Sunday, April 10, 2016

Flora Sapio on Wang Hui: "Contradiction, Systemic Crisis and the Direction for Change: An Interview"

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)
It has been a long time, almost a generation, since the basic line of the Chinese Communist Party refocused the insights of class struggle away from its more primitive manifestation in a rough calculus of status to its current manifestation in the communal struggle to bring prosperity to the nation through the development of productive forces. Central to that evolution has been the evolution of the notion of class struggle from a central element of the organization of state, politics, society and economics to its embedding within the more complex notions of socialist modernization. It has been even longer since the discourse of autonomous state development has given way to the markets oriented language of economic globalization and its establishments of regimes of fracture, porosity, permeability, and polycentricity in the reorganization of power beyond the state.

Yet the old discourse retains a strong and alluring power over even the most sophisticated intellectuals of contemporary times. The best of them seek to bend old insights to new situations. They seek to reinterpret and apply old learning--still powerful--to the tensions and contradictions of the contemporary age. This is an important exercise of intellectual discourse in the West. It is refreshing, then, to see it emerge, as well in Chinese discourse.

It is with this in mind that Flora SapioShaoming Zhou, and I thought it would be useful to consider these issues through the lens of a recently published interview that nicely raises some of these themes: Contradiction, Systemic Crisis and the Direction for Change: An Interview with Wang Hui.

Our thought may be accessed here.
Flora Sapio
Larry Catá Backer

Shaoming Zhu

This post includes Flora Sapio's essay, On Wang Hui's Interview with Foreign Theoretical Trends:

On Wang Hui's Interview with Foreign Theoretical Trends 
Flora Sapio


This comment was inspired by my reading of Wang Hui's interview with the journal Foreign Theoretical Trends. My comment on Wang Hui's interview should not be regarded as belonging to my academic production in the field of China studies. It is a broader reflection I am making in my capacity as a private citizen, and member of a political community that is witnessing a legitimacy crisis, a resurgence of nationalisms, economic crises and inequalities not unlike those Wang Hui refers to. Therefore, this writing is addressed to a readership with a penchant for relatively abstract discussions.

I will not go into the specifics of China's crisis. Wang Hui's interview is a discussion of China's crisis but, the “crisis” of the current economic coordination mechanism is neither an exceptional event, nor it is exclusive to China. The phenomenon we refer to as “economic crisis”, may well be a cyclical process inherent to the very functioning of our economies. This process affects most of us, as we live in economic, political, and social contexts characterized by a high degree of interdependence. Wang Hui's discussion relies, in part, on the categories of global capital, of class, and on the friend/enemy dyad. The attempt to find a solution to the on-going “crisis” is an attempt that involves the brightest minds of contemporary thought, and Wang Hui is among them. With other European and American intellectuals, Wang Hui faces the titanic effort of re-conceptualizing a radically new present in the absence of a new vocabulary, and new concepts and categories. Engaging in this effort is already a sufficient ground for praise – how much easier it would have been, performing an armchair criticism of the 'West' or 'global capitalism'...

The categories of global capital, class and friend/enemy were born in the West, but their intellectual genesis does not make these concepts “Western”. As they are used by Wang Hui, these categories are indigenous. They may have originated in Germany, yet they are colored by the historical, cultural and intellectual contexts where Wang Hui engages his reflection. Wang Hui may have been born in China, but his reflection transcends the geographical boundaries of the People's Republic, to involve transnational issues, global intellectuals, and a global audience. If the political, social, and economical context of the crisis is unprecedented, so is the intellectual humus were the seeds of future solutions are being planted.

This radical novelty of context requires the use concepts that can mirror the multi-faceted nature of the problems Wang Hui and other intellectuals are trying to solve, and that can express the equally multi-dimensional, trans-cultural nature of these intellectuals. It is doubtful that the concepts on which much of the intellectual left (and right) relies can account for these problems, and do justice to the intellects that are looking for possible solutions.

The concepts of capital and class are well-known. Mao's concepts of friend and enemy s a striking resemblance to Carl Schmitt's analogous and notorious dyad. Analyses of the Classes in Chinese Society, however was written in 1926, while Carl Schmitt's the Concept of the Political dates to 1932. Any resemblance between Mao's concept of friend/enemy and Carl Schmitt's concept of friend/enemy is more superficial than substantive – even a cursory reading of Analyses of the Classes reveals how Mao never meant the distinction to be the criterion of the political. As they were conceived by Mao in 1926, class distinctions were based on economic status. Economic status being the object of possible reversals, Mao's class distinctions were inherently relativistic and pliable. They did not have the existential, eternal and unchanging, Good-versus-Evil features of Carl Schmitt's friend/enemy distinction. In that they were not a secularized rendition of a theological archetype, they implied the possibility of a reversal or a change. Such a possibility has, however, remained latent, and it has been obscured by the historical context where Mao's friend/enemy dyad was first created – a context that saw the elementary-teacher-turned-revolutionary embrace his weapons in an attempt to forge new possibilities for China. My readers will perhaps forgive me for invoking, here, the concept of form-of-life. An objective account of China's revolution, regardless of how idealistic and romantic the views of those who took to the Jinggangshan Mountains may have been, has to consider how these persons exchanged their comfortable lives for a new and uncertain existence.

