Nationalism Unbound: China, Hong Kong and Brexit through the Prism of Castoriadis

Castoriadis, wrote very little that directly dealt with Chinese politics. What is striking, however, is how with a time-lag of between ten and twenty years, Castoriadis's analysis of the Soviet Union may be mapped onto Mao's China. Even today looking at Xi Jinping's China the insights of Castoriadis ring true.

Cornelius Castoriadis, theorist, philosopher and economist, was one of the most inventive and evolutive political thinkers of the second half of the twentieth-century. A young Greek unorthodox Marxist, after World War Two, he was forced to flee the Greek Communists as much as the UK-supported Greek regime, and in 1946 took refuge in Paris. With Claude Lefort he established the influential group “Socialisme ou barbarie”. Over a thirty-year period, he transitioned from youthful Trotskyist to a mature Marxo-skeptic, radical thinker for our time.

Castoriadis, wrote very little that directly dealt with Chinese politics. In his lifetime, the major object of critique for left-leaning intellectuals was the Soviet Union. Indeed, he wrote a good deal about Soviet bureaucratic society. He engaged in depth with the question in his 1981 book Devant la guerre (Confronted by war). The 1980s were the moment when the new Chinese régime under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping started to "liberalize" the economy, when Communism, or rather Marxism-Leninism, would quit centre-stage to become the mere ideological backdrop; while remaining the political justification for the party-state's existence.

What is striking, however, is how with a time-lag of between ten and twenty years, Castoriadis's analysis of the Soviet Union may be mapped onto Mao's China. Even today looking at Xi Jinping's China the insights of Castoriadis ring true.

Look at the cult of Stalin which was intentionally reproduced in the Mao cult. Likewise, in these two giant communist societies, the place of nationalism which replaced Marxism-Leninism as a positive and operative popular ideology and which would find its place in the new nationalist imaginaries of the twenty-first century, was and is deployed in a similar fashion. Reading Castoriadis on the “nationalist and chauvinist orientation of propaganda” in 1980s USSR, we see a parallel spectre of the China of the 1980s. As for Russia, the virulent form of nationalism that holds sway today totally shed the ideology of Marxism-Leninism after the break-up of the Soviet Union (even though its modus operandi flourish still under Putin). In the case of the still Communist China, Xi Jinping's contemporary "China dream" 中国梦 is enveloped in an absolutist form of chauvinism.

The sloppy, short-hand language of journalists and China-watchers referring to the Party-state, the higher echelons of decision-making power as simply "China" or "Beijing" (as in "China thinks…", "Beijing insisted" and so on), can lead to a simplistically negative image of China the country and all its people in the minds of peoples elsewhere and is definitely not to be condoned. Nevertheless, the virulent nationalism now prevalent in Chinese society, and most recently demonstrated in anti-Muslim sentiment expressed in terms of verbal and physical violence against the Uighurs, is not simply the preserve of the state, and neither is it entirely the product of party-state propaganda and ideology.

Castoriadis penned the following words in 1981, but how much more pronounced is the nationalism and chauvinism of Putin’s post-Soviet Russia, and of Xi Jinping’s post-socialist Communist China.

It would be superficial, to attribute this resurgence of a popular chauvinism to the effects of official propaganda alone…. In the ruins of the ideology…, the nationalism, the myth (or rather mythicized reality) of the Russian Empire" [and here we could substitute "Chinese Empire"] — become once more the only imaginary significations available which can give a semblance of meaning to individuals' existence, as long as they accept the state of things the way they are. They furnish them with identificatory landmarks, centres of valorisation, the motifs of a plan of action which inscribes the present in a historical continuity…. Beyond the case of Russia — and as shown by its quasi-invulnerability everywhere in the world —, we find again here the hard reality of the national imaginary, that Marxism had, even if only superficially, desired to eliminate.[1]

Today, control of “historical continuity” is essential to the Chinese regime, perhaps even more so than it was four decades ago. The monopoly over recounting the past must lie in the hands of the regnant authority. The past needs to be malleable, alterable and inexhaustible. The story of the past can justify the crushing of minorities on mainland China, as we have seen recently with the treatment of the Uighurs, and expansionist activities in the oceans and all in the name of borders and states long gone: a golden yesteryear when “China” as state, as a concept and an imaginary signification even, did not exist.

