Saturday, December 18, 2010

Trade, War, and a Non-sustainable Planet. Today's Economic Crisis and China

Let us call colonialism the exertion of power by one state over another nation or another region of the earth, and call imperialism the outlook of the elites of the dominant power of their entitlement to rule. Let us keep in mind that there is not agreement on how to draw lines between conquest and colonialism and imperialism.  

The Spanish marched in and conquered the Aztec and Inca Empires militarily and some would say that this signalled the start of imperialistic colonialism in the modern era. Many would say that this was simply "conquest" as history had always known it, but for present purposes we need not bicker over terminology. The point that I want to get to is that much of subsequent colonialism did NOT fit the early Spanish model but involved power imposed through trade and debt relationships and political agreements, often with proxy local leaders, and only backed up by military intervention when necessary to support or expand those relationships and agreements. One might call this empire by manipulation because much of the machinery of control was "out of public sight" so to speak. The manipulation was in the shadows of account books, treaties, and back-room arrangements rather than in the hands of soldiers in foreign uniforms. 

How did and do such "out of public sight" arrangements come about? Let us approach the question from the perspective of human individual and social nature, and Global Human Ecology and keep in mind the proposition that masses of people would not normally knowingly put themselves under the power of foreigners. 

One might realize first that there has been bribery of individuals and factions in key positions who are superficially patriotic but corruptible.  Then of course there is bribery-enticement and/or trickery of people who are too dull or too much in denial to realize that they are being corrupted and are betraying their supposed loyalties, and these will rationalize their complicity. Those who are doing the buying-off will often bring ready-made rationalizations that the betrayers can use to ease their consciences or explain their complicity to their intimates. Offering defensive excuses can be a rather normal part of negotiations. 

This much is obvious and surely many people these days are thinking about how it is that their own elected officials and agency officials have been betraying their responsibilities. 

I want to focus now, however, on how crisis has been used to advance the cause of empire and colonialism, and now neo-colonialism. This comes up because of some of the reports coming out of Wikileaks this week about China's exploitation of the world crisis to pursue its ambitions for power and empire. What China has been doing is not categorically new, but we are all in a phase of history that is pivotal for all of us and thus of immediate concern, and there is a fair amount of information available, and we have the opportunity to study these dynamics in action.  

I suggest reading a couple of articles in Spiegel and then continuing to follow these sorts of stories. One article is "Capitalizing on the Euro Crisis: China Expands Its Influence in Europe." (12/14/2010) By Wieland Wagner and the other is "Investment with Strings Attached: Cables Reveal Resentment at Chinese Influence in Africa" (12/09/2010) by Horand Knaup.

The general picture is quite simple. The Chinese Communist Party now controls vast economic resources especially in banking and manufacturing and in some strategic materials such as rare earths . At the same time, the "Western" economies, notably the US and Europe have painted themselves into an awkward corner by pumping up their economies and economic elites largely by fiat dollars and other currencies created by governments, and by the financial industry itself in an unregulated fashion and having no clear intrinsic value. The lack of trust in the currencies  and value estimations has contributed to economic slumps, worsening unemployment, and deteriorating infrastructure.  

The Chinese power elite is cleverly taking advantage of these weaknesses and pursuing these openings to extend their economic and political power. As the writer of one article puts it, they leverage the largest political and economic advantages with minimal investments -- that over the globe add up to gaining considerable clout and control.  Speaking in general, this is the sort of thing that imperialistic elites have ALWAYS done. The US neocons were doing this sort of thing when they thought they had the advantage in recent years. 

Most of this looks to the naive simply like economic "aid" that is motivated by compassionate humanitarian sentiments. This is the public face, but it understandably has strings attached. Again, this decoy follows much of the pattern of colonialism and neo-colonialism. Much US foreign aid for example has been subsidies for US/multinational companies and has helped forge economic and political ties with "friendly" foreign elites. Much of the aid to India historically, involving trade, political and military help, railroads etc. ended up making India first into a dependency of the East Indian Company and then into a British Colony. Further examples abound. 

