Review of Tariq Ali’s The Extreme Centre

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Ali, Tariq, The Extreme Centre: A Warning, Nepalese Journal of Management Science and Research, Vol.2 (2017), pp.71-2.

The Extreme Centre: A Warning

Tariq Ali

London and New York, NY: Verso, 2015

ISBN: 9781784782627

200 pp.

I do admire Tariq Ali for his work as editor of the New Left Review, his novels, his media appearances and the air of magisterial outrage he is able to pull off while doing so, together with some of his other books. He makes admirably clear his rejection of colonialism and imperialism in all its forms and is able to articulate the damage that adventurist foreign policy is doing to the world and is just as trenchant in dealing with domestic politics. Both of these arenas are deployed in The Extreme Centre, in which Ali has joined together examinations of life in the contemporary UK, USA and elsewhere to provide a warning about his understanding of the state of the world today. True to Gramsci’s dictum advising the employment of pessimism of the intellect, it is fair to conclude that he does not think things are going very well.

The unifying concept is that of the extreme centre, which is a way of describing the current neoliberal political settlement and the seemingly unbreakable chokehold the forces of the bourgeois establishment have on the levers of power and the national coffers. As things stand, there is no difference between the principal political parties and, in the concluding chapter, he looks to the emerging political movements of Spain and Greece for inspiration. Of course, the book was written before the disastrous Brexit debacle and it would have been interesting to see how he would have incorporated that into his analysis. Both principal political parties in the current USA presidential election cycle have witnessed considerable success by candidates running as anti-establishment outsiders (under false pretences in one case) and the current understanding of the Brexit vote is being cast in the same light. This rather suggests that it is possible at the least to mobilise large numbers of people to protest against the extreme centre and, perhaps, even bring about some meaningful concessions.

The book is organized in six chapters, with an introduction and, as an appendix, includes a poem by Ian Birchall entitled ‘The Seven Ages of a Labour MP.’ The first chapter on ‘English Questions’ and the second on ‘Scottish Answers’ stick to the concept of the extreme centre, although the construction of these chapters is a little strange. He begins with the principal argument:

“We live in a country without an opposition. Westminster is in the grip of an extreme centre, a trilateral monolith, made up of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition plus Labour: yes to austerity, yes to imperial wars, yes to a failing EU, yes to increased security measures, and yes to shoring up the broken model of neoliberalism (p.17).”

This is then supported by a jeremiad principally based on New Labour and its failings and followed by 18 pages of descriptions of some former ministers who have subsequently been employed by companies which they might once have regulated through what Private Eye and others call the ‘revolving door,’ as well as the transcript of an interview with a professor of public health research and policy about the future of the NHS. It is easy to criticize the administrations of Blair and Brown, of course but telling the full story would acknowledge the good work that was done in those years, which often had to be accomplished more or less by stealth because of the relentless hostility of the majority of mainstream media in the UK. Polly Toynbee and David Walker (2001, 2005, 2011) have written a series of books aiming to provide a more nuanced approach by itemizing all the different policies, campaigns and initiatives that were taken to try to improve life for the people of Britain and to try to determine which would have taken place anyway and those which did not have the intended primary effect or suffered from unintended secondary effects. They are cautiously positive about the results and their explanations are persuasive. Tariq Ali sees nothing positive about the Labour government and, in the following chapters, sees little benefit from Labour’s previous electoral supremacy in Scotland and its replacement by the Scottish Nationalist Party and its People’s Vows. I might have expected him to take more of an internationalist perspective.

The next chapters deal with the European Union, NATO and the USA. In these chapters, the extreme centre concept is dropped (it is reintroduced in the final chapter) and the author is free to rail at familiar enemies:

“If unelected bankers are deciding upon the needs of people in a number of European countries, as they are, how can this move things forward? But this is not something understood today by the uncritical defenders of Europe. For them, there’s nothing wrong, Europe is great, it’s a great idea, don’t do anything to it (p.104).”

These chapters are somewhat unevenly written and some sections, at least, give the impression that they have been imported from other projects. The analysis can be quite superficial, as is notably the case with the treatment of the rise of China, which rests upon an inadequate set of readings. The book’s final chapter, ‘Alternatives,’ allows the purveyors of new political movements in continental Europe to describe their progress in their own terms rather than providing objective analysis of the possibility of such groups actually being able to take power and bring about meaningful change. Then, as previously mentioned, there is the concluding poem, which is really not very good.

I began this review by noting that I do admire Tariq Ali and his work and I will be happy to read others of his books, both fiction and non-fiction. However, this is not his most successful effort.

References

Toynbee, P. and Walker, D. (2001). Did things get better? An audit of success and failures (London: Granta).

