Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hong Kong, economic and political rights, and the banking class

The following quote from A History of Chinese Civilization1 details the perspective Han Dynasty China held towards merchants, a perspective we should pay attention to. As we read about their hostility, as well as their reasoning for having such hostility, we may reflect on our own situation.

"The hostility towards merchants which had such profound effects on the fate of the Chinese world, and which has given Chinese civilization its own particular character, is explained by a number of different and complex factors. [... ] An indication of dissipation, arrogance, and lack of virtue according to the literati [i.e. Confucian tradition], the taste for luxury appears already in Mencius as one of the indirect causes of peasant poverty. [...]
But the deepest reasons for this hostility seem to have been those adduced by the rulers and the state: mercantile activities were, they felt, a factor leading to a maladjusted society, since merchants' wealth enabled them to secure domination over the poor, to buy up peasant lands and to employ as slaves in their mining, iron and steel, or manufacturing enterprises the cultivators of whom they had reduced to destitution. Mercantile activities, by inciting people to useless expenditure, distracted them from the activities fundamental and indispensable to the survival of the state"
In our day, it would seem out of place to think of merchants as being the source of what is clearly happening in our time. For us, financial services and merchant banking, which are part of all modern day corporations, are the locus of our ire whether we are aware of it or not. We may not be slaves, per se, but it must be accepted as a difficult truth that the bulk of us lack any economic rights, whatever political rights we may still have. As David Graeber2 points out excellently, political rights without economic rights are almost useless. And those who have secured domination over us, whether middle class or poor, we may call the banking class.

This is one thing that concerns me about the protests going on in Hong Kong currently. While I understand and sympathize with their desire to be able to choose those they vote for, rather than having the PRC give them a handful of puppets to choose from, the truth is that, even if they were to succeed, without changing the fundamentals of the way the financial system works, they would ultimately end up with something much like what exists in the United States. That is to say, a system where the only true political rights belong to those who already have economic rights, power, and influence. It is especially ironic to me that the Hong Kong protests are taking place in the financial sector, yet the focus of the protests are political in focus, rather than economic.

In other words, we cannot disentangle our financial systems from our political systems, they have to be considered and altered together. One will not be meaningfully changed without the other. A starting point for some meaningful change would be skepticism of our institutions, if not outright hostility. Hostility is, of course, totally warranted when there are so many unemployed and homeless. What do we have if not a maladjusted society?

It would be mean and cruel to suggest that we live completely sparse lives, and it is a pernicious assumption that people become indebted in order to buy frivolities. While there is a certain truth to that in some cases, the fact is that by and large people have little alternative but to succumb to debt in order to buy birthday presents and other items which become meaningful when viewed in the context of human relationships. Student debt taken on to get an education, for example, could hardly be seen as a luxury. 

Ultimately, the protests in Hong Kong will probably yield little fruit, in the larger context of society. I'm not even sure that their goals being met would be a good thing. It's not that having puppets in place, as handed by the PRC, is a perfect scenario, it is just that one would ultimately end up with puppets, and these would be in the control of the banking class as in the United States. Not everyone is willing to take the risks that the young student population is willing to make and I admire their courage under pressure, I just wish their focus was on the financial system, or on both systems, or included protest about housing prices in HK, etc. which might ultimately lead to something positive.