China’s Crouching Tiger?
New York City
The Nation editors must have been giddy over breaking the Fuck Barrier three times in one article, Robert Dreyfuss’s "China in the Driver’s Seat" [Sept. 20].
Robert Dreyfuss obscures the serious debate within the AFL-CIO over how to work with China’s insurgent labor movement challenging the decrepit dictatorship. He muses about China as a new world power, unencumbered by antiquated remnants of the past century like trade unions and a free press. International corporations have found a gold mine in the cheap labor offered by this gangster regime.
The debate in the AFL-CIO is more serious. As a union member since the age of 16, I think Andy Stern and Katie Quan are right. An obvious analogue of the ACFTU, the official Chinese union, is John L. Lewis. A classic labor bureaucrat who worked to elect Herbert Hoover, Lewis was also a shrewd politician. He responded to the labor upheaval provoked by the Depression by leading the fight to found a new federation dominated by industrial unions. The ACFTU seems to be playing a similar role.
But like Lewis, the ACFTU is reacting to a popular movement from below. And groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are, in fact, the best allies of unionists like Stern and Quan. They help keep the pressure on the ACFTU by highlighting the crimes of the Chinese authorities and popular resistance to them. The Nation should invite contributions from the contending sides in the AFL-CIO debate, as well as human rights groups.
State College, Pa.
I have been to China, and having spent a large chunk of my life as part of the working poor, I picked up on some situations that seem to be invisible to upper-middle-class academics. China is a brutal, self-serving oligarchy that, unlike Russia, at least has the decency not to have democratic pretensions. The Chinese people are doing what they’ve always done, for emperors, colonial masters or politburos, only now the whole world can witness the "miracle."
China is the laboratory for a new quasi-feudalistic economic model led not by dynasties but by a corporatist state. There is no safety net—either work for pennies or die. Most of the "middle class" are related or somehow connected to the Politburo (the new emperor, if you will), and a large peasant class is a familiar and comfortable component of Chinese culture.
The idea that China will allow a comfortable existence for 20 to 30 percent of its population is a projection of Western liberalism. This type of progressive idealism makes me wonder if I am the only blue-collar liberal left in America. No wonder we’re getting our butts kicked.
As an instructor of Chinese history, I must point out that China’s rise to relative wealth is not a story of a government seeking global dominance but of a people escaping centuries of exploitation by using the very philosophies that were used against them. When Western ships started to trade in southern China 200 years ago, the Chinese did everything to keep them out and preserve their own way of life. Britain used "free trade" to justify launching the Opium War, as its government supplied massive support to its "private" adventurers (of course, Britain was heavily in debt to China). Two hundred years later, the Chinese have learned to beat the barbarians at their own game. To call this "authoritarian capitalism" is a little ironic.
I’m sure many readers, like me, found Joshua Clover’s review "Busted" [Sept. 20] an outstanding piece of work—clear, forthright, brilliantly penetrating, written with refreshing informality and above all saying what so much needs to be said; what, on the whole, practically nobody on the left is saying. I imagine Clover must be pretty young; he wonderfully sounds it. Poetry and political economy? Tell me! I want to know more about this extraordinary writer, to read more of his work. He is my poster boy of the year.
I would like to make explicit a narrative within Joshua Clover’s excellent review "Busted": no account of the crisis can surpass UCLA historian Robert Brenner’s. He recounts how the post–World War II global manufacturing sector experienced high rates of growth for a quarter-century as economies were rebuilt and consumption boomed because of wage growth and modestly worker-friendly governments. This ended by the early 1970s, as the manufacturing triad of the United States-Germany-Japan ushered in a chronic state of overproduction and declining profits. Eventually the United States ceded the field to its former opponents, with the result, as Clover makes clear, that US capital investment headed for the financial sector; manufacturing jobs took flight.
The collapse of Communism and the later emergence of China as workshop of the world exacerbated the problem. Low-wage workers entered the global labor force and governments became willing to get tough with workers, resulting in slower wage and consumption growth. But the earlier breakdown of the Bretton-Woods agreements had allowed governments to run unprecedentedly large budget and trade deficits without rampant inflation. The result was, and is, a global economic system of huge-surplus and huge-deficit countries, in which financial bubbles are increasingly common because of money flowing into countries that issue debt instruments to cover their deficits.
It is hard to conceive of a way out. Those who look to consumption growth in surplus countries (China, Germany) don’t see that growth there is structurally dependent on consumption in debtor nations. Those who think that government spending at home is holding back growth in the private sector fail to see that the boom years of the pre-crisis economy were predicated on debt all along. Talk of "recovery" or "double dip" relies on the profoundly uncritical assumption that the economic foundations are sound.
Clover is right to demand that our explanations go deeper and take stock of the very basis of capitalism as a social relation, its foundation in the extraction of "surplus value" from the worker. We should follow him in this, or live with the mystifying explanations of policy-makers and apologists, who amid the cutbacks and austerity measures can be heard echoing that familiar but still shrill neoliberal war cry: "There is no alternative."
A fact-checking error in D.D. Guttenplan and Maria Margaronis’s "Labour’s Fraternal Struggle" [Oct. 4] caused the figure £15 billion (the total of all budget cuts) to be given for cuts in benefits to Britain’s unemployed. Those cuts will total £4 billion.