WORLD AFFAIRS: AS THE WEST STUMBLES, CHINA AND EURASIA LEADAs the commentary below suggests, the Western world is indeed facing a grim, no-win dilemma. Not so the non-West, especially China.
The power and influence of the West’s long-dominant Empire is visibly waning, along with its predatory neoliberal global order. What has risen to challenge it on its home ground is not socialism or its humane impulses to care for the 99%, and not the 1%. The heyday of that effort has come and gone.
The new, emerging challenger to the status quo is a right-wing “nationalism” that’s crude, ugly, vindictive. Anti-foreigner, anti-women, anti-everything-that’s-not-us, it is fueled by the frustrated aspirations of have-nots – the angry losers under the neoliberal order. They are the karmic payback for the depredations of the Empire’s elites.
The proof is the stunning triumphs of the xenophobic right over the past couple of years – Brexit, and electoral victories from the US, Italy and Austria to Hungary, Poland and now, Brazil. Even Angela Merkel, that durable icon of neoliberalism, is fading into the sunset. Today’s “America First” has distinct echoes of history’s “Deutschland über alles.”
If the West is in a deep funk, it’s an entirely different story elsewhere. Especially in Asia, hope and optimism prevail. Increasingly pulled into the orbit of its dynamic epicenter, China, the region leads the world in economic growth. It has also matched or surpassed the West in many other areas of human endeavor and achievement.
Above all, Asia has accomplished this over nearly seven decades without the toxic clash of ideologies that has so devastated the West (and its imperial territories) in modern times. In essence, Asians in the post WW2 era haven’t given a hoot about “isms” – capitalism, socialism, fascism, democratic liberalism, etc.
Essentially pragmatists, Asians care about what works, what delivers results – not sweeping, romantic ideals whose aims almost always exceed real-life capabilities to deliver. The avatar of this ethos was, of course, Deng Xiaoping, Chief Architect of Reform in China. It was he who resurrected the world’s largest nation from death by ultra-left communism and put it on its continuing march to renewed greatness.
In coining his most famous policy guideline, Deng was only expressing something already in the Chinese, and Asian, DNA: It doesn’t matter if it’s a socialist/market-driven/democratic cat; it’s a good cat if it catches the mice. Though Deng was a committed Marxist who sought to care for the 99% of Chinese and make the nation strong & prosperous, he was also slyly subversive of communist dogma that ran against China’s realities or interests. He junked those parts and replaced them with inspirations from China’s own traditions, custom-tailored to concrete Chinese conditions. They worked like a dream. That’s the meaning of his Socialism With Chinese Characteristics. And therein lies the man’s greatness.
Down-to-earth pragmatism aside, the great force for progress in modern Asia has been nationalism. In the West, of course, the N-word has a status comparable to that of the F-word. And that’s entirely understandable … going by the Western experience. It was the clash of nationalisms that caused countless wars and deaths in Europe, culminating in the two cataclysms that are called “world wars,” but were essentially Western civil wars — among European nationalisms. To Westerners, nationalism is one ugly beast.
Not so in Asia — or in much of the non-Western world. Colonized or semi-colonized by Western imperialists, its peoples naturally turned to nationalism in the attempt to recover their own identities, which were erased or semi-erased under European rule. People who don’t know who or what they are, have no direction or future. Such rediscovery, whose animus was nationalism, was the essential first step in any struggle for national liberation and political independence.
So it is no accident that ALL the greatest heroes of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America are nationalists: Rizal, Aung San, Nehru, Gandhi, Sun Yat-sen, Mao, Sukarno, Lee Kuan Yew, Nasser, Nkruma, Lumumba, Castro, Bolivar. The Asian ones, at least, were less concerned about which ideology they adopted to drive their anti-colonialist causes — and much more about whether it could “catch the mice” of national liberation and independence. Marxism proved the effective vehicle in some cases, capitalism (as well as mixed bags of various “isms”) in others.
The legacy and spirit of these giants still provide the fuel for Asia’s dynamism and progress today. English-language readers don’t hear much about it because the MSM neither understand nor are much interested in reporting the central role of nationalism in Asia. Naturally, Asia’s nationalisms sometimes compete with one another, and the challenge is to manage them so they don’t spiral into war. In the post-WW2 period, Asian nations have been largely successful, especially in the absence of external intervention.
As for China, it is engaged in something epochal. Domestically, it is evolving a paradigm that’s neither capitalism nor socialism, which are both Western constructs from the era when the West dominated the world. The “Chinese model” will be a unique mixture of elements from socialism and capitalism, with heavy infusions from China’s own Confucianist, Buddhist and Daoist heritage.