Toynbee, P. and Walker, D. (2005). Better or worse? Has Labour delivered? (London: Granta).

Toynbee, P. and Walker, D. (2011). The verdict: did Labour change Britain? (London: Granta).

Review of Eric Schlosser’s Gods of Metal

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Schlosser, Eric, Gods of Metal, Nepalese Journal of Management Science and Research, Vol.2 (2017), pp.69-70.

Gods of Metal
Eric Schlosser
London: Penguin, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-141-98226-7
122 pp.

When dealing with the military, whether or not in a country unhappy enough to have to suffer their relentless and systematic depredations, it is easy to forget just how ridiculous they are, with their coloured costumes, prancing about according to arcane and archaic protocols and tedious preening in the name of xenophobic nationalism. Hobsbawm (2007) identified this situation: “Separated from the rest of society by a life consisting (in peacetime) of fancy dress, instruction and practice, games and boredom, organized on the assumption that their members at all levels are generally rather stupid and always expendable, held together by the increasingly anomalous values of bravery, honour, contempt for and suspicion of civilians, professional armies tend almost by definition to ideological eccentricity (p.264).”

The second thing it is easy to forget is just how incompetent they are and how poorly they attempt to achieve their goals. The British ship pounding the jungle with cannon fire in Heart of Darkness may be read as a symbol of imperial power shredding the land but it might also be read as the futile attempt of bullies to enforce their way through bluster and chance. The tradition continues with the American drone fliers, who are demonstrably slaughtering citizens around the world in a supposed campaign against terrorism that could scarcely be designed to be more counter-productive. The misery suffered by victims of the military may be no less for the fact that most deaths are categorized as ‘collateral damage’ but it does indicate how poor a solution to complex real life problems violence is.

The incompetence is not manifested only on the battlefield, of course but throughout the whole range of activities. Some, not naming any names, specialize in bullying to death new recruits and enlisted personnel, human trafficking, abuse of power, conspiring to overthrow democratically elected governments, use of state assets for personal gain, money laundering, extortion and the corrupt purchase of bomb detectors that do not detect anything, aircraft carriers that do not float, zeppelins that do not fly, fighter planes that come with additional benefits and submarines that will never be able to be used properly. All of this while making false claims of moral superiority. Meanwhile, Nepalese troops deployed by the United Nations (UN) are strongly suspected of spreading cholera and killing thousands of people as a result. Reports of sexual abuse by other groups of UN peacekeepers are becoming legion. Then there is the case of the USA and its nuclear missiles, which is the subject to which Eric Schlosser has devoted himself in Gods of Metal. One would hope that the missiles, whether one believes them necessary or not, would be kept in good and secure conditions. Unfortunately not:

“For nearly forty minutes, I stood on the shoulder of a dirt road within throwing distance of a Minuteman complex. I didn’t see another car on the road, let alone a security fence with guns drawn. The short-grass prairie that stretched before me was windswept, gorgeous, dotted with small homes. You would never think that hidden beneath this rural American idyll, out of sight, out of mind, were scores of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Just yards away from my rental car, sitting not far below my feet, there was a thermonuclear warhead about twenty times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, all set and ready to go. The only sound was the sound of the wind (p.36).”

The laxity with which these powerful weapons are kept and which Schlosser documents, means there is a very real fear of accidental explosions – just one of which could be catastrophic in effect – and the possibility that terrorists or other ill-intentioned people could obtain access to one or more of them. These dangers are highlighted by the peaceful activities of protestors such as Sister Megan Rice and Michael Walli, who are among many who have more or less wandered into these supposedly high-security sites and enacting their protests by painting walls with blood or symbolically damaging some areas of brickwork that would not pose any threat to the weapons themselves. By demonstrating the vulnerability of the sites to infiltration (if octogenarian nuns can do it, so could large numbers of other people), the protestors have provided a valuable service for the US government and military. This is particularly true of the central event in this book, which is an infiltration of the Y-12 site in Tennessee. Of course, the response to such incidents almost invariably represents the embarrassed bluster of incompetent military forces probably operating under budget constraints caused by the insistence of the American right that putting disproportionate amounts of money into the bank accounts of a small number of the undeserving rich will benefit the country as a whole. At least we can console ourselves that, in the event of a nuclear conflagration, the rich are likely to be caught outside their fall-out shelters and be incinerated along with the rest of us.

