow to ask: is it an exception? If you consider the other groups resembling this cultural set, you’ll see that it is a universal phenomenon found throughout modern intellectual circles. It is what life is generally like for contemporary intellectuals. How similar are the circumstances in other fields? And are they as widespread?
This calls to mind a few relevant circumstances in the leftist thought in the West.
No matter how theorists differ in standpoint or orientation, many innovations were profoundly influenced by the theoretical breakthroughs of the late nineteenth century and fin de siècle. With regards to the major transformations in Euro-American theories, Nietzsche and Freud were of particular importance, as well as structuralism a bit later. If we claim that the theoretical tradition of the previous generation always exerts an “anxiety of influence” on the subsequent generation, this “anxiety” is not at all apparent amongst many scholars and theorists of the twentieth century. On the contrary, you get the sense that they take great pleasure in citing Nietzsche and Freud as they develop their own ideas. What warrants more attention is that this phenomenon is quite clear in the field of Marxist thought. If you examine a bit the last hundred years of “Western Marxism” or “Neo-Marxism,” many revisions and developments of Marxism are closely connected to Nietzsche, Freud, or structuralism (as well as Lacanian psychoanalysis). Amongst them, Erich Fromm had exerted a considerable influence through the direct application of Freud to supplementing and remolding Marxism.
As a major member of the Frankfurt School, Fromm forces us to pose the following question: if this is a development of Marxism, does it exhibit divergences from the general direction of Capital? Of course you may ask: but didn’t Freud discover a new continent within the human spirit and social life? Didn’t classical Marxism neglect the relationship between elements of human psychology and social life, inadequately theorizing these aspects? So what new issues did Fromm add to this?
I have two responses. First, Fromm didn’t “add” to Marxism. He began by defining Marxism as a sort of humanism and, on that basis, took great pains to reform it. Secondly, my concern isn’t how to evaluate his reform, as there are far too many discussions and debates over this within theoretical and academic circles. This isn’t what I’m interrogating, what interests me is this: if Fromm is not merely another example but part of a widespread phenomenon in leftist theoretical development over these years, everyone would recognize it as being of “scholarly interest” (which inevitably calls to mind the Bloomsbury Group’s shared “cultural interest”). Are there any divergences from the general direction of Capital? If so, what is the cause? Does this relate to the rise of the twentieth-century new middle class which we’ve discussed at such length here? Since the vast majority of intellectuals are producing knowledge in the academic system as researchers and professors and many of them are members of the middle class, can we say that a kind of middle-class left wing has emerged from it? Or a middle-class Marxism?
I’ve mulled over this for quite a long time, but that question is too big. Every time I raise it, I feel incapable of offering up any judgement. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Capital came back into perspective, with appeals to reevaluate the intellectual terrain from the perspective of Capital becoming more frequent. Given these new circumstances, I think these concerns of mine have some relevance and are worth discussing. This brings me to Žižek who likes giving talks all over the place, proclaiming himself on the one hand to be a resolute communist while, on the other, insisting that he is a pessimist. Although his thinking is full of razzle-dazzle (it seems that he cannot but think or speak under the shadow of Lacan), his pessimism may be genuine. As early as 1949, when Sartre was responding to questions from the “Global Citizens Movement,” he said something to this effect: if we avoid intervening in concrete, actual politics, the movement can only solicit “those strata of the petty bourgeois class and the middle class who always fear disorder, whose positions are forever shifting, and who haven’t a shred of political experience.”[v] This would fit my description of Žižek. Where is the root of his pessimism? Doesn’t it come from the kind of “strata” Sartre described?
BCR: In the final analysis, how should we regard China’s experience of socialism in practice from both the perspective of evolutions in international socialist theory and from critical theory on contemporary global capitalism? How has China continuously developed Marxism through its far-reaching process of socialist practice by engaging its own long historical experience and ways of thinking? What kind of value and significance does this practice have for the theory and practice of the international socialist movement?