A logic of new possibilities must, therefore, at least be latent somewhere in the writings of Mao Zedong or other revolutionaries. This logic however cannot be unearthed by relying on ideas and concepts used by intellectuals situated on either the right or left end of the intellectual circle. These categories carry definite risks with them.

First, these ideas are dichotomous rather than modal – they are not open to the existence of possible, different futures. Differently from Mao Zedong, who nonetheless committed objective mistakes, Carl Schmitt perhaps never imagined a different future for Germany, preferring instead to invest his enormous intellectual potential in bestowing legitimacy on the Nazi regime. More than for their content, ideas are important for their potential. They are important for how they frame our vision of the real world out there. Carl Schmitt's ideas frame our vision of the world in ways which generate further divisions rather than than attempts at understanding and accommodating difference. The post-industrial, post-modern world is a world where many of the boundaries erected around class, race, ethnicity etc. are being shaken and undermined by the reality of social life. Whenever an attempt to artificially keep those boundaries intact takes place, crisis is the result. Legitimacy crises, as well as crises of political representation, are born out of the attempt to maintain in place highly artificial divisions. What is worse, such crises thrive on such divisions, and tend to perpetuate them in downward spirals of violence.

Second, the categories of capital/class, and friend/enemy were born in an intellectual context that saw nation states play a pivotal role in governing economic systems, the lives of populations, and manage political equilibria among themselves. Such a central role no longer belongs to nation states. Nation states increasingly act a a conduit of decisions negotiated and agreed upon outside of representative fora. These representative fora include those of democratic dictatorships as China. The use of capital/class and friend/enemy obscures this reality, hiding how nation states are no longer capable to exert their governance functions as they did until the 1970s. The function, perhaps the very shape, of the state have changed in potentially irreversible ways. It is highly doubtful that a continued reliance on capital/class, friend/enemy will enable us to see this change. After all, these categories were deviced to justify the creation of nation states, and their preservation in the face of threats to sovereignty. Therefore, they can easily lead to a retreat into the cocoon of sterile localisms and nationalisms, and to a further distancing of the state from the actual loci of decision making. The withering away of the state, and its transformation into a machine responsible for the mere administration of things, according to priorities, norms and values determined not by the state but by global actors, is taking place before our eyes.

Neither capital/class nor friend/enemy can aid the state's transition to a renewed role, one better suited to the radically different context where the state exists. Any concept modelled after a spectrum of different and multiple possibilities, rather than an “either/or” logic would be infinitely more useful.


I have written about the risks inherent in accepting the friend/enemy division, or any other similar paradigm, elsewhere, in the context of my critique of the adoption of Carl Schmitt's thought by Chinese intellectuals. Framed in provocative and inflammatory terms – and rather ironically, I would say, the essay could have been written using a more conciliatory tone. Yet, I stand by the idea that the friend/enemy division - a division that is not peculiar to China but exists under different guises in the most diverse systems of thought included those of 'Western' countries – it itself unable to generate any meaningful solution to the problems identified by Wang Hui and other international thinkers. If driven to the point of its utmost intensity, the 'friend/enemy' distinction leads to the physical exclusion of 'the enemy' through physical walls and fences, or to its elimination through regime overthrowals, coups d'état, war, and genocide. That these are the only possible results the friend/enemy distinction can yield is proved, in practice, by centuries of world history, and in theory by the features of the distinction as described by Carl Schmitt:
“The political enemy (…) is (…) the other, the stranger; it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible. These can neither be decided by a previous determined general norm nor by the judgment of a disinterested and therefore neutral third party.

Only the actual participants can correctly recognize, understand, and judge, the concrete situation (…) whether the adversary intends to negate his opponent's way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one's own form of existence” [The Concept of the Political, 27]
Despite attempts to moderate the figure of the enemy, and reduce it to that of mere 'adversary' [Chantal Mouffe], Schmitt's enemy is not pliable to this or similar reinterpretations. The enemy is not someone who is hostile, a personal enemy (inimicus) but a hostis – a foreigner, a stranger, someone who cannot be included among the citizens (cives). As such, the enemy cannot be included among the 'friends', who are synonymous with the 'citizens' of a nation state. One possible alternative has been suggested to the friend/enemy dyad, that of form-of-life.

