For the second part of the meeting we turned to the text “N-i-n-e-t-e-e-n-e-i-g-h-t-y-n-i-n-e and the historical roots of neoliberalism” by Wang Hui (2004), who is known as one of the protagonists of the “New Left” in China.
While it predated Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine,” Wang’s text shared continuities with the theme of the seeming, superficial contradiction between neoliberalism and what it called neoauthoritarianism.
“One theoretical characteristic of neoliberalism is to deny that there is an intimate relationship between market and political processes and, in the name of the disarticulation of the state, to force the abandonment of all investigation into the problem of democracy under the conditions of marketization” (p. 49)
This text began by tracing the reforms from 1978 to N-i-n-e-t-e-e-n-e-i-g-h-t-y-n-i-n-e, and their consequences, then continues to 2004, focusing on the various historical, economic and political views that intellectuals had promoted, and the horizon represented by the discussions happening through those years.
Sitting at the table on the patio of a café mostly frequented by Westerners, and discussing all of this in English, we didn’t feel at all threatened, although one’s mind always wanders to the next table over, if only to wonder whether they are sitting there listening and judging. Aside from chemical reasons, then, it’s clear why a café would be a place to debate high-minded things, protected as it is by this cultural force-field and the relatively cheap cost of a coffee—a drink that, for the exact same reason it is cheap for some, is too expensive for others.
Firstly providing background for the reasons behind the social movement, Wang explained how during the rural reforms the attempt was to stabilize the lives of the rural population through policy changes, raising the prices of rural products and encouraging rural consumption. (p. 12)
From 1984, a series of urban reforms were then implemented to redistribute state-monopoly industrial resources. Because of the complexities of this process, the result was an unregulated and unequal transfer of benefits incomparable to the rural reforms, and which affected the country as a whole.
“The actual situation was that, under the rhetoric of politics/enterprise separation, what was separated was not the relationship between politics and the economy, but rather ownership and management.” (p. 16)
One of the members told an anecdote of being stopped by the police while driving home one night, and given a breathalyzer test. Totally oblivious to the fact that, to make the beverage that much more profitable, the bartender had spiked his drink after he had asked for something non-alcoholic, the reading club member had breathed out a 0.02, and was then brought to spend the night in the police station. After a great ethical struggle our protagonist called on a family member with ties to the police department. By the powers of “guanxi” (connections, relations) he was released, but just as one of the system’s hands had made him vulnerable, with the other hand it had granted him freedom that the other young men in his cell waited wondering about. He emerged, compromised.
Wang explained that the social movement that arose around these urban reforms, whose effects were already being felt sharply among certain strata of society (the rural reforms, for example, were finding the latest urban reforms reversing any progress they had experienced), was neither unified nor really self-conscious of what it was really looking for. There were clashes within the state level, with certain political figures or state companies supporting the movement, while “special interest groups that had been big winners in the 1980s decentralization of power and beneﬁts and that were now dissatisﬁed with the impending adjustment policies” also joined in with the students, whose abstract demands “included such constitutional rights as workable democratic politics, press freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the rule of law” (p. 19) among more concrete demands from workers that centered on distributing economic and social benefits.
“In the context of globalization, neoliberals believe that it is possible to use the strength of multinational and domestic capital to reconfigure Chinese society and the market; they recognize that the state plays a certain protective, favorable, and adjustment role in the context of the relations between globalization and the expansion of the domestic market. Thus they no longer simply charge the state with motivating market expansion: this is the secret history of the mutual entanglement of neoliberalism and neoauthoritarianism.” (p. 21)
The impossibility of the social movement; the necessity of the social movement. This is the corner many conversations push themselves into, especially when faced with texts whose historical or political bases claim the objective and reasonable parts of our imagination. They are hard to refute, they are as crisp and clear as playing cards, sharp and constructive; but sitting in a café, consuming, we can only shuffle these cards, dovetailing facts, impressing and boring by turns.
This virtual experience isn’t helped by the knowledge that the facts are still facts, and history more recent than these texts has compounded rather than alleviated the facts. A scene from downtown Toronto during the G20 meetings there would provide many illustrations.
Sometimes you hear people assessing politics like weather; forecasting change according to the rumblings up in the clouds; decisions like the one-child policy reflect the visionary capability possessed only by an entity like The Party. Now if we could only get someone on the inside with a passion for the environment, etc. (insert cause)… a twinkle of hope in the tone of voice.
As is expressed in Naomi Klein’s book as well, “the dominant analysis of the N-i-n-e-t-e-e-n-e-i-g-h-t-y-n-i-n-e social movement in the world was one most advantageous to those special interests advocating radical privatization.” (p. 23) This pointed out that the economic relations affecting the globe as a whole were alive and well in China, but that the language and intellectual context with which to criticize it were unavailable. This was because of oppositional intellectuals at the time embracing everything American as the alternative model to the Chinese system (p. 33), let alone the second-guessing of any form of radicalism in the wake of the crackdown, or the tempting proposition to “jump into the sea [xia hai],” a description for intellectuals capitalizing on their privileged social status within the new market paradigm. The various stages of these intellectual debates from e-i-g-h-t-y-n-i-n-e to the present were examined in the last part of Wang’s text.
“That is, the 1990s discussion moved from a conviction that the establishment of democracy could be achieved only through a radical transformation in political frame-work, to a conviction that reliance upon market processes, the formation of local and departmental special interest factions, and the uprooting of clan and other traditional resources would ultimately lead to political democracy.” (p. 42)
With no intention of sounding wearied, another tendency can be observed in this type of discussion, when we turn to the questions of what else we can do, how does it affect us, where is the hope: things like this are spaces of difference.
We talked about spaces; the spaces of cities, for instance, bear the marks of these quite abstract, factual reorganizations in tangible ways. The public sphere, emptied, discredited, shamed, hovers phantomlike over the contemporary urban experience, with its fractured relations and atomized groupings, its obliviousness to the citizens who navigate through its price tags. What is this space in which the normal rules seemingly don’t apply?