Internationally, the Beijing-inspired Belt & Road Initiative is set to link the entire EurAsian landmass and transform it into the biggest development project in the history of the world. Africa will be a part of it too. Significantly, it will be a living illustration of how nations with different cultures & values can work together for mutual benefit. It will be mankind’s best hope for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable future in the 21st century.
As the West recedes and the Rest rise on the world stage, those who would evaluate international affairs solely from Western perspectives, and with Western benchmarks, will increasingly lose the plot. In the 21st century, the world needs multi-national, multi-cultural perspectives more than ever.
Although I agree with much of what the author says in his essay above, a couple of things struck me as a bit off-kilter and deserving of special comment. While correctly castigating the rise of xenophobic, ugly nationalisms across the West, Thomas Hon Wing Polin—whose broad philosophical roots I believe encompass not just Marxian dialectics but Buddhism— credits what I suppose an enlightned form of nationalism with the emergence of Asia as a new model for wise human governance and progress. He declares (bold mine):
“Especially in Asia, hope and optimism prevail. Increasingly pulled into the orbit of its dynamic epicenter, China, the region leads the world in economic growth. It has also matched or surpassed the West in many other areas of human endeavor and achievement.
Above all, Asia has accomplished this over nearly seven decades without the toxic clash of ideologies that has so devastated the West (and its imperial territories) in modern times. In essence, Asians in the post WW2 era haven’t given a hoot about “isms” – capitalism, socialism, fascism, democratic liberalism, etc.” (end quote)
This is an extraordinary assertion. For starters, the author conflates widely disparate cultures and nations, with a profound diversity of historical and economic development, into a smooth rubric, “Asia”, insinuating that it has been nationalism that performed the miracle of newly-minted prosperity in an atmosphere of harmony. Surely, while, say, Koreans, Thais, Japanese, Taiwanese, and the people of Singapore are all Asian indeed, they also present deep fissures in terms of their recent histories toward capitalism, fascism, communism, American imperialism, and not least—each other. Thus, “nationalist” Koreans may despise “nationalist” Japanese, and the same applies to “nationalists” in Mainland China and Taiwan. If so, these longstanding nationalist antipathies represent a brake on the success achieved so far, and not the other way around.
Now, before delving further into this topic, it’s good to remember that while an embryonic nationalism already existed under mercantile feudalism, it took the capitalist revolutions of the 17th and late 18th centuries to bring this idealist, very bourgeois ideology to the fore. The point here is that being “idealist” it does not possess its own mainsprings for action, remaining in almost all cases a mask for hidden twists and turns in the class struggle. More on this below.
Thus, far from being indifferent to whether they were fascistoid, capitalist, communist or monarchic, the record shows that all of these nations—except for China—were and remain above all subject to the rules of hegemonic US imperialism, dutifully operating domestically and in foreign matters under an authoritarian, highly regimented capitalism, with some, like Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, also acting as strategic “privileged” colonies with very limited authentic sovereignty. (Likewise Singapore, which with Washington’s full support also chose a Friedmanian type of sternly auhoritarian capitalism.).
The last 70 years are eloquent. Most of these less-than independent actors have obliged Washington by implementing highly hostile gestures and policies toward Beijing and its allies, the most salient cases being of course the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the encirclement and stigmatisation of China. We must ask, therefore, can simple, indigenous nationalism —unexplained by localised ruling class interests and alliances—account for this near-universal fear of and rejection of China throughout this region until fairly recent times?
In his praise of Asian nationalism, a supposedly superior strain lacking the malignancy of its Western variety, the author both highlights and downplays the fact that nationalism —when used in colonialised countries—is and has been a defensive reaction against Western colonialism/imperialism, chosen by patriots like Castro, Chavez, and Deng chiefly for reasons of expediency, as these two malignant isms have very clear and traceable roots in capitalism itself. So, yes, nationalism has been used because it is an ideology of tribal unification and resistance quicker to communicate than class struggle, per se, but the latter has also been applied with great success in places of extreme colonial/imperial aggression, such as Vietnam, Korea and China itself.
Along the same lines, in his effort to demote class-rooted ideology as en engine of history, Thomas Hon Wing Polin appears to imply that the wars in Europe, just to take the 20th century, from the Spanish Civil War to World War 2 and beyond, were merely a clash of perverse nationalisms. This is a huge oversimplification that obfuscates more than it elucidates. In Spain in the 1930s for example, the German-Italian axis and the Soviet Union fought on opposite sides, and the war was inherently and eminently a war of ideology: conservatism vs revolutionism; backwardness vs. enlightened progressivism; the desire to preserve gross inequality in land and property vs the desire to erase it; feudalism vs. republicanism, and religiosity vs secularism, not to mention global fascism vs. communism. How is that subsumed solely just under “nationalism” is hard to fathom. Belligerent nationalism may have been the horse, but the jockey was the distinct class interests steering it down its path of eventual destruction.
