A discussion on capital accumulation and class struggle in China - P.Å. and Jeanne

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Submitted by Craftwork on June 16, 2017

After the global economic downturn in the 1970s, large quantities of capital in Western Europe and the United States started to flow into South East Asia, a region that after the second world war had went through a fundamental change, a transformation from mainly rural societies over agrarian revolutions and urbanisation, to industrialisation and, finally, competitive export oriented commodity production.

The first ‘success story’ was the ‘Japanese Wonder’ (1955–1985), i.e. the rapid expansion that followed the reconstruction after the Japanese surrender to the United States in 1945. Quickly, other countries followed suit: Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore which became the West’s front line against Russia, China and North Korea during the Cold War.

Compared to ‘the West’, all of these countries have since the 1970s seen a tremendous uninterrupted economic growth, at least until the Asian crisis 1997–1998, and have often by large margins surpassed the GDP levels experienced in Europe during the golden years of the 1950s and 1960s. However, the changes that have taken place over the last fifteen years in one country alone, accentuated during this first decade into the 21st century, are so extraordinary that it is seems to be stealing the whole show. In fact, the history of capital accumulation hasn’t seen any example such as the contemporary Chinese. (In 2006 its growth of industrial production was 22.9 percent.)

When the Chinese dragon is quickly filling its armoured stomach with copper [1] and iron-ore [2], mixed with crude oil [3] from all the corners of the world, and is breathing out its flames of cheap commodities over the surface of the earth, dealing with accumulation in China and its place in the global division of labour is for us crucial in trying to get a grip of where the capitalist mode of production and its contradictions are heading.

It goes without saying that we are here in no way interested in any narrow-minded vulgar economic discourse in which class struggle disappears in the automatic workings of the economy. An antidote to this bourgeois understanding has commonly been to list as many known examples as possible of particular struggles, or picking out the most extraordinary ones. This we also find problematic; indeed, they might not be representative of the whole and this turn implies reverting to crude empiricism. Our aim has been to never loose sight of the intrinsic link between struggles and the movement of capital while attempting to capturing them as a whole.

In the face of the so-called ‘retreat of class struggle’ in the West there has been a trend to look east for rediscovering the missing revolutionary subject. Here, one side has been to – in the most classical fashion – emphasise the need for ‘the working classes in making’ to fight to achieve basic political rights such as the freedom of speech and the right to organise, suggested as the necessary precondition to forming unions and the building of a workers’ movement. The other side (of the same coin) is the dream of a return of union-hostile workers’ autonomy.

We wanted to confront the problem of what our understanding of programmatism being once and for all dead implies in the case of China. If restructured capitalism is a global one, there cannot be any room for a workers’ identity to arise within a national framework. Then we can understand the fact that the ‘new emerging proletariat’ in China is not creating permanent independent organisations, not as a sign of their backwardness, but a characteristic of a new and global cycle of struggles.

Lastly, we wish to say that we are no experts on China or East Asia. We have simply read a bit of what we’ve found interesting. In the end, instead of conclusions, we have therefore formulated a few questions which we propose as a basis for discussion:

- Accumulation in China is being a major factor in the increase in demand and, subsequently, the rise in prices for raw materials globally. Higher food prices has an immediate and devastating effect on the world’s poor. At the same time, the Chinese demand for all sorts of minerals has created a global boom for the mining industry and benefited capital in countries like Australia and led to, among other things, the reopening of closed mines, free trade agreements between China and countries such as the copper producer Chile. Big Oil is of course also making huge profits…

This huge demand also poses the question of the possible consequences of competition for securing key commodities. China is currently on the way to establish a presence in Africa through all sorts of trade agreements with various governments and this year it announced the biggest increase in military spending in five years… What are the consequences of China’s hunger?

- Right now, China’s role in the global division of labour is mainly the production of cheap commodities because of its pool of cheap labour power. Can we imagine, however, also China to climb the production chain like countries such as Japan and the Asian tigers? Would it in that case imply the emergence of a ‘new China’ of cheap labour somewhere in the Third World? Also, what would the consequences be for the West, if it looses its technological advantage completely?

- The demand for labour in the new export oriented industries has intensified the rural exodus within China, creating a ‘new class of proletarians’, the mingons, who migrated to the sweatshops of the east coast in order to find work. This movement, which in some aspects seems to re-enact the one of the ‘original’ proletariat – the English – during the industrial revolution [4], has lead some to see in it the new revolutionary class, untained by the compromises of the western proletariat. According to this view, we now have to wait for this emerging proletariat to become conscious and get organised. One expects that they should go through the same stages as their counterparts in the West, as the necessary path for their rise in power. Can we imagine a programmatic development of the struggle of the Chinese working class? Can the Chinese state tolerate the creation of proper unions whose role would be to share the productivity gains, while its reserve of cheap labour is the very basis of its development?

J.N. & P.Å.

[1] From 20,000 tons in 1990 importing over 1.2 million tons last year.

[2] From 14 million tons in 1990 importing 161 million in 2006 and 192 million tons just in the first five months of 2008, despite the fact that China itself currently is the biggest producer of iron-ore in the world. (www.mineweb.com)

[3] Only the United States is a bigger consumer but China’s oil consumption grows by 7.5 % per year and is predicted to surpass that of the US by 2030.

[4] Their condition appears to be similar to the one described in the chapter about the struggle over the length of the working day in the first book of Capital.