Prometheus Unbound: Astounding… Awesome

H/T: Mark Sherman via Derek Thompson at the Atlantic Monthly

Shanghai 1990-2010

In my book (whose copy-edited version I just sent back to the publishers after two months constant work – and hence neglect of my blog), I analyze an oft-repeated claim by Lenin in the aftermath of his treaty with the Germans in 1918 that Russia was only months away from a complete reorganization and economic power. While some dismissed this claim as a rationalization of the dubious treaty, Trotsky insisted that Lenin meant it.

The reorganization of Russia on the basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the nationalization of the banks and large-scale industry, coupled with exchange of products in kind between the towns and the small-peasant consumers’ societies, is quite feasible economically, provided we are assured a few months in which to work in peace. And such a reorganization will render socialism invincible both in Russia and all over the world, and at the same time will create a solid economic basis for a mighty workers’ and peasants’ Red Army.

I use this passage to describe the warped sense that invades people who have entered “apocalyptic time” in which the body social appears to be infinitely and rapidly protein. (It contributes mightily to the development of totalitarianism, which I define as the effort of apocalyptic believers who, having taken power and becoming impatient with the dismal failure of the millennium to materialize, chose to carve out the perfect society on the body social.)

What the two pictures above illustrate are the marvels of modern technology and the stunning dynamism of Chinese society (economy, technology, planning), and a realistic acceleration of time that, were it not empirically true, would be close to unbelievable. Prometheus unbound, turn of the third millennium.

7 Responses to Prometheus Unbound: Astounding… Awesome

  1. Lorenz Gude says:

    Wow – I thought that first picture was 1890! To me China is a conundrum – it seems to be the realization of Lenin’s vision that you quoted except it is very capitalist AND just moderately totalitarian. Instead of carving up the body politic the way Lenin or Mao did they are doing something else that looks suspiciously like a real estate boom.

  2. Joanne says:

    I visited Shanghai for a few weeks in the spring of 2008, and enjoyed that view of Pudong (across the river, in the photos). There are also tons of glittering glass buildings on the side of the Huangpu River from which these photos are taken. But I had mixed feelings about what I saw. I wrote a posting about it in early 2009. Take a look if you care to:

    I’ve just begun a book with the interesting point of view that the further development of Chinese economic prowess will be stymied by the fact that the country’s political development lags way behind. The book is China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy, by Minxin Pei.

    The main point of the book is that the government of China is actually weakened by the primacy of the Communist Party, so it cannot perform many normal administrative functions, enforce laws, protect property rights, police the market or even protect contracts. The fluid relationships between the state and the party, Beijing and the provinces, and the state and the market mean that there are no institutions strong enough to punish corruption or even to provide normal public goods like public health and education to an adequate degree. The author says that China could be said to be in a state of “fragmented authoritarianism.”

    I’ve long heard that, even since the days of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese political elite has faced a dilemma: the more it liberalized the economy, the richer the country became, but the less control the party and government had over the country. When the political elites tried to regain control, the economy suffered.

    So, while China’s accomplishments are indeed prodigious, its future challenges remain gigantic as well.

  3. Lorenz Gude says:

    There is a scene in the Australian Novel “My Brother Jack” in which the main character comes upon a field full of Nationalist Chinese soldiers in the late 40s in a field on all fours. At first he doesn’t understand what he is seeing but then realizes that they are eating the grass to stave off starvation. Fiction, but the scene always serves as a marker in my mind of how far the Chinese have come. Bluntly, I never thought I’d see them get off the bones of their asses in my lifetime. Was Mao’s slaughter a necessary precondition to the current economic success? I don’t know. India’s Congress party socialism was a lot less bloody than China’s Communism and both countries have transitioned successfully to market economies. In response to Joanne’s thought provoking comment above I can’t help but think that successful societies – including the US – have self limiting dynamics. It seems to me the recent confluence of support by both parties for unsustainable levels of home ownership in cahoots with a financial industry eager to create any number of fraudulently securitized mortgages is a world class example of a society self limiting though corruption. The Chinese have yet to beggar themselves – indeed, it seems they have all our money!

  4. Joanne says:

    Hi Lorenz,

    I think that, in the US, the system should have been limited from the outside via regulations. Yes, a collapse occurred when the securities containing sub-prime loans or, earlier, when over-valued high tech stock, could hold up no longer. And, yes, the collapses is a way in which the dynamics of the system corrected itself.

    As you imply, however, self-correcting by waiting until corruption and excess finally cause collapse is not the ideal way. Republicans can talk about the “free market” all they want, but you can’t count on banks, investment houses, and multinational firms to police themselves. As I’m always fond of saying, even the roughest sports require rules and referees.

  5. Joanne says:

    Oops, sorry for the repeated greeting above. Just careless of me. :-)

  6. Barry Meislin says:

    ” Was Mao’s slaughter a necessary precondition to the current economic success?”

    In a word, NO.

    File under: “What a question!”

  7. Barry Meislin says:

    Hold on! Now yer talkin’ (now yer not….)

    File under: “Let a thousand cowards bloom…”

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