Looking out from the 31st floor balcony, it doesn’t seem high until you look down. Shenzhen stretches 80 kilometres east to west, but is only 10 deep, North-South. The city snakes laterally, littorally, between the hills of the Hong Kong border, along Shenzhen Bay to the Pearl River delta, like a badly kept concrete lawn, with clumps of seventy and eighty story towers sprouting like steel weeds. The 115 story Ping An Tower, the worlds 4th largest, the town’s own tall poppy. When night falls, the entire town lights up like a circuit board, streaming with steel and light. The immaculately kept, perpetually swept, cycle path along the Dasha river is filled with office workers on dockless rental bikes, hired by the half hour, headed to one of the city’s many tech clusters, downstream, deeper into Nanshan district. They’ve phased out almost all the old taxis, replaced with a fully electric fleet. The same for the buses. Pretty much every transaction, from street-corner noodles to legal fees are carried out with QR codes and digital wallets. Cashless, silent, sleek.
This is not ‘The Future’, but it is ‘A Future’. Two days a week I commute from Shenzhen to Hong Kong. The journey takes around an hour and a half, but the time travelled is greater than the distance covered. After getting stamped out of Mainland China and into Hong Kong at the vast Shenzhen Bay checkpoint, coaches and cars spiral up onto the five-and-a-half-kilometre bay bridge to cross over to the New Territories. As we roll up the overpass onto the bridge, the plaiting of concrete weaves carriageways from right-to-left and left-to-right. The first sign that they do things differently here. At least for now.
Hong Kong, like Tokyo, represents a certain obsolete near-future in the collective imagination. Having had its image and form repeatedly appropriated by Hollywood as a stand-in for numerous dystopias, the familiarity can make it seem almost underwhelming. Hong Kong looks exactly like ‘Hong Kong’ – a trait it shares with New York. It also feels like yesterday’s vision of tomorrow. The stuttering neon signs and diesel-streaked streets, PoMo towers and marble-lined lobbies are a particularly sharp contrast with Shenzhen’s unironic modernity. From its peak in 1993, Hong Kong has declined from twenty-seven to less than three percent of China’s GDP. But beyond the numbers, it feels like a city in decline. Slowly, megaprojects such as the Hong Kong-Macao-Zhuhai bridge and the China High-speed Rail Link are stitching the territory together with the mainland, bringing Hong Kong’s greatest fear ever-closer, becoming just another mid-sized Chinese city. With the perceived erosion of its Rule of law, the Special Administrative Region has become a contested space. The acute confrontation over the ‘two systems’ principle, is also representative of a bigger conflict between two ideas. Two visions of what the future could be.
Words can be problematic; they are both the obstacle to articulating a thought and the best way to try. This clash of ideas, in which Hong Kong is just one front, isn’t easily reduced to opposing pairs as the Cold War once was. Capitalism’s ‘victory’ over Communism was always an artificial, lexigraphic binary that pitted an economic system against a total political, social and economic order. ‘Capitalism’ is synecdochic, an easy shorthand for ‘democratic capitalism’ and the free and limited, markets, open societies and shared small-L liberal consensus regarding the primacy of the individual. Democratic Capitalism is Limited Capitalism. And it was ‘Limited Capitalism’ that ‘won’. The front line crossed by the arcing span of the Shenzhen Bay Bridge is not the battle between capitalism and communism. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is Capitalism unencumbered by Democracy. It is the front line between Total and Limited Capitalism.
Limited Capitalism was never an outright winner, but in its rhetoric, it strived to achieve the illusion of permanence. The rights of the individual – the societal sidekick to the economic superhero – has never been inevitable and maybe not even natural. Increasingly this relic of our post-Enlightenment experiments feels like a humanistic blip. In the face of Brexit and Trump, Bolsanaro and Orban, I have found myself increasingly having to defend the ‘pragmatism of the primacy of the individual’ to friends not just in Singapore and Shanghai, but Boston and Berlin. Yes, it is the freedom to screw up, but it is also the freedom not to be screwed with.
