Saturday, 3 July 2010

Chinese Workers And The State - Part 2

Historical Materialsm

It is not possible then to simply read off in an economic determinist manner, the fact that in China there is extensive commodity production, extensive private ownership, and a sizeable number of foreign owned enterprises, on to a description of the State as being Capitalist. It depends entirely upon the motivation for engaging in those methods of economic development. Were those methods chosen specifically to further the interests of Capital, or to further the interests of workers, even the interests of workers as refracted through the interests of a bureaucracy resting upon the continued social power of a large working-class and peasantry? Those questions cannot be answered by superficial analysis, but only by detailed economic and social analsyis of current Chinese society. As Engels said, in the previously quoted letter,

“Without making oneself ridiculous it would be a difficult thing to explain in terms of economics the existence of every small state in Germany, past and present, or the origin of the High German consonant permutations, which widened the geographic partition wall formed by the mountains from the Sudetic range to the Taunus to form a regular fissure across all Germany....

Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is, to making a practical application, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible. Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have assimilated its main principles, and even those not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent "Marxists" from this reproach, for the most amazing rubbish has been produced in this quarter, too....”


In the Financial Times on June 3rd, David Pilling wrote an article about the current strikes. He quoted the words of Han Dongfang a former railway electrician who tried to unite workers and students at Tiananmen Square, was jailed and now lives in Hong Kong. He also quoted an Editorial from the Global Times, a tabloid founded by the People's Daily, which was almost identical and read,

“In the three decades of opening up, ordinary workers are among those who have received the smallest share of economic prosperity. The temporary stoppage of production lines in the four Honda factories...highlights the necessity of organised labour protection in Chinese factories”

In an article in The Guardian on June 17th Jonathan Watts also quotes Wen Jiabao,

“"Your work is glorious and should be respected by society at large. Migrant workers should be cared for, protected and respected," he told workers at the construction site for the No 6 subway in the capital. "The government and the public should be treating young migrant workers like their own children."”

The Guardian commented,

“The People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling party, warned that the country's manufacturing model faced a turning point as demographic and social changes slowed the influx of low-cost labour from the countryside.

Coming a day after the premier, Wen Jiabao, made similar comments, the editorial suggests the authorities may be encouraging businesses to restructure the economy by putting less emphasis on cheap exports and more on higher-value goods and domestic consumption.”


As David Pilling put it in the FT, the authorities are reflecting in their statements a basic reality. He says,

“The years of an endless supply of cheap labour, on which the first three decades of China's economic lift-off was built, are coming to an end. That is partly demographic. Because of China's one child policy, the supply of workers under 40 has dwindled by as much as a fifth. Fewer workers means more bargaining power.”

In response firms have moved further inland to the rural areas from where the migrants come. Others have relocated to other economies such as Vietnam. Pilling also suggests that the other reason for the support being given is that the Communist party itself has a stake in better working conditions.

“Providing cheap Chinese labour to multinationals from Japan, the US and Europe was a means, not an end. Deng Xiaoping said it was glorious to get rich, not to make foreign-invested capital rich. As elsewhere, the share of labour in corporate profits has been falling. That runs counter to the emphasis placed by China's leadership on a 'harmonious society'...

There are other signs that the scales may be tipping labour's way. In 2008, Beijing enacted the the labour contract law, stipulating that workers be given written contracts.”


Yet for a variety of reasons foreign capital is unlikely to pull out Pilling argues.

“For all these reasons, Beijing may continue to offer cautious support to an emboldened workforce, though it will keep a watchful eye on wage inflation. But, on no account will it tolerate any hint of organised labour evolving into a political force.”

But, again, it is impossible to draw any definite conclusions from this about the class nature of the Chinese State. On the one hand this could be viewed in the way that Trotsky viewed the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR, as rather like a Trade Union bureaucracy – self-serving, leaching off the workers and using its controlling position to limit the workers struggles, utilising them for its own ends against the bosses when it either feels the need, or in order to release pressure built up from below – and yet only existing because of its relationship with those workers, and therefore, ultimately tied to them. On the other hand, it can be viewed in the same light as the regimes in other State capitalist economies as they developed towards market economies, such as in Singapore, where the State deliberately encouraged a movement up the production value chain, and once foreign investment had served its purpose, acted to encourage domestic capital.

