An allegedly old Chinese curse (which has nothing to do with China – it was probably invented by some Western observer) says “May you live in interesting times!” Interesting times are the times of troubles, confusion and suffering. And it seems that in Western “democratic” countries, we are lately witnessing a weird phenomenon which proves that we live in interesting times.
One of Mao Zedong’s best-known sayings is: “There is great disorder under heaven; the situation is excellent.” It is easy to understand what Mao meant here: when the existing social order is disintegrating, the ensuing chaos offers revolutionary forces a great chance to act decisively and assume political power. Today, there certainly is great disorder under heaven: the Covid-19 pandemic, global warming, signs of a new Cold War, and the eruption of popular protests and social antagonisms are just a few of the crises that beset us. But does this chaos still make the situation excellent, or is the danger of self-destruction too high? The difference between the situation that Mao had in mind and our own situation can be best rendered by a tiny terminological distinction. Mao speaks about disorder UNDER heaven, wherein “heaven,” or the big Other in whatever form—the inexorable logic of historical processes, the laws of social development—still exists and discreetly regulates social chaos. Today, we should talk about HEAVEN ITSELF as being in disorder. What do I mean by this?
In Divided Heaven (1963), Christa Wolf’s classic GDR novel about the subjective impact of divided Germany, Manfred (who has chosen the West) says to his love Rita, when they meet for the last time: “But even if our land is divided, we still share the same heaven.” Rita (who has chosen to remain in the East) bitterly replies: “No, they first divided the heaven.” The novel offers the right insight into how our “earthly” divisions and fights are ultimately always grounded in a “divided heaven”; that is, in a much more radical and exclusive division of the very (symbolic) universe in which we dwell. Today, the situation is not the one in which Heaven is just divided into two spheres, as was the case in the Cold War period when two global world-views confronted each other. The divisions of Heaven today appear increasingly drawn within each particular country. In the United States, there is an ideological and political civil war between the populist alternative Right and the liberal-democratic establishment. In Europe, the Covid-deniers are becoming a true popular movement… places for common ground are ever diminishing, mirroring the ongoing enclosure of physical public space, and this is happening at a time when multiple intersecting crises mean that global solidarity and international cooperation are more needed than ever. What is preventing global solidarity and cooperation?
Many Leftists in the West are so obsessed with the critique of neoliberal capitalism that they neglect the big change, the passage from neoliberal capitalism to a strange post-capitalism which some analysts call “corporate neo-feudalism.” When, due to the crucial role of the “general intellect” (social knowledge and cooperation) in the creation of wealth, forms of wealth are more and more out of all proportion to the direct labor time spent on their production, the result is not, as Marx expected, the self-dissolution of capitalism, but the gradual transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labor into rent appropriated by the privatization of the “general intellect” and other commons. Let us take the case of Bill Gates: how did he become one of the richest men in the world? His wealth has nothing to do with the production costs of what Microsoft is selling (one can even argue that Microsoft is paying its intellectual workers a relatively high salary), i.e., Gates’s wealth is not the result of his success in producing good software for lower prices than his competitors, or in higher exploitation of his hired intellectual workers. Why, then, are millions still buying Microsoft? Because Microsoft imposed itself as an almost universal standard, (almost) monopolizing the field, a kind of direct embodiment of the “general intellect.” Things are similar with Jeff Bezos and Amazon, with Apple, Facebook, etc.etc. – in all these cases, commons themselves – the platforms (spaces of our social exchange and interaction) – are privatized, which puts us, their users, into the position of serfs paying a rent to the owner of a common as our feudal master. We recently learn that “2% of Elon Musk’s wealth could solve world hunger, says director of UN food scarcity organization” – a clear indication of corporate neofeudalism.