When measured in terms of human development Limited Capitalism has been a great success. But ‘Capitalist Democracy’ is a productive tension, not a synonymic pair. Capitalism privileges results, Democracy, the process. One is fast, the other is slow. The market is majoritarian, while the democratic enshrines the individual, not merely responsible to a simple majority. This makes elections, perversely, the least important aspect of a democracy. Limited Capitalism is an uneasy hybrid. You are free to consume, you are free to participate, but the between the two there is no equivalence. The human flourishing this has propagated cannot be measured by statistics alone. It is this tension that universalised the franchise, enshrined judicial independent and – aspirationally -declared Universal Human Rights. Less tangibly and more significantly it gives each of us a hope of genuine human dignity and all of us some faith in a societal-level trust. Maybe it was easier to win hearts and minds in the late 20th century with Right to Buy than the Rights of Man, but failing to promote the civil alongside the economic conflates consumption with participation, creating the opportunity for Total Capitalism.
Shenzhen’s subway tunnels are lined with motion-synced LED screens that animate adverts outside the carriage windows selling pizza and pet food station to station. My connected TV won’t switch on without first showing me a short film promoting the latest toilet paper or plastic surgery procedure. Pop-up ads and promotions are a pervasive part of every single product or service, physical or virtual that I use. Upsell, cross-sell, resell. The imperative to consume is everywhere, the Chinese Dream constantly reinforced as the route to individualisation and self-actualisation. Judged by the old Communist clichés of a “decadent West,” focussed on temerarious consumption, contemporary China is the most “western” place I have ever lived or been. One where I am no more and no less than the sum of my purchases. I buy therefore I am.
At the same time deep integration of seamless technology has evolved a new species of human as consumer, Homo Emptus. The local branch of KFC lets me buy a Family Bucket with nothing more than my face, using cameras linked directly to my virtual wallet which holds my credit cards and fictive cash. Recently I was walking through the precinct by my block, when a young woman ran up to me, apologising. Her cleaner’s phone had stopped receiving transfers and she didn’t have the cash to pay. Did I have any? Pulling a handful of 100 yuan notes out of my pocket, she pulled out her phone, scanned my wallet and transferred me the 300 kuai which I had in cash. In less than a minute I had become a human ATM. It was demeaning and thrilling at the same time, I imagine not dissimilar to the excitement felt by the freshly humiliated submissive.
Sometimes living here can feel like magic. But if you only immerse in the wonder, you miss the cost. Recently, a group of cyclists in Shanghai rode past a police officer, stopped by the side of the road, deep in an animated discussion with the driver they had just pulled over. The group, aware the policeman was otherwise occupied, slowly rolled through the red signal ahead, traffic light on a quiet Saturday morning. Fifteen minutes later by the time they had reached their café stop and pulled out their phones to pay, they had all been fined. Facial recognition cameras mounted on top of the police car had ID-ed them and then allowed the officer digitally ensure justice was done. When we are defined only by our consumption, this make complete sense, our economic life is simply ‘life’, giving the state unprecedented control in return for our convenience. Seamlessness may be fast, but to protect Limited Capitalism, we need seams.