What keeps colonialist or neo-colonialist dynamics such as these moving toward continual expansion? It is very worrisome in terms of global human ecology that the drivers seem to have only a "go" button and no braking mechanisms that would be operated internally. This is like a biological hunger drive with no "set point" for satiety that is thus destined to create gross obesity. To extend the metaphor, one could argue that the ultimate destiny is obesity to the point of physiological breakdown and death. 

So what are the drivers? 

Psychologically, there has usually been an elite and national ideology of entitlement, superiority, and destiny. Such ideologies necessarily imply no endpoint but global hegemony of one sort or another. Christian "dominionists" today tell themselves that they are better than others and must take over the world politically for their brand of Jesus. Likewise, there are in effect Islamic dominionists that tell themselves they are better than others and must take over the world for their brand of Islam. Hegemony is a must, because God/Allah demands it. 

These ideologies do not NECESSARILY imply economic domination of the globe, but leave that option open. Thus these ideologies are potentially adaptable to forming alliances with those hegemonists that use economic, nationalistic, and/or ethnic terms of reference. These ideologies do not have the concept of "enough, stop" built into them. Similarly there have been cultural hegemonic ideologies that involve a sense of history and historical destiny and/or technological history and/or destiny. Manifest destiny in North America involved technological visions that steam and electrical power, railroads, guns, European clothing, etc. would be "civilizing" and this was commonly mixed in with notions about a white Protestant race being God's chosen people. 

The Chinese CCP elite has easily taken advantage of the sense of Chinese superiority and identity that is the legacy of centuries, indeed millennia of largely successful (yet still ongoing despite Han dominance) political efforts to build a nation out of diverse regions and ethnic groups. Current ideology involves today a constant reminder of past humiliations at the hands of Europeans, and a "national" need to recover face and rightful power in the world.  The useful long arm of this is that it can also be used to build and reinforce loyalty and support from overseas Chinese, who are often well-educated, skilled, and affluent. This sort of support from overseas has already proved to be useful to the Chinese elite, as it has also to the state of Israel (which is not to insist that Israel is on an expansionist hegemonic path).  

Economic ideological drivers have tended to be based on the naked self-interest of coalitions of entrepreneurs and networks of banks. Rulers have chartered and encouraged individuals and groups to use ingenuity and connections to pursue profits vigorously. Possession of luxuries and expensive life-syles have been encouraged in various cultures to help motivate ambitions. There is no end to these types of drivers either. There is always the bigger yacht, the bigger summer estate in Maine and another winter estate somewhere warm, another private airplane, more automobiles, more servants, more race horses, more precious objects, bigger and bigger bank accounts. 

The commerce associated with such things has throughout history provided a tax base for military and bureaucratic expansion and foreign adventures.  With rare exceptions commerce has been the life blood of empires. It has been necessary to support armies, police, and bureaucracies, buy allies, and build monuments and wonders to impress the population and give them diversions and a sense of pride in their particular political hierarchy. 

This is a good point at which to bring up competition. Ambition is not simply driven by internal values and desires. It is also driven by competition for trade and resources and military needs which are driven by international competition. It is moreover a social and economic phenomenon driven by both ideologically defined perceptions and necessities. 

Competition along with cooperation and independence are real factors in the natural world and in human affairs. But competition can be formulated ideologically as the overriding cosmic force and thus become a psycological driver that operates both within a social system and between social systems. Thus people will be driven to compete because this has become the norm and reality in their society, and in international affairs. 

Competitive individuals may be rewarded and admired and children raised to be competitive. Theatrical pageants of competitiveness have been invented in sports, television contests, survivor "reality shows, and the like that reinforce and perpetuate competitive ideologies. During the economic growth of Europe competition between towns to build grand cathedrals was encouraged by the religious elite, and similar architectural competitions have been encouraged in other theocracies. Thus even Christian communities would compete to make money to build grand temples and would honour economically aggressive members of their communities. 

