How the left lost the argument.
One might think that a crisis brought on by rapacious, unregulated capitalism would have changed a few minds about the fundamental nature of the global economy.
One would be wrong. True, there is no lack of anti-capitalist sentiment in the world today, particularly as a crisis brought on by the system’s worst excesses continues to ravage the global economy. If anything, we are witnessing an overload of critiques of the horrors of capitalism: Books, newspaper investigations, and TV reports abound, telling us of companies ruthlessly polluting our environment, corrupted bankers who continue to get fat bonuses while their banks are bailed out by taxpayer money, and sweatshops where children work overtime.
Yet no matter how grievous the abuse or how indicative of a larger, more systemic failure, there’s a limit to how far these critiques go. The goal is invariably to democratize capitalism in the name of fighting excesses and to extend democratic control of the economy through the pressure of more media scrutiny, parliamentary inquiries, harsher laws, and honest police investigations. What is never questioned is the bourgeois state of law upon which modern capitalism depends. This remains the sacred cow that even the most radical critics from the likes of Occupy Wall Street and the World Social Forum dare not touch.
It’s no wonder, then, that the optimistic leftist expectations that the ongoing crisis would be a sobering moment — the awakening from a dream — turned out to be dangerously shortsighted. The year 2011 was indeed one of dreaming dangerously, of the revival of radical emancipatory politics all around the world. A year later, every day brings new proof of how fragile and inconsistent the awakening actually was. The enthusiasm of the Arab Spring is mired in compromises and religious fundamentalism; Occupy is losing momentum to such an extent that the police cleansing of New York’s Zuccotti Park even seemed like a blessing in disguise. It’s the same story around the world: Nepal’s Maoists seem outmaneuvered by the reactionary royalist forces; Venezuela’s "Bolivarian" experiment is regressing further and further into caudillo-run populism; and even the most hopeful sign, Greece’s anti-austerity movement, has lost energy after the electoral defeat of the leftist Syriza party.
It now seems that the primary political effect of the economic crisis was not the rise of the radical left, but of racist populism, more wars, more poverty in the poorest Third World countries, and widening divisions between rich and poor. For all that crises shatter people out of their complacency and make them question the fundamentals of their lives, the first spontaneous reaction is not revolution but panic, which leads to a return to basics: food and shelter. The core premises of the ruling ideology are not put into doubt. They are even more violently asserted.
Could we in fact be seeing the conditions for the further radicalization of capitalism? German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk once told me that, if there is a person alive to whom they will build monuments 100 years from now, it is Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean leader who did more than anyone else to promote and implement the marriage of capitalism and authoritarianism — an arrangement he euphemistically referred to as "Asian values." The virus of this authoritarian capitalism is slowly but surely spreading around the globe, nowhere more so than China.
Faced with today’s explosion of capitalism in China, analysts often ask when political democracy as the "natural" political accompaniment of capitalism will enforce itself. But what if the promised democratization never arrives? What if China’s authoritarian capitalism is not a stop on the road to further democratization, but the end state toward which the rest of the world is headed?
Leon Trotsky once characterized tsarist Russia as "the vicious combination of the Asian knout [whip] and the European stock market," but the description applies even better to today’s China. In the Chinese iteration, the combination may prove to be a more stable one than the democratic capitalist model we have come to see as natural.
The main victim of the ongoing crisis is thus not capitalism, which appears to be evolving into an even more pervasive and pernicious form, but democracy — not to mention the left, whose inability to offer a viable global alternative has again been rendered visible to all. It was the left that was effectively caught with its pants down. It is almost as if this crisis were staged to demonstrate that the only solution to a failure of capitalism is more capitalism.