The reality is though that our willingness to conflate commercial choice with civil freedoms has makes it easy for us to walk backwards into Total Capitalism. Using ‘Capitalism’ as a shorthand for so long has meant a lack of focus on the social and political dimensions that has allowing the market to perform as a poor stand-in for the whole. This has led to declining trust in the very institutions that underpin both our societal freedom and our consumer choice. The recent World Values Survey shows a minority in both Europe and the US of people born after 1970 believe it is ‘essential to live in a democracy.’ If this is the case then we have collectively failed to remind ourselves what ‘democracy’ really entails. It has also led to the bizarre inversion for many on the neoliberal right who see any democratic limit placed on the market as ‘undemocratic’
The rising indifference to the democratic can be seen in part as a consequence of Limited Capitalism’s success. Just as a fish does not know that it is wet, we take for granted the protections afforded the individual. We have collectively and systemically failed to remind ourselves of the importance of the water we all swim in. Political leaders and populist demagogues who owe their very existence to the small L liberalism that underpins Limited Capitalism have failed to give credit, choosing instead to pee in the pond for short term gain. Taking our collective socio-political foundations for granted has led to their erosion. Ignoring them has also reduced the success of a state to its economy alone. Whilst freedom of speech won’t feed my children, GDP won’t make them happier or more morally rich. This tyranny of the economic means that states which favour the fast and the outcome will be judged the best performing, outshining those that optimise for the slow, the process, the individual. By judging a state by its economy rather than their humanity, we set up a framework in which the Total Capitalism is not only increasingly easy to admire, but objectively ‘better’, with no way to quantify its glaring qualitative flaws. The fallacy that our economic lives are an adequate stand-in for our civic ones provides the ideological misdirection to pull the trick off. Only what is counted is valued.
Total Capitalism, by succeeding on these terms, promotes a worrying model of growth and unfreedom, chipping away at the old liberal consensus. As pervasive technologies allow ever-greater accumulation of information, we are reaching an inflection point, two divergent versions of how this data is used and its implications for how we live. Progress marches an there is a decision to be made, inaction is not possible. A battle that is waged by only one side, even one of ideas, is not without bloodshed; it is a massacre.
Unencumbered by the limits that the state apparatus of Limited Capitalism places on it, technology can quickly become dystopian. The Limited Capitalist model is not just a check on economic entities – as the EU has proved with its fines on Google and Microsoft – but also on governments. And it adds an implicit societal dimension to the economic role. When Apple refused to provide a back door to iPhone for the FBI, it was asserting its social responsibility, not just its economic function. It helped that these two impulses were congruent here, but the difference between that and the case of the Shanghai cyclists is stark. Tencent, makers of the ubiquitous WeChat Wallet in question, were doing nothing wrong by allowing the state to pick pockets; they were fulfilling their duty, legally obliged to do so in the People’s Republic. The FBI’s response to Apple’s refusal was that American lives might be lost, but people died enshrining the rights Apple was upholding. Do we still believe the defence of the individual is worth dying for?
It would be worth asking that question to the millions of minority Muslims constantly surveilled, or interred in camps in Xinjiang. Advanced monitoring technologies, sharpened to scalpel-like precision, have created an unprecedented digital panopticon. The whole region is monitored at a level of detail that previously would have taken vast armies of watchers and handlers. Now instead, the state has the ability to micromanage human life at a macroscale; facial recognition, device tracking and digital monitoring turn an entire country-sized region into a prison colony. Xinjiang is not just a tragedy though; it is a testbed. China has rolled the same systems across the entirety of its domestic train network as well as at every airport, port and major public area. More disturbingly, it is a showroom for the implementation of its own particular strain of Total Capitalism. A sinister demonstration of how to unshackle the market from democracy, providing economic liberation whilst maintaining total control. For parts of the world that were previously faced with the choice between an all-inclusive version of modernity, open society and all, China offers an alluring alternative, a cake-and-eat-it model powered by pervasive technologies and financed by Belt and Road loans. And it is one that has succeeded by our own ‘Capitalist’ yardstick.
Total Capitalism is by no means inevitable, and its vision of the future not the only one. Technology is neutral and can be used co-opted for community as well as commerciality. The liberal limits within Liberal, Democratic, Limited Capitalism have allowed it to do both. But our willingness to collapse the social, political and economic into one big flat now have left us at a critical juncture. Hong Kong’s fight is an imperfect allegory for the decision that we need to make about what we should measure and what really matters, particularly in the developed world. We cannot take for granted what we already have. An era is only named after it has long passed. It is up to us to decide if we are to witness the end of this one.