China’s lack of democracy has its admirers in the west

The new ‘party of order’

Paul Demarty asks what the Wuhan outbreak has to teach us about the political moment.

There is still a great deal of concern that the coronavirus outbreak centred on China might become far more serious.

Thousands of cases have arisen in China itself, and - unsurprisingly, given the country’s level of integration with the world market - there have been pockets of infection in many other countries. Initial fears over the severity of the disease have lessened somewhat, however. Compared to severe cases of acute respiratory distress syndrome or the Sars virus, it is not quite so damaging to the lungs: although hundreds have died, they are generally the kind of people - older, or with weakened immune or respiratory systems - who are at risk from severe influenza. For these, however, there is a substantial risk of viral pneumonia, which accounts for the worrying death rate among confirmed cases.

Coronavirus also appears to be more infectious in practice than Sars, as patients are contagious before they develop symptoms. There may well be a far less severe variant of the disease, which is difficult to distinguish from similar problems, accelerating the spread and putting more vulnerable patients at risk. As I write, there are roughly 5,000 confirmed cases, but the true figure may be 10 or 20 times that, and rising rapidly. Some scientists are sceptical that the new virus can be prevented from merely being added to the list of pervasive viral infections, like the common cold and flu, that permanently bother large human populations.

The World Health Organisation is convening an emergency meeting in Beijing; meanwhile, the Chinese government continues with what is - unsurprisingly - a ‘robust response’ to the crisis, with extensive quarantines and hospitals being built almost overnight. Foreign governments, meanwhile, face difficult choices over whether to repatriate their nationals from China, and how to do so safely.

Epidemics of acute diseases must, sooner or later, run up against the political. It is the relationships between social groups, and the attendant inhumanities, that carve the runnels through which these infections flow. This was true of the plagues that afflicted the Roman empire during the crisis of the 3rd century, as that state’s decline began to accelerate. It was true, also, of the Black Death, as it ripped through Europe in the 1300s, on the back first of the Silk Road and then of Europe’s late medieval merchant navies. It was painfully true of the many native American civilisations that had all but perished of the diseases brought by the conquistadors before the latter got close enough to wage actual warfare - it was the lust for the unimaginable wealth of the new world that brought western Europe’s common diseases to thousands of human bodies devoid of herd immunity.

Though there is something almost democratic about the truly apocalyptic pandemics, with mortality no respecter of wealth or station, it is nonetheless still true in general that the ill effects of such catastrophes are less avoidable, the more vulnerable your position in the hierarchy. Population disasters in agrarian societies must cause food shortages; but it is usually safe to bet that the elites, with their armed retainers, will not starve first.

Urban societies support larger human populations, meanwhile, but also larger populations of the microbes that give us difficulty. There is a kind of dialectical movement of disease and immunity, whereby diseases exhaust themselves, and bring forth new strains; a city, apart from everything else, is a very large Petri dish, natural and human, in the laboratory of the mad scientist we call history.

Order and chaos

So, beyond the immediate grim picture in Wuhan, and even the possibility of wider outbreaks outside China, there is the light this event casts on politics in our era.

Public health interventions are, shall we say, awkward for modern liberal societies, from a PR point of view. Michel Foucault basically built his career on the single idea that approaches to the problem (and related ones, such as criminal justice and sexuality) revealed the tyrannical underbelly of ‘western modernity’ and, while his historical methods are basically fraudulent, his theory has at least the essential ring of plausibility. Liberal societies, which claim to respect the autonomy of the individual, chafe badly against the reality that it might be necessary to confine individuals - even rich, successful ones - for weeks on end in quarantine.

The coronavirus outbreak takes place at a time when the People’s Republic of China has veered away from explicit accommodation with ‘western’ ideology; president Xi Jinping has instead turned towards a more populist strategy, encouraging jacqueries against corrupt local party officials (especially if they are disloyal ... ) and strengthening his power base at the centre. There is even now, apparently, such a thing as ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ - not even Deng Xiaoping dared to claim the equivalent in his own name, though he perhaps had greater cause. In other words, one of the perverse features of the outbreak is that it is an opportunity for Xi’s people to demonstrate the superiority of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ over the liberal, capitalist west, when confronted with a crisis of this kind.

And this acute crisis dovetails nicely with a chronic crisis in the self-confidence of liberalism in western societies. More and more world leaders look a little like Xi - including his great tormentor, Donald J Trump; fewer trade openly on the sort of feel-good guff about equal opportunity that sustained the brief, sunny period of neoliberal-qua-liberal ascendancy that stretched, roughly, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of Lehman Brothers, and bled out into the carpet under the White House tenure of Barack Obama.

