Recent articles about China in Harper’s and N+1 remind me that there will always be a need for print publications, as long as they can deliver in-depth and trenchant analysis of the sort that is harder to find on the web. Before discussing the articles, it would be worth saying a word or two about the two magazines.
Harper’s has been around since June 1850 and is the second-oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the U.S. after Scientific American. I took out a subscription in the early 80s around the same time I took out one to the Nation. Eventually I grew tired of the tepid liberalism of the Nation and did not renew my subscription. Harper’s can best be described as close to Ralph Nader type politics with a strong patrician streak that was most pronounced under the editorship of Lewis Lapham who I adored. Roger Hodge, whose book on Obama, “The Mendacity of Hope”, is a great read despite its odd affinity for Thomas Jefferson, replaced Lapham in 2003. Hodge got on publisher John MacArthur’s wrong side and was fired in 2010. MacArthur is heir to a family fortune and apparently runs the magazine in a rather imperious fashion. Despite that, I find it a great read and especially value the monthly “difficult” crossword puzzles.
N+1 is published 3 times a year out of Brooklyn and has ‘tude to spare. Benjamin Kunkel, who has written for The Nation and Dissent, two mainstays of left-liberalism, was one of the founding editors. In an N+1 article commemorating Christopher Hitchens, Kunkel began:
In high school I was, like many incipient writers, too high-minded and self-involved to take any serious notice of the world as described by journalists. Wars, elections, and revolutions were trivial events beside the development of literature and my part within it. Later, as a college freshman, when I first discovered politics, it was on a summit of vertiginous abstraction.
I suppose I never got a paying job as a journalist because putting together a phrase like “a summit of vertiginous abstraction” is simply beyond me. My goal in writing has always been to express myself in exactly the same way that I speak to people. I suppose having read Ezra Pound’s “ABC of Reading” back in 1961 also had something to do with it: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”
“The Unraveling of Bo Xilai: China loses a populist star” appears in the March 2013 Harper’s. Written by Lauren Hilgers who lives in Shanghai, it—like most Harper’s articles—is behind a paywall. My feeling is that as long as such articles continue to appear in Harper’s, I will continue to be a subscriber. I had been following the Bo Xilai saga in the N.Y. Times but found it all totally confusing. I knew that he was one of China’s richest men and that his wife had been charged with the murder of a British citizen but the politics—you couldn’t figure out a thing from the Times.
Thanks to Ms. Hilgers, I finally have an idea of what was going on. Apparently, Bo was orienting to China’s “New Left”, a odd term for a group of people who express nostalgia for Mao. She writes:
Bo Xilai offered a potential solution— one that didn’t require real political reform. He relied on his populist appeal, his revolutionary bloodline, and an utter disregard for the law. He was undoubtedly corrupt, but in Chongqing, as in Dalian, he rolled out policies with something for everyone. Bo orchestrated a return to communist values, sending out mass text messages with his favorite Mao quotes. He promoted the singing of “red songs” and banned all primetime advertising on Chongqing’s television station, encouraging its executives to run patriotic films instead. Bo’s “red culture” campaign turned him into a figurehead for China’s New Left, a movement that lionizes Mao and looks to return to what adherents think of as a simpler, less corrupt era. Bo planted trees (Xilai trees), built low-income housing, and attracted investment. At the same time, Bo’s “Chongqing model” encouraged a greater economic role for China’s state-owned enterprises. His anti-mafia campaign, promoted with the slogan “Strike the black,” helped him wipe out his opponents and establish an extensive surveillance network— but it also helped Bo beef up the police force, making the city safer. Bo cast himself as a champion of China’s poor, a crusader against corruption, greed, and inequality.
Hilgers visited the Utopia Bookstore, an outpost of Maoist values and discovered broad support for Bo there:
The people at Utopia bookstore were Bo’s target audience. They wanted to be engaged; they worried about the fate of their country and were hungry for more information, whatever the source. And Bo, more than other Chinese politicians, was available. For them, a little accessibility went a long way. The regular old lady listed her concerns: Capitalism had made some people happy, but it had made some people rich and some people poor. It had also made people corrupt. Leaders weren’t concerned with equality or the poor. China bowed too easily to America’s demands. And Bo Xilai, she said, was the only leader addressing her concerns. “We all pretty much support Bo Xilai here,” a visiting volunteer from Shandong told me. He was a little bit suspicious of me and asked to be identified as a “reader.”
Bo Xilai was recently expelled from the CCP and his wife was arrested for murder. Clearly the party leaders were getting nervous about pretenders to the throne who were striking a chord in the restive population.
As I have pointed out to comrades on Marxmail recently, the Chinese boom appears to be coming to an end and the country faces a real estate bubble of biblical proportions. Under such conditions, having a Mao-spouting millionaire presents problems even if he doesn’t mean a word of it.
