On Luciano Canfora’s review of Domenico Losurdo’s La Sinistra Assente
I must start by declaring that the main feeling I experimented when reading Luciano Canfora’s review of Domenico Losurdo’s La Sinistra Assente was disappointment: frankly too meagre a text, compared with what one might expect from such an important author commenting on such another important author. Truth be said, writing in newspapers, and all the more having to do that with a certain periodicity, almost compulsively, ought to be assumed an important factor here. I haven’t many doubts in my mind that this may easily be considered… well, almost an irrelevant writing, something that a momentarily overburdened Canfora has simply scribed in a rush, in order to satisfy commitments vis-à-vis the press. He hasn’t quite exactly made justice to Losurdo, that’s for sure; but so what? We all have lapses, we all may do or say silly things one moment or another, especially when pressed by circumstances. That shouldn’t be too considered; as a matter of fact, that should very likely be disregarded… except maybe inasmuch it brings something of relevant qua symptomatic.
Following what Canfora (himself guided by Leopardi) acutely notices in La Natura del Potere, Hegel’s famous dictum about the press being “the Bible of modern man” is something to be understood with a considerable grano salis. Portuguese common saying that to write in newspapers is to write in the water (“escrever em jornais é escrever na água”) is probably not so nonsensical or absurd, after all: as a matter of fact, one must recognize that is likely mostly right. Maybe, regarding newspapers, sometimes it makes indeed sense to think in terms of a “cunning of reason” that imposes a momentary loss in comprehension in the name of the possibilities opened referring to accrued extension of knowledge (religious Reformation vis-à-vis Renaissance, to use one customary historical analogy, or maybe also political revolutions vis-à-vis religious Reformation); but then again, a “cunning of unreason” may also in certain circumstances operate and, instead of a merely momentary, pedagogic pause, we may witness a quite consistent, global decline. Hence newspapers-readers, once a lower strata in intellectual terms (if compared with the typical book-reader), being now an upper strata, when compared with the majority of mere television-watchers. Both perspectives and both possibilities are, I think, actually worth careful consideration.
This discussion would, all too obviously, lead us very far and astray from our subject. But at least that may also point out a number of aspects no doubt crucially characterizing our times: the precedence of immediacy vis-à-vis patience, for instance; or the dominance of things fragmentary over any intuit of global perception and in depth understanding of reality (“grand narratives”, as they say); or, to put it like Losurdo himself does, the primacy of sheer emotion over thought; and also of the means how such cultural changes are susceptible of being indeed monitored and used by ruling circles, the “dominant class” now imposing its ways not so much by supplying the basic format of dominant ideas, but mostly by relentlessly imposing dominant emotions: this fact no doubt occurring within a generic “estheticization of politics”, that much we may take for granted; but also within an even more global and deeper cultural process, apparently making “post-Gutenberian” societies massively reflow into rather pre-Gutenbergian ways, and coming down to performatively confirm Humean notion that “reason is and ought only to be a slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”.
There must be, however, some limitation to the validity of that idea: otherwise, what would be the very point of even spelling it out, right? The present situation is, therefore, rather abundant in ironies. As a matter of fact, one of them directly stems out of the fact that Losurdo’s book is indeed mostly a book… well, to say the truth, a book rather absent from Canfora’s review, that practically does not refer directly to it, except in which regards the vexatia quaestio of nowadays China, or to be more precise the “right” position of “Western Left” regarding nowadays China. This irony, however, operates already on a secondary semantic layer, that is, on top of the likely primordial fact that Losurdo, in recent years, had an important friendly polemical exchange of ideas precisely regarding the issue of left-versus-right with another author, the in-the-meantime disappeared Costanzo Preve, whose absence is probably one more relevant “missing link” for the reconstitution of the set of circumstances that made this book not only possible, but really also necessary.
Now, in what concerns evaluations of present times, I frankly think that countries belonging to what is usually called “the West”, with their/our still formally democratic regimes, indeed mostly behave the ways how conscious denigrators have traditionally depicted democracies: the monstrous, slave-of-the-passions, greedy, violence-prone, gullible and easily-prey-of-manipulation, brute mob: the list of clichés is presumably endless, but it’s probably good to read the useful reminder by John Robinson Jeffers, even if it properly applies not quite to humankind in general, but only to what one might call “North-American humankind”, or maybe “Western humankind” (here, please: http://www.antiwar.com/orig/jeffers1.html). In a way, I guess this may be considered a “curse” spelt by those conscious denigrators; or, from a slightly different angle, a self-depreciative and also self-fulfilled prophecy by subsequent generations. The author of Democracy in Europe: A History of an Ideology (one my all-times favorite books, dare I say, and actually an indispensable moral and political compass for the understanding of present days) probably does not disagree substantially from that idea. Still, we all have to endure the permanent and omnipresent propaganda, and censorship (hence often tending to become also self-censorship), which insists in depicting “our” (“Western”) history as a history of an exceptional, yet unstoppable triumph of democracy, a fact which would mostly result in our societies’ capacity, and really convenience, to dis-consider whatever might be occurring else in the world: anything of what “we” are not the protagonists is, therefore, not even remotely valid or worth attention.