Schlosser’s style is journalistic and his prose is readable and lucid. The research he has clearly done is sprinkled quite sparingly in the text. The book is an expression of the kind of long-form journalism that rather went out of fashion as a result of the spread of the online world and the concomitant starving of funds to the traditional media. Indeed, the original form of the text was published in the New Yorker and that has now been expanded for this Penguin volume that will bring a wider audience for it. The story ends with the author in a prison – he notes that he spends a lot of time visiting people in different prisons throughout the USA – where he is visiting one of the protestors who is spending his time teaching others how to read, playing Scrabble and being part of a Bible-study group: “The prison looked like an image on an old postcard, a haunting, uniquely American symbol of state power. And a thought occurred to me: the walls of the penitentiary guarding this pacifist were taller and more impenetrable than any of the fences at Y-12 (p.112).”

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

References

Conrad, Joseph, Heart of darkness and other stories (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1995).

Hobsbawm, Eric, Revolutionaries, revised and updated version (London: Abacus, 2007).

Review of Phongpaichit and Baker’s Unequal Thailand

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Phongpaichit, Pasuk and Chris Baker (eds.), Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power, Nepalese Journal of Management Science and Research, Vol.2 (2017), pp.67-8.

Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power
Edited by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker
Singapore: NUS Press, 2016
ISBN: 9789814722001
XV + 186 pp.

Inequality has become one of the more urgent issues gripping the attention of the people of the world, especially since it became evident that the Crisis of Austerity was being used b representatives of the 1% to extract even more money from the 99%. Thomas Piketty’s epic Capital in the Twenty First Century (2014) demonstrated that intensifying capitalism strengthened control of money among the rich and the super-rich and prevented social mobility taking place. The importance of social mobility for maintaining a healthy and progressive governance system has been evident since the creation of the imperial examination system in the Han dynasty of China more than two thousand years ago (Min & Xiumen, 2010). In The Spirit Level, Pickett and Wilkinson (2010) show beyond reasonable doubt that those countries most unequal fare the worst in a wide range of societal indictors, ranging from educational outcomes to teenage pregnancies to crime rates. The best way to make any society happier and more stable overall is to reduce inequality and the best way to do that involves a combination of empowering the poor with shining a light on the possessions and lifestyles of the rich. The release of the Panama Papers, leaked from the legal firm Mossack Fonseca, very quickly showed how those who benefited from tax avoidance by using shell companies offshore tax havens could be brought to account when their activities came to light (e.g. Henley, 2016; MacAskill et al., 2016).

All in all, then, this would seem to be a splendid time to publish a collection of papers based on original empirical research into inequality in Thailand. After all, as a country that has undergone rapid economic development, urbanization and industrialization, Thailand has begun to embrace all aspects of capitalist development, for good or ill. Further, the country continues to suffer the drawbacks of Thai feudalism and the absolute blanket on any form of political dissent or even questioning maintained by the current junta. Such a book would investigate the roles and influence of powerful institutions set so implacably against progress such as the military, judiciary and network monarchy. It would question the role of the media and media ownership as an additional tool used as an intellectual state apparatus in promoting the concept of so-called Thainess (i.e. obedience, obsequiousness to power and unwillingness to question authority). Innovative attempts to identify the relationship between economic and social capital would have been welcome. However, unfortunately, this opportunity has rather been missed somewhere along the line of production, since too many of the papers veer towards the superficial and to lack firm supervisory guidance. The project was funded jointly by the Thailand Research Fund, the Bureau of Higher Education and Chulalongkorn University as part of the Distinguished Professor Scheme. It is certainly a good thing that only Thai academics were selected for this project, that they seem to have been well-funded and their papers extensively edited and supported for this book by near-legendary editors Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. The problem nevertheless remains that too many of the papers (and some from the original project have been omitted altogether) are just not quite up to the required level.

Some papers do make a positive contribution. For example, Duangmanee Laovakul’s “Concentration of Land and Other Wealth in Thailand” is based on ground-breaking research among the newly digitized records of the Land Department. This research indicates that the ownership of land and other assets is even more highly concentrated than the ownership of income. It is shown that 10% of all landowners own more than 60% of total land. Unfortunately, no useful implications or policy recommendations are derived from this research.

Nualnoi Treerat and Parkpume Vanichoka have an interesting paper in “Elite Networking through Special Executive Courses,” which itemizes the presence and nature of such courses and identifies those who have participated in them. It is made clear that course-organizers take steps to ensure that network opportunities are maximized at these times and it is very evident that senior-junior relationships are established which are of considerable importance and value to both sides in future careers. The authors conclude that this ‘personal cronyism’ perpetuates elite power by promoting good relations and avoiding conflict among the elite and accepted new entrants, thereby preventing unwanted outsiders entering and “As a result power over the economy, politics and resources is more concentrated and circumscribed within a small elite.”
As a research paper, the outstanding chapter is provided by Chaiyon Praditisil and Chainarong Khrueanuan, who are able to draw upon many years of inquiry to inform their “Inequalities of Local Power and Profit: The Changing Structure of Provincial Power.” This is a fascinating account of how Chao Por networks have developed in provincial Thailand, how they have developed over time and reacted against the threat of outsiders moving in to their territory. It is shown that such networks have diminished in value over time as various elements of globalization have meant that power and resources are generated more from without than within. The conclusion drawn is that “The inequities in power and economic opportunity at the provincial level will diminish significantly only when advances in the rule of law and democratic decentralization make single faction dominance no longer possible.”