TL: Don’t you think it would be better to narrow this down a little, so that we can reflect on your question within a manageable scope? China’s revolution, China’s socialism, and the ensuing reform that shook the world and is regarded as a historical miracle are but part of an extremely complex historical process with its achievements and setbacks. And the direct expression of this kind of complexity can be identified when the intensification of the social contradictions that have been difficult to reconcile in any given time become all of a sudden very acute. These converge and transform into the determinant knots of social contradictions that always present a thorny issue for historical analysis. Rarely do these issues get clarified as such, so our tendency is to either ignore them or try to get around them. This is true of past history as well as of our present moment.
China has gone through decades of reform. Its GDP reached 14.343 trillion US dollars (according to the World Bank) in 2019, in second place to the United States. This is an incredible achievement. At the same time, the 2019 Gini coefficient of gross income inequality in China hit 0.465 whereas the United States was at 0.485. These two figures are shocking. How could it be that a developing country like China has more or less the same Gini coefficient as the USA, the wealthiest country on the planet? This needs to be explained, though doing so is no easy task. It’s first among the thorny problems I just indicated. When confronted by such issues, it’s not convincing to simply affirm China’s reform and justify it. Upon reflection, the situation is tremendously complex. All this has occurred in the process of China’s “reintegration” into the world economy. Can anyone explain the contradiction away by suggesting that one must pay the price for China’s economy to get assimilated to global capital? Or is it, as Amin pointed out, that in the process of becoming the “world’s factory,” China’s vast working class and migrant labor cannot but be placed at the lowest rung of a globalized system of exploitation? If this is true, how is the global system related to the Chinese system? How do we analyze the many contradictions that overlap, interrupt or entangle each other constantly? All this deserves careful studies.
Those who don’t want to spend time working through these issues believe that matters are quite simple, and that there are no puzzles to speak of. One of the popular positions states that China’s reforms have turned it into state capitalism and the country has slipped into global capitalism. Therefore, wealth disparity is not only impossible to avoid but also inevitable. China can only continue down this road, and there’s no turning back. This view meets with substantial counterevidence: the country has invested tremendous resources in a nationwide campaign to lift millions of peasants out of poverty. The goal for 2020 is that all of China’s core and peripheral regions must eliminate absolute poverty, a hard target devoid of any market value. China has elected to take major losses in economic development, including the closing down or transformation of businesses, in order to implement green environmental protections, working strenuously to maintain equilibrium between a population of one billion four hundred million and the ecology; the country persists in installing an “Eight Vertical and Eight Horizontal” high-speed rail network covering all of China in full knowledge that short-term revenue will not suffice to cover debts, and with the sizeable risk of a “gray rhino” threatening the overall economy.[vi] Even though there are numerous problems with state-owned enterprises, producing massive contradictions with the market economy, carrying various economic risks, becoming an object of denunciation within China and abroad, instigating an endless stream of criticism, the reform as a whole maintains support for the public economy as its guiding policy.
The economic behaviors that violate market norms are quite numerous throughout the recent decades of reform and have been taken as a matter of course, as if this is how things should be. If not, why would you call it reform? To consider matters further, none of these behaviors can be adequately explained by capitalism alone, including the argument of state capitalism. What kind of capitalism in the world would have undertaken such crazy activities that are not only ill-suited to market rationality but run contrary to “economic norms”? Once we put this question out there, we can then deal with the level of difficulty I have raised: how do these matters relate to the Chinese system? Is this what Deng Xiaoping famously described as “crossing the river by feeling the stones”? If so, what are the “stones”? And what is the “river”? How do we analyze the contradictions formed out of the many overlapped, interrupted, and entangled elements within it? Can we explore and develop a new analytic framework? Can we cast off the dualist logic of affirmation and negation?
As we turn our attention to other, ideologically related fields similarly fraught with complications, the questions with no easy answers become more daunting. There was a nationwide debate online last year over the “996” work system in China which deserves mention here. The “996” routine (9AM to 9PM working hours, 6 days per week) has been practiced nationwide for some years and most people have begun to take it as a norm by force of habit. On the other hand, the new norm has caused major social conflicts because it has inflicted severe fatigue on hundreds upon thousands of white-collar workers. The rise in the number of young and middle-aged workers who suffered sudden death syndrome made this increasingly evident. Imagine Alibaba co-founder Ma Yun [Jack Ma] coming out with a speech at this particular juncture to defend the 996 system. He went so far as to say: “I consider it a tremendous stroke of good fortune to be able to work 996.” Ma Yun did not anticipate any trouble when he made this statement but his speech unexpectedly set off a firestorm on social media. His view of “good fortune” or happiness immediately started a “flame war” online, which was followed by widespread discussions and debates.
