Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Li Minqi and The Rise of China

Li Minqi’s book The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy (Monthly Review Press 2008) is an important contributor to discussion about the relationship between that sector of the Chinese economy that is capitalist and the greater world capitalist economy.

In particular, Li reaffirms again and again in his book, often through extensive statistical evidence, that the capitalist system of production for profit in pursuit of an endless accumulation of capital for its own sake is simply unsustainable. In a masterful final chapter he shows how the insatiable demand by capital that it have its own value reproduced over and over again is in conflict with environmental sustainability and life-sustaining climatic parameters. There can be no disagreement with his conclusion that “humanity must work for the overthrow of the global capitalist system as soon as possible” (p. 187).

Equally convincing is his analysis of the emergence and victory of the restorationists within the Chinese Communist Party. As he did in his earlier online study, Capitalist Development and Class Struggle in China written between 1993-96, Li traces the emergence of the restorationists to an urban, intellectual elite that formed as a new bureaucratic class through their membership of the CCP not long after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In Li’s view, this class survived the mass mobilization of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution because Mao Zedong and other Marxist-Leninists failed to grasp the need to form a new Party of the proletariat to carry forward the revolution under the conditions of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Li even disputes the existence of a proletarian dictatorship arguing that such can only exist when workers have complete control over production unmediated by government and Party cadres.

Nevertherless, he is entirely supportive of the economic gains of the so-called “Maoist” period and the new book’s second chapter Accumulation, Basic Needs and Class Struggle: the Rise of Modern China is an essential companion piece to Mobo Gao’s The Battle for China’s Past and Han Dongping’s The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Educational Reforms and Their Impact on China's Rural Development, 1966-1976 (East Asia (New York, N.Y.).)

For a book that is looking at the world system of capitalism, written by a self-described “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist” (Intro p. xiv), it is unfortunate that the Leninist analysis of imperialism as “moribund capitalism” is totally ignored in favour of Wallerstein’s “world systems” approach. If a “Leninist” (as Li claims to be, or perhaps he grew out of that when he started reading Wallerstein in 2001)) prefers a systems theory approach to analyse trends in capitalism to the approach used by Lenin then I would at least expect some comparative analysis of the two and some justification for preferring Wallerstein to Lenin. But there is none. You will look in vain for Lenin’s name in the index, and the term “imperialism”, which is mentioned in passing three times, is also excluded from the index.

I find the world systems approach to be static and mechanistic and question some of the conclusions that Li draws by using this approach. It is central to Li’s argument that the hegemony of the United States, now in decline, can not be rivalled or replaced. A continent-sized rival hegemon is required (size does matter!) and neither Brazil, Russia, China, or India (the so-called BRIC states) can mount the challenge and still maintain a sustainable world capitalist economy.

Li argues, “To the extent that the existing world-system has exhausted its ability to renew and restructure itself through the construction of a new hegemonic power, it has reached its own historical limit” (p. 23). This might be hoped-for news, but I don’t think it exhausts all the possibilities that materialist dialectics reveals: the movement of things towards their opposites; one divides into two, and so on. If imperialism is on the verge of collapse, then it is not for lack of jostling for position and rivalry between contending capitalisms.

Li even hints at a Leninist perspective on inter-imperialist rivalry when he observes that “capitalism is a world economy without a world government that can effectively represent the collective interests of global capitalists as a whole. Instead, individual capitalist states are motivated primarily to maximise their national rates of accumulation in order to prevail in global competition” (p. 144). However, he takes this analysis no further.

Similarly, for Wallerstein, it is not the models of proletarian revolutionary seizures of power that count, but rather the example of the large, powerful and militant Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil. All power to the comrades in the MST, but the force at the core leading our cause forward must be a Marxist-Leninist Party, imho.

Wallerstein’s remedy for the current ills of capitalism were articulated recently in an article in The Nation (and reproduced here on a comrade’s very useful Political Economy Research website).

He asks “What can we do?” and replies, “First of all we must be clear what the battle is all about. It is the battle between the spirit of Davos (for a new system that is not capitalism but is nonetheless hierarchical, exploitative and polarizing) and the spirit of Porto Alegre (a new system that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian). No lesser evil here. It’s one or the other.”

What are the battle tasks? “The primary thing to do is to encourage the decommodification of as much as we can decommodify. The second is to experiment with all kinds of new structures that make better sense in terms of social justice and ecological sanity. And the third thing we must do is to encourage sober optimism.”

This is an eclectic and confused scenario, and I divert from directly discussing Li Minqi’s book only because of the heavy reliance he places upon Wallerstein’s approach for his own conclusions.

Li’s book is a study in the unequal exchange of values between the core advanced capitalist economies and the periphery and semi-periphery. He establishes beyond doubt that there is a massive transfer of surplus value from the proletariat in the latter two zones to the owners of capital in the core. This is a tremendously useful study (although I’d like to see some of the graphs that generally finish around 2006 with the economic information of the last couple of years added. Going south anyone?)

It can be argued that the concentration on this exchange of unequal values, however, has led Li to ignore the moribund and parasitic over-production of finance capital in its fictitious bubble form. I don’t mean to say that he should have predicted the detail and timeline of the events that have unfolded since the sub-prime crisis first occurred, but he hints at something of this in a discussion of “mobile financial capital” (p. 114) and then leaves it alone. The fact that the global derivatives market has been estimated recently at $US1.1 quadrillion (that’s 10 to the power of 15, or $1000,000,000,000,000!) and that most of this just don’t exist is testimony to the parasitic and moribund state of imperialism (and it is just one of the forms, and one of the values, of fictitious capital currently disappearing before our eyes).

Li Minqi has written a very good book (in fact one of three “good books” on China that have appeared in the last year or two, together with The Battle for China’s Past and The Unknown Cultural Revolution.)

His work should be widely read by all seeking an understanding of contemporary China and the current crisis of capitalism.


nickglais said...

Good article Mike I have put a link from Political Economy Research to your site for this article.

dave said...

Here's an attempt at a Leninist analysis of China today.