Of course, this being Thailand, we wait for the inevitable paper explaining how it is all really the fault of Thaksin and the uppity residents of Isan. Here it comes in the form of a contribution from Ukrist Pathmanand, whose work I have seen elsewhere and thought reasonably sensible. Since I have worked at Shinawatra University for a number of years, it is probably better if I do not comment on this paper for fear of being thought biased. After this, the book peters out with a fairly shambolic look at taxation and possible reforms to the tax system. The editors have done their best to try to remedy the shortcomings exhibited by the authors overall by trying to create an inclusive framework on inequality in the introductory chapter but this is only partly successful. Despite being published in Singapore, the text occasionally veers into American spelling and the index needs attention. Overall, the text is notable more for its omissions than from that which it does include.

References

Henley, Jon, “Iceland PM Steps aside after Protests over Panama Papers Revelations,” The Guardian (April 5th, 2016), available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/05/iceland-prime-minister-resigns-over-panama-papers-revelations.

MacAskill, Ewen, Rowena Mason, David Pegg and Holly Watt, “David Cameron Left Dangerously Exposed by Panama Papers Fallout,” The Guardian (April 5th, 2016), available at: http://www.theguardian.com/news/2016/apr/05/david-cameron-left-dangerously-exposed-by-panama-papers-fallout.

Min, Han and Yang Xiuwen, “Educational Assessment in China: Lessons from History and Future Prospects,” Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, Vol.8, No.1 (2001), pp.5-10.

Pickett, Kate and Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone (London: Penguin, 2010).

Piketty, Thomas, Capital in the Twenty First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

Review of Marc Morris’s King John

Morris, Marc, King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta, The Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.3, No.1 (Jan-Apr, 2016), pp.58-61.

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King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta
Marc Morris
London: Windmill Books, 2015
ISBN: 9780099591825
XVIII + 382 pp

King John is perhaps best known among British people for being so bad a monarch that there can never be a John II and for losing the crown in the Wash (part of the sea to the east of the country off Lincolnshire). His representations on stage, screen and printed page are mostly limited to being the bad guy in contrast to Richard the Lionheart and using his proxy the Sheriff of Nottingham to persecute the sainted Robin Hood. Who, really, can quote from Shakespeare’s play? However, much of this is little more than hearsay and accurate information about the life and times of the historical king is comparatively limited, at least for non-specialists. Consequently, a work of popular history on the subject is most welcome.

The value of works of popular history is that they are obliged to tell the actual story in as clear terms as possible. Academic history is required to present the myriad of quiddities and contradictions that appear in the sources and to take various theoretical frameworks of analysis as a means of examining the material in such a way that it is possible for the reader to remain unsure of what, if anything, actually did happen. One of the more notable benefits of the current book is that it is made clear why this confusion takes place: it was so difficult actually to get anything done, while there were powerful incentives to try to broadcast quite the opposite in a world in which significant enemies could respond aggressively to any show of weakness. Indeed, it is not difficult to find evidence of weakness in John’s performance since, during the first part of his reign, he managed to lose possession of England’s (this was the pre-union era) extensive holdings in what is now known as France. As Morris announces (p.5): “Travellers could pass from the border of Scotland to the border of Spain without ever leaving his territories. Millions of people, speaking at least half a dozen different languages, were his subjects. By any measure, his was the most important and powerful dominion in Europe.”

The Norman Yoke had been imposed upon the British people only 150 years before and it had led to the creation of the empire which had become anglicized at the highest-level because of the agricultural value of England. This could have been used for the benefit of all people through such means as more integration of economic and social systems to help create a civilization that would rival Byzantium. Instead, it was used for predatory raids on the working people and frittered away in needless wars and diplomatic failures. John lost France and his influence in Ireland was greatly reduced after a disastrous adventure there. Yet all of this was effected not so much by active misrule as by the inability to get things done. So much effort had to be expended persuading minor nobility to do what was expected of them and acting as the gift-giver able to create and sustain patronage networks that it was almost impossible for a limited monarch like John (whose ascent to the throne was made possible by a relentless plague visited upon his many older relatives in the direct line) to find the time to do anything else. Furthermore, a great deal of what he wanted to achieve was subject to forces beyond his control, notably including the weather. British weather is notoriously changeable and British sea power, its traditional strength in European politics, was limited in the pre-steam era to the prevailing conditions. Any foreign military venture required naval support both for transportation and for bringing needed supplies, reinforcements and information. An inconvenient storm could, therefore, waste months and even years of planning as the gathered troops and their leaders wait in port eating the food and spending the money raised by taxation while waiting for the rain to stop.