With regard to Facebook, “Mark Zuckerberg ‘has unilateral control over 3 billion people’ due to his unassailable position at the top of Facebook, the whistleblower Frances Haugen told to the British MPs as she called for urgent external regulation to rein in the tech company’s management and reduce the harm being done to society.” The big achievement of modernity, the public space, is thus disappearing. Days after the Haugen revelations, Zuckenberg announced that his company will change its name from “Facebook” to “Meta,” and outlined his vision of “metaverse” in a speech that is a true neo-feudal manifesto:
“Zuckerberg wants the metaverse to ultimately encompass the rest of our reality – connecting bits of real space here to real space there, while totally subsuming what we think of as the real world. In the virtual and augmented future Facebook has planned for us, it’s not that Zuckerberg’s simulations will rise to the level of reality, it’s that our behaviors and interactions will become so standardized and mechanical that it won’t even matter. Instead of making human facial expressions, our avatars can make iconic thumbs-up gestures. Instead of sharing air and space together, we can collaborate on a digital document. We learn to downgrade our experience of being together with another human being to seeing their projection overlaid into the room like an augmented reality Pokemon figure.”
Metaverse will act as a virtual space beyond (meta) our fractured and hurtful reality, a virtual space in which we will smoothly interact through our avatars, with elements of augmented reality (reality overlaid with digital signs). It will thus be nothing less than meta-physics actualized: a meta-physical space fully subsuming reality which will be allowed to enter it in fragments only insofar as it will be overlaid by digital guidelines manipulating our perception and intervention. And the catch is that we will get a commons which is privately owned, with a private feudal Lord overseeing and regulating our interaction.
This new phase of global economy also implies a different functioning of the financial sphere. Yanis Varoufakis noted a weird fact that took place in the Spring of 2020: on the same day that state statistics in the US and the UK registered a breath-taking fall of the GDP, comparable to the fall at the time of the Great Recession, stock-markets registered a gigantic rise. In short, although “real” economy is stagnating or even decreasing, stock markets go up – an indication that fictitious financial capital is caught in its own circle, decoupled from “real” economy. This is where the financial measures justified by the pandemic entered the game: they in a way turn around the traditional Keynesian procedure, i.e., their aim was not to help “real” economy but to invest enormous amounts of money into the financial sphere (to prevent a financial collapse like the one of 2008) while making it sure that most of this money will not flow into “real” economy (this could cause hyperinflation).
But what makes the situation really dangerous, pushing us into a new barbarism, is that privatized commons co-exist with a new wave of strong nation-state competition which runs directly against the urgent need to establish a new mode of relating to our environs, a radical politico-economic change called by Peter Sloterdijk “the domestication of the wild animal Culture.” Till now, each culture disciplined/educated its own members and guaranteed civic peace among them, but the relationship between different cultures and states was permanently under the shadow of potential war, with each epoch of peace nothing more than a temporary armistice. The entire ethic of a state culminates in the highest act of heroism, the readiness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s nation-state, which means that the wild barbarian relations between states serve as the foundation of the ethical life within a state.
Today, things are getting even worse. Instead of civilizing (the relations between) cultures, the ongoing privatization of commons undermines the ethical substance within each culture, pushing us back into barbarism. However, the moment we fully accept the fact that we live on a Spaceship Earth, the task that urgently imposes itself is that of imposing universal solidarity and cooperation among all human communities. There is no higher historical necessity that pushes us in this direction, history is not on our side, it tends towards our collective suicide. As Walter Benjamin wrote, our task today is not to push forward the train of historical progress but to pull the emergency break before we all end in post-capitalist barbarism. In recent months, the often alarming ways in which the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic is intertwined with ongoing social, political, climatic, and economic crises are increasingly apparent. The pandemic must be treated together with global warming, erupting class antagonisms, patriarchy and misogyny, and the many other ongoing crises which resonate with it and with each other in a complex interplay. This interplay is uncontrollable and full of dangers, and we cannot count on any guarantee in Heaven to make the solution clearly imaginable. Such a risky situation makes our moment an eminently political one: the situation is decidedly NOT excellent, and that’s why one has to act.