The ultimate proof that class criteria superseded raw nationalism in determining the course of nations was the ferocious clash between Nazi Germany and the USSR, as seen in the distorted but eloquent mirror of British upper class attitudes. If simple nationalist interest had been the main factor explaining friendship and hostility why were the Anglo-Americans so friendly toward Germany —a highly capable and tremendously powerful emerging power—during its period of Nazi ascendancy while persisting in their boycots and hostility toward the Soviet Union? With the war already on after 1939, Churchill is on record as endorsing a delay in assistance to the Soviets to insure that the Germans managed to destroy as much as possible of the USSR’s industrial and military plant, a fact that prolonged the war and assured greater numbers of casualties not only in Russia but among allied armies. Later, with Germany defeated by 1945, the outrageous idea of launching an immediate all-out conventional and nuclear attack on the Soviet Union was seriously entertained by the political and military chiefs of the victorious Western allies. The two atomic bombs on Japan, meant to intimidate the Soviets, were in fact the tail end of this criminal and semi-deranged posture. What were the British and American ruling classes afraid of then? The nationalism of an exhausted nation? Or the spread across the world of much feared communism, a direct threat to their accustomed privileges?
Indeed Hitler’s assault on the USSR was not just a conflict between German and Russian “nationalisms” —as Hon Wing Polin suggests—but a true ideological clash with many important class implications and underpinnings. Russia had no chauvinist expansionist desires, inherent in fascism—Italian, German or Japanese—except the revolutionary desire to see a world populated by fellow socialist republics. For while fascism finds a great deal of its power and allegiance (and is almost always invested) in some rabid form of militarist nationalism, communism does not emerge from such tribalistic matrix at all, and in fact is quintessentally internationalist.
In sum, I’m sure the author remembers that class still exists, and that it matters in understanding political reality, including the success or defeat of develomental projects. Indeed, it is not accidental that it is in the West, notably in the US, the citadel of global capitalism, that the push to wipe out class as a social analytical tool has been most prominent and persistent, and that nationalism is usually embraced by most ruling classes in the West, the US being in a category almost by itself with its doctrine of exceptionalism. So why join such a project in the name of raising a new model of social advance when the study of class and ideology does not per se preclude at all the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics? Good Marxism is by definition non-dogmatic. China can be proud to have sorted out difficult aspects of internal and external politics to achieve what she has in such a relatively short period of time. In many critical aspects, China is a great and enduring example for humanity. But for that, I think her leaders, starting with Xi Jinping, would readily recognise the debt the nation owes to Marxism (yes, an ideology that transcends nationalism) and the Communist Party, and, granted, the judicious incorporation of Chinese cultural ways of thinking dating back to the birth of this unique civilisation.
A final word
In his enthusiasm, and no doubt well merited pride, Hon Wing Polin makes another noteworthy claim in his closing remarks:
“As for China, it is engaged in something epochal. Domestically, it is evolving a paradigm that’s neither capitalism nor socialism, which are both Western constructs from the era when the West dominated the world. The “Chinese model” will be a unique mixture of elements from socialism and capitalism, with heavy infusions from China’s own Confucianist, Buddhist and Daoist heritage…”
A few things strike me again as odd here. One, this sounds like a reiteration—albeit without malice—of what many Western academics and capitalist apologists have been saying for a very long time, since Daniel Bell and Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of ideology” and “the end of history” in the 1960s. (Fukuyama is known for his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), which argued that the worldwide spread of liberal democracies and free market capitalism of the West and its lifestyle may signal the end point of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and become the final form of human government.).
The error here, in my view, is that class dialectics, though first recognised and articulated in its Marxian form in the West, is not just a mere “Western construct”, but something that obtains in all latitudes, wherever a class divided society exists. To negate that is like claiming that water boils capriciously at different degrees in Shanghai, Atlanta, Paris and New York. I am certain that Deng, were he alive, would agree. Western ideas and modes of thought are, as the author often warns in his writings, toxic, false, mean-spirited and misguided, but this is not one of those instances. The class struggle has yet to be retired.
To close, let us bear in mind that any nation threatened by a dangerous adversary will instinctively rally around its national identity, and yet, this reaction to the menace can also be energised by ideological fuel. Soviet soldiers (and Mao’s armies) fought bravely against the imperialist invaders, but their struggle combined both streams of consciousness—nationalism and communism. This is because today’s imperialism’s underpinnings, its malignant roots, are to be found, as ever, ultimately in the core dynamics of the ruling capitalist classes, not some nationalist veneer, no matter how impessive and threatening it may look, for this is after all simply a meta narrative for much deeper determinative undercurrents.
By the way, none of the above should be read as contravening our distinguished colleague’s main thesis, that the sun is indeed rising in the East.
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Parting shot—a word from the editors