China and the terrifying rise of authoritarian capitalism
Once upon a time, in the days when Russia was called the Soviet Union and Russians did things far more menacing than take out ads on websites, there was a thing called a "blacklist" in Hollywood. People on the blacklist were communists, who despite being paid lavish sums to write or act in motion pictures, sympathized with a tyrannical and genocidal regime that sought America's destruction. Being "blacklisted" meant that by popular agreement between the heads of the various studios you would not be allowed to work as, say, a screenwriter (at least under your own name anyway).
Then as now being against the blacklist was Good; being in favor of it was Bad. Also Bad was giving testimony about Hollywood communism before a committee in the House of Representatives — so Bad, in fact, that many years later, in 1999, when one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema was given a major award, many of his colleagues in the industry refused to stand or applaud. The idea, as I understand it, was that the principle of free expression is sacred. It should extend even to support for America's enemies. Even a gentlemen's agreement like the blacklist (as opposed to actual state-enforced censorship) is unconscionable, as is any action that betokens even the faintest support for it.
This is a story that will be familiar to anyone who attended an American high school. It is also nonsense. That is why today no one particularly cares about Hollywood's base submission to Chinese censorship of its films. One waits in vain for Ed Harris, one of the many actors who insulted Elia Kazan two decades ago, to say so much as a word about the changes made at Beijing's insistence to Top Gun: Maverick. This picture is unlikely to win any awards, but it will almost certainly make a great deal of money.
Which is the only thing that matters in the world of motion pictures, except for fashionable opinion. The two are somehow never very far removed from one another. The same is true in professional sports. The NBA is said to be the most progressive American sports league because it allows players to wear shoes of various colors which in some loose sense express their views about various causes (while, of course, earning them large endorsement fees). It is unlikely to lose this appellation, no matter how many general managers are forced to retract statements of which the league's Chinese business partners disapprove. The waffle about how "political speech" is an "absolute right within the league" will be repeated even as spectators are ejected from games after expressing support for protesters in Hong Kong. Fans of the NBA, in America and China alike, will continue to enjoy themselves, all of them confident in the expectation that the league endorses their ostensible values (opposition to police brutality, Taiwan's nonexistence, and so on.)
I am not about to suggest that anyone should stop watching whatever trash Disney is putting out or tune out the rest of the very long professional basketball season. But I do think it is worth considering the implications of our almost total indifference to the reality of American-Chinese economic relations.
Hollywood and basketball are drops in the bucket. The scope and scale of America's dependence upon China in everything from textiles to advanced computing technology and military hardware is beyond description. This arrangement — and China's widespread theft of American intellectual property — will continue for the foreseeable future, as will the acquiescence of our politicians and their quasi-formal counterparts in business in whatever the Chinese authorities demand.
Was this really wise? Is China Respecter Man right to sneer at the efforts — however intermittent and spasmodic — of the current administration to arrest and perhaps even to reverse these developments? Do any of the president's supporters expect him to be able, much less actually willing, to remake our relations with Beijing? All of these things are worth considering.
But my real question is whether, as we have become more and more willing to countenance all of these encroachments upon our supposed principles, we have ourselves changed. Is it likely, in other words, that authoritarian capitalism on the Chinese model will ever gain a foothold in the United States? For several reasons, I believe the answer is yes.
One is that there is no necessary relationship between capitalism and freedom. It is perfectly possible to have a regime that silences dissent, tortures, and even kills its own citizens while allowing entrepreneurs to do the sorts of things Milton Friedman wrote a number of boring books about. Another is the fact that very few of us are likely to care very much about this apparent incongruity or think it results from misrule. The Chinese Communist Party is perhaps the most widely trusted political authority in the world. A people sated by widespread access to desirable consumer goods and cheap entertainment are not bothered by the disappearance of their ability to criticize a series of social arrangements from which they derive enormous pleasure, much less by the awful fates that befall millions of their fellow citizens with whom they have limited or no contact. Beijing's social credit system is what happens when our own analytics-driven techo-consumerism and the "signaling" religion of our economists and social scientists are carried to their logical conclusions.
It is more than possible to imagine an authoritarian capitalist version of the United States, in which the public value of various companies continues to increase at a pace deemed acceptable by economists, in which cheap goods continue to be distributed and purchased and an ever-expanding array of services to be procured at a marginally higher rate than in the previous year, in which billions of hours are spent by the population collectively enjoying various forms of digital entertainment, in which certain low-level political controversies are the subject of widespread gossip but anyone who questions the first-order principles of the regime — numbers going up on a screen somewhere, seemingly for their own sake — is at best dismissed as a crank.
It is, likewise, easy to imagine that in such a country millions of people would be immiserated. Some would exist more or less as non-citizens, deprived by computer programs of opportunities for housing and employment but still allowed to participate in commerce and amuse themselves with screens. Others would suffer even more, but ignoring their plight would be universally understood as a quasi-official duty. They would be, at worst, statistics that we consider for a moment before manipulating our devices in order to make stars or hearts appear beside an image.
If all this sounds plausible it is because I am, in fact, describing the country in which we already live.
Who are the Lakers playing tonight?
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