It is quite noticeable that the effort to resuscitate some old Cold War propaganda in a few small corners of the world – the ‘zero-sum lagards’ – is failing rather miserably. I have been intrigued and, of course, encouraged by this development. Some readers may have encountered these efforts, with an ‘evil’ Russia targetted, or the CPC being the focus. But why is it simply not working anymore?
At the simplest level, this propaganda has traction only among those over 70 years old. Anecdotally, I have noticed a few older fogeys who have latched onto this propaganda as though recalling the days of their youth and adulthood when this rubbish was common. Indeed, it played a large part in framing their worldview, with a ‘freedom-loving’ West engaged in mortal combat with ‘authoritarian communism’. For the vast majority, this is no longer the worldview.
Yet, this is only a beginning. There has been a noticeable global shift, especially in the last decade or more. A telling signal of this shift is that the very American polling company, Edelman, noted in its ‘Trust Barometer’ for 2019 that 56 percent of the world’s population feel that capitaism does more harm than good. This result is based on their aggregates from surveys across the world. Let me add that the statistics for trust in governance and media in ‘Western’ countries is at an all time low. For example, in Australia only 35 percent of people trust the government and 31 percent trust the media. It goes without saying that what people think as a viable alternative has many variations.
A third and more substantial reason arose initially from research I undertook last year. It concerned the category of ‘state capitalism’. Over the last decade, especially since 2008, an increasing number of studies by neoliberal true believers noted with alarm what they called the spread of ‘state capitalism’. Where? In East Asia, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Russia, Latin America. Yes, the vast majority of countries, they opined, had turned to ‘state capitalism’.
Now, we need to reinterpret this spin in light of facts. By the turn to ‘state capitalism’, what these neoliberal true believers mean is that the majority of the world’s countries have turned away from the neoliberal project, benignly known as the ‘Washington Consensus’. Countries – most of them developing – had experienced first-hand the devastation caused by neoliberal policies and began to say strongly, ‘no thanks’. Even the global organisations set up to enforce a neoliberal agenda – such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – have been slowly transformed from within as the majority of developing countries have increasingly set their agendas. (Let me add that ‘state capitalism’ is a very general and loose term that has limited value. By contrast, for Chinese researchers, ‘state capitalism’ is understood specifically in terms of Lenin’s usage.)
Fourth and perhaps most substantially, we are witnessing the sunset of the ‘West’. The most obvious indicator is the decline of the United States. Some like to blame an individual – the dear leader of the USA – but this misses the point that he is merely a symptom of the decline.
As an aside, I find it quiet astounding that a good number of people in Western Europe view the USA in a favourable light. Why astounding? I was brought up in a country which has a profound suspicion of the USA, although often for the wrong reasons. So to find a different view in Western Europe is quite disconcerting. I realise that ‘America’ has had a long hold on the Western imagination, as a kind of ‘paradise’ or ‘state of nature’ that was supposedly ‘free’ from Europe’s troubled history. But it also has a more recent history in terms of the colonisation of Western Europe after the Second World War and the relentless US propaganda (including the Cold War propaganda mentioned above). Perhaps this is reason why these ‘America-lovers’ dislike the dear leader across the Atlantic so much: he is succeeding in puncturing this image.
To return to the decline of the United States. A tell-tale signal a few years ago was at an ASEAN meeting. The dear leader of the USA went around to East Asian country leaders and offered to broker deals, since he claimed to be the great ‘deal maker’. The aforesaid leaders smiled politely and ignored him. They clearly judged that the USA was no longer a force to be taken into account and set out to solve their own problems. Note the Philippines’s turn to China, or the improved relations between Vietnam and China, or indeed the progress – in fits and starts – between the two parts of Korea. Even Japan, which has been colonised and occupied by the USA since 1945, is starting to improve relations with China. This will be a long road, but the two heads of state will meet as soon as they can.
The United States is not not the only player here. The bastion of the ‘West’ – Western Europe – is falling apart. The EU has made no progress in further unification, but has been trying desperately to hold onto what they have. First, there was the near Grexit and now the reality of Brexit. Inside existing EU member states I have encountered former supporters of the EU now firmly against it. And now we see the breakdown of European solidarity during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, when Italy requested aid from EU member states, none was forthcoming. France and Garmany actually forbade the movement of crucial medical supplies outside their borders. As the president of Serbia – which has long aspired to join the EU – pointed out, European solidarity is meaningless. Who came to the help of more and more European states? China, Russia and even Cuba.
As part of the sunset of the ‘West’, the ideology that first arose there – liberalism – has been shown to be completely bereft of benefit. The primacy of the individual, the core role of private property, the perverse idea that ‘human rights’ is restricted to individual political and civic freedoms – these are all empty ideas. (I leave aside the point that liberalism as we know it first arose in the context of slavery – in the Netherlands, UK and USA – entailing a clear category of unfreedom as a contrast to freedom.) One example among many: in a part of the world I know well and where I would rather be right now, liberalism has never had much traction. It may have attracted a few in the chaotic 1990s, but it is pretty much absent as I write. Why? Quite simply, the social good is paramount. Again and again I have been told by younger and older members of the CPC that they joined the party so they could play their small part in improving China as a whole. This priority has both ancient Chinese roots and is part of its socialist system, embodied now in the core socialist values. This basic cultural framework also entails significant trust in governance and the assumption that governance will work for the benefit of all people.
Let us see what happens after the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the world. Will more and more in the ‘West’ (a small part of the world’s population, I should point out) realise that their world is in its sunset period? Of course, there will be some who will deperately try to revive it. Will they stop seeing the world through their own image, which is profoundly distorted? Will they begin to listen to the many voices that express a very different approach to the world? Who knows?
At least one point is clear: the worn-out Cold War propaganda will have even less traction.