The important difference, however, between the Russia described in 1981 by Castoriadis — it is the latter who insists on employing “Russia” rather than the USSR — and China’s situation today lies in the economic turn first adopted by China’s leadership in the late 1970s after the demise of Mao Zedong. During the 1980s, China gradually moved to a market-oriented economy which nevertheless remained strictly controlled and directed by the Party-state. Where Castoriadis describes in 1981 the rise of Russian nationalism and chauvinism “on the ruins of ideology” as a reaction to, and a deflection from, a socio-economic situation that is “petrified and unbearable”, the rise of Chinese nationalism or rather the re-orientation of an already existing nationalism, while in part constructed on “ideological ruins” of Maoism, was built on the regime’s promise of individual enrichment coupled with political democratization. This promise dangled before a people who had endured the colourless deprivations of the Cultural Revolution constituted what Castoriadis would have called the “instituting imaginary”, while 1989 saw the result of its failure to deliver on both the economic and political planes. In other words, the gap between the instituting imaginary and the instituted imaginary was too wide for the people to continue to believe, and the consequence was the popular revolt that ended on 4 June 1989.

With the 1989 debacle, all hope of meaningful political and cultural freedoms was extinguished. Since then, economic enrichment and consumer gluttony offered by savage capitalism, a capitalism still controlled by the state, and the nationalism based on the myth of a re-emergent eternal China remain the “only imaginary significations available which can give a semblance of meaning to individuals' existence, as long as they accept the state of things the way they are.”

Starting in the 1990s, at the very moment when Russian Communism was laid to rest, and before Putin’s new Russia with its revived imperialist pretensions had emerged, Chinese communism, or rather the Chinese Party-state, reinforced as the first pillar of its power the authoritarian “reign of brute force enveloped in nationalist imperialism”.[2] But it was the second pillar of the Party-state which saved the Chinese Communist Party from the same fate as its former Soviet Big Brother or laodage 老大哥,  as around the world the global edifices of Leninism and Stalinism were crumbling to the ground.[3] This second pillar of the Party-state was the productivist industrial economy that would evolve rapidly into a mass consumption socio-economy which, in addition to saving the Chinese Communist Party, would re-dynamize and ensure the continued survival of the global capitalist economy, and as a corollary increase exponentially global warming.

A late text of Castoriadis’s, “The ‘Rationality’ of Capitalism” written in 1996-97, discussed this moment; a moment when China’s economy had just been thrust by its leadership into developing an increasingly homogenized, and thus more profoundly nationalized, consumer society. I say nationalized, since the effect of globalization within the frontiers of China — despite the internal rhetoric that paid lip service to the chimera of a multi-ethnic state — has been to consolidate and complete the twentieth-century project which was the creation of a homogenous Chinese nation-state economically, politically and ethnically along centralized, Jacobine lines.

While Castoriadis makes no direct reference to China, it nevertheless constitutes his sub-text, since it was China in the mid-1990s that not only provided the conditions for the survival of global capitalism, but for its expansion. A new large class of consumers, alongside a significant capitalist class, breathed new breath into capitalism at the end of the twentieth century. For the already wealthy countries of the world, the goods that were craved became cheaper, since production in China was cheaper, and for the ordinary Chinese first the aspiration to accede to such goods and then the economic means to acquire them was furnished.

Writing in 1997, as lucid as ever, Castoriadis saw no reason to doubt the longevity of this system, and seemingly neither can we today. “For the moment,” wrote Castoriadis, “somehow or other, capitalism is capable of providing this merchandise…. […A]s long as people desire this accumulation of trinkets…the situation will not change.”[4] Trinkets and gadgets depend on, are even the product of:

…a historically unprecedented technological development…a finely oriented technology, it is true, but adequate to the aimed for objectives: power for the dominant, mass consumption for the majority of the dominated, destruction of the meaning of work, elimination of humankind from production. But the most formidable means employed has been the destruction of all previous social significations and the instilling in the soul of almost everyone the rabid desire to acquire that which is, or appears to be, accessible, and to that end to except almost anything.

But this “rabid desire” would have a price for China, as it has for the entire global socio-economy of which China is now a huge constituent part.

When, in 1995, Castoriadis evoked China specifically, it was to highlight its impact on the order, he calls it the disorder of the world, which he describes as a “Chinese process of a vertiginous industrialization within the dilapidated structures of communist power. Whatever the future evolution of China is to be, it is certain that it will completely destabilize the existing fragile world disorder.”[5] 

Elsewhere, Castoriadis details the nature of this destabilization, when he writes of “the pollution in China” and the “unprecedented ecological catastrophes” Chinese capitalism will bring about. And just as did Jacques Ellul and André Gorz, Castoriadis alerts us to the outcome of unlimited capitalist expansion:

And the catastrophe is occurring far more swiftly than in the countries of the West. If the Third World is to be extracted from its misery, the result will be the destruction of the Earth. It is to such absurd dilemmas that the pursuit of the capitalist momentum condemns us.[6]