Nikil Saval’s N+1 article is titled “The Long Eighties” and deals with the problems facing the democrats in a country whose rulers seem to have stifled the mass movement through a combination of repression and state-managed economic growth.
It is a very probing and well-researched article that includes some insights into the affection the New Left had for a corrupt and demagogic millionaire like Bo Xilai:
Meanwhile the Chinese “New Left”—a loose assemblage of intellectuals that formed around the journal Dushu (Readings)—occupies the opposite position. The “New Left” is highly opposed to the country’s economic direction, yet its members are not only not in jail, but in some cases socially affiliated with the government. Its leading figure, Beijing-based intellectual historian and social theorist Wang Hui, has criticized intellectuals like Liu for remaining fundamentally unopposed to the neoliberal direction of the country. Wang argues that while China has the opportunity to craft an “alternative modernity,” a form of social democracy opposed to the creeping of market logic into every corner of existence, Chinese liberals simply accept a teleology of modernity that basically resembles America—a model that is visibly failing. Not that Wang is in fact against markets. On the contrary, following Braudel’s distinction between markets and capitalism, Wang argues that “a critique of an actual market society and its crises cannot be equated with repudiation of the mechanisms of market competition, as the principal task of critical intellectuals is to disclose the antimarket mechanisms within market society and to bring to bear a democratic and socialized conception of markets to counter the antimarket logic of actual market society.” Wang espouses, in other words, a kind of market socialism, which would preserve competition on a local, small-scale level, in contrast to China’s rather ostentatious collusion of government and business.
Unlike Liu, Wang has managed to stay aboveground and out of prison. (Though he is no longer editor-in-chief, Readings was and is published with state approval.) He teaches frequently in the US, and outside China his writing—unfailingly intelligent, though dense and laborious where Liu is fleet and lucid—has been best received among left-wing English and American academics, who are naturally skeptical of the liberals. (The liberals, meanwhile, attract the attention of every-one else.) Part of the reason Wang stays out of jail is the attitude he and his comrades display toward the political scene. Where Liu sees generalized abjection and totalitarianism, Wang and his collaborators see hope for criticism and a margin of openness in the political atmosphere. But they may be kidding themselves. The recent government has been in the habit of adopting “New Left” rhetoric while doing little to prosecute its aims. High-placed officials speak unctuously about equality and the continuing project of socialism while silently (but blatantly) cultivating their relations with factory owners and financiers.
While I generally find N+1’s articles compelling (except for the fiction that like most fiction leaves me cold), I do wish they would lay off the Young Turk posturing that can be found in a section at the front of the magazine called “The Intellectual Situation” that is obsessed with exposing well-established magazines like Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Paris Review as “old fogies”. They have a particular animus toward Harper’s. You can actually read the latest “The Intellectual Situation” here: http://nplusonemag.com/the-intellectual-situation-issue-15.
While the Atlantic hustles women for page views, Harper’s can maintain a courtly, old-fashioned affect and a decorous remove from reality. It remains almost entirely male and for all practical purposes appears exclusively in print, where it pursues its passion for solving arithmetic problems, arranging newspaper clippings, and recounting logistically complicated vacat
Apparently the editor’s disparaging of people running Harper’s or other such moldy figs as “aged” annoys me to no end. After all, I am 68 but do not listen to Guy Lombardo or wear diapers. Some other old fogey got so fed up with some other such business they wrote N+1 a letter giving it a piece of its mind. I don’t know if it will do any good. You know how full of themselves young people can be.
Dear Editors, I am surprised by the ageism of “Big Babies,” in a magazine that otherwise seems conscious of social injustice and the power of language. The authors adopt old age as a metaphor for the stupid and repugnant, as women long were used as a metaphor for evil. Adjectives such as “old” and “retired” are thrown around as insults; “senilely” is meant to ridicule. The image of old people with “suit sleeves flopping” (yes, many of our wrists become skinny and bony, as the authors’ may, should they live to old age) is taken to be patently repellent. I thought that was the worst until I came upon the sneering depiction of the “Autocrat of the Senior Center” in a “second childhood” in which “someone wipes his spills.” The dis-abilities often associated with old age, “confusion and impotence” and being “forgetful,” are invoked to demean, while “Napoleon in Depends” is presented as the ultimate insult. It’s not the old who are disgusting but this rhetoric. The authors condemn misogyny and the war on women but happily enlist in the war on the old and disabled. I wish on those who wrote that section a long old age in which they—without, I hope, confusion, impotence, or Depends, but don’t bet on it—will have to slowly chew, swallow, and expel their indigestible words.
—Alix Kates Shulman