Blind Man with a Pistol

Waiting for Democracy
13 May 2008, 9:49 am
Filed under: Capitalism | Tags: , , , ,

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

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