Moving beyond ‘No New Cold War’

September 25, 2023
umbrella protest jet fighters
'A genuine security policy that fosters peace and protects the right to self-determination can only emerge after a revolutionary break with capitalism across the world.' Graphic Green Left. Photo (left): studioincendo/Flickr CC by 2.0.

Promise Li is a socialist from Hong Kong currently based in Los Angeles, and a member of US socialist organisations Tempest and Solidarity. In the second part of our interview, he discusses multipolarity and its implications for anti-war and anti-imperialist organising, with Green Left’s Federico Fuentes.

* * *

How do you view the issue of multipolarity?

Multipolarity, without the influence of militant anti-capitalist mass movements, can be just another expression of global imperialism. Indeed, neoliberalism has persisted with the help of these new poles.

Given the recent entry of authoritarian neoliberal monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Russia’s blatantly imperialist invasion of Ukraine, there is now less and less basis for an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist ideological cohesion within BRICS+ and only more room for continuing capital accumulation.

The two key leaders of BRICS+, China and Russia, may be spearheading economic independence from the West in some aspects. But these measures fail to break with capital accumulation. Worse yet, BRICS+ sometimes reinforces the central role of Western imperialist institutions.

As the Brazilian theorists of antagonistic cooperation once described, the national bourgeoisie of so-called non-aligned or “anti-imperialist” countries can struggle for a greater share of the profits without fundamentally altering the global imperialist system. In this sense, China (like Russia) is increasingly developing what Minqi Li calls “imperialist-like behaviours in developing countries”.

Multipolarity, far from being an alternative to imperialism, indexes a new terrain in which large and mid-sized powers both preserve and challenge different aspects of Western imperialism, each to secure a greater sphere of influence in the capitalist system.

Regardless of one’s assessment of whether China or Russia is an imperialist country, it should be undoubtedly clear that these countries reinforce global imperialism in some capacity, rather than challenging it.

Anti-imperialism today must begin with this recognition, not with a naive hope that the very existence of different poles will open up space for revolutionary practice.

Depending on the strength of movements on the ground, multipolarity can lead to better conditions for struggle than US imperialism — or turn out to be just as bad, if not worse.

The point is that multipolarity itself does not guarantee any of these realities, it is the relationship between objective conditions and the real activity of movements that determines its future.

How have US-China tensions impacted upon politics and struggles in Hong Kong and among the Hong Kong/Chinese diaspora in the US?

Inter-imperialist rivalry between the US and China has made sustaining independent movements in Hong Kong and in the diaspora much more difficult.

The pro-Western bent of many dissidents in these communities is undeniable, and why this inclination exists is a complicated question. In my writings, I explore why many Hong Kong dissidents are predisposed to the West.

For one, generations of influence by Sinophone liberal dissidents who are averse to class critique and endorse Western liberalism. Another key reason is that US-China tensions have exacerbated what Yao Lin calls a politics of “beaconism” among dissident communities.

As Lin explains, “the traumatising experience of Party-State totalitarianism propels Chinese liberals on an anti-CCP pilgrimage in search for sanitised and glorified imageries of Western (especially American) political realities, which nurtures both their neoliberal affinity and their proclivity for a Trumpian metamorphosis”.

The polarisation of tensions, and parts of the US establishment’s hypocritical support for the Hong Kong protests, only accelerated this beaconism.

A shared goal among the US and Chinese ruling elites, bolstered by some among the pro-democracy dissident camp, is to dissuade the growth of a political alternative grounded on building independent mass organisations toward an anti-capitalist horizon.

The main problem is not just that the left was weak and fragmented in Hong Kong and the diaspora even before the repression began in 2020, but that for decades people have been unable to even conceive of what left-wing — let alone socialist — politics or models of organisation even means. (Many Hongkongers unfortunately associate “the left” with the Chinese Communist Party or the US Democratic Party!)

This confusion emerges from, but cannot be reduced to, any of these factors alone: the legacy of British colonialism, the longstanding liberal horizon of the pro-democracy opposition, and the CCP’s betrayal of socialist principles.

