Much has been made in recent years of the miraculously productive capitalism of post-Maoist China. God knows it isn't hard to see why. Indeed, it would be hard to think of anything we buy these days that China doesn't make, in one brand or another.
And yet - however some of us may try to "put the whole thing in perspective" - few of us would deny the immense cultural, the environmental, above all the human costs, of Beijing's distinctive capitalist experiment. Today's China certainly is making rapid, perhaps even historically unprecedented strides in the direction of a fully industrialized market economy. Yet even as I write, its progress towards democracy and legal protection of human rights may not uncharitably be described as one step forward, two steps back.
And so I think by now a certain question may be in order. But it is one we need to ask more than rhetorically. Quite simply, what is the good, in a given country, of a form of capitalism that retains all the seminal values of that country's previous phase of socialism? Not the window-dressing values, but the core ones. Not all the lip-service about caring and compassion and equality, but the real agenda: The breakneck drivenness; the quest to prove civilizational superiority; the blithe disregard of any human cost; the hell-bent determination to achieve growth-and-progress-at-any-price. I'll admit the egalitarian letter of Maoism may be both safely dead and irretrievably buried. But can we be quite as sure of the utopian Maoist spirit?
The problem with demarcating boundaries in history is that nothing is ever really, definitively over. In 1972, on the eve of Nixon's Shanghai Communique, no one could have foreseen the frankly capitalist direction mainland China would take by the end of the seventies. In 1989, on the eve of the Tiananmen Massacre, few could have predicted the anti-rural, elitist, almost inhumanly perfectionist bent of Chinese capitalism in the ensuing decades.
Now it appears we may have turned another corner - at least we in the English-speaking world. But who knows what part the current "Chinese model" may yet play in our own renovation - or gutting - of Anglo-Saxon capitalism? Neither can we be sure that socialism of any kind will take its place, and if so which of its innumerable varieties and mutations. Certainly capitalism in our day has shown itself more than capable of a few good mutations of its own. Just look at the past two decades. I doubt if anyone at the height of Western Cold War capitalism could have predicted a post-Cold War successor so profoundly different in character and spirit: so drab, so unhedonistic, so workaholically full (rather than free) of care.
We may fondly hope the worst of that, too, is behind us. But suppose it happens that we've turned a real corner, and not an imaginary one. What good will it be, if the neighborhood we're entering is not a better one, but every bit as bad or worse? What would be the good - what might be the justification - of an American "socialism" that retained all the impatience, the arrogance, the disdain for history, the contempt of human beings - in sum, all the worst virtues - of the "capitalism" that preceded it?