It is only against this background that we can understand what is going now in China. The recent Chinese campaign against big corporations and the opening of a new stock exchange in Beijing dedicated to the promotion of small firms can also be seen as moves against neo-feudal corporatism, i.e., as attempts to bring back “normal” capitalism. The irony of the situation is obvious: a strong Communist regime is needed to keep alive capitalism against the threat of ne-feudal corporatist post-capitalism… Consequently, I follow with great interest the writings of Wang Huning, a current member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, and the director of Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization. Wang is correct in emphasizing the key role of culture, of the domain of symbolic fictions. The true materialist way to oppose the topic of the “fiction of reality” (subjectivist doubts in the style of “is what we perceive as reality not just another fiction?”) is not to strictly distinguish between fiction and reality but to focus on the reality of fictions. Fictions are not outside reality, they are materialized in our social interactions, in our institutions and customs – as we can see in today’s mess, if we destroy fictions on which our social interactions are based, our social reality itself begins to fall apart.
Wang designated himself as a neo-conservative – what does this mean? If one is to trust our big media, Wang is the brain against the recent new orientation of Chinese politics. When I read that one of the measures lately imposed by the Chinese government is the prohibition of “996”, I must admit my first association was a sexual one: “69” means in our slang the position in which man performs on the woman cunnilingus and woman on the man fellatio, and I thought “996” refers to some more perverted sexual practice becoming widespread in China and involving two men and a woman (since there is a lack of women there). Then I learned that “996” means a brutal work rhythm imposed by many corporations in China (a workday 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week). But in some sense I was not totally wrong: the ongoing campaign in China has a double target: more economic equality, inclusive of better conditions of work, and elimination of the Westernized popular culture focused on sex, consumerism, and fandom.
So what does being a neo-conservative mean in today’s conditions? In mid-October 2019, Chinese media launched an offensive promoting the claim that “demonstrations in Europe and South America are the direct result of Western tolerance of Hong Kong unrest.” In a commentary published in Beijing News, former Chinese diplomat Wang Zhen wrote that “the disastrous impact of a ‘chaotic Hong Kong’ has begun to influence the Western world,” i.e., that demonstrators in Chile and Spain were taking their cues from Hong Kong. Along the same lines, an editorial in Global Times accused Hong Kong demonstrators of “exporting revolution to the world”: “The West is paying the price for supporting riots in Hong Kong, which has quickly kindled violence in other parts of the world and foreboded the political risks that the West can’t manage. /…/ There are many problems in the West and all kinds of undercurrents of dissatisfaction. Many of them will eventually manifest in the way the Hong Kong protests did.” And the ominous conclusion: “Catalonia is probably just the beginning.”
Although the idea that demonstrations in Barcelona and Chile are taking their cues from Hong Kong is far-fetched, these outbursts exploded into a general discontent which was obviously already there, lurking, waiting for a contingent trigger to explode, so that even when the particular law or measure was repealed, protests persisted. The Communist China discreetly plays on the solidarity of those in power all around the world against the rebellious populace, warning the West not to underestimate the dissatisfaction in their own countries – as if, beneath all ideological and geo-political tensions, they all share the same basic interest in holding onto power… But will this defense work?
In his interpretation of the fall of East European Communism, Jürgen Habermas proved to be the ultimate Left Fukuyamist, silently accepting that the existing liberal-democratic order is the best one possible, and that, while we should strive to make it more just, we should not challenge its basic premises. This is why he welcomed precisely what many leftists saw as the big deficiency of the anti-Communist protests in Eastern Europe: the fact that these protests were not motivated by any new visions of the post-Communist future. As he put it, the central and eastern European revolutions were just “rectifying” or “catch-up” (nachholende) revolutions, their aim being to enable those societies to gain what the western Europeans already possessed; in other words, to return to the West European normality.