US-China tensions have only exacerbated this problem, limiting people’s political horizons and forcing them toward one or the other hegemon as the political solution to their ills.

Furthermore, the jingoism both countries are fuelling as an effect of this geopolitical rivalry dangerously energises both states’ capacity to weaponise suspicion of “foreign interference” to suppress domestic movements.

Anti-China rhetoric and policies in the US establishment grant further power to the state to limit civil liberties and discriminate against Chinese and other Asian American communities.

This is only a mirror image of how China has enormously extended its attacks on people’s democratic rights in Hong Kong. It uses national security laws to accuse and detain many more activists and everyday people beyond those with actual links to the US state — without proper evidence or due process.

Thus, both regimes are furthering imperialist aims under the guise of nobler causes, with one weaponising the discourse of freedom and democracy and the other anti-imperialism and peace.

Military tensions between the US and China are undoubtedly threatening the livelihoods of people everywhere. Socialists must work to combat rising geopolitical tensions.

But the ultimate solution is also not the fantasy that both regimes can be brought together to cooperate on solving the urgent issues of our times: climate change, rising authoritarianisms, economic precarity, etc.

The last time the US and Chinese regimes peacefully cooperated marked the mass proletarianisation and exploitation of hundreds of millions of Chinese workers for the consumer markets of the global North.

We must strengthen — and, in the case of China, rebuild — independent movements everywhere to posit a political challenge to these nation-states, instead of hoping for, as Rosa Luxemburg once said, “the utopia of a historical compromise between proletariat and bourgeoisie to ‘moderate’ the imperialist contradictions between capitalist states”.

In doing so, the left must focus on building links between those resisting US and Chinese imperialisms, countering the internecine narrative of civilisational rivalry that liberals and the ruling elites have forced upon us.

You have criticised the limitations of the “No New Cold War” campaign promoted by sections of the peace movement and left. Why? What kind of peace initiatives should the left promote?

Last year, for the Democratic Socialists of America’s Socialist Forum, I highlighted the limitations of the “No New Cold War” framework because the slogan not only offers no concrete solutions for those facing the threat of China’s surveillance and repression, but also because this framework does not allow us to identify that economic interdependence continues to structure the relations between the US and China, despite the geopolitical tensions.

I am not saying that the discourse of the Cold War completely obscures the dynamics today: Gilbert Achcar’s definition of the New Cold War as the readiness for war among different major powers is useful to understanding the political and economic decisions of key sections of the ruling classes, especially the military-industrial complex. But the dynamics of global imperialism go beyond that.

The interests of other key sectors of capital also go beyond that. As Thomas Fazi puts it, “the greatest resistance to the new Cold War isn’t coming from a global peace movement, but from the boardrooms of Western corporations”.

So the real question is: What can an anti-war and peace movement look like that can posit a clearly anti-capitalist perspective, without throwing different movements under the bus?

There have been useful attempts to talk about reforms to current global security frameworks such as the United Nations (UN) from Taras Bilous and Trent Trepanier, among others.

But a genuine security policy that fosters peace and protects the right to self-determination can only emerge after a revolutionary break with capitalism across the world.

For such an enormous task, the most urgent ingredient right now is not calculating an exact program or blueprint for this security architecture, but maximising spaces for independent movements to grow, mobilise and develop political solutions collectively.

Movements in the past years have shown us that the best “security” for working people begins not from a new institutional framework that accommodates the capitalist system on different terms, but by troubling the very legitimacy of existing institutions that falsely claim to guarantee our safety.

The most effective peace initiative can only be conducted by strengthening domestic movements against their ruling bourgeoisie, from the US to China, not by seeing anti-war and peace work as simply a matter of improving global security institutions or opposing one warmonger at the expense of others.

At some point, the left needs a unified and coherent political program that movements can rally behind and identify a global security framework beyond the rule of capital.

In the meantime, we need to restore the political consciousness of people across the world before we can meaningfully speak of programmatic unity on these grounds.

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