I think in terms of positions on the left it would be good to also think beyond the United States, because there has been a similar shift in other regions. So just one example, the German left is also very much split on the question of China. Within the party Die Linke you would have to take account of several generations of people whose positions have been formed in relation to experiences with state socialism in East Germany. So, there are similar splits with regards to positions on China, but to some extent they are related to very different historical and political backgrounds.
I don’t know how many of you saw the recent piece by that wonderful bellwether of U.S. imperialism Thomas Friedman about the prospect of war between China and the United States. It’s a riff on a novel written by a retired U.S. general called 2034. And the premise of the novel is that China and the U.S. go to war in 2034, and that the war turns nuclear.
I mention this because I do think Friedman is a bellwether of liberal imperialism, and his basic argument is really that containment is preferable to war. And Martin Wolf was out recently in the Financial Times essentially saying, look, Russia’s not a serious imperial rival and here’s why, but China is. And he pointed to all the things that we know: that China is now first in the world in foreign domestic investment, having displaced the U.S. last year; that China is now the E.U.’s largest trading partner; that China now has more companies in the Fortune 500 top tier than does U.S. capitalism; and so on.
So, I think it’s true that we need to be very cognizant of the fact that for the American ruling class, Democratic or Republican wing, this is a rivalry that they imagine defining the next 25, 50 years or more, and all kinds of strategic deliberations are following from that. So that does have to frame the context, but I think there are ways of mobilizing that understanding to address what I think is the key strategic issue that I want to pick up on from Kevin, because I think the danger for us when we want to powerfully push back against campism and tankies is that we’re perceived as not being sufficiently anti-imperialist.
And it’s going to be really important for us to develop the line of argument that says you can’t build mass anti-imperialism in the United States by apologizing for a class state that exploits and oppresses its own working class, engages in Islamophobia, builds client holistic debt relationships with other states around the world, and so on. In other words, I think we need to really develop the argument that it is our socialist opposition to the Chinese state that gives a much sharper cutting edge to anti-imperialism. And that, in fact, there’s no way you’re going to persuade millions and millions of working-class people inside the United States and a multi-racial working class to be part of a movement to stop aggression towards China if you go around apologizing for China’s ruling class.
And that’s an increasingly important perspective as China’s power in the world increases and more and more people are being exploited by Chinese capitalists and not just American capitalists.
One of the things that we’ve heard in the United States is some liberal commentators saying we should use competition with China as a framework to advance liberal policy aims, some of which we might support, such as expanded spending on clean energy or education. Rather than saying, education should be a public good that should be provided to people for free, it’s “we need to compete with China in science and technology, and so we’re going to spend more on education.” Obviously more resources will always be devoted to war, but how do you think we should respond to that framing of ‘social goods as imperial rivalry’?
This is why I call Biden’s program “imperialist Keynesianism.” He has definitely taken a liberal turn. He is not ruling in a conventional neoliberal fashion. I think many of us under-appreciated what the American ruling class and its political representatives saw as their challenges: a deep crisis to the legitimacy and stability of the American state triggered by the economic crisis, weak recovery, relative decline of imperial power, and domestic political polarization. Trump and the rise of a new right inside the Republican party brought this to a head, most dramatically with the semi-farcical putsch on Washington.
A wave of struggle from Occupy to the Red State teachers’ revolt and the Black Lives Matter uprising also threatened the establishment. They realized they needed to grant some reforms to stabilize US society.
On top of that, Biden’s foreign policy team, including Blinken, Sullivan, Campbell, and the rest have made it very clear that the rivalry with China had to be at the center of the foreign policy agenda. They’ve crafted a muscular multi-lateral program to deal with it. They want to redevelop the U.S. economic infrastructure, stabilize American society so it’s better fit to compete in the world, and gather together allies in a so-called “league of democracies” against China.
Biden has presented a very coherent set of ideas. Sanders has united with him saying we need a middle-class recovery that includes domestic benefits, which are real—more checks coming, more jobs programs, more investment in material and social infrastructure that will benefit workers and oppressed people. But all of this is tied to Biden’s imperial project abroad.
So, the challenge for the left is to separate positive domestic reform from the imperialist competition with China. One way to do that is to argue that if we cut the Pentagon budget, we could have an actual Green New Deal on the scale we need to stop climate change. We could have deeper, systemic reforms that would benefit the working class and oppressed people in the United States if we challenged the incredible amount of money that the U.S. sinks into managing the world system, especially through its military.
One example of such a program is the one put forward by the Red Nation: the Red Deal. It builds anti-imperialism into a set of demands for domestic reforms in the interest of oppressed and working-class people.
I do think we need to be talking about the Red Deal, the more left-wing version of the Green New Deal. What we need is public works to rebuild an ecologically sustainable economy with decent jobs, that not only pay well, have decent hours and benefits, but don’t kill people, both their spirit and their bodies.
And to make a bigger point, these are all things we want because we want working people to thrive, but if it results in bad things for capital, so be it. In other words, to point out that what is good for working people is often, and usually not necessarily good for capital. And that means if capitalists find that they can’t make profits, then we’d have to start raising the issue of socializing enterprises. This is mostly education at this point.
More concretely, we would hope to see struggles around good jobs, rebuilding infrastructure for working people, not just for the military. We want decent mass transit and healthcare, not so that we can have healthy soldiers to die in a war with China or whoever else is the enemy, but so that people have meaningful and fulfilling lives.
I wanted to come back to the conversation about how we view the state. And we’ve talked about some of the educational tasks that confront us on the wider left, I do think we need a highly accessible way to reclaim the idea that the radical socialist left stands in opposition to rule by the market and by the state. In a period of low levels of working class insurgency, because the travesties of the market are so damning, anytime that state actors seem to be capable of mobilizing public capacities, whether it’s around the environment or the pandemic, or what have you, then this looks like the glorious alternative to the market.
And so, we should reclaim the critical analysis of the state as a form of social class domination, because we really do need to try to reposition this discussion. In all of these cases, we’re trying to create openings to rebuild working class capacities so that it’s not about strengthening the state against the market. It’s about strengthening working class capacities to struggle against the state and the market.
I agree, and this is made all the more urgent in the context of the U.S.-China rivalry, which in many ways exacerbates domestic repression within China. Of course, there has always been various levels of repression in China against organizing, but we are seeing a further shrinking of the space for labor organizers and feminist organizers at least in part because of the accusation of working with “foreign forces” and political sensitivity at a time of heightened international tensions. This really militates against workers and those doing labor organizing. So, I think that the rivalry actually has a very tangible and a material impact on working class militancy, or at least the space for organizing. Of course, there are a lot of workers in China still trying to organize, but I do think that the rivalry makes it more difficult to do so.
There’s also the problem of the lack of alternatives. I think there’s a sense of despair because people feel they are forced to choose between the American state and Chinese state. And whatever you choose, you lose. There’s very little in the way of an alternative model or alternative society that the left could look toward. I do think there’s a lack of imagination on the left where people can point to say, okay, let’s build something like that. Now it’s just choosing between two equally bad states.