The historian Niall Ferguson is just back from China:
The change in China is so vast that it makes the lead stories in the Western media - the Labour Party conference, the appointment of a new chief justice in the United States - seem almost comically parochial. Did we really kid ourselves that 1989 marked the "end of history" and the "triumph of the West"?Ferguson is of course referring to Francis Fukuyama’s argument that with the collapse of Soviet communism, liberal market society was proven to be the most creative and powerful social form. It now has no more serious competitors and history, in the sense of competing social theories, comes to an end. But whatever the Chinese communists or Caliphascist jihadis may think of Fukuyama’s belief, “liberal market society” itself is not a stable form; whatever it is, it is surely always changing in response to history. It changes primarily in response to the discontents - local, national and international - which it inevitably creates.
The free market ever encourages us in new desires - as consumers, producers, or even destructive terrorists - and simultaneously works to provide the means for the realization or cultural mediation of these desires, thus creating again new desires, resentments, and security needs. We are all aware of the paradox that it is the system that the terrorist wishes to destroy that provides both the tools of his trade, as well as the means to defeat him. Another oft-mentioned paradox is that the market system makes certain “radical” professors, journalists, and artists who are skilled (and sometimes not) at criticizing capitalism into some of its leading beneficiaries.
Similarly, “liberal market society” creates environments hospitable to organizations like the Hell’s Angels (here in British Columbia, they control what may be the province’s second largest industry, marijuana cultivation and trafficking), organizations whose illiberal ethics, and possibly corrupting influence on society at large, may appear to be at odds with either the freedoms, or the productive disciplines, on which liberal market society variously depends. And yet there are all kinds of individuals and organizations that contribute to the growth of liberal market society by resisting aspects of it. Just ask the economically and demographically successful Mormons what they think, for example, of the pornographic culture the market endlessly produces.
Organizations and individuals that strongly oppose market freedoms, or (in the case of gangs or religious sects) that engage people in seemingly archaic, or violent, sacrificial behaviors in isolation from the main networks of the marketplace, may, paradoxically, provide people with means to stay productive (whether in lawful or criminal work). Opposition to the market can help us in the marketplace if it helps us resist the all- consuming desires that the free market produces and trades when selling us things and culture: consumption of the market’s own products often compromises the market’s own needs for productive workers.
So what about the Chinese Communist Party and state? Could whatever paradoxes that are making the illiberal Hell’s Angels a successful social form in today’s global marketplace be similarly at play in the workings of a complex state governing perhaps as many as 1.4 billion people? From one perspective, surely not: if British Columbians were to attempt to extend the Hell’s Angels model to their state and society as a whole, they would destroy the basis for their present free market-oriented society and would end up being governed by someone like, well, Saddam Hussein. Yet China’s corrupt, and some might even say gangster, state is in fact part of a society presently doing quite well in the global marketplace. Conservatives might appreciate that this is perhaps because the Chinese state is less an imposition of modern communist ideologues, as it is an organically evolved, and locally well-adapted form that has existed in China for two thousand years.
To put it more plainly, what China’s recent economic success forces us to ask is whether some new mix of western freedoms and Confucian order will not prove somehow superior to “liberal market society” as we have recently known it in the west. Do the Chinese yet have something to teach us about what it means to be human and historical beings?
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