Tuesday, October 19, 2010

New Beijing

Michael Pettis has a thought provoking Modest Proposal that suggests China should invest in American infrastructure to help make up for the huge trade deficit betwee the two countries.

What Pettis’ “modest proposal” is really suggesting, once you strip it down to its core, is that reserve-rich export-man countries like China launch a kind of neo-colonial “mission civilisatrice” for the economically backwards import-man nations of the world such as the US.

And I think it could work! But we must modify his modest proposal to make it even more “modest”.

The original colonialism was based on the idea of advanced industrializing countries going into the back waters of the world and investing in infrastructure, and then trying to “civilize” the natives by imposing new cultural norms on them which allowed these natives to extract resources, and finally exporting the native’s raw materials back to the home country. This system only worked because the investment in infrastructure was socialized (for the glory of the Empire) while the profits where privatized into special chartered companies who were granted monopolies by autocratic powers.

Marx was actually quite supportive of colonialism (later qualified that only if led by a proletariat government) and since at least in theory the Chinese Politburo would seem to meet this criteria, it seems the China should have no ideological qualms about taking on the export-man’s burden.

But they would have to re-conceptualize colonialism a bit. Sure, the standard colonial model could still would work to some extent (forcing the natives to gather natural resources for shipment back to the home country) but the problem is that only a small percentage of the American population has much of a memory of, or is in any physical condition to do, any hard work. That would take a huge amount of cultural and physical reprogramming to get the import-man natives even half as productive as your average export-man. And in the end, just as European agricultural techniques often failed in tropic colonies, so to trying to impose the Chinese work ethic in modern America may also prove futile as well.

So a much more modern updated version of Colonialism would need to be conceptualized. Nowadays America’s best natural resource is plentiful aggregate demand, based the gluttonous consumption by many of its natives, but due to the incompetence of its banker class, the supply lines of consumables are being blocked from reaching import-man end-users by such silly notions as repaying debts! So the infrastructure the Chinese neo-imperialists could build would have to use the latest technology to bridge these debt swamps the natives have not been able to master in order to get these vital consumables into the hands of import-man. So it seems quite reasonable that the Chinese would want to come to America and build the train networks, the road systems, the airports, etc, to keep their products moving effectively to their end users in various import-man settlements.

As for political problems, that’s easy. The Chinese could do what the original colonizers always did, co-opt the local elite by promising to allow them to maintain their elevated status in return for their faithful execution of the colonizer’s policies. In other words the Chinese just have to go out and find a faithful roi nègre among the local native elite. And this local American elite would still be allowed to maintain many of their barbaric customs, including their various televised spectacles and diversions that keep the locals in such a calm and happy mood. And at the same time, who knows, maybe even some of the superior export-man ways would rub off by osmosis onto import-man?

But there are pitfalls in Colonialism that the Chinese would have to guard against. The most obvious is the danger of “going native”. Might not the Chinese viceroys and others imperial officers start to ape the no-work, all-play ways of the very natives they are charged with civilizing? Maybe the Chinese would even start tapping into some of the pacifying consumer goods stash in the pipeline before it got to the natives. Why shouldn’t they start “using” some of these goodies, they are a long way from home and they could stop any time they want, right?

And what if the natives start to get uppity and the radicals among them start to organize? Some natives might even try to claim that import-man is the equal of export-man. Other native factions may believe that they have made the transformation by learning the ways of export-man and so it is time for them to run the show. Maybe these groups would even get brave enough to start spray painting revolutionary slogans on the walls of the new infrastructure about throwing off the Chinese jackboot and whatnot?

And in the worst case the whole system could even collapse. Maybe in the end the import-man would manage to organize himself and when combined with the inevitable softening of the Chinese overlords, the Americans may actually manage to regain their independence again. But the question will be, are they really ready to stand on their own in an export-man’s world? What if they are not, what if all that infrastructure, all the new roads, airports, the high-speed train networks started to fall into disrepair after independence? What if in the end, import-man had been unable to imbibe enough of the export-man’s culture to understand why these assets are so important and after several years of import-man independence, the few trains still working would only manage to run at low speed, the roads were slowly reverting back to their natural state, and the airports were falling into disrepair? Would export-man, after organizing a few benefit concerts, in the end just stare down from afar and shake his head at the mess import-man had made of his former paradise?

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