Trade becomes the life blood of elites and the governments with which they are associated and through which elites pursue their ends. and hence competition over trade and material resources is in the vital interests of those elites and those governments.  There is a vicious cycle imbedded somewhere in this equation. Protection and pursuit of interests requires investment in the development and manufacture of arms. Arms races require more and more investment. Thus there must be more and more production and there is more to protect in terms of resources and trade arrangements. The system is driven more and more relentlessly. 

Many armed conflicts and much bloodshed has been caused by trade wars and wars over resources. Reading the Spiegel articles on China bring the Opium Wars to mind. China was selling silk, porcelain, tea, spices and other fine things to Europe and was buying back very little gong into the 1800s. Money (precious metals) were flowing to China from Europe. This was not unlike the situation today! China is getting wealthier and wealthier and the West is getting deeper in debt. To make a long story short, the East India Company and the British Empire began forcing China to buy addictive opium and China tried hard to stop this. In the name of free trade Britain fought China, gained Hong Kong, forced the Chinese to accept opium and the Chinese dynasty crashed in humiliation. One could argue that in a sense Britain was "forced" to do some dirty things because of its trade deficits, including waging war twice in the 1800s. We are all still living in the aftermath of this terrible thing. In 1853 US Admiral Perry led a squadron of war ships into Japan and threatened war unless the Japanese gave up their internal economy and opened themselves to American trade. That too changed the world. Japan decided to Westernize its society  and industrialize apparently in large part to be able to defend itself and not meet the same fate as China. That course steadily, perhaps inevitably, led to competition for resources and to colonial expansion and participation in two World Wars.   

There have been some efforts to reduce competition between armed entities by defining "spheres of influence." For example the Monroe Doctrine quickly developed into an understanding that the US would have economic domination in the Western Hemisphere. Australia and through it the British were given a sphere of influence in the South Pacific. The major European powers were given free reign in their "colonies." But dividing the world into spheres of influence would not in and of itself end conflicts over trade and resources. The Middle East and South Asia have always been difficult to split up into spheres of influence. 

Now in the last few decades China, even under the rule of the CCP, has shifted to an economically competitive economic base for power. It promotes internal and international commercial competition. It has adopted a system that cannot by its nature remain confined within its own borders. The mechanisms that have been set in place are hegemonic by nature. They include industrialization and a need to maintain markets and obtain low cost resources. China reaches out for power throughout Africa and as far as Europe and the US. Other once great countries are too weak to confine it to a "sphere of interest" using either diplomatic or economic leverage. Even military power is probably too limited to confine it as things presently appear. Predictions that it will fall apart from internal problems do not seem to have much substance. 

Moreover, "falling apart" would be tragic on its own terms. The various ethnic groups that make up China have suffered miserably under emperors, under colonialists, under nationalists, and under communists. One can only hope that the present odd form of capitalism that the CCP is pursuing is not merely shifting misery around among the Chinese people and building a new privileged class to help finance military power, recover world respect, and maintain government power. It would be much more compassionate for all of us to hope for reform than for collapse. 

Academically, we can dwell on the irony of a communist regime that seems not to be at all idealistic, and one can wonder if it was ever actually Marxist rather than essentially nationalistic and totalitarian. 

But it is also an academic matter that China is a set on a course that can only increase the ecological footprint of humanity on the planet and that might well lead to continued arms races and armed conflicts. We all are today in some phase of a clash of empires, and the interests of humanity and the environment seem destined to be secondary concerns for the warring giants. 

It does seem essential for humanitarians, educators, and environmentalists around the world to keep their bearings and keep working towards the goals of respect for human potential and dignity and sound ways of living together on this planet.  

Today's economic crisis provides openings for ambitious political and economic elites and governments to advance their interests. [Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine is recommended reading here.]And of course without vigorous dialogues about broader humanistic and ecological perspectives and accomplishments in the past against great odds, in effect resistance to mind control, there will be little to slow them down. 

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