However, the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) in France, the protests in Spain, and other similar protests today are definitely NOT catch-up movements. They embody what one cannot but call a profound dissatisfaction with the liberal-democratic capitalism. What is new is that the populist Right has proved to be much more adept in channeling these eruptions in its direction than the Left. Alain Badiou was thus fully justified to say apropos the gilets jaunes: “Tout ce qui bouge n’est pas rouge”—all that moves (makes unrest) is not red. Today’s populist Right participates in a long tradition of popular protests which were predominantly leftist. China seems to have chosen here the neoconservative side: to control the potentially-destructive dynamics of modern global economy and the ensuing popular dissatisfactions with a strong Nation-State that emphasizes patriotism and traditional values. Where is the limit of such an approach?
Wang sees his task as imposing a new heavenly order, and we should not dismiss this as an excuse to impose the full control of the Communist Party over social life. Wang is replying to a real problem. 30 years ago, he wrote a book America against America where he perspicuously noted the antagonisms of the American way of life, including its darker sides: social disintegration, lack of solidarity and shared values, nihilist consumerism and individualism… Trump’s populism is a false way out: it is the climax of social disintegration because it introduces obscenity into the public speech and thus deprives if of its dignity – something not only prohibited but totally unimaginable in China. We will definitely never see a Chinese high politician doing what Trump did publicly: talk about how large his penis is, imitating a woman’s orgasmic sounds… Wang’s fear was that the same disease may spread to China – which is now happening at the popular level of mass culture, and the ongoing reforms are a desperate attempt to put a stop to this trend. Again, will it work? I am sceptic about it. First, I see in the way the ongoing campaign is done a tension between content and form: the content – the establishment of stable values that hold a society together – is enforced in the form of mobilization which is experienced as a kind of emergency state imposed by the state apparatus. Although the goal is the opposite of the Cultural Revolution, there are similarities with it in the way the campaign is done. The danger I see is that such tensions can produce cynical disbelief in the population. More generally, the ongoing campaign in China seems to me all too close to the standard conservative attempts to enjoy the benefits of the capitalist dynamism but to control its destructive aspects through a strong Nation State pushing forward patriotic values.
Therein resides the trap. Carlo Ginzburg proposed the notion that a shame for one’s country, not love of it, may be the true mark of belonging to it. A supreme example of such shame occurred back in 2014 when hundreds of Holocaust survivors and descendants of survivors bought an ad in Saturday’s New York Times condemning what they referred to as “the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza and the ongoing occupation and colonization of historic Palestine”: “We are alarmed by the extreme, racist dehumanization of Palestinians in Israeli society, which has reached a fever-pitch,” said the statement. Maybe, today, some Israelis will gather the courage to feel shame apropos of what the Israelis are doing on the West Bank and in Israel itself – not, of course, in the sense of shame of being Jewish but, on the contrary, of feeling shame for what the Israeli politics in the West Bank is doing to the most precious legacy of Judaism itself. “My country right or wrong” is one of the most disgusting mottos, and it illustrates perfectly what is wrong with unconditional patriotism. The same holds for China today. The space in which we can develop such critical thinking is the space of the public use of reason. In the famous passage of his “What is Enlightenment?”, Immanuel Kant opposes the “public” and the “private” use of reason: “private” is not one’s individual space as opposed to communal ties, but the very communal-institutional order of one’s particular identification; while “public” is the trans-national universality of the exercise of one’s Reason:
“The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men. The private use of one’s reason, on the other hand, may often be very narrowly restricted without particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment. By public use of one’s reason I understand the use which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public. Private use I call that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him.”