However, irrespective of the vagaries of getting things done, what John actually did get done was often quite despicable. A notable example of this was his predatory taxation policy (back to the Sheriff of Nottingham theme), which extended to various ruses aimed at acquiring assets, including people, from those who felt they had a legal claim to them. This was not only wrong for ethical reasons but actively dissolved the bods between monarch and nobility on which the political order of the country depended. The more that John alienated his erstwhile supporters, the closer he came to the creation of Magna Carta, that restatement of the social bonds between the classes that has become so central to the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom. Had John’s reign not taken place or had taken place in a different manner, then the Magna Carta moment would have happened somewhat later. That it would have happened in some form appears to be an unavoidable fact.

Morris is to be praised for producing a clear and readable book that highlights the major themes of the life and times of an important but little understood period of British history. One would be forgiven for thinking, based on popular culture, that little happened between the Norman invasion and the six wives of Henry VIII. This book helps to fill that gap in knowledge. If, occasionally, the reader might hope for a little more information about some of the contextual or background issues, that is beyond the scope of this book and Morris provides enough information in the footnotes and references for that reader to create a personal reading list for further investigation.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

Review of Slavoj Zizek’s Against the Double Blackmail

Žižek, Slavoj, Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours, The Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.3, No.1 (Jan-Apr, 2016), pp.55-8.

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Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours
Slavoj Žižek
London: Allen Lane, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-241-27884-0
117 pp.

In the inside back cover of this new book by the irrepressible Slavoj Žižek, the author is described as ‘a Hegelian philosopher, Lacanian psychoanalyst, and political activist.’ He makes full use of all three of these aspects in this slender volume on the challenges surrounding the flow of refugees aiming to reach Europe from war-torn countries in Asia and Europe. The first of these is the political aspect (Marx is not noted on the back cover but his influence soon makes an entrance nonetheless). Žižek draws on Fredric Jameson’s concept of the lack of ‘cognitive mapping’ to suggest why it is difficult for people to understand their relationship with the rest of the world and that, of course, is because of the immanence of late capitalism which dictates the conditions of life but in a way that remains invisible to those who lack the ideological vocabulary to identify the contours of class struggle in the symptoms of apparent chaos all around. This inability to identify the problem has led to the rise of supposed maverick outsider politicians, the riots without demands in Paris and elsewhere and the outbreak of sexual violence in India. The same of course is true of the reception of the refuges. Citing (as he often does) Peter Sloterdijk, he observes that “… capitalist globalization stands not only for openness and conquest, but also for the idea of a self-enclosed globe separating its privileged Inside from its Outside (pp.15-6).” The refugee, like the economic migrant, short-circuits capitalist globalization by seeking to move from the peripheral Outside to the core Inside. In this context, the refugees are worse than the migrants because (particularly when young and vulnerable) they come shaking their gory locks and force us to face the consequences of what we (of Europe and of the west) have done in history and what is now being done in our name.

Here Žižek adds the Lacanian aspect of his approach (while Hegelian dialectics form part of the very fibre of his discourse) by considering the importance of the ability of people to be able to tolerate others. This is a theme he has considered before – to be honest, he writes so much and publishes so often that there is not always very much in any of his books which could not have been found in some other part of his oeuvre. He refers to Freud: “Since a Neighbour is, as Freud suspected long ago, primarily a Thing, a traumatic intruder, someone whose different way of life (or, rather, way of jouissance materialized in its social practice and rituals) disturbs us and, when the Neighbour comes too close, throws the balance of our way of life off the rails, this can also give rise to an aggressive reaction aimed at getting rid of this disturbing intruder (p.74).” The Lacanian term jouissance refers to “… excessive pleasure coinciding with pain (p.75).” Pleasure and pain are defined on an individual basis: the ascetic or forest monk who lives outside society in poverty actually does so, it can be argued, because that is how pleasure appears to such a person and the pain involves not so much the physical deprivations as the self-knowledge that the purpose of asceticism is actually to gain that pleasure. We human beings all live together in communities of different sorts and our communal forms of jouissance have evolved to enable life to continue in a way we consider to be normal but when we are faced with an alternative form, unless we have the relevant cognitive mapping available, we may well reject this “ex-timate intruder (p.75)” with disgust. This is one reason why the maintainers of capitalist globalization are so opposed to any form of internationalism and regularly denounce the Others, whoever they might be, as threats to our way of life, our standard of living (they steal jobs and welfare payments) and our personal property (which for many people continues to include women).

