When​ Alain Badiou claims that democracy is our fetish, this statement is to be taken in the precise Freudian sense, not just to mean that we elevate democracy into an untouchable Absolute. ‘Democracy’ is the last thing we see before confronting the ‘lack’ constitutive of the social field, the fact that ‘there is no class relationship,’ the trauma of social antagonism. When confronted with the reality of domination and exploitation, of brutal social struggle, we say, ‘Yes, but we have democracy!’ as if that were enough to ensure that we can resolve or at least regulate struggle, preventing it from exploding. An exemplary case of democracy as fetish is provided by such bestsellers and blockbusters as The Pelican Brief or All the President’s Men, in which a couple of ordinary guys uncover a scandal that reaches all the way to the president, eventually forcing him to step down. Corruption is everywhere in these stories, yet their ideological impact lies in their upbeat takeaway message: what a great democratic country this is where a couple of ordinary guys like you and me can bring down the mightiest man on earth!

This is why it is so inappropriate to give a radical new political movement a name that combines socialism and democracy: it combines the ultimate fetish of the existing world order with a term that blurs the key distinctions. Everyone can be a socialist today, even Bill Gates: it suffices to profess the need for some kind of harmonious social unity, for a common good and for the care of the poor and downtrodden. As Otto Weininger put it more than a hundred years ago, socialism is Aryan and communism is Jewish.

An exemplary case of today’s ‘socialism’ is China, where the Communist Party is engaged in a campaign of self-legitimisation which promotes three theses: 1) Communist Party rule alone can guarantee successful capitalism; 2) the rule of the atheist Communist Party alone can guarantee authentic religious freedom; and 3) continuing Communist Party rule alone can guarantee that China will be a society of Confucian conservative values (social harmony, patriotism, moral order). These aren’t simply nonsensical paradoxes. The reasoning might go as follows: 1) without the party’s stabilising power, capitalist development would explode into a chaos of riots and protests; 2) religious factional struggles would disturb social stability; and 3) unbridled hedonist individualism would corrode social harmony. The third point is crucial, since what lies in the background is a fear of the corrosive influence of Western ‘universal values’: freedom, democracy, human rights and hedonist individualism. The ultimate enemy is not capitalism as such but the rootless Western culture threatening China through the free flow of the internet. It must be fought with Chinese patriotism; even religion should be ‘sinicised’ to ensure social stability. A Communist Party official in Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, said recently that while ‘hostile forces’ are stepping up their infiltration, religions must work under socialism to serve economic development, social harmony, ethnic unity and the unification of the country: ‘Only when one is a good citizen can one be a good believer.’

But this ‘sinicisation’ of religion isn’t enough: any religion, no matter how ‘sinicised’, is incompatible with membership of the Communist Party. An article in the newsletter of the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection claims that since it is a ‘founding ideological principle that Communist Party members cannot be religious’, party members don’t enjoy the right to religious freedom: ‘Chinese citizens have the freedom of religious belief, but Communist Party members are not the same as regular citizens; they are fighters in the vanguard for a communist consciousness.’ How does this exclusion of believers from the party aid religious freedom? Marx’s analysis of the political imbroglio of the French Revolution of 1848 comes to mind. The ruling Party of Order was the coalition of the two royalist wings, the Bourbons and the Orleanists. The two parties were, by definition, unable to find a common denominator in their royalism, since one cannot be a royalist in general, only a supporter of a particular royal house, so the only way for the two to unite was under the banner of the ‘anonymous kingdom of the Republic’. In other words, the only way to be a royalist in general is to be a republican. The same is true of religion. One cannot be religious in general: one can only believe in a particular god, or gods, to the detriment of others. The failure of all attempts to unite religions shows that the only way to be religious in general is under the banner of the ‘anonymous religion of atheism’. Effectively, only an atheist regime can guarantee religious tolerance: the moment this atheist frame disappears, factional struggle among different religions will explode. Although fundamentalist Islamists all attack the godless West, the worst struggles go on between them (IS focuses on killing Shia Muslims).

