One Called Tiananmen


Factory workers in Shenzhen, China. Photograph by Douglas Johnson

From New Left Review:

Marx blamed California—the Gold Rush and its resultant monetary stimulus to world trade—for prematurely ending the revolutionary cycle of the 1840s. In the immediate aftermath of 2008, so-called brics became the new California. Airship Wall Street fell from the sky and crashed to earth, but China kept flying, with Brazil and Southeast Asia in tight formation. India and Russia also managed to keep their planes in the air. The resilient levitation of the brics astounded investment advisors, economic columnists and professional astrologers—all of them proclaiming that China, or India, could now hold up the world with one hand, or that Brazil would soon be richer than Spain. Their euphoric credulity, of course, arose from an ignorance of the superb sleight-of-hand techniques used by the Houdinis in the People’s Bank of China. Beijing itself, in sharp contrast, has long expressed significant fears about the country’s over-dependence upon exports, the insufficiency of household purchasing power, and the existence of an affordable-housing shortage side-by-side with an immense real-estate bubble.

Late last fall, articles of faith from the China optimists suddenly dwindled in editorial pages and the ‘hard landing’ scenario became the bookmakers’ favourite. No one, including the Chinese leadership, knows for how much longer the economy can keep flying in the face of global headwinds. But the unavoidable casualty list of foreign passengers is already compiled: South America, Australia, much of Africa and most of Southeast Asia. And—of particular interest—Germany, which now trades more with China than with the United States. A thoroughly triangulated global recession, of course, is precisely that non-linear nightmare that I alluded to at the beginning. It is almost a tautology to observe that in bric-bloc countries, where popular expectations of economic progress have recently been raised so high, the pain of re-immiseration may be most intolerable. Thousands of public squares may beg to be occupied. Including one called Tiananmen.

Western post-Marxists—living in countries where the absolute or relative size of the manufacturing workforce has shrunk dramatically in the last generation—lazily ruminate on whether or not ‘proletarian agency’ is now obsolete, obliging us to think in terms of ‘multitudes’, horizontal spontaneities, whatever. But this is not a debate in the great industrializing society that Das Kapital describes even more accurately than Victorian Britain or New Deal America. Two hundred million Chinese factory workers, miners and construction labourers are the most dangerous class on the planet. (Just ask the State Council in Beijing.) Their full awakening from the bubble may yet determine whether or not a socialist Earth is still possible.

“Spring Confronts Winter”, Mike Davis, New Left Review