However, Žižek does not just stop there with the implicit conclusion that if only, as so many t-shirts have it, we could live in “a world without strangers) then we could all just get to know each other and live together peaceably (i.e. 42). Instead, we should recognise that those we might consider to be Other can still behave very badly, as the sexual abuse of young white girls in Rotherham by ethnic Pakistani men and the large-scale incidences of sexual assaults in German cities by migrants and refugees demonstrates. Here Žižek likens these activities to those of paedophile Roman Catholic priests (which is one of the reasons he has so many enemies) and argues that (pp.31-3) it is the very nature of the institution of which they are a part that makes the men behave in the way they do: “One can well imagine a non-paedophile priest who, after years of service, gets involved in paedophilia because the very logic of the institution seduces him into it. Such an ‘institutional unconscious’ designates the obscene disavowed underside that sustains the public institution (p.32).” This argument, which flows from his Hegelian-Lacanian approach combined with the pessimism of the intellect characteristic of Marxist thinkers, will outrage many. This is perhaps part of the point of it all but there is no doubt that Žižek constructs his arguments with integrity as well as his customary broad humour. However, just as soon as he reaches one conclusion he is skipping away at an apparent tangent to search for quite a different one. He is best challenged, I would say – for those who wish to challenge him – in terms of his method rather than his assertions.

Having said which, there is some concern in my mind about his use of data and references. He does seem to rely too much on a thin number of sources for the data to support his wide-ranging subjects. Most references used in this book are online and, while that is not in itself problematic, quite often it is a single newspaper story that fuels an entire argument. Certainly he writes with great rapidity and in extraordinary profusion but a watchful editor might perhaps have required a little more justification. Still, the pleasure is in the breathless journey.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

 

Review of Joseph Y.S. Cheng (ed.)’s The Use of Mao and the Chongqing Model

Cheng, Joseph Y.S., ed., The Use of Mao and the Chongqing Model, The Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.3, No.1 (Jan-Apr, 2016), pp.53-5.

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The Use of Mao and the Chongqing Model
Joseph Y.S. Cheng, editor
Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press, 2015
ISBN: 978-962-937-240-8
XIX + 331 pp.

Chongqing is one of China’s largest cities and, since most of China’s dramatic industrialization and poverty reduction has taken place in cities, it is one of the sites of rapid modernization and economic development. That development has featured a variant of the Factory Asia paradigm, which is based on export-oriented, import substituting, intensive manufacturing with competitiveness based on low labour costs. Those low labour costs are achieved by drawing people from agriculture into industry through better wages and, after the Lewisian point of equalization of supply and demand for labour is passed, through repression of workers’ rights and exploitation through permitting a parallel workforce of illegal or unregistered migrant workers. This paradigm is often successful in achieving its goals but it is likely to be time-limited in effect as it triggers the Middle Income Trap. It is also inimical to the desire for equality of treatment promised by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology which many millions of Chinese people still hold to be important. Consequently, there is scope for differences in approach from the application of the Factory Asia paradigm by enacting policies within a city that tackle the corruption that inevitably attends rapid capitalist development while reducing market failures by providing good quality low cost housing and promotion of microenterprise start-ups to help provide employment to rural migrants and university graduates who might otherwise have had to leave. One result of this was to attract 200,000 of the half a million Foxconn jobs that had been located in Shenzhen. The concept was: “Chongqing provided cheap public rental housing to Foxconn workers. This allowed it to break away from the ‘global labor arbitrage’ pattern and re-embed transnational capital in society (Zhao, 2012).”

This was always likely to be a problematic approach because of the forces lined up against just such an idea: “ … a powerful hegemonic bloc transnational capital, domestic coastal export industries, and pro-capitalist state officials – as well as neoliberal media, intellectual leaders, and their middle class followers – [which] continues to block any substantial efforts at re-orienting the Chinese development path (ibid.).” Bo Xilai, mayor of Chongqing, attempted to enlist the support of the people of the city by the changhong campaign of singing red songs. Songs, that is, that are associated either historically or ideologically with the person of Mao Zedong, who is described as both the Lenin and Stalin of China. It is quite clear that the relationship between the CCP and Mao and his legacy is both complicated and evolving. Mao has never been repudiated but he has been found culpable of some mistakes. As Sebastian Veg writes in this volume (237-75): “… the 1981 ‘Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party,’ … distinguished among five periods: the pre-1949 and 1949-56 periods, during which the line of the Party and Mao’s leadership are deemed ‘correct,’ the 1956-66 decade, marked by some errors, the responsibility for which is shared by Mao and the collective leadership, and the ‘Cultural revolution decade’ of 1966-76, which is entirely condemned, including Mao’s role. Finally, the post-Mao era was, unsurprisingly, endorsed (Veg, 2015).”