An attempt to escape the friend/enemy dyad must necessarily involve a re-evaluation of the intellectual and existential background of those who engage in this effort. This is not the only task that lies before global intellectuals as Wang Hui. There is a second element one perhaps may want to reconsider, and that is given by existing legal structures.

Abstract concepts as “friend/enemy”, “class”, or even “form-of-life” are for the most part shrouded in a cloud of intellectual mystery that makes them unintelligible to large sectors of the public opinion. The very same public opinion that finds those concepts too abstract is exposed to them on a constant basis, whenever these concepts are instantiated by criteria and/or standards of conduct posed by social and legal norms. While the Schmittian concept of friend/enemy may be obscure, the very same concept when expressed through a language that speaks of the “crisis” becomes immediately intelligible to the 99 per cent.


In light of the above, legal and normative structures of any kind ought to become an important part of Wang Hui's (and global intellectuals') project. This need, a need to understand legal mechanisms in a way that goes beyond the simple consideration that the law produces ontologies of life (Agamben) is today more pressing than ever. The normative foundation on which nation states rely is by design unable to acknowledge and manage the existence of multiple forms-of-life. The existence of multiple forms-of-life, which may be regulated by widely different normative system, is a fact. This fact is however not always accounted for by the logic of nation states.

Nation states were legitimized by narratives woven around the themes of nation, race, class or ethnicity. Their creators envisaged nothing less than an ideal model of man. Those unable or unwilling to fit the model were automatically relegated to the rank of second-class citizens, expelled from the political community, or eliminated. Markets, a mechanism radically different from the nation states, have long become aware of how this logic is untenable, hence they have been successfully accommodating the existence of some normative systems and form of life, albeit at immense human and environmental costs. This success can in part be attributed to markets' ability to ride the legal categories that grounded the state's legitimacy.

The idea of person (Latin: persona) is one of those fundamental ideas that justify the existence of the state as a political form born to protect persons from the violence endemic under an hypothetical “state of nature”. The word “person” originally referred to the mask worn by theater actors and to the human face. This is not, however, the only meaning “person” has. The word “person” can also designate the persona iuris (legal person), and the persona ficta (fictitious person).

Human beings are included under the first meaning of “persons”. Differently from them, market entities have benefitted from a legal definition that, coupled to their organizational form, has enabled them to transcend the boundaries of race, class, ethnicity and the law of the state. The result has been the birth of actors that can freely move across state borders. These actors do not necessarily share the values that ground the state; they do not necessarily embrace the state's proclaimed ideology; they have no real incentive to play by the legal rules set by the state; they have no committment to contribute to the community where they exist, to preserve its culture or its traditions, or to respect its norms. The categories of capital/labor, friend/enemy, anthropomorphized as they are, blind us to the existence of MNCs, as well as a host of more or less organized transnational groups ranging from terrorist cells to the Wikileaks team. To these groups, highly skilled, highly mobile professionals may be added.

The behavior of these entities and of their members is regulated by norms they recognize as binding on themselves, and which are distinct from the law of the state. To employ an expression familiar to some leftist thinkers, MNCs and other transnational groups are included within national legal orders through the state's exclusion of their norms from the state-centred concept of law. Therefore, these actors exist at the same time, both inside and outside of the legal system.

The most well-known, and popular, critique of these organizations has targeted MNCs. While it is clear that MNCs obey to a system of norms we do not yet fully understand, such a critique has framed MNCs are passive/reactive entities. The critique postulates that MNCs merely react to the law of supply and demand. Therefore, if consumers united in boycotting their products, the 'Multitude' would eventually gain back its power over the 'Empire', ushering in a messianic era of equal food distribution. Again, reliance on the concepts of capital and class, disguised as “Multitude” and “Empire” or any other dyad, overlooks how:

(1) society may not be organized in strata, i.e. it may no longer be organized as it used to be until the 1970s, a time when a “capitalist”, “bourgeois” and “working” were easily identifiable.

Neither have social strata regrouped into a single class including the 99 per cent. The differentiation and grouping of individuals may follow a different organizing principle, one we do not yet fully understand.

(2) the values and norms adopted by MNCs and other global actors pervade society. These values and priorities enter the social sphere through private contracts, and the state's law-making and administrative rulemaking mechanisms. Moreover, the values, norms and preferences of global actors are progressively internalized by society. A certain critique to globalization holds that these values can be remade “from below”, by changing consumer choices. Besides the most obvious point that a meaningful change in consumer choice is precluded to large sectors of the world population, there remains the problem of how such change would impact our everyday lives.

Without a new vocabulary, and concepts and categories that can account for the complexities behind the crisis of political and economic systems, a truly new Socialist way – or any other way – cannot perhaps be found. The creation of such a new vocabulary, and the concepts and categories that can be expressed through it, can only start from a careful analysis of the present.

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