Big or small, this tempest in a teapot warrants some reflection. First, while supporters or detractors all believe that the 996 work system violates labor laws, the debate soon shifted its focus to the subject of whether or not young people should have a “spirit of dedication” or whether this practice belongs to normal “company culture.” As for the essential question of whether the 996 work system is legitimate at all and several other important issues relating to the logic of that question, they are left completely untouched. For example, how did this system manage to escape people’s attention for so long, assented to over the course of China’s reforms? How did it achieve the legitimacy to quietly circumvent labor laws? How did it get tacit approval from the state, society, and individuals? What are the direct and indirect relations between this system and economic reforms? Is the 996 work system related to what Amin saw as the transnational system of exploitation formed over the process of globalization? And furthermore, why is it that when the 996 work system finally ignited the rage of young people who rose up to criticize it and question it, a fair number of people trivialized the issue or reduced and atomized it into a discussion of individual choice for personal development, (underlying all this is their atomistic logic which takes the “individual” as the point of departure to explain the world, or the ontological foundation upon which liberalism invariably depends)? What seemed to be a tempest in a teapot contained a whole load of questions on practice as well as on theory, and none of them simple.
We cannot expect the young people who joined in the discussions and debates to pursue rigorous theoretical analyses of the above. That would be unrealistic expectation. Rather, my concern is with the intellectuals and scholars who remained absent from the entire debate. Is it not their job to develop theoretical analyses? Why not a peep from any of them? You could explain by saying that there are so many news every day to keep people busy, and most of them will not have paid attention to the event. Well, any flutter of a butterfly wing can stir up a tempest online, how come this particular butterfly went unnoticed? There’s another side to this: what if the intellectual world had been attentive and intervened? Would they have been able to abstract the concrete problems of this debate at a theoretical level? Would they have been able to generalize them in relation to globalized capitalism, relating the concrete issue of the 996 work system to labor history, connecting it to the rise of twentieth-century service sectors and the subsequent formation of a new social structure? Would they have been able to link all this to the critique of political economy, thereby exploring the depth of some of those ideas? I have my doubts.
After the Cultural Revolution, the dominant intellectual discourse in China has never completely cast off the superstition of “civilization” symbolized in the documentary TV series River Elegy.[vii] This superstition has been a fog bank rolling over the rough seas of China’s reform years, constantly hanging over the progress of countless intellectuals. As they survey through the fog, their gaze is in thrall to an ever-present expanse of blue ocean over yonder. At the conceptual root of this enthrallment are the liberalism and neoliberalism that have prevailed over decades through various permutations in the fields of politics and ideology. Now that they have experienced the collapse of Eurocentrism and borne witness to a world-scale crisis in the democratic system, will they emerge from that dense fog? Hard to say. It is highly unusual if not a miracle in modern history for a country’s intellectuals to swing collectively toward right-wing thought as Chinese intellectuals have done over the past several decades, with many embracing capitalism rather than critiquing it. We might look upon this behavior as a weighty “miracle.” Somehow, this particular miracle got muddled together with the awe-inspiring miracle of economic reform itself whereas the space between the two miracles has been left a massive intellectual blank. The arduous work of thinking about twentieth-century socialism and capitalism gets swallowed up in this blank space. It is not surprising that the intellectuals paid scant attention to the 996 fracas, or perhaps they did take notice but willfully ignored it.
To conclude, I’d like to touch upon a different but related subject. Over the past few years, especially since the global pandemic broke out this year, some scholars and theorists in the West have begun to realize that the world is undergoing fundamental transformations. It seems that these changes are inextricably bound to China and one cannot leave China out of the picture when one wants to explain the global changes, or adjust the current order to accommodate them, or look to the trajectory of future development. Many people are ill-suited to such conditions, and those in the Euro-American world in particular (in spheres of politics, commerce, military, academia– as well as the masses of people in general) seem unable to adapt. As a writer, I can almost feel their dual torment—an indescribable feeling–that the situation is causing them at emotional and psychological levels. For a people who have long been scorned by them as the “Chinese” over the last two or three hundred years to suddenly leap forward (by the measure of history, it’s the blink of an eye) and move to the center of the world stage where no piece could be played without China, or any forceful act of exclusion could descend easily into farce–this is indeed an intolerable and awkward state of affairs, isn’t it?