The figure of Mao remains quite capable of stirring controversy and the use of his personality through the changhong campaign to challenge policies endorsed by the CCP might well have provoked an official response. Bo Xilai’s campaign brought him considerable levels of political success (he would scarcely have become mayor of Chongqing if he had not had some measure of personal ambition and determination) and undoubtedly caused him to attract a number of enemies, especially as the result of the Strike the Black anti-corruption campaign. In the central paper of this volume, editor Joseph Y.S. Cheng (pp.181-211) describes Bo’s success in terms of living environment and housing, transport network, afforestation, safety as well as law and order and health services. However, it is evident that other authors take a different view, perhaps cynically assuming that the whole campaign was just a smoke and mirrors attempt to propel Bo to his political goals. In any case, Bo’s world began to unravel after falling out with key Strike the Black ally Wen Qiang. Just before Chinese New Year in January, 2012, Bo had his Politburo membership suspended while his wife, the celebrity lawyer Gu Kailai, was indicted for the ‘intentional homicide’ of the British businessperson Neil Heywood. Heywood had lived an unusual life cultivating contacts in numerous agencies of the Chinese government in his successful attempt to move from being a teacher of English to a consultant to companies with non-specific contacts with Britain’s MI6 spy service. Heywood was found dead and his corpse cremated without a proper examination having taken place (Watts & Branigan, 2012). A special investigator subsequently announced numerous charges against Bo Xilai and tried to obtain political asylum with the Americans in Chengdu while Chinese security forces surrounded the building. There had been rumours of torture employed during the Strike the Black campaign and son Gua Gua seemed to be enjoying an exceptionally affluent lifestyle while studying at the University of Oxford (ibid.). It was enough and Bo was finished.
What then, does the study of the confluence of the image of Mao and the Chongqing model teach us about contemporary China? One thing that is clear is that the CCP maintains a pretty strong grip on the levers of state power. Émilie Tran (pp.213-35) writes that pro-Maoist websites were swiftly closed down and “… the authorities removed actual signs (posters and inscriptions on walls) and online testimonies, practically overnight. The next day, the residents of Chongqing woke up from their ‘Red’ fever in a freshly harmonized Chongqing. In that heavy atmosphere of suspicion, they behaved as if nothing had happened, being cautious not to mention anything related to Bo Xilai and his ‘Red culture movement’ to anyone (Tran, 2015).” An informant observes that it would not have been so easy to silence the Red Guards and this is symptomatic of contemporary China, according to a consensus of papers in this collection.
Mao has become inextricably linked with the Cultural Revolution and the continued silence about that period remains an obstacle to genuine rather than inflicted harmony – Bo Xilai himself was once a Read Guard and was subsequently imprisoned for five years for no properly explained reason.

Indeed, the CCP has provided some guidance as to how Mao should be considered in the future through sanctioned feature films which, as Veg (2015) observes, portray him in more humanistic terms dealing with a wide range of the great women and men of modern Chinese history in a vista from which the masses appear to have been deleted. This is both an expression of the neoliberalism of the political elite and, also, an attempt to sever the link between Mao and the people for the purpose of further legitimizing the present regime in its current manifestation. By doing so, it is presumably the case that it will become less possible for populist leaders to obtain broad support through the use of Mao imagery and ideology.

As is common with collections of academic papers of this sort, the extent to which authors actually address both parts of the title varies from case to case. As mentioned previously, the central paper is by Cheng himself and it is this one that most closely outlines the various themes explored. However, many of the other papers do make interesting contributions in their own right and it is noteworthy that most of them appear to have been published by academic journals since the time of the original conference of 2012. The production standards are good and the quality of editing more than acceptable. It is unlikely that the book will be of widespread interest but for scholars of contemporary Chinese society and economy it has a great deal to offer.

References

Cheng, J.Y.S. (2015). The ‘Chongqing model’ – what it means to China today, in Cheng, J.Y.S., ed. The use of Mao and the Chongqing model (Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press), 181-211.

Tran, E. (2015). In the red 2.0 – online reactivation of Maoist mobilization methods and propaganda, in Cheng, J.Y.S., ed. The use of Mao and the Chongqing model (Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press), 213-35.

Veg, S. (2015). Propaganda and pastiche – visions of Mao in The founding of the republic, Beginning of the great revival and Let the bullets fly, in Cheng, J.Y.S., ed. The use of Mao and the Chongqing model (Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press), 237-75.

Watts, J. and Branigan, T. (2012). Neil Heywood case: death, corruption, intrigue … the story so far. The Guardian (April 20th), available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/apr/21/neil-heywood-murder-gu-kailai.