There is a paradoxical feature of this latter crisis, in that the two archetypal parties of capitalist rule - the Party of Liberty and the Party of Order - have begun to trade places. Trump is many things, but he is not a stickler for law and order (he could hardly have gotten anywhere in New York real estate if he was). Boris Johnson leads a government of the party of the establishment, but has only gotten there by tearing its historic self-image of decency and pragmatism to shreds. He is hardly the first - but the most recent by a long chalk - of Tory leaders to openly govern on the basis of mob rule. The Party of Order, in America and Britain at least, is now the party not of liberty, in spite of Brexiteer gasbaggery, but of misrule, of chaos.

Their counterparts respond by a symmetrical heel-turn. Observing that the ‘democratic’ verdict in country after country elects the party of chaos, they suspect that liberal democracy is a dog that has had its day. How democracy dies - the title of a recent book on the theme by the political scientist David Runciman - rather sums it up. The decisive moment for such people may be, if they are American, some episode or another on Donald Trump’s long road to power, when he told a lie that was trivially exposed as such - and saw his popularity rise because of it; or, if they are British, the notorious comment of Michael Gove that the “British people have had enough of experts ... saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” (In the presentation of such people, of course, Gove’s full quotation is terminated before our ellipsis.)

There is - pertinently in the present context - a distinct subgenre of this literature that commends China as a plausible alternative model, precisely in virtue of its supposed Confucian hierarchal moralism and so forth. Another political scientist, Daniel Bell, is the poster-boy for this explicitly authoritarian fanboyism; he has written a controversial account of Chinese society that commends its ‘meritocracy’, protecting senior posts from the whims of the mob.

What the likes of Bell (and, inexplicitly, Runciman) have in mind here is the apparent inability of the ‘democratic’ politics of western society to choose governments that can get actual business done. This failure seems on the face of it to strike at the heart of the self-justification of such societies, as opposed to the rigidly hierarchical ones they replaced some hundreds of years ago - that individual liberty was a better coordinating mechanism than the ties of obligation reaching from the king down to the poorest peasant (or else the absolute king down to ... everyone else). What if that wasn’t true, after all? Where does the concerned liberal - who wants mouths fed, roads repaired and epidemics controlled - go then? Perhaps to an enlightened despotism - the one we never had, with Confucius pulling the moral strings rather than Aristotle.

Does it work?

The question then arises of whether the Chinese response to the epidemic is a mark in the credit or debit column of technocratic authoritarianism - the new party of order. At this stage, things are not very clear. Some criticisms have been raised: for example, quarantines were announced hours before being enforced, which may have allowed some infected people to slip out. If the more pessimistic scientists are correct, these will turn out to be mere details: the disease is sufficiently infectious that even the most draconian policies would be unlikely to succeed. The Chinese state will then be judged by its ability to pivot to managing the outbreak and minimising the impact on national life. (We have previously seen the impressively rapid publication of genome sequences, which give us at least some hope of a vaccine.)

In truth, however, the vulnerability of this mode of politics is also exposed. Unequal societies that alienate people from politics must generate corruption among the elite, and thus must corrode that elite’s appearance of knowing what is best for everyone. (That is why it is important to quote Gove in full - if the experts get it wrong, but still seem to lord it over us, we are right to mistrust them, in the same way we would be right to mistrust some minor corrupt official in the provinces.) This generates resistance to both unjust and just actions of the elite, which will tend to undermine quarantines, travel bans and so on.

This is also visible in the popular rejection of neoliberal managerialism in the west: one of the many undercurrents of this is the revival of anti-vaccination sentiment in America, for example, but it was during the ‘great moderation’ that the pharmaceutical industry conspired to create a public health catastrophe out of whole cloth, in the form of the opioid addiction epidemic.

We Marxists - unlike the ‘Marxists’ of the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy - insist that democracy has not had its day at all. (Indeed, asked what we think of modern democracy, we might reply, after Gandhi, that it would be a good idea.) We thereby face something like the same problem here, on the face of it: we want a far freer and less coercive society than currently exists in the capitalist world, never mind bureaucratic, state-capitalist China, but any rapid response to a public health emergency must be coercive. The need to be quarantined cannot be considered optional.

For us, however, democracy is inseparable from the breaking down of social hierarchy in all its forms. This must, in the end, include the permanent subordination of ‘doers’ to ‘thinkers’ - what is called the separation of intellectual and manual labourers, which makes professional skills of the sort possessed by doctors and epidemiologists into a source of social power over their patients and the general population.

No social system in which humans live together in large numbers can avoid the occasional outbreak of a new infectious disease. We can reduce the risk and impact of such events by improving the general standard of life, reducing squalor and improving nutrition and education; we can make sure treatments and vaccinations are freely available. All these should be on the agenda for socialist transformation, of course. But, in the long run, the elevation of an elite above the rest of society must cause its redivision into permanent social classes, however ‘meritocratic’ the initial sorting; and so the world must revert to the obscene privileges of the few against the dehumanised mass.

In other words, it is class society that is bad for your health. In the end, authentic democracy - the control of the majority - is indispensable for overcoming the sticky problems posed by health emergencies.