Of course, all this very much leads our societies to a state of generalized mental confusion; and that is precisely where an element shows up, amidst what Canfora argues in the review, that seems particularly valid: namely, the notion that China ought to be recognized as significantly different from Europe in some essential points, which makes PRC's global experiment as something deeply “inedito” in human history. That may well be an extremely valid point. First and foremost, if we are to respect others, we must respect them in their otherness. That fully applies to Western studies on China, and I am aware that there is such a huge tradition of writings precisely on this topic that I will skip the subject immediately after having mentioned it. And yet, as Canfora probably knows much better than anyone else, the recognition of alterità is only the first half, so to speak, of the researcher’s métier. The other part consists of, by a recurrent appeal to analogy, redirecting that discovered otherness, or novelty, into a reprocessed, enriched fundamental identity, or universality… which still incessantly restarts its “work” of producing/discovering otherness, permanent novelty, etc. And so, by dealing with the subject of China, the researcher must, as with any other subject, pick-up his/her analytical tool-kit and, hoping for the best, consider the evidences based in his own intellectual resources, assuming always the possibility of discovering novelty/otherness behind illusory familiarity, or in other cases precisely the opposite: fundamental equivalences hidden by exotic wrappings.
Once that is assumed, two or three supplementary notions need to be mentioned. One of them is of course the idea of a “Great Divergence” that, for a number of different causes (some of them random-originated) produced since the 18th century a growing economic gap between Western societies and the Rest-of-the-world, particularly China. This is an extremely serious issue, concerning which theories may besides be spelt in a mostly self-celebratory fashion (“we, the westerners”, the exceptional races, the unique culture, blablabla), but in other cases, and rather on the contrary, emphasizing precisely the random element, the precariousness of each-and-all economic development processes, and indeed also civilizing processes. Be as it may, the fact is that nowadays the massive economic irruption of China has mostly meant the reversion of such Great Divergence, that is a crucial fact to retain, as Losurdo pertinently refers more than once in his book. However, and besides being extremely important in itself, with hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens now accessing the benefits of civilization (an aspect that only overly spoiled brats, Western academia’s enfants gâtés may even dream deny importance), this fact constitutes in itself a huge step into the discovery of a Southeast Passage for the World-Spirit, largely amplifying the capabilities for the protagonism of non-Westerns in the stage of Universal History. In other terms, it’s not just China: it’s all the so-called Third-World that, after being colonized for centuries by the “exceptional West”, was also at a certain point afterwards explicitly dumped, let down in neocolonial circles (with for instance Africa being assumed as mere trash-land, “the lost continent”, an opinion often proclaimed as official wisdom referring to economic development in the 1990s), and is now taking advantage of the momentum, indeed being massively sucked forward by the vacuum-cone produced by China’s economic extra-big push. As a small example among hundreds of possible others, let me mention the recent reconstruction and full rehabilitation of Angola’s railways, built in colonial times and after abandoned, massively sabotaged by UNITA, often went into complete ruin (much for Schadenfreude of neocolonial spirits, always running high here in Portugal, very often with “left-wing” gown), and now at last fully recovered and used in normal conditions, actually starting to experience new extension of lines (whereas by contrast important tracks of rail network are abandoned here in “old Portugal”, courtesy of EMU, IMF and the local lackeys), largely thanks to Angola-China cooperation, with direct intervention of lots of Chinese workers, and really many Chinese companies involved, both public and private, but always supervised by public powers of both countries (yeah, yeah, I’m familiar with the hearsay, true or false: also with lots of corruption associated, of course, of course…).