Zhao, Y. (2012). The struggle for socialism in China: the Bo Xilai saga and beyond, Monthly Review, 64(5), 1-17.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

Review of Saskia Sassen’s Expulsions

Sassen, Saskia, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, The Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.3, No.1 (Jan-Apr, 2016), pp.51-3.

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Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy
Saskia Sassen
Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
ISBN: 978-0-674-59922-2
298 pp.

Saskia Sassen focuses on two systemic shifts in the global economy to explain how brutality has produced the eponymous expulsions that inform the basic concept of this book. One of these is the ascendancy of finance capitalism and she remarks on “… the capacity of finance to develop enormously complex instruments that allow it to securitize the broadest-ever, historically speaking, range of entities and processes; further, continuous advances in electronic networks and tools make for seemingly unlimited multiplier effects (p.9).” The other relates to space: “… the material development of growing areas of the world into extreme zones for key economic operations. At one end this takes the shape of global outsourcing of manufacturing, services, clerical work, the harvesting of human organs and the raising of industrial crops to low-cost areas with weak regulation. At the other end, it is the active worldwide making of global cities as strategic spaces for advanced economic functions, this includes cities built from scratch and the often brutal renovation of old cities (p.9).” Both time and space, therefore, have been assaulted and wrestled to the ground by the forces of capitalism as they subject the world to a new stage of nature: first nature was the world before the impact of humanity; second nature was the world after humanity began to extract and take advantage of its resources; third and subsequent forms of nature are the world after capitalism has reshaped it so as to intensify capital accumulation. Inevitably, this form of creative destruction produces both winners and losers and it is Saskia Sassen’s claim that the losers are not only increasing in number but are being expelled from the system and from communities with ever increasing rapidity and brutality, with obvious implications both for inequality and for the inherent instability of the system.
She explores these themes through a series of empirically-based chapters which include issues of land ownership and degradation, the role of finance in the formation of permanent crises and the role of global climate change. She builds a powerful if somewhat unoriginal picture of a world in which through accumulation by dispossession, in various guises, millions are forced into becoming refugees while a tiny minority increasingly hoovers up all the wealth, resources and future available. These chapters are competently enough written but seem slightly underwhelming because customarily she offers so much more than the accumulation of evidence. So, we look to the conclusion for the conceptualization to take place. Here, she describes the systems considered in the book to be economic, social and biospheric and (given the two themes outlined above) they veer ever further away from geographical borders and, hence, are emblematic of the declining relevance of states vis-à-vis capital. This leads to the core hypothesis “… that the move from Keynesianism to the global era of privatizations, deregulations, and open borders for some, entailed a switch from dynamics that brought people in to dynamics that push people out (p.211).” This is evident both at the international scale and also at the national scale, where China, as a large nation, has demonstrated its own movement towards inequality that is locking people out of the overall economic wealth creation process. The unit of analysis in this case is the ‘systemic edge,’ because that is: “… the site where general conditions take extreme forms precisely because that is “… the site where general conditions take extreme forms precisely because it is the site for expulsion or incorporation (p.211).”

Having established this position, which has an attractive logic, Sassen can then broaden her analysis to cover the world from the early 1980s, which is approximately the moment when neoliberalism began to replace the previous rather successful (as Paul Krugman regularly argues) Keynesian economic settlement and concomitant social institutions. That settlement was fundamentally inclusive, as demonstrated by the rising wages and living standards for most sectors of society around the world. That this took place was not related to some kind of good old days phenomenon of moral decay so much as the awareness of the desperate need for peace and security after the horrors of the Second World War. People realised the need to build stable ties between countries and with communities to prevent those horrors recurring. That thinking has been replaced. Neoliberalism, of course, reduces all of the additional effects of work and of social arrangements to the lowest common denominator of money. People thereby become customers rather than clients, patients or passengers and the financial bottom line of the corporation is the master narrative of the age. In other words, “The relationship between today’s advanced capitalism and more traditional forms of market capitalism can, at the limit, be characterized as one of increasingly primitive accumulation: complexity and technical progress serve causes of brute simplicity (p.216).” This is a powerful argument and one which I would have liked to see developed further.

Sassen concludes by wondering about the ‘spaces of the expelled (p.222)’ and this consideration leads to a number of emergent questions which might have shed light on whether any of these effects might be eliminated or reversed. As is so often the case, the book is more concerned with what has happened and its problems rather than what might now be done to try to improve the world. However, the closing words do offer some sense of tempered optimism: “… the spaces of the expelled cry out for conceptual recognition. They are many, they are growing, and they are diversifying. They are conceptually subterranean conditions that need to be brought aboveground. They are, potentially, the new spaces for making local economies, new histories, and modes of membership (p.222).” Perhaps these will be addressed in another book.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University