In a tableau for our age, the crisis of global capitalism was set off earlier this month by an opinionated gamer and a white guy with a loose tweet.
I’m talking, respectively, about “Blitzchung,” the nom de joystique of a Hong Kong professional video-game enthusiast, and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who each made the mistake of pissing off the Chinese government while on the clock for corporations that depend on its benefaction.
For the apostasy of standing with his countrymen and against the tear-gas canisters of their Beijing occupiers, “Blitzchung” was stripped of cash, various digital offices, and Galaga high scores by his sponsors at Blizzard Entertainment. And Morey was compelled to recant too, before his league, the National Basketball Association, and its biggest star, LeBron James, took turns curtsying to the Commies and thanking them for their business.
I won’t add to the well-deserved scorn heaped upon these businesses, and others such as Apple, which pulled the Taiwanese-flag emoji from its phones, having rightly calculated that you will all line up for its increasingly crappy products anyway.
But I wasn’t being hyperbolic in the lede, either. This confrontation between Chinese “capitalism” and American “free” speech portends the beginning of something much bigger, and something of a piece with 2016 (and 2017, and ’18, and ’19 . . .), in which the post–Cold War, post-9/11 order — or interregnum — and all of its assumptions are being tested and found wanting.
As our elite social, political, and cultural institutions have crumbled, some of us have held on to hope that our bedrock economic order — a digitized, globalized, comparatively advantage-ized free market — will act as a firewall. Elegiac hillbillies notwithstanding, we have been clinging to the belief that global capitalism is still kinda good, that maybe it can still be salvaged, that lifting a billion and change out of poverty doesn’t, after all, come with unbearable trade-offs.
China’s viselike grip on American capital’s cojones complicates this.
Because the entire logic of globalized capitalism, post–Cold War and arguably post–World War II, has been that something like this couldn’t happen. That normalizing trade relations with China, letting it into first-world financial institutions, would ipso facto turn it into the kind of country that deserved to be there.
The theory wasn’t so much that China would see how great liberalism was as a result of free trade and choose to adopt it. (“Hey while we’ve got you here exporting these consumer electronics, do you have a minute to talk about habeas corpus?”) The theory was that China could not become rich and powerful without liberalizing.
There were lots of good reasons to wish this were true, and maybe even some good reasons to think it actually was. Here’s one that probably qualifies as both: The two great waves of economic globalization and interdependence in modern history were, to a rough approximation, 1870–1914 and 1980–2007. In case you missed it, very bad stuff was associated with the nationalism and retrenchment that followed each. So pity us for wanting to believe that commerce might lead to peace, just as we’d want to believe that puppies might lead to cakes.
This is a dissertation I’m unqualified to write, but, basically, what none of us counted on was that China would be geopolitically powerful enough for its authoritarian leaders to corrupt global capitalism before its middle class was big enough and self-possessed enough to revolt against them. We thought Shenzhen would be Hong Kong before Palo Alto turned into Shenzhen.
There are a million possible explanations for why we were wrong, ranging from brute materialism to arguments about “national character,” and we’ll all have a very interesting time debating which captures the nature of our error best as we try to avoid the worst of the fallout.
Of course, greatly complicating things is the wholly different role the corporation plays in American economic and civic life in 2019 than it did in, say, 1990. With the collapse of other mediating institutions, the American brand has become (to our daily misery) more of an active inculcator of broader social values than a passive reflection of the same. But like some bovine flu that makes the jump to a human host, the same mutation that empowered Nike to champion Colin Kaepernick has allowed it to become a carrier of the propaganda of unfreedom, prompting a strange new respect for censorship among otherwise indifferent capitalists.
This has heightened and clarified the emptiness of corporate America’s late moral preening on everything from hunting rifles to gendered bathrooms. But, so far, it has not lit the way toward a more workable configuration of the corporation’s relationship with the individual and the state. We know that Progressive Woke at home and Communist Yoke abroad isn’t sustainable. We don’t know what comes next.