But let us avoid go into details or follow rumors. Besides of the authors usually associated with the discussion of the so-called “Great Divergence” (Pomeranz, Huntington, Duchesne, etc.), I think crucial to mention also Giovanni Arrighi, among other things because he drives the discussion of China’s recent case into a theoretical framework which, unlike the one of those authors, is largely Marx-inspired. But even far beyond such aspect, I do think Adam Smith in Beijing absolutely indispensable, Arrighi’s “prezioso studio” no doubt including some of the deepest things written on China in our days. Naturally, that doesn’t conclude the discussion of the issue. Losurdo puts in parallel the reduction of the Great Divergence in international terms with a novel, internal Great Divergence in western societies, in other terms the huge growth of the inequalities occurring in those during the last two decades or so, once the disappearance of the “Eastern Block” left capitalism, and political liberalism, sufficiently unleashed to have things fully their way. These discussions, however, run partly aside China’s case; both for good and for less good reasons. As to capitalism, although many aspects of Chinese economy now obey its logic, the fact is that the instances of “last resort” in Chinese society continue to be fundamentally non-capitalist, I fully agree with both Arrighi and Losurdo in that point (and, by the way, also with Diego Angelo Bertozzi), and sincerely deem things so obvious that the burden of proof must be put in our opponents… who have until now brought nothing of really relevant for this discussion, whether in terms of sheer facts and/or indeed regarding interpretative schemes. Truth be said, Costanzo Preve raised extremely interesting issues regarding this discussion (see here, please: http://www.comunismoecomunita.org/?p=2782), but none of them in my opinion really able to dispute the socialist nature of Chinese society. Maybe this is not a Marxian socialism, fair enough. Maybe it’s instead a half-Confucian, half-Lassallian socialism, but so what? It is still a socialism, and that should definitely be the most important thing. (Incidentally, calling “state capitalism” to a regime where the propriety of means of production is public, like Charles Bettelheim and others did, for instance, referring to Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s USSR, seems to me not only a deep political mistake, but above everything else an utmost absurdity. Bettelheim and other soixante-huitarde thinkers, officially of a Maoist or semi-Maoist persuasion, are to be first considered for what they really are, i.e. “anarcoide”, before any relevant and productive discussion in officially Marxist terms may even be initiated).
Other issues are, for instance, China’s so much talked-about growth of inequalities, and also PRC’s single-party regime. As to the first, probably it’s enough to mention the important aspect that Chinese inequalities, unlike Western ones, fundamentally respect the so-called Rawlsian rule of “maximin”, that is to say, in case the historical path had been otherwise, even the least well-off in China would be rather worse than they are now. The changes occurred benefitted virtually everybody in Chinese society, crucially unlike with us, Westerners. Moreover, China fully qualifies to be considered a state where principles of “rule-of-law” predominate, and also where social mobility (and particularly opportunities for upwards mobility) is an important part of the social fabric. And so, as to those aspect PRC, which is besides a staunch supporter of the rule-of-law also in international instances, where by contrast the USA and its satellites are a permanent producer of a Hobbesian (artificial, man-made) “state of nature”, has nothing to learn from Western wisdom, and especially not from the official “Western-Left” wisdom, that incessantly tries to obtain compensation from its own pathetic failures “at home” by non-stop lecturing and severely admonishing the natives of the Rest, with particular emphasis for those who impudently dare diverging from its recognizably enlightened prescriptions. Finally, as to this subject I should add that recent China’s social experiment has fundamentally rescued not only the notions of socialism and equality, both within countries and in cross-countries perspective (see for instance Mark Weisbrot: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/03/world-nothing-fear-us-power-china-economy-democracy), but really even the best aspects of our own Western societies, otherwise now almost completely felt into oblivion, such as Keynesianism, that may with justice be declared to have been “saved from the waters” by China’s massive economic triumph (see also http://keynesblog.com/2014/03/18/cosa-ha-salvato-la-cina-dalla-recessione-la-spesa-pubblica-e-le-aziende-di-stato/).
As to the quarrel of multi-party versus single-party regimes (and leaving momentarily aside the numberless devices that make formally multi-party regimes today in most of the West resemble much more de facto single-party than proper multi-party realities), obviously I find the first option globally preferable, but given an important proviso of “ceteris paribus” reasoning. To take a radical contrast, single-party Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was undoubtedly an oasis of civilization, if compared with the barbarian desert of sectarian/ethnic conflicts that the Empire of Chaos brought to that region... indeed, together with multi-party political institutions, complemented with the assassination of roughly one million people, that’s undeniable. In this case, therefore, let me opt for the single-party scenario. On the other hand, I have no doubts in declaring that nowadays’ multi-party regime of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria is substantially preferable to previous single-party Syrian regime, also of Bashar al-Assad’s… except, of course, for the fact that nowadays regime has to endure an atrocious undeclared war by the Empire ant its regional allies, which makes everything different… and so, we must step back into strict “ceteris paribus” proviso.
China did not yet venture into multi-party experimentation, for the time being. But I think that, apart from the generic clauses I first expressed, one should mostly wait and see. Who knows what else of “inedito” may in the future show up, coming from that landscape? Hopefully, that will safeguard the mostly socialist character of the social fabric. But what is really the horizon of my hopes, when compared with the almost endless complexity of things? By contrast with that, and in which concerns post-Soviet Russia, a case that Canfora apparently reduces to a mere restauration of “electoral gymnastics”, I am also rather inclined to recommend more caution. If we consider, for instance, Igor Strelkov’s writings on the present situation (here, please: http://www.globalresearch.ca/russias-hope-for-rebirth-social-justice-and-national-mobilization/5409244
Lisboa, 11 de Novembro de 2014 (anniversary of the proclamation of People’s Republic of Angola)