Brian Holmes on Sat, 12 Apr 2008 02:01:40 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Brits in hock--or, Atlas shrugged again

On Friday 28 March 2008 22:06:41 Dan S. Wang wrote:

> The reform era could also be called the Era of Devolution, meaning,
> while the central government maintains controls over national
> economic levers, the on-the-ground autonomy of the provincial,
> prefectural, and municipal governments has never been greater. It is
> not really a surprise that the greatest explosion of industry and
> commerce happened in the south, faraway from the oversight and
> political baggage of Beijing, where local layers of government can
> act with independence. Though the usual political machinations
> figured into his ascension, it is also not suprising that the period
> of great acceleration corresponded with the rise of Jiang Zemin, the
> former mayor of Shanghai, a man who learned to govern a city by
> always looking out for its own local interests.

This is getting good! When Dan uses his lived experience to bring in
the micro-political play of influence and constraint on both sides of
the US/China divide, then the discussion becomes truly interesting --
because we're finally getting beyond the massiveness of the global
division of labor. The big trap is to consider nations or regions as
unitary subjects, arrayed against each other in the global ring, when
in fact they are seething molecular cauldrons of differences and
strategies and needs and aspirations whose dynamics then enter into
reciprocal (though usually unconscious) relations, via trade and money
but also through immigration, media, communication, cultural motifs,
educational processes, vastly complex and specific realities that
never stop intersecting. What we have been trying to get at with
Continental Drift is precisely the imbrication of scales: intimate,
urban, national, continental, global. It's characteristic of
contemporary societies to find all them all intermeshing
simultaneously in every possible combination of intensities, and
though it's dauntingly complex at times, it's also just world society,
the everyday experience. To make sense of the patterns is to
anticipate the possibility of a new democratic politics, even across
the huge gaps that are set up by the global divisions.

Something really interesting in Dan's post, that people might not 
understand right off the bat, is this idea that the Reform era has been 
an age of Devolution, i.e. delegation of central government power to 
localities. The Chinese state appears monolithic, because it has kept 
the control of mediated appearance, i.e. CCTV and the People's Daily 
and the Great Firewall. But that plus the army and the police are the 
major functions that made the neoliberal cut. The thing is that 
reform-style development was not carried out in a centralized way, 
through the discipline of planning, but instead by ceding the rights to 
lease out property to local collectivities (villages, cities, 
provinces), and then requiring them to meet certain targets with the 
resources at their disposal. This, as Friedrich Hayek taught, was a 
much more quick and efficient way generate and apply information, and 
thereby, to move straight into the classic capitalist contradictions! 
What this means once again is that the very motor of development -- in 
this case, local initiative -- makes geographical and social harmony 
impossible to simply legislate from the center. It can't be done, 
because the government has simply given up authority, in exchange for 
unlocking the local productivity. And that is very much the trap of the 
neoliberal governance model, not only in China.

What that means is that the molecular processes of capitalism -- on the 
one hand, those fiercely competitive battles among all the 
individual "China prices," and on the other, the repercussions of all 
those individual reticences to consume that are about to be felt in the 
West -- cannot be very easily controlled or compensated for under the 
neoliberal model. And as soon as the "self-organized" Hayekian 
initiatives of structured finance cease to ensure trans-continental 
coordination, what you're gonna have is plain old chaos, almost random 
pressures and aleatory interplays of influences. What can be done, by 
those of us involved in culture and communication, is to provoke a 
little more awareness of this chaotic molecularity, to retrace more 
paths of the kind that Dan has taken the care to point out, and in this 
way, to make more people realize that on the other end of the 
commodity-chains there are also human beings in difficult situations. 
To the extent that long-term perturbations really are set off by the 
housing crash and its repercussions I think this kind of 
micro-narrative can be a positive contribution, one entirely within the 
powers of relatively ordinary people, particularly if they speak a 
couple languages and have a networked camera or keyboard. Let's all try 
to make the chaos a bit more interesting!

best, BH

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