There is, however, a deeper fear at work in the prohibition of religious belief for members of the Communist Party. ‘It would have been best for the Chinese Communist Party if its members were not to believe in anything, not even in communism,’ Zorana Baković, the China correspondent for the Slovenian newspaper Delo, wrote recently, ‘since numerous party members joined churches (most of them Protestant churches) precisely because of their disappointment at how even the smallest trace of their communist ideals had disappeared from today’s Chinese politics.’

In short, the most serious opposition to the Chinese party leadership today is presented by truly convinced communists, a group composed of old, mostly retired party cadres who feel betrayed by the unbridled capitalist corruption along with those proletarians whom the ‘Chinese miracle’ has failed: farmers who have lost their land, workers who have lost their jobs and wander around searching for a means of survival, others who are exploited by companies like Foxconn etc. They often take part in mass protests carrying placards bearing quotes from Mao. This combination of experienced cadres and the poor who have nothing to lose is potentially explosive. China is not a stable country with an authoritarian regime that guarantees harmony and is thus able to keep capitalist dynamics under control: every year thousands of rebellions of workers, farmers and minorities have to be squashed by the authorities. No wonder official propaganda talks incessantly of a harmonious society. This very insistence bears witness to its opposite, the ever present threat of chaos and disorder. One should apply the basic rule of Stalinist hermeneutics here: since the official media do not openly report on the troubles, the most reliable way to detect them is to search for the positive excesses in state propaganda – the more harmony is celebrated, the more chaos and antagonism should be inferred. China is full of antagonisms and barely controlled instabilities that continually threaten to explode.

It is only against this background that one can understand the religious politics of the Chinese Party: the fear of belief is effectively the fear of communist ‘belief’, the fear of those who remain faithful to the universal emancipatory message of communism. One looks in vain at the ongoing ideological campaign for any mention of the basic class antagonism made evident in the workers’ protests. There is no talk of the threat of ‘proletarian communism’; all the fury is directed instead against the foreign enemy. ‘Certain countries in the West,’ the party secretary of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences wrote in June 2014,

advertise their own values as ‘universal values’, and claim that their interpretations of freedom, democracy and human rights are the standard by which all others must be measured. They spare no expense when it comes to hawking their goods and peddling their wares to every corner of the planet, and stir up ‘colour revolutions’ both before and behind the curtain. Their goal is to infiltrate, break down and overthrow other regimes. At home and abroad certain enemy forces make use of the term ‘universal values’ to smear the Chinese Communist Party, socialism with Chinese characteristics, and China’s mainstream ideology. They scheme to use Western value systems to change China, with the goal of letting Chinese people renounce the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership and socialism with Chinese characteristics, and allow China to once again become a colony of some developed capitalist country.

Some of this is true, but the particular truths cover over a more general lie. It is of course right that one cannot and should not trust the Western powers’ promulgation of the ‘universal values’ of freedom, democracy and human rights: that universality is false, and conceals the West’s ideological biases. Even so, is it then enough to oppose Western values with a particular alternative, such as the Confucianism that is ‘China’s mainstream ideology’? Don’t we need a different universalism, a different project of universal emancipation? The irony here is that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ effectively means socialism with capitalist characteristics, i.e. a socialism that fully integrates China into the global market. The universality of global capitalism is left intact, quietly accepted as the only possible frame; the project of Confucian harmony is mobilised only in order to keep a lid on the antagonisms that come along with global capitalist dynamics. All that remains is a socialism with Confucian ‘national colours’: a national socialism, whose social horizon is the patriotic promotion of one’s own nation, while the antagonisms immanent in capitalist development are projected onto a foreign enemy who poses a threat to social harmony. What the Chinese party aims at in its patriotic propaganda, what it calls ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, is yet another version of ‘alternative modernity’: capitalism without class struggle.

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Vol. 37 No. 15 · 30 July 2015

Slavoj Žižek concludes that the socialism with Chinese characteristics that the Communist Party has developed in China is in fact ‘capitalism without class struggle’ (LRB, 16 July). The problem is, as Russia discovered some decades ago, that without class conflict capitalism will not develop sufficiently to be competitive on a world scale. Hence, quite possibly, the current crisis in the Chinese economy.

Keith Flett
London N17

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