Part 1 of 2
I’m glad that Paul raised the dangerous new nationalist energies starting to build in East Asia. Last year I started to lay out a historical account of the progressive potential that neoliberalism opened up to overcome the nation form, and the alarming threat to that potential posed by populist attacks on neoliberalism. I still need to come back to that general account; here I will begin to explore the growing tensions within countries that have produced the rise of nationalist politics.
The New York Times noted Russia’s growing xenophobia in a recent article. Following the enactment on December 28 of a law to bar Americans from adopting Russian children (which passed the Duma 400 to 4, with two abstentions), the legislature will now consider a variety of laws targeting foreigners and Russians who have connections abroad:
A full ban on all foreign adoption. A requirement that the children of Russian officials return directly to Russia after studying abroad, lest their parent lose his or her post. A requirement that officials’ children be barred from studying abroad altogether. A requirement that movie theaters screen Russian-made films no less than 20 percent of the time, or face fines as high as 400,000 rubles, or about $13,000.One group of legislators is working on a bill that would prevent anyone with foreign citizenship, including Russians, from criticizing the government on television. One proposal would ban the use of foreign driver’s licenses, another would require officials to drive Russian-made cars. One deputy has recommended strictly limiting marriages between Russian officials and foreigners, at least those from states that were not formerly Soviet.
The journalist doesn’t provide much by way of explanation, but does emphasize that this wave of patriotism is directed not against foreign countries but at Russia’s own elite. One quote from Sergei Markov, a political analyst and former legislator, provides considerable insight:
“The population considers the elite to be half-foreign,” he said. “Their property is abroad, their houses are abroad, their wives are abroad, their children are abroad. Even Russian industrialists work through offshore companies. Why do these people run Russia, they say.”
The resonance of this line of thinking is not unique to Russia. In every major country, the neoliberal global economy has generated a cosmopolitan business elite comfortable in conference rooms and luxury hotels the world over, but with very little in common with that increasing share of their countrymen who have been left behind. They congregate in and travel among the centers of economic power we call the global cities—New York and Chicago, Moscow and Peterburg, Beijing and Shanghai, London, Tōkyō, Dubai, Hong Kong, Mumbai.
These people, together with the well-educated, high-level administrators, journalists, professors, lawyers, and other elite professionals who move in the same circles, are those most susceptible to the liberal-minded, optimistic form of neoliberal ideology that is grounded in an apprehension of society as an aggregate (in contrast to the petty, resentful neoliberal ideology of the Tea Party and other victims of neoliberal society). It’s important to understand that these people believe in neoliberal ideology not because they are looking to rationalize their own success or to salve their consciences over those who are sacrificed. Rather, elite neoliberal ideology is appealing because it makes sense of their own lived experience, as people who succeeded in their professional lives through great individual effort, and because its prescriptions proved efficacious (until recently) in managing their businesses, in governing the economy, and in interpreting the world around them. Moreover, the obstacles they have faced have come primarily from the hobgoblins of neoliberal ideology, namely systems of patronage and parasitism that often coordinate affairs below the elite level (“corruption”) and the various forms of state intervention that are known as “authoritarianism”.
This is especially true of those on the frontiers of neoliberalism, those whose countries were part of the second great wave of neoliberalization that incorporated huge new parts of the globe with incredible speed in the years 1989-1991: Russia, China, India. In these countries, elite neoliberals face much more acute forms of “corruption” and “authoritarianism” than their counterparts in the developed world. I will try to indicate in part 2 of this post why that is, but for the moment let us remain within the subjectivity of elite neoliberals.
To them, corruption and authoritarianism are not features of contemporary society but perverse vestiges of a barbaric past, alternately identified as “socialism” or “feudalism”—or both, since “socialism” is often defined as a special case of “feudalism”. Thus a Russian critic characterizes the legislation before the Duma as “increasingly absurd, archaic and aggressive measures” defended with “medieval rhetoric”. An Indian analyst roots corruption in his country in “feudal mindsets”. A Chinese social scientist writes,
After our country’s revolutionary victory, in building a political system we basically imported the Stalin model of highly concentrated power, but because of the enduring influence of feudalism, this centralism often took on the characteristics of feudal despotism.... [T]hrough more than 30 years of reforms, we have made much progress in de-Sovietizing the economy, but in the political system there are many domains that have not cast off the Soviet model.
It is precisely the personalized forms of coercion or domination that, to the neoliberals, distinguish these anachronistic behaviors from the freedom and efficiency of “Western” ways of business, governance, and culture. So the Russian critic above identifies her fellow dissidents as “enlightened, modern and Western-oriented people”. Or the writers of the Nanfang Media Group 南方报业传媒集团, publisher of the most prominent voices of liberal criticism in China, constantly compare the advanced practices of Western countries to benighted Chinese norms. It’s but a short step from here to an explanation of the persistence of feudal remnants that blames “Chinese”/“Indian”/“Russian” culture and its grip on the people of China/India/Russia.
This is a step that is all too commonly taken by elite neoliberals. Increasingly, and ominously, critics of neoliberalism are taking the same step but with the signs reversed, and grounding their opposition to neoliberalism in their native soil.