Castoriadis’s analysis is coldly accurate, for we may also discern in the mid-1990s which saw the emergence of China as major productivist and consumerist socio-economy, a crucial juncture not only in the fortunes of capitalism but also in terms of the acceleration of global warming and the pollution of our soils and our seas. Today, of “the top 20 countries generating the greatest amount of ocean-bound trash. China is first.” [7]

But yet, it is indeed a dilemma and, seen from the perspective of the old Third World, an injustice, when the old First World — whose peoples seemingly “benefitted” so much from unbridled, unparalleled industrial development and the accompanying consumerist revolution ­— now expects China to tighten its ecological belt. Nevertheless, the human-produced ecological catastrophe we are all facing will need “sacrifice” or rather a massive re-orientation of the way we all live and exploit the earth whether it be in Australia, Brazil, or China.

And yet, there are sparks of hope. People around the globe are rejecting “the accumulation of trinkets”. Witness the people of Hong Kong so seemingly, irrevocably anchored in the consumption of trinkets, who have rebelled. The younger generations in particular, but not solely them, have awoken as they have elsewhere on the planet, and have rejected the consumerist paradise the price of which was obedience to an authoritarian bureaucracy, and have chosen the desire to live over resignation to quotidian survival. It is a positive sign: the toys proffered by consumer society suffice to anesthetize the population for a certain period of time, but not eternally.

What spoils such a promising rejection of consumerism is the recrudescence of the nationalist imaginary. The results of the United Kingdom general election in December 2019, demonstrate once again that a significant segment of the population is very much ready to vote against its own socio-economic interests, and indeed its physical wellbeing, in favour of the clarity of a virulently nationalist and xenophobic discourse. From this we can conclude that while “progressive” politicians have accentuated the primacy of the economic and the social, and have railed against austerity, they have totally neglected the political education of the masses. European or world citizens are not spawned over night, they are created over an extended period of time. The task — which in any case should not be left to politicians and falls to us all — of preparing communities to reflect on political life and, even more necessary as Castoriadis had shown, to participate actively in political life, the life of the polis, has been completely neglected since the inception of consumer culture and its technological props. Both liberal and social democratic governments have been content to provide the hardware (the televisions, the computers, the Walkmans, the iPhones) while leaving the cultural and political content to be decided and distributed by liberal capitalist structures in the name of “democracy”.

As for China, its authorities have long understood the importance of political education, but not so as to have the people participate in decisions affecting their own destiny, but on the contrary simply to obey and accept. The importance of such socialization was brought home to China’s Communist leadership after the relative political laxness of the 1980s that culminated in the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Since then, the regime has deemed it essential to maintain both economic and ideological control via the promise of consumerist acquisition and the sleeping gas of nationalism. The 2019 events in Hong Kong have shown how the absence, or rather the rejection, of such nationalist education is sufficient to see the whole edifice challenged. And this in a society that was always understood as obsessed by money and consumerism.

In Hong Kong, what Castoriadis has termed, the instituting imaginary was the promise of autonomy for 50 years; the original idea being — it harks back to the 1980s illusion described above — that over that period China would have caught up with Hong Kong’s partly democratic, open society. But the opposite happened after 1989, and Hong Kong was assigned to a China in which fear and propaganda were the means of political control. But it was a propaganda, an imaginary, that Hong Kong’s people would eventually refuse to fear. Understood in this light, the ongoing stand-off between the agents of the Chinese Communist state and the people of Hong Kong — who have shown they prefer real autonomy to the froth of petty consumerism at any price — was bound to occur.

In China proper, an extreme form of nationalism has hounded and persecuted its Muslim populations for several years now. Like the Soviet Union of the 1980s, and the Russia of Putin today, the regime espouses chauvinistic nationalism as its discourse of choice. All that remains of Communism is its totalitarian brutality, manifested in the triple pillars of fear, discipline and punishment.

As Samuel Johnson said in 1775 referring to the nationalistic, expansionist, colonialist eighteenth-century British politician William Pitt the Elder: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." On the global political stage of 2020, from Britain to Brazil, from the USA to Russia, from Australia to China, scoundrels now abound.

 

[1] Castoriadis, Écrits politiques, VI, p. 325.

[2] Castoriadis, Écrits politiques, VI, p. 326.

[3] The only ruling Marxist-Leninist parties to survive in addition to China’s would be Vietnam and Cuba, two countries whose revolutions had been as much nationalist and anti-imperialist as they were Communist.

[4] Castoriadis, Écrits politiques IV, p 651.

[5] Écrits politiques IV, 535.

[6] Écrits politiques IV, p. 621.

[7] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/2/150212-ocean-debris-plastic-garbage-patches-science/ consulted 17 December 2019.

 

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