The Global Times has today published an interview with me about the Brazilianization of the World argument that I made in American Affairs earlier this year (tl;dr: my original, unedited responses are posted below).
The Chinese paper had previously cited me in articles (here and here) that sought to use my argument about Western decline to contrast negatively with China’s own approach of ‘national projects’ and ‘sticking with industrialisation’. Of course, my argument is not that China is somehow immune to the wider crisis of modernisation, or that its regime has figured out some secret recipe that has escaped the ken of Western governments. What I did say was that China is something like the last man standing, the only real developmental success story of the past forty years.
In any case, it is all very interesting to witness Chinese state media’s interest in my argument, especially in light of Xi Jinping’s recent attempts to shift away from pure accumulation towards ‘common prosperity’, as his slogan has it. The Financial Times sums up the strategy as follows: ‘In advocating “common prosperity”, Beijing is signalling a campaign against social inequality. In stressing “dual circulation”, it is seeking to reduce reliance on foreign markets. In promoting family values it is, in part, hoping that women will opt to have more babies. By cracking down on after-school tuition and video games, it wants to alleviate the financial and emotional stress on families.’
Only a superficial reading of my Brazilianization argument could be understood as justifying such policies; or in other words, the pursuit of a narrow anti-neoliberal agenda in which some limited measures are taken against inequality, globalisation, and hyper-competitiveness, while also seeking to impose moral boundaries on the economy – or more specifically, on the advance of commodification of the lifeworld.
With all that in mind, in my interview responses by email I tried to do what I could to prevent my argument from serving as pure propaganda for the CCP, always emphasising the hollowing-out of democracy as one of the keys to understanding what is happening in the West – something to which China is hardly able to provide a forcefully democratic-popular riposte. Of course, in the published version, my critical comments about China’s social control, its own imperialism, and its inability to forever avoid economic crisis were removed.
As such, I’m posting here my original interview responses (NB question 5 and its response were removed entirely, which is where I was most critical of Chinese authoritarianism).
- In your article entitled “The Brazilianization of the World,” you wrote that “leaving aside the exception of China’s remarkable ascent, the global story of the past forty years is one of retrogression.” Why has China managed to be an exception within such a global trend? Why is the liberal democracy advocated by the West not working?
Firstly, China’s ascent should not be compared with the West, but with other countries that found themselves in a similar position in the 1980s. China managed to avoid the neoliberal shock treatment meted out to the former USSR by opting for more gradual reform. In doing so it retained greater state capacity and an ability to direct development that was lost elsewhere. This allowed it to carry out catch-up development. But in a situation of global oversupply and control of intellectual property by all leading states, this is not an option that appears open to the rest of the developing world. Only if there were transfers of technology to developing countries and an abandonment of neoliberal recipes of privatization, deregulation, and so on, that some countries might be able to achieve faster growth and development. But capitalism has its limits and imperial powers, including China, will likely prevent catch-up elsewhere.
Secondly, it is the “liberal” part of liberal democracy that is not working. Specifically, the neoliberal turn was a response to a profitability in the 1970s, that involved wearing down democracy to reduce wages and demands upon the state: destroying trade unions, hollowing out political parties, reducing political competition. As a result, in the West, there is little pressure from below on elites, as political participation has declined. This has allowed for increasing plunder by elites through increasing financialization, rising asset prices and so on. So there has been no real brake on deindustrialization as this has served economic elites well. At the same time, political elites have allowed state capacity to wither, as the neoliberal recipe prescribes that the state should not seek to guide development. This has suited political elites well: they have given up their responsibility for what actually happens in society. And with mass political institutions – like trade unions and left-wing parties – so hollowed out, elites are not really held to account. So what is “not working” in the West is directly tied to a lack of democracy.
- After the Brazilianization of the world, what will come next? Can some of China’s development concepts and ideas be the answers to address this worldwide trend?
