Some necessary criticisms apropos of “Social Contagion – Microbiological Class War in China” (Chuǎng)
At the end of February, the Chuǎng collective published an elaborate article on the Corona-virus pandemic in China, Social Contagion. Microbiological Class War in China, that develops their reflections on its origins and societal significance along two axes: 1. “how capitalist production relates to the non-human world at a more fundamental level—how, in short, the “natural world,” including its microbiological substrata, cannot be understood without reference to how society organizes production”; “how capitalist accumulation produces such plagues” and 2. on the present state of Chinese society; on how the pandemic itself is “a contradictory instance of political crisis, making visible to people the unseen potentials and dependencies of the world around them, while also offering yet another excuse for the extension of systems of control even further into everyday life.”
Being one of the first publications that invite its readers to delve deeper into the structural and societal questions posed by a rapidly expanding, overwhelming virus pandemic, it has found a widespread interest in certain political milieus, as is shown by the variety of languages in which it has been translated, from Spanish to Russian.
The following statement by the French blog Pantopolis criticizes the group’s conception of the class character of Chinese society and its main contradictions, for showing a remarkable attachment to the state capitalist visions of Maoism. One that we can find in their “Conversations with Lao Xie” (A State Adequate to the Task” in Chuǎng issue no. 2, 2019) as well.
Statement by Pantopolis (March 22, 2020)
Our criticisms continue those already made by Fredo Corvo in October 2016 and published in an articles collection in Dutch that translates as “When in China a Butterfly Claps its Wings …” (1)
Chuǎng’s text, in spite of its remarkable positions, which apply Robert Wallace’s Marxist method of analyzing pandemics under globalized capitalism, has political flaws that must be highlighted, if we do not want to fall into complacency.
In the first place, Chuǎng, whose political trajectory we know nothing about, seems to nourish a certain nostalgia for Maoist China. So, one can read the following:
“… the socialist healthcare system began to be dismantled. Infant mortality plummeted and, even despite the famine that accompanied the Great leap Forward, life expectancy jumped from 45 to 68 years between 1950 and the early 1980s. Immunization and general sanitary practices became widespread, and basic information on nutrition and public health, as well as access to rudimentary medicines, were free and available to all. Meanwhile, the barefoot doctor system helped to distribute fundamental, albeit limited, medical knowledge to a large portion of the population, helping to build a robust, bottom-up healthcare system in conditions of severe material poverty. It’s worth remembering that all of this took place at a time when China was poorer, per capita, than your average Sub-Saharan African country today.” (Chuǎng, Social Contagion. Microbiological Class War in China)(2)
That certain epidemics have been eradicated, as in other countries, with advances in epidemiology, is certain. Nevertheless, the harmful effects of Maoism, allegedly “communist” from 1957 to 1979, must be strongly underlined. The failure of the Great Leap Forward led to a great famine that killed 20 million people. The policy of Liu Shaoqi, which announced that of Deng Xiaoping in 1979, 1961 seems to have put an end to the famines. On the other hand, the Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao and his clique in 1965, put an end to the control of epidemics, which led to the resurgence of epidemics and even famine in several regions.
It should be noted that in this text, as in the previous ones, Chuǎng never calls a spade a spade: the term state capitalism, applied to Mao’s China, seems to Chuǎng a blasphemy. Chuǎng persists and signs: Mao’s regime, although questionable, was “socialist” with its “socialist health system” and its “barefoot doctors” … That the Chinese workers were exploited under Mao and Xi Jinping, and condemned by millions to the camps, under Mao as well as under Xi Jinping, is out of the question for Chuǎng.
But if Chuǎng’s article benefits from Robert Wallace’s invaluable analysis of the destruction of the world by Capital, this doesn’t make Chuǎng Marxist . Chuǎng, like neo-Stalinist or leftist groups (some Trotskyist groups and so on) still do today, especially raises a hue and cry against billionaires, like Ma Yun (Jack Ma), CEO of Alibaba:
“Over the past three decades, China has transformed from an isolated state-planned economy into an integrated hub of capitalist production. Waves of new investment are reshaping and deepening China’s contradictions, creating billionaires like Ma Yun while the millions below — those who farm, cook, clean, and assemble his electronic infrastructure — struggle to escape fates of endless grueling work. But as China’s wealthy feast ever more lavishly, the poor have begun to batter down the gates to the banquet hall. 闯 is the sudden movement when the gate is broken and the possibilities for a new world emerge beyond it.” (3)
For Chuǎng, class struggle is a fantasy that is best replaced by a “struggle of the rich against the poor” and vice versa. Although speaking of the “valorization of capital” (a term it borrows from Robert Wallace), Chuǎng seems to reduce the “revolt” or the “revolution” (its semantic preference is probably: revolt…) to a “struggle” to divide up the leftovers of the banquet of the rich, without thinking in the least of the construction of a new society without classes, without profits, without capital, without the law of value, at the world level. In short, the emergence of a true communism which is the antithesis of Mao’s communism. A communism based on workers’ councils, not on a totalitarian state party.
In a very strange but symptomatic way, Chuǎng compares the measures taken by the Chinese capitalist state to “counter-insurrection” measures, which it compares to colonialist actions against the “oppressed masses”, as in the time of the Algerian war and in the territory of Israel/Palestine:
“These sorts of desperate, aggressive measures mirror those of extreme cases of counterinsurgency, most clearly recalling the actions of military-colonial occupation in places like Algeria, or, more recently, Palestine.” (ibidem)
The icing on the cake of this “radical” analysis is the reference to the mass strikes of the past, analyzed by Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek. For Chuǎng, the mass strike is a kind of myth that is experienced first of all in the most total confinement, in full quarantine, a virtuality of “deep shock” on the subjective level of the elementary social atom:
“the subjective experience is somewhat like that of a mass strike — but one which, in its non-spontaneous, top-down character and, especially in its involuntary hyper-atomization, illustrates the basic conundrums of our own strangled political present as clearly as the true mass strikes of the previous century elucidated the contradictions of their era. The quarantine, then, is like a strike hollowed of its communal features but nonetheless capable of delivering a deep shock to both psyche and economy.” (ibidem)
Chuǎng’s conclusion, “worthy of reflection”, according to Chuǎng, it is that the future “revolution” will be chaotic or will not be, a social epidemic and not a process of awareness and organized action of the proletarian masses:
“As the furnaces in all the foundries cool to softly crackling embers and then to snow-cold ash, the many minor desperations cannot help but leak out of that quarantine to gently cascade together into a greater chaos that might one day, like this social contagion, prove difficult to contain.” (Ibidem)
One can only repeat, always and tirelessly, the ABC of revolutionary Marxism:
Without class consciousness of the proletariat, without organization in class parties and in workers’ councils independent of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie, without a precise program of the new society that will emerge from the revolution, there can only be CHAOS, in clear terms: the VOID.
Pantopolis, March 22, 2020.
Translation by F.C & H.C., March 24, 2020.
The translation has been reviewed by the author.
1 The presentation of this articles collection from Chuǎng can be read in English on the Controversies website. The full version of the editor’s postscript, formulating the latter’s critique from a council communist standpoint, can be retrieved from there as well (pdf, 15 pages A4).
2 Chuǎng, February 26, 2020: Social Contagion. Microbiological Class War in China