"Let me bring together the three notions from the title (of today's debate): happiness, capitalism and communism in one exemplary case: China today. China in the last decades is arguably the greatest economic success story in human history. Hundreds of millions were raised from poverty into middle class existence. How did China achieve it? The 20th century left was defined by its opposition to the two fundamental tendencies of modernity: the reign of capitalism with its aggressive market competition and the authoritarian bureaucratic state power.
"Today's China combines these two features in their extreme forms: strong authoritarian state and wild capitalist dynamics. They do it on behalf of the happiness of the majority of people. They don't mention communism to legitimise their rule. They prefer the old Confucian notion of a harmonious society."
The last time I went to a giant concert hall with such an enthusiastic audience was a performance by the American rock group Paramore. But no, this was, believe it or not, a two-hour debate in Toronto last week between the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Zizek and Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson. Granted, both are academic rock stars, possibly the hottest public intellectuals today, and some tickets to the debate cost more than those for an ice hockey play-offs game.
The quote above was taken from Zizek's introductory remark. It was clever and insightful: China today really ties together capitalism, Marxism and happiness, or the utilitarian principle of pleasure for the greatest number of people, which in real life, must also mean pain and/or unpleasantness for some people.
Like any self-respecting Hegelian-Marxist-postmodernist, Zizek is all theory and no data. But what he said could be quantified. In 1999, just 2 per cent of the population were classified as middle class but this rose to 39 per cent by 2013.
Something Peterson said stays with me: "Most ideas you have are wrong." By extension, most ideas we have about China are wrong. That's why "experts" are always getting it wrong. As a corrective, I suggest following Zizek's suggestion by paying close attention to its growing middle class; for it's China's bourgeoisie, not the proletariat, who will determine the future.
It's sometimes claimed that the West is denying China well-deserved credit in economic development. For better or worse, "China" is everywhere, even when two of the world's trendiest public intellectuals are sparring over the meanings of capitalism and communism.
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