US-China Tensions Are Escalating. What Does That Mean for the Left?

A key challenge for the Left in the coming years will be to reject attempts to stoke tensions with China — tensions the Biden administration has made worse in its early months.

Then–vice president Joe Biden speaks during the 2013 US and China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington, DC. (Brandon Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden made his first public address to Congress last week. Speaking to a sparsely attended chamber, he repeatedly linked his expansive domestic policy agenda with a call to confront China in a battle of “democracy versus autocracy.”

Since taking office in January, President Biden has wrong-footed observers across the political spectrum. Mitt Romney responded to the address with puzzled sarcasm: “China represents an extraordinary threat to the world, and we’re going to apparently deal with that by providing for free pre-K.” For its part, the Left has tended to view the first hundred days of the Biden administration as something of a contradiction, a “tale of two presidencies” instead of a coherent project.

Neither sarcasm nor balance sheet accounting will help us make sense of what the Biden administration is attempting to achieve. We should take the president at his word. The domestic and foreign sides of Biden’s agenda are deeply connected to each other, and reflect a growing recognition, at least within certain sections of the American ruling class, that they have a major legitimacy crisis on their hands.

This is not to condemn highly welcome programs like the child care allowance, which would not be out of place in a Bernie Sanders administration. The challenge for the US left is understanding why the Biden administration is linking domestic reform with great power competition, if we want to take advantage of the former while combating the latter.

From Crisis to Crisis and Back

In her landmark book Forces of Labor, sociologist Beverly Silver identifies a fundamental dynamic at the heart of historical capitalism: the tendency of the system to oscillate between crises of profitability and crises of legitimacy. “One type of crisis,” she argues, “can be resolved only by measures that eventually bring about the other type of crisis.”

Take the rise and fall of the New Deal order, for example. The collapse of world capitalism disillusioned millions, triggered massive waves of labor unrest, and fueled radical movements on the left and right. Under pressure from above and below, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration implemented the New Deal to stabilize American capitalism in a period of depression and war.

The New Deal, which for the first time in US history granted a degree of social and political recognition to organized labor, proved relatively stable for about thirty years. When that order started unraveling in the late 1960s, business interests organized to attack it at the bargaining table, on the shop floor, and in politics, all with the intention of restoring profitability and capitalist class power.

By any measure, the neoliberal countermovement was a phenomenal success. It restored profit rates, broke the power of organized labor, and detached the parties of the Left from their historic base in the working class. It bestowed pharaonic wealth on its biggest winners and facilitated the growth of globe-trotting companies like Amazon, which rival the hated trusts of the Gilded Age in their market dominance and political might.

But from the standpoint of the system’s legitimacy, forty years of ruthless top-down class war may have succeeded all too well.

Deaths of despair” plague neoliberalism’s losers even in the very richest countries, where institutions like unions that once underpinned a semblance of working-class stability have come undone. Considering the circumstances, it’s no wonder so many Americans hate politics, question democracy, and lap up deranged conspiracy theories. Neoliberalism solved the profitability crisis, but at the cost of a growing backlash from both progressive and reactionary quarters.

Workers, War, and the State

These dynamics, however, do not only play out at the level of individual nation-states. As Silver makes clear in her book, they are deeply embedded in the patterns of world politics, as in the relationship between labor unrest, war, and the rise and fall of hegemonic powers.

The neoliberal era was unique for its relative lack of great power conflict. After the revolutions of 1989–91 toppled the Soviet bloc, the United States stood alone as, in Madeline Albright’s words, the “indispensable nation.” From the 1990s through the 2008 financial crisis, no other power on the planet could entertain the notion of competing with the United States for world economic, political, or military leadership.

Of course, the United States was involved in no shortage of wars and “humanitarian interventions” during this time, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Kosovo and beyond. But these were all asymmetrical conflicts with far weaker opponents. With no major power challenging US-led global capitalism, it appeared as if Karl Kautsky’s forecast of  ultra-imperialism, in which “a holy alliance of the imperialists” would renounce military conflict to exploit the planet together, came to pass.