Not only can I imagine their spiritual torment but I can empathize a bit. With a dedicated analysis, I might even use these complicated feelings to write a book of psychoanalysis. I’d call it Turn of the Century Torment. For the purpose of such a book, I might find it easier to understand how the right wing in the West feel threatened by the global transformations to discover that the great wealth (spiritual, material, political, economic, and cultural) amassed by them over the past five hundred years are vanishing right into thin air before their eyes. Looking on helplessly as these riches suddenly start to decay, even possibly scattering once and for all into the ether, who wouldn’t burn with anxiety? Why were the happy days following the collapse of the Berlin Wall so short? Why did history suddenly declare that it hadn’t ended? Why is humanity being stung once again by a draught of Cold-War air, sending a chill across every corner of the globe? There’s nothing unusual in this.
As a point of comparison, however, circumstances of the Euro-American left are quite different. I would not use torment or anxiety to describe their response to these new conditions, especially regarding any issues relating to China; rather, it comes with a lot of murkiness and ambivalence. Starting from the twentieth century, the left’s attitude towards China’s revolution and reform has always been ambivalent, with a few notable exceptions (like Sartre, Althusser, Amin). Read their works and you’ll see that the parts which should have mentioned or discussed China are carefully suppressed or receive a bland description. They pretend not to see the relevance and might as well say nothing.
To tell the truth, this arrogance never ceases to astonish me. Do you really believe the October revolution and China’s revolution did not change the course of human history in the twentieth century? Did Lenin and Mao not seek to carry out socialist experiments at the institutional level for the first time after centuries of brewing and development? It is true that the actual practices of these two revolutions led to many problems. To insist that these practices (the two revolutions’ experimental forms of practice warrant specialized research) are the most valuable feature of this history is not to deny that many of their experiments were not successful; some failed, and these failures led to disastrous consequences to the extent that certain outcomes ran completely counter to the socialist movement’s aims and intentions. This is precisely the kind of reflection and research we need for developing socialist theory. In the long history of socialist movements, there is no dearth of positive and negative experience and some works of Marx and Lenin have dealt with these experiences at great length. If these studies and reflections are already part of the wealth of Marxism, why can’t we do the same when it comes to China? What is the point of avoiding the subject? Why trying to skirt around it?
Whatever it is, it seems to me that the latest developments no longer allow for any room to continue hiding or ducking about. So why not offer a candid explanation for all of that avoidance? Why can’t one work up the courage for self-examination and self-criticism? Eurocentrism, for example, remains a topic for deep reflection. I have noticed how leftist intellectuals have pushed the criticism of Eurocentrism in recent decades. Their efforts extend to disciplines like history, anthropology, and literature around the whole world, creating a wave of criticism without precedent. Will these intellectuals ask themselves and examine whether Eurocentrism has affected themselves or not?
Another difficulty for contemporary leftists everywhere in understanding China and China’s revolution is its full complexity. The complexity of this revolution lies at the heart or foundation for all of modern China’s various problems. Of course, all revolutions are complex, but the complexity of each is different. Our task is to distinguish each layer of complexity, identify its particularity, and provide an explanation that raises that particularity to a theoretical level, such that it’s suited to the theoretical language of today’s world. Who should undertake this difficult task? Who would be the suitable candidate? I thought that Chinese intellectuals would be the first to attempt it. But there seems to be very little research devoted to the complexity of China’s revolution and its reforms. My sense of this could be inaccurate, perhaps there is some research but I’ve had limited exposure. I should point out, however, that research on the revolution and China’s reforms in recent years hailing from the left and right either to defend them or to attack them has produced books and articles so numerous that they’d surely amount to an astronomical figure.
