Filed under: Rhetoric | Tags: Charlie Chaplin, Communism, Democracy, Fascism, Propaganda, Solidarity, The Great Dictator
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…
To those who can hear me I say, ‘Do not despair’. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass and dictators die; and the power they took from the people will return to the people and so long as men die, liberty will never perish…
Soldiers: Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of Saint Luke it is written, ‘the kingdom of God is within man’—not one man, nor a group of men, but in all men, in you, you the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then, in the name of democracy, let us use that power! Let us all unite! Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie! They do not fulfill their promise; they never will. Dictators free themselves, but they enslave the people! Now, let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.
Soldiers: In the name of democracy, let us all unite!
—The Great Dictator (1940). Dir. Charlie Chaplin.
Filed under: Capitalism, Imagination | Tags: Bechtel, Democracy, Ecuador, Edinburgh, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Financial Times, Glasgow East Byelection, Guayaquil, Hope, Labour Party, Lawrence Summers, New Labour, Scotland, Scottish Independence, Tariq Ali, Thatcherism, Venezuela
Yesterday, I heard Tariq Ali speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (Warning: bagpipes at link!). Erudite, gentle and compassionate, Ali began with last month’s Glasgow East byelection, in which the Scottish National Party defeated the 25th safest incumbent in Britain, inciting Ali to label the incident ‘the end of New Labour’, and moved expertly from British politics to South Ossetia, China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela and back to Scottish independence. It was a masterful performance.
Ali pointed out that when Tony Blair’s New Labour came to power in 1997, if you read what Blair and his ministers were actually saying (which of course Ali did to no avail), they were advocating a continuation of Thatcherism. Surely the privatization of the Royal Mail should have keyed us in to the fact that there is little difference between the Conservatives and Blair’s Labour. Ali pointed to the chameleon tendencies of Tory ministers who found no difficulty finding a new home. Indeed, the recent confidence motion that demanded 42-day detention capabilities for anti-terrorism police saw progressive Labour MPs voting for the bill while every Tory voted against it. Under neoliberalism and capitalism, Ali argued, when you believe that the Market can solve everything, why, exactly, do we have government at all? Pro-market MPs are incidental, opportunistic and utterly indistinguishable.
Well, the party’s over. ‘When you base your politics on a lie’, Ali stated, ‘it’s only a matter of time before you get caught out’. He cited a Financial Times article by (sexist bigot) Lawrence Summers about the mortgage crisis in the United States:
the government should use its new receivership power to protect taxpayers and the financial system. In the process, payments to stock holders, holders of preferred stock and probably subordinated debt holders would be wiped out, conserving cash for the benefit of taxpayers. The GSEs’ borrowing costs would fall considerably, helping prospective homeowners.
In this scenario, the government would operate the GSEs as public corporations for several years. They would then be in a position to extend credit where appropriate to support resolution of the current housing crisis.
Punishing shareholders. Nationalization without compensation. ‘In the olden days,’ Ali said, ‘this was called “expropriation.” China’s recent explosive growth has emphatically demonstrated that capitalism and democracy are not companions. Now, to save us from the devastation neoliberalism has wrought, the ex-president of Harvard University, in the pages of the Financial Times is advocating social democracy as the only available solution.
Under time constraints, Ali turned briefly to the situation in South America, where populist anti-poverty movements are changing the political landscape of a continent and delivering social change to the people. ‘It’s not revolutionary’, he said simply. ‘It’s social democracy’. If Scotland, for example, continues its path towards independence, they will have a new space in which to build a robust democracy. There is no point in earning it, Ali says, unless you are prepared to do something with it. Actions like the Ecuadoran village of Guayaquil, and their winning fight against Bechtel who sought to privatize their water supply should provide us with hope that we do not have to doom ourselves to another term of neoliberalism, now Labour, now Tory. ‘Change is possible’, Ali concluded. ‘If the will is there’.
So let’s, shall we?
Filed under: Capitalism | Tags: China, consumerism, Democracy, Slavoj Žižek, Tibet
Last month I expressed some of my reservations about the West’s unnatural obsession with Tibet. It seems to me that our fascination with Tibetan independence is rooted not in solidarity or concern for the well-being of actual Tibetans, but rather in the way we substitute their ascetic, anti-consumption devotion (at least, that’s how the West conceives of it) for our consumerist largesse. They are devout so that we don’t have to be. Slovenian cultural critic and all-round cool guy Slavoj Žižek, in a letter to the London Review of Books, elaborates on this contradiction and the dangers it threatens:
In recent years, China has changed its strategy in Tibet: depoliticised religion is now tolerated, often even supported. China now relies more on ethnic and economic colonisation than on military coercion, and is transforming Lhasa into a Chinese version of the Wild West, in which karaoke bars alternate with Buddhist theme parks for Western tourists. In short, what the images of Chinese soldiers and policemen terrorising Buddhist monks conceal is a much more effective American-style socio-economic transformation: in a decade or two, Tibetans will be reduced to the status of Native Americans in the US. It seems that the Chinese Communists have finally got it: what are secret police, internment camps and the destruction of ancient monuments, compared with the power of unbridled capitalism?
One of the main reasons so many people in the West participate in the protests against China is ideological: Tibetan Buddhism, deftly propagated by the Dalai Lama, is one of the chief points of reference for the hedonist New Age spirituality that has become so popular in recent times. Tibet has become a mythic entity onto which we project our dreams. When people mourn the loss of an authentic Tibetan way of life, it isn’t because they care about real Tibetans: what they want from Tibetans is that they be authentically spiritual for us, so that we can continue playing our crazy consumerist game. ‘Si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre,’ Gilles Deleuze wrote, ‘vous êtes foutu.’ The protesters against China are right to counter the Beijing Olympic motto – ‘One World, One Dream’ – with ‘One World, Many Dreams’. But they should be aware that they are imprisoning Tibetans in their own dream.
The payoff for such dabbling in the internal affairs of a world power remains the satisfaction in knowing that we are ushering China past state communism, through the growing pains of capitalism, towards the ultimate goal of democracy (which we, the West, have perfected, natch). After all, we’ve seen it all before. In our presumed democratic maturity, we believe that we recognize why China is unsettled by plurality (as we are unsettled by the First Nations), and like a concerned parent we want to prevent China from repeating our mistakes, while encouraging China’s capitalist honeymoon. With equal parts schizophrenia and audacity, we actively encourage the impulses that are eroding the beloved Tibetan Buddhist in the hopes that we can defend our monastic construction until China’s democracy asserts its inevitability.
But, Žižek warns, there is a fatal assumption in our grandiose plan.
Following this path, the Chinese used unencumbered authoritarian state power to control the social costs of the transition to capitalism. The weird combination of capitalism and Communist rule proved not to be a ridiculous paradox, but a blessing. China has developed so fast not in spite of authoritarian Communist rule, but because of it.
There is a further paradox at work here. What if the promised second stage, the democracy that follows the authoritarian vale of tears, never arrives? This, perhaps, is what is so unsettling about China today: the suspicion that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a reminder of our past – of the process of capitalist accumulation which, in Europe, took place from the 16th to the 18th century – but a sign of our future? What if the combination of the Asian knout and the European stock market proves economically more efficient than liberal capitalism? What if democracy, as we understand it, is no longer the condition and motor of economic development, but an obstacle to it?
Oh my. That is a sobering thought.
h-t to The Dilettante