Pejorative Power Concentrations

I haven't thought hard about China in a while. My undergraduate degree was largely focused on East and Southeast Asia and I spent six months in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou in 2008, but other than a growing frustration with the competitive and war-mongering rhetoric in the United States and a moderate obsession with ancient Chinese philosophers like Zhuangzi, modern China has been out of my view. I recently started a book called Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos and am once again enamored with this huge and relevant country. There are paradoxical lessons to be found in China's transition from hardcore authoritarian Marxism to hardcore authoritarian pseudo-capitalism, and they are largely related to power and control. When the state loosened its grip on collective farming and allowed farmers to manage their own land again, agricultural production skyrocketed. The same was true for small (and titanic) businesses. And while the government gave up some of its economic power, the Politburo maintains total and unaccountable control of Internet access, cultural & political expression, and the hammers & levers of the state.

In the United States, a mythos of free enterprise, open markets, and equal opportunity (as well as political democracy) ostensibly rules the mainstream narrative landscape. This supposedly divergent path from China was set up in the hearts and minds during the Cold War; We are not communism or socialism was an unassailable truth. The US needs a fresh analysis of power concentrations, and China is a constructive analogy. China's economic free-ish for all has resulted in extraordinary concentrations of capital and operating corporate leverage. I'd like Americans to see this concentration as similar to the pre-Deng Xiaoping economic reforms and like the modern Chinese political structure: unaccountable, inefficient, and bad for society. I'd also like to draw Americans' attention to the similarities in power concentration in US economic and political life. Two parties play ping-pong for power nationally and many states are fully controlled by a single party. The major donors to both parties come from a tiny slice of society. Capital and operating market leverage has accrued in the hands of individuals, families, and corporation to an extreme degree. These are monopolies of power, and power monopolies are indistinct from authoritarianism, even if they were built under higher conditions of freedom. In other words, Elon Musk and Xi Jinping have a lot in common.

These concentrations are not good for society. While I won't go down the sociological rabbit hole to argue that Americans have lost faith in society and turned to cynicism & fantastical/angry beliefs as a result of these asymmetries (though many other authors have plied that line of reasoning productively), I argue that we have ended up in a taxation without representation, politburo, oligarchy sort of situation. Our discourse has not come up to date with this situation: we are capitalists, a liberal democracy, etc. These terms may be true, but the historical conclusion from the state of our system is no longer viable, at least the way we are driving the bus.

China is not likely to re-distribute government power as long as the Politburo has the reins. But even they have started to realize the fragility and corruption of an over-concentrated economic life and taken some steps to re-balance that power sector. Americans need to figure out how to do better than that: across political and economic life, there must be a disciplined, deliberate effort to re-balance power where it is currently over-concentrated. Updated monopoly laws & agrressive enforcement, radical wealth & inheritance taxes, balkanization & de-institutionalization of party politics all would be good places to start. But what we most need is a shift in principles from our no-longer-modern conceptions of free markets, wealth accumulation, and party politics to a society that refuses to accept absurd, unreasonable, and undemocratic concentrations of power. Any claim to having a system that the rest of the world looks to as a model depends on it (as do moral & efficacy comparisons to China's economy and political situation).