Still, I’d like to single out two recent books here. One is Wang Hui’s The Birth of the Century and the other Han Shaogong’s Epilogue to a Revolution.[viii] I think these two books are focused on the question of complexity to a certain extent. The two works’ arguments and discussions are organized around the same core issues; and even though each book has its own merits, with considerable difference in argumentative method and writing style, the arguments of their books consistently take up three complexities–China’s revolution, China’s socialism, and China’s reforms–as their objects of analysis. Their composition is distinguished by a fresh argumentative logic quite unlike those found in other revolutionary histories, intellectual histories, studies of ideology, etcetera. They demonstrate that it is possible to have a Chinese approach to these questions. As the contemporary pandemic exerts intense transformative impact on the world, Wang Hui and Han Shaogong’s thinking assumes new importance, making it particularly urgent to understand the China question’s complexity. Perhaps one will not approve of certain of their views (for my own part, I can’t totally agree with certain positions and have discussed and debated with them); however, I do hope that the complexity explored in these two books could be a source of enlightenment for all those concerned with issues relating to China. They can help free us from the crude method of affirmation or negation, aid us in casting off the logic of dualistic thinking, investigate and explore new analytic frameworks suitable for seeking truth from facts. I also think that if these two books could be translated into English or other foreign languages, if would give the left in other countries and regions the opportunity to learn how Chinese thinkers approach history and problems of practice and how critical reflections can be conducted at a theoretical level. This would certainly be quite helpful, especially for Marxists in the Euro-American left.
In a footnote to For Marx discussing differences between Marx and Hegel, Althusser agrees with the following position: “Hegel and Marx did not drink at the same source.”[ix] Here we can extend this a bit further: if we leave aside the principles of socialist thought and sources of revolutionary theory and depart instead from a revolution’s circumstances and conditions, China’s revolutionaries–no matter whether it be Mao Zedong or his predecessors, or his students–did not “drink at the same source” as European revolutionaries. I am referring to the theoretical advances and battle strategies produced from concrete circumstances and conditions, including the kind of language employed to achieve such theoretical and strategic thinking. Perhaps the complexity of China-related questions can be traced here, and this is particularly difficult for western leftists intellectuals to grasp, which is why they’ve been ducking and skirting around. I wonder if they would be able to comprehend Wang Hui’s and Han Shaogong’s works even if they take them seriously. Would they turn around right away? Would they start tasting water at a Chinese source? Not so easy, it seems. Ultimately, we must be concerned with our own conditions. History has presented a rare and unique opportunity– the whole world is turning to China with these questions: where did you come from? Who are you? Where are you going?
Do we have the option of not answering? Can we at least strive for answers that will satisfy ourselves?
Tuo Li (author) is a writer, literary critic, and former senior editor of Beijing Literature. He has written film screenplays and authored numerous essays on Chinese literature, cinema and art. His most recent books include a novel Wuming zhi (Beijing Blues) and an essay collection called Xue beng hechu? (Where was the Avalanche?). He currently lives in New York and is Adjunct Associate Research Scholar at Columbia University.
Harlan Chambers (translator) is a Ph.D. candidate in Modern Chinese literature and culture at Columbia University. His dissertation in-progress explores possibilities for socialist cultural politics in the wake of China’s revolution. He has co-translated several essays by Wang Hui and published his own research in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture.
[i] [Translator’s note] “New type of globalization” and “community of common destiny” are formulations which figure prominently in the recent Xi Jinping administration’s political discourse.
[ii] Hobsbawm, How to Change the World: Reflections on Marx and Marxism, 413.
[iii] Cheng, Zhongchan jieji de haizi men: 60 niandai yu wenhua lingdao quan [The Children of the Middle Class: the Sixties and Cultural Hegemony], 2006.
[iv] Sao, Sixiang de luyou: xibanya sanji [Fertile Hardships: Notes on Latin America], 2002.
[v] See the appendix to the Chinese translation of Sartre, Ci yu [Words], 1988, 248.
[vi] [Translator’s note] Akin to but distinct from the unexpected “black swan” event, a “gray rhino” is a threat which is at once highly probable and generally neglected. This idea was proposed by Michele Wucker in her 2016 book The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore. The 2017 Chinese translation by Wang Liyun was a major bestseller.
[vii] He shang [River Elegy], 1988. Directed by Xin Jun.
[viii] Wang, Shiji de dansheng [Birth of the Century], 2020; Han, Geming houji [Epilogue to a revolution], 2014.
[ix] Althusser, “On the Young Marx”, For Marx, 77 fn39.