China’s development might provide some impulse to renew state capacity, re-shore industry and for politicians in the West to take more direct responsibility for social outcomes. Competition with China will undoubtedly concentrate minds in the West. But it is unlikely that on its own this will lead to an improvement of people’s lives. Only citizens and workers organizing to fight against the kernel of Brazilianization – precarisation of work and life in general – will challenge this process of involution and decline. Elites on their own might undertake some shifts in economic management, but this won’t be to the benefit of the majority. Moreover, it’s likely that elites will learn the wrong lessons from China: increasing social control (as seen in the Covid-19 lockdowns and in the plans for vaccine passports) rather than reinvigorating democracy.
- Brazil has been facing a serious social gap between the rich and the poor. China also once suffered from poverty, but it has finally made the commendable achievement of eliminating extreme poverty. How do you evaluate China’s successful alleviation of poverty? What lessons can Brazil and other Latin American countries learn from China’s experience?
We should note that China’s development has also seen a large increase in inequality, and whatever measures the current leadership takes to ameliorate it won’t resolve the fundamental issue. Brazil though has always been more unequal and never benefited from real revolutionary upheaval. It has also been more penetrated by imperialist interests, something China managed to avoid since the revolution. China’s growth has been remarkable, but as I’ve argued, not so easily replicable: Brazil cannot follow the same developmental path by becoming the workshop of the world – nor should it want to as that would suppose a much lower level of wages, and a degree of social control not acceptable in a democracy.
What it can do is seek to do is to seek to develop domestic industries rather than rely on imports, shift focus away from agribusiness and primary exports, and grow the internal market by redistributing wealth downwards. But again, democracy is essential for that: popular forces would need to pressure and eventually overthrow Brazilian elites for that to happen. The tragedy is that Brazilian elites are not interested in development: as long as the stock market rises, they are satisfied. And as we know, there is no real correlation between the health of the stock market and economic growth, let alone social development.
- In your book The End of the End of History: Politics in the Twenty-First Century, you said, “The idea that Western liberal democracy was the ‘final form of human government’ has been exposed as bluster: the old order is crumbling before our eyes.” Then what should be the final form in your mind?
There is no final form. The notion of the “End of History” is taken from US political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s reading of the philosopher GWF Hegel. But Hegel’s philosophy is centered around the notion of contradiction – that any idea or social formation is contradictory, and that these tensions lead to new formations that come to superpose themselves on the old. So liberal democracy is not the final form of human government, but any new superior form will also have its contradictions – new, better contradictions. As Marx saw it, socialism would succeed capitalism, which would then birth communism. Only then would “real human history” begin. So there is no ending: contestation over the future, over how to organize human life, will continue.
- Why do the “Western liberal democracies” refuse to face up to and accept China’s development and learn even a little from its experience? Why is China always misunderstood, even stigmatized and demonized? What is the West afraid of?
The problem is that the West may be all too eager to learn from China in the worst ways. For example, by implementing increasing surveillance of citizens, restriction of their movements, and reduced democratic competition. As everyone knows, China’s leadership relies on so-called output legitimacy, rather than democratic legitimacy. Western establishments are increasingly lacking both. One would expect that at some point this will drive popular unrest and revolt – something already seen over the past decade with various “populist” insurgencies. China would not be immune to this either, should it be struck by serious economic crisis: suddenly that ‘output legitimacy’ – basically, rising living standards – wouldn’t be guaranteed. As for the West though, an uprising should be welcomed as it would focus minds domestically. No good will come out of increasing great power competition and rising aggressive nationalism, on either side.
- Since the adoption of reform and opening-up, China has been accelerating its integration into the world. But the West has always been reluctant to truly embrace China. Under the current international situation, what might the West eventually bring to itself as it engaging in denial and suppressions of China?
I’m afraid I don’t know how to answer this question, but I would just state that increasing great power confrontation is a consequence of the dynamics of capitalist competition. Only socialist revolution in the West – and in China – can lead to peaceful coexistence.