One of the most important yet underappreciated dynamics of modern history is that great power conflict has been, in a certain sense, “good” for labor and the Left. A graph tracing levels of strike activity and union membership in the twentieth century would show the biggest spikes during and just after the two world wars. Revolutions swept Europe and parts of Asia from 1917 into the 1920s. Another wave of revolution and anti-colonial rebellion swept the globe after World War II, including the 1949 communist revolution in China.

As Silver demonstrates clearly in her book, workers’ bargaining power visàvis states and employers increased dramatically with the massive demand for labor in factories and on the front lines.

In this context, workers were able to win economic and political concessions that were not possible in the absence of interimperialist war. The horrific violence of industrialized warfare radicalized millions of worker-citizen-soldiers who, in many cases, turned against their own governments for hurling them into a blazing slaughterhouse. Faced with the prospect of war-induced revolution, governments around the world established mass consumption social compacts during and after the wars in order to win and maintain popular support.

Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George captured the rationale in a speech to British workers shortly after the armistice ended World War I:

What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in…I cannot think what these men have gone through. I have been there at the door of the furnace and witnessed it, but that is not being in it, and I saw them march into the furnace. There are millions of men who will come back. Let us make this a land fit for such men to live in. There is no time to lose. I want us to take advantage of this new spirit. Don’t let us waste this victory merely in ringing joybells.

The absence of great power conflict during the neoliberal era removed one of the major historical sources of workers’ bargaining power and political rights. The proliferation of “small wars” battlefield automation reflected the recognition among ruling elites that, in Silver’s words, “any war that risked the lives of more than a handful of their worker-citizens was a serious risk to social stability.”

While the interimperialist wars of the early twentieth century depended on the active consent and participation of the masses, the interventions and counterterrorism of the neoliberal era have relied on a small and isolated segment of the population. The lean production approach to business management found its match in the “Rumsfeld Doctrine,” which sought to transform the US military into a fast, lean, high-tech fighting force and paid little attention to the possibility of conflict with another world power.

The New Terrain

The Belle Époque of US-led global neoliberalism is over. The failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as lesser debacles like the intervention in Libya, punctured the image of American military omnipotence. The 2008 financial crisis brought the world to the brink of collapse, and undermined faith in financialized capitalism as the best possible way to run an economy.

The failure to reckon with its consequences made it possible for a figure like Donald Trump to win the White House in 2016; he nearly won reelection last fall despite his catastrophic handling of the pandemic. As if all this were not enough, the far-right attack on the Capitol in January dealt yet another deeply embarrassing blow to US legitimacy at home and around the world.

Meanwhile, China’s party-state has steadily built up its economic and military power in Asia and abroad. It made a major contribution to stabilizing the 2008 crisis, and it continues to project power through a sprawling network of investment and its growing assertiveness on the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. While the Chinese government made missteps in its early handling of COVID-19, it quickly brought the pandemic under control and allowed daily life to resume more or less as normal.

Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party leadership are confident in their ability to challenge and eventually overtake the United States as the world’s preeminent power. While it is far from certain that this will happen, their confidence is not entirely misplaced. Which country would you bet on right now?

Mitt Romney may not see a connection between universal pre-K and the Biden administration’s policy of “extreme competition” with China. But the president and his staff are entirely correct to think that they will have little chance of success if their home front is riven by economic inequality, racial injustice, and political strife. In this sense, the return of great power conflict may well open new possibilities for domestic reform and working-class bargaining power that simply did not exist during the neoliberal era.

The Biden administration’s surprisingly expansive domestic agenda, including its explicit support for unionization and collective bargaining, is highly suggestive. Indeed, it is perfectly consistent with a kind of “one-nation liberalism” reminiscent of the high Cold War, but with a contemporary twist. If John F. Kennedy told Americans to ask what they could do for their country, Biden is asking what the country can do for Americans. This is a shrewd assessment of the present moment, reflecting the unexpected adroitness of his presidency so far.

This does not, in any way, mean that the US left should welcome an aggressive policy toward China or embrace a politics of social imperialism. That would be a disaster. It would only exacerbate anti-Asian racism, betray internationalist principles, and legitimize the maintenance of an unconscionably massive military budget.

At the same time, the Left should not go beyