Tuesday, January 10, 2006

China: The American Dream

American Prospect Online - The China Path: "It%u2019s true that democracy needs capitalism. Try to come up with the name of a single democracy in the world that doesn%u2019t have a capitalist economy. For democracy to function there must be centers of power outside of government. Capitalism decentralizes economic power, and thereby provides the private ground in which democracy can take root.

But China shows that the reverse may not be true -- capitalism doesn%u2019t need democracy."

I went a conference in China a year ago last summer and it was perfectly awful. We climbed the Great Wall of China, visited the Forbidden City, toured the Panda preserve and cruised down the Yang-Tze; we stayed in glitzy hotels and flew out of a glitzy airport built to impress businessmen and tourists with money. But I didn't feel good until we landed in Tokyo.

It wasn't the absence of democracy that made the place oppressive but the absence of even the most minimal amenities of a welfare state. Nothing was free--not education, not health care. Students competed fiercely for spaces in universities and those who couldn't pay the fees threw themselves in front of trains because without the credentials for admission to the urban elite, life was hell. Rural life was miserable, factory workers toiled at the most miserable jobs in the worst of conditions for a pittance, families were relocated at the government's discretion. In Beijing, the masses drudged all their waking hours: service workers in the tourist hotels where we stayed counted themselves lucky to be able to make their living pandering to rich American tourists like me, fetching and carrying; the rest worked from dawn into the night digging, building, hauling, sweeping, selling, eking out a living. Their industriousness made me sick.

My colleagues worried about academic freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. I couldn't imagine what good democracy or any of these freedoms would do for anyone given that they were stuck drudging all their waking hours to pump up GDP and create glitz to attract foreign investment and the tourist trade. I wondered what the agenda was: to sacrifice a generation, or two or three, in order to get rich enough so that they could run a proper socialist welfare state where people didn't have to spend all their waking hours working or, more likely, to squeeze every last drop of sweat out of every citizen indefinitely to create more wealth.

This is the American dream--endless, backbreaking, mind-killing work to create wealth that no one has the leisure to enjoy and growing the economy keep down unemployment so that everyone will have the privilege of doing endless, backbreaking, mind-killing drudge-work until they're incapacitated. I can't think of anything closer to the popular picture of hell--shoveling coal into furnaces forever and ever, without any end and without any rest.

Reich is right, of course: capitalism isn't what it's cracked up to be. But I don't see why democracy is supposed to be so great either. What's important is leisure: the only freedom that really matters is freedom from work.


Anonymous said...

the only freedom that really matters is freedom from work

They have freedom from work in Saudi Arabia. No worries about capitalism or democracy. Lovely place to live, I hear.

Unknown said...

I hear it is terrific--if you're male and a member of the royal family--and you get 4 wives to boot. But I don't qualify on either count.

MikeS said...

The urge to power? Most of us might agree with H.E; freedom to indulge our whims would be good. Having grown up I don't get bored; just frustrated at having to explain the obvious to morons.

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