At the same time it is clear that China does not function in the interests of its own Capitalist class in the way we would expect a normal Capitalist State to act. In Britain it is very rare that top Capitalist are prosecuted for their business activities, and when they are they are usually treated leniently. Yet, in China it is a quite frequent occurrence that businessmen are put on trial for corruption and other such activities, and not unknown or them to be executed when found guilty. The Financial Times on May 13th, carried the story of Huang Guangyu, who was ranked as China's richest man in 2008. The Chinese billionaire has been banged up in a Chinese gaol since November 2008, and put on trial for insider trading, bribery, and illegal business dealing. Again, nothing can be deduced from this on its own. In the US, there is more of a history of corrupt executives being put on trial, and it is by this means that US Capital acts to try to constrain the actions of its own bureaucracy. But China is not the US. Its political and legal system is much more opaque to say the least. In fact, these actions by the Chinese State are more akin to the kinds of actions of the present Russian State, which acted in what few people thought was anything other than a direct political attack on the power of certain oligarchs who were overstretching their power.

According to Trotsky, counter-revolutions never fully roll back what revolutions have accomplished. We can see that from a number of cases. In the English Civil War, the nascent bourgeoisie was able with the support of the peasantry, and sections of the Nobility to overthrow the Crown, which represented feudal aristocratic power. But, that nascent bourgeoisie was not developed enough, not class conscious enough to exercise political power directly itself. It was forced to cede power to Cromwell's Bonapartist Dictatorship. When the counter-revolution came, and the Monarchy was restored, it was on different terms than it had ruled under before. The State was not yet a Capitalist State, but nevertheless some of the changes brought about by the period of Cromwell's rule remained, and shaped the future development of both Civil Society and the State. The same is true of the Great French Revolution. Again a young nascent bourgeoisie with the support of the Peasantry overthrows the old feudal regime, but is not strong enough to hold on to political power itself. As In England it is forced to exercise its rule through a Bonapartist Dictatorship under Napoleon. But, again when he is overthrown, and the Monarchy restored, it is under changed circumstances, and appears yet again as only a temporary interlude before Louis Bonaparte assumes power.

It should be born in mind that in both these cases that what we see, however, is not a simple transition of power. There is not one single political revolution. In both cases a single dramatic revolutionary event takes place that is eventually thrown back. Over a period then a political and ideological struggle persists. The ideas of the revolutionary class eventually become dominant within the State, as that class becomes more dominant within Civil Society. The State becomes a Capitalist State long before the bourgeoisie themselves achieve complete political power. In Britain, the State essentially becomes a Capitalist State at about the time of the Glorious Revolution, and is symbolised by it, and is ideologically represented in the form of Locke's “Second Treatise On Government”. Yet, at that time, in no way could the bourgeoisie be said to be politically dominant.

Parliament remains dominated by the Landlord class indeed right up until the end of the 19th Century. A similar development can be seen in France, with the bourgeoisie only securing outright political power, with the establishment of the Third Republic.
It is dangerous to simply transpose one historical reality on to another as Trotsky said in comparing the French Revolution, and the experience of Thermidor to the Russian Revolution and Stalinism. But, history does allow us to make comparisons of this sort provided that we take account of the specific differences in each case. If we were to compare the revolutions in Russia and China with these bourgeois revolutions, and subsequent transformations then we would have to start by making the obvious statement that unlike those revolutions, which ultimately saw the bourgeoisie emerge not just as the dominant class in society, but to exercise that power through the State and through its political dominance, the working class has not so far accomplished that mission. We are all nuances accepted, somewhere between that original political revolution, and the subsequent assumption of power directly by the working class. Given that in neither case has the working class – or even the working class in combination with the peasantry – been strong enough to exercise political power itself directly we can safely compare that with the situation that faced the bourgeoisie following its Political Revolutions, and the exercise of that power on their behalf by a Bonapartist regime.

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