The explosion of capitalism in China has many Westerners asking when political democracy–as the “natural” accompaniment of capitalism–will emerge. But a closer look quickly dispels any such hope.
Modern-day China is not an oriental-despotic distortion of capitalism, but rather the repetition of capitalism’s development in Europe itself. In the early modern era, most European states were far from democratic. And if they were democratic (as was the case of the Netherlands during the 17th century), it was only a democracy of the propertied liberal elite, not of the workers. Conditions for capitalism were created and sustained by a brutal state dictatorship, very much like today’s China. The state legalized violent expropriations of the common people, which turned them proletarian. The state then disciplined them, teaching them to conform to their new ancilliary role.
The features we identify today with liberal democracy and freedom (trade unions, universal vote, freedom of the press, etc.) are far from natural fruits of capitalism. The lower classes won them by waging long, difficult struggles throughout the 19th century. Recall the list of demands that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels made in the conclusion of The Communist Manifesto. With the exception of the abolition of private property, most of them–such as a progressive income tax, free public education and abolishing child labor–are today widely accepted in “bourgeois” democracies, and all were gained as the result of popular struggles.
So there is nothing exotic in today’s China: It is merely repeating our own forgotten past. But what about the afterthought of some Western liberal critics who ask how much faster China’s development would have been had the country grown within the context of a political democracy?
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on December 3rd, 2007. (full text).]