This is why Kant’s formula of Enlightenment is not “Don’t obey, think freely!” is not “Don’t obey, think and rebel!” but: “Think freely, state your thoughts publicly, and obey!” The same holds for vaccine doubters: debate, publish your doubts, but obey regulations once the public authority imposes them. Without such practical consensus we will slowly drift into a society composed of tribal factions, as it is happening in many Western countries. But without the space for the public use of reason, the state itself courts the danger of becoming just another instance of the private use of reason. The space for the public use of reason is not the same as democracy in the Western liberal sense – in his last active year, Lenin himself saw the necessity of such an organ embodying the public use of reason. While admitting the dictatorial nature of the Soviet regime, he proposed to establish a Central Control Commission: an independent, educational and controlling body with an ‘apolitical’ edge, consisting of the best teachers and technocratic specialists monitoring the ‘politicized’ CC and its organs. In “dreaming” (his expression) about the kind of work to be done by the CCC, he describes how this body should resort “to some semi-humorous trick, cunning device, piece of trickery or something of that sort. I know that in the staid and earnest states of Western Europe such an idea would horrify people and that not a single decent official would even entertain it. I hope, however, that we have not yet become as bureaucratic as all that and that in our midst the discussion of this idea will give rise to nothing more than amusement. Indeed, why not combine pleasure with utility? Why not resort to some humorous or semi-humorous trick to expose something ridiculous, something harmful, something semi-ridiculous, semi-harmful, etc.?”
Maybe, China needs a similar Central Control Commission. Its first task would be to notice the profound structural homology between the Maoist permanent self-revolutionizing, the permanent struggle against the ossification of State structures, and the inherent dynamics of capitalism. I think Wang is silently aware of this. I am tempted to paraphrase here Bertolt Brecht’s pun »What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a new bank?«: what are the violent and destructive outbursts of a Red Guardist caught in the Cultural Revolution compared to the true Cultural Revolution, the permanent dissolution of all life-forms necessitated by the capitalist reproduction? Today, the tragedy of the Great Leap Forward is repeating itself as the comedy of the rapid capitalist Great Leap Forward into modernization, with the old slogan “iron foundry into every village” re-emerging as “a skyscraper into every street.”
Some naïve Leftists claim that it is the legacy of the Cultural Revolution and Maoism in general which acts as a counter-force to the unbridled capitalism, preventing its worst excesses, maintaining a minimum of social solidarity. What if, however, it is exactly the opposite that is the case? What if, in a kind of unintended and for this reason all the more cruelly ironic way, the Cultural Revolution, with its brutal erasure of past traditions, was a shock which created the conditions for the ensuing capitalist explosion? What if China has to be added to Naomi Klein’s list of states in which a natural, military or social catastrophe cleared the slate for a new capitalist explosion?
The supreme irony of history is thus that it was Mao himself who created the ideological conditions for the rapid capitalist development by tearing apart the fabric of traditional society. What was his call to the people, especially the young ones, in the Cultural Revolution? Don’t wait for someone else to tell you what to do, you have the right to rebel! So think and act for yourselves, destroy cultural relics, denounce and attack not only your elders, but also government and party officials! Swipe away the repressive state mechanisms and organize yourself in communes! And Mao’s call was heard – what followed was an explosion of the unrestrained passion to de-legitimize all forms of authority, so that, at the end, the Army had to intervene to restore order.
With the neoconservative turn in China, a whole cycle of emancipatory politics has closed. In his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the great conservative T.S.Eliot remarked that there are moments when the only choice is the one between heresy and non-belief, when the only way to keep a religion alive is to perform a sectarian split from its main corpse. Lenin did this with regard to traditional Marxism, Mao did this in his own way, and this is what today has to be done today.
When, in 1922, after winning the Civil War against all odds, the Bolsheviks had to retreat into NEP (the “New Economic Policy” of allowing a much wider scope of market economy and private property), Lenin wrote a short text “On Ascending a High Mountain.” He uses the simile of a climber who has to retreat back to the valley from his first attempt to reach a new mountain peak in order to describe what a retreat means in a revolutionary process, i.e., how does one retreat without opportunistically betraying one’s fidelity to the Cause. After enumerating the achievements and the failures of the Soviet state, Lenin concludes: “Communists who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility ‘to begin from the beginning’ over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish).” This is Lenin at his Beckettian best, echoing the line from Worstward Ho: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” His conclusion – “to begin from the beginning over and over again” – makes it clear that he is not talking merely of slowing down the progress and fortifying what was already achieved, but precisely of descending back to the starting point: one should “begin from the beginning,” not from where one succeeded in ascending in the previous effort. In Kierkegaard’s terms, a revolutionary process is not a gradual progress, but a repetitive movement, a movement of repeating the beginning again and again… and this, exactly, is where we are today, after the “obscure disaster” of 1989, the definitive end of the epoch which began with the October Revolution. One should therefore reject the continuity with what Left meant in the last two centuries. Although sublime moments like the Jacobin climax of the French Revolution and the October Revolution will forever remain a key part of our memory, that story is over, everything should be re-thought, one should begin from the zero-point.
Today, capitalism is revolutionary much more than the traditional Left obsessed with protecting the old achievements of welfare-state – just recall how much capitalism changed the entire texture of our societies in the last decades…This is why the strategy of radical Left today should combine pragmatism with a principled stance in a sway which cannot but recall Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) from the early 1920s when the Soviet power allowed to a certain degree private property and market economy; NEP was obviously the original model for Deng Hsiao-Ping’s reforms which opened up the way for capitalist free market (under the control of the ruling Communist Party) – instead of a half decade of market liberalization, we have in China already half a century of what they euphemistically call the “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” So is China for over half a century following a gigantic New Economic Policy? Instead of making fun of these measures or simply denouncing them as a defeat of Socialism, as a step towards (authoritarian) capitalism, we should take the risk of extending this logic to its extreme. After the disintegration of East European Socialism in 1990, a joke was circulating according to which Socialism is a transition from capitalism back to capitalism.
But what if we make the opposite move and define capitalism itself as a socialist New Economic Policy, as a passage from feudalism (or premodern societies of domination in general) to socialism? With the abolishment of premodern relations of direct personal relations of servitude and domination, with the assertion of principles of personal freedom and human rights, capitalist modernity is in itself already socialist – no wonder that modernity again and again gave birth to revolts against domination which already pointed towards economic equality (large peasants’ revolts in Germany in early 1500s, Jacobins, etc.). Capitalism is a passage from pre-modernity to socialism in the sense of a compromise formation: it accepts the end of direct relations of domination, i.e., the principle of personal freedom and equality, but (as Marx put it in his classic formulation) it transposes domination from the relations between people to the relations between things (commodities): as individuals, we are all free, but domination persists in the relationship between commodities that we exchange on the market. This is why, for Marxism, the only way to reach an actual life of freedom is to abolish capitalism. For partisans of capitalism, of course, this solution is utopian: is the lesson of Stalinism not precisely that, if you abolish capitalism, freedom is also abolished and personal domination returns in a direct brutal way. And when capitalism is in a crisis, it can also resuscitate feudal elements to survive – is this not going on today with the role of mega-corporations which prompted some economists and social analysts to speak about neo-feudal corporate capitalism?
This, then, is the true alternative today: neither capitalism or socialism nor liberal democracy or Rightist populism but what kind of post-capitalism, corporate neo-feudalism or socialism. Will capitalism ultimately be just a passage from lower to higher stage of feudalism or will it be a passage from feudalism to socialism.
 2% of Elon Musk’s wealth could solve world hunger, says director of UN food scarcity organization – CNN.
 Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen calls for urgent external regulation | Facebook | The Guardian.
 See ttps://edition.cnn.com/2021/10/28/opinions/zuckerberg-facebook-meta-rushkoff/index.html.
 Quoted from https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/21/asia/china-hong-kong-chile-spain-protests-intl-hnk/index.html.
 Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?,” in Isaac Kramnick, The Portable Enlightenment Reader, New York: Penguin Books 1995, p. 5.
 V.I.lenin, “Better Few, But Better” (1923), quoted from Better Fewer, But Better (marxists.org).
 Quoted from www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/feb/x01.htm.