"The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World-Economy"

While in China I read an extremely significant book about the development of the world-economy in the neoliberal period, by the expatriate Chinese economist Minqi Li.

I had read the title article and thought the book was reducible to that, but I was wrong. True, the guy is a world-systems theorist, who begins from the basic observation that capitalism, unlike the hydraulic empires of old, is a world-economy without a world-government, that it is based on interstate warfare, imperial plunder and unequal exchange, and that it has gradually destroyed and absorbed the old empires (such as the former "Middle Kingdom"). These and many other ideas are pure Wallerstein; and when well deployed, they are very convincing. Minqi Li's grasp of this theoretical framework and his ability to express it succinctly are excellent. But he is also a Tiananmen veteran, with a lived experience of complex struggles. And that adds something fundamental.

As the events of 1989 unfolded he understood that Chinese intellectuals, demonstrating for liberal freedoms, and Chinese workers, supporting them for social rights, were not standing in the same shoes or on the same ground. According to the way he sees it, the former became the managers of Deng's neoliberal reforms while the latter got shot in the streets, before being sacked from the state owned enterprises. Li, who had been trained in Chicago School economics like his peers, spent two years in prison (apparently for advocating free-market principles!) and there he read Marx, Mao, Arghiri Emmanuel and others. He has gone on to become a major figure of the Chinese New Left, and now, to make what I think is a decisive contribution to world-systems theory.

Wherever Wallerstein declines into vague approximations and rhetorical conclusions, Li produces precise statistics and original analyses, whether on the relations between social classes and the regional hierarchy of states, on the conditions underlying the regain of corporate profit in the 1990s-2000s, or on the geopolitics of capitalist expansion since the 1980s. His strongest point, however, is to fully integrate the data on climate change into political economic theory, and to draw the at once sober and necessarily exorbitant conclusions from that integration. For Li, the destructiveness of capitalism has been proven by the world wars of the mid-twentieth century and it will be proven again, this time absolutely, by the consequences of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. He believes that, given the much higher degree of access to knowledge and organizing capacities that the expanded working classes now enjoy, there is some possibility of a socialist world-government emerging to coordinate a draw-down of the failed industrial-capitalist economy in the mid-21st century, as extreme conditions begin to necessitate extreme solutions. Of course he believes this with the deep lucidity and keen awareness of other possible outcomes that such a study as his own must inevitably produce.

More specifically on American decline, Li does not see any corresponding "rise" of China to a new hegemonic position. He doesn't think the expansion of the Chinese economy is sustainable, either technically, environmentally or socially, nor does he believe that the Chinese can achieve a military or cultural hegemony equalling that of the US in the 20th century. Based on the good reasons he gives for these judgments, I would say that one can expect a major social crisis in China sometime soon, consequent on either drought, famine, surging inflation, energy shortage or most likely, some simultaneous combination of the four. Perhaps this crisis will even be provoked by the current Chinese response to the still-unfolding crisis of overaccumulation. That response is a massive, debt-fueled, state- and city-orchestrated building campaign, a "spatial fix" on an unprecedented scale, which replaces the loss of Western consumer markets by the construction of immense new urban developments which appear to my eyes totally unsustainable, too big to supply with energy, clean water, clean air, and above all (from a capitalist viewpoint) inhabitants wealthy enough to pay the enormous costs of forcing such a wager to work. What happens if even authoritarian rule cannot keep this new spaceship up in the air? The resolution of THAT crisis will be decisive for the next fifty-year period, since Obama's America has lost its chance to imprint any direction whatsoever on world affairs, and indeed, seems increasingly likely to decline into Japanese-style economic stagnation.

The question, of course, is whether the Chinese state could resolve any major crisis directly affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of inhabitants? Can the party - or the people - acting perhaps with some Latin American encouragement, open a new era of green capitalism, as a prelude to a socialist world-government? Or is it more likely that an intensification of police-state neoliberalism will spread around the world, as it has done incipiently since 2001, outpacing the socialist turn that began in Latin America around that same time? Li does not deal with these questions. There is some important work to be done in his wake, I would say.

Li, Minqi. 2008. The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World-Economy. Pluto Press.

The book is available for download here (sign up first, it's worth it):


For more on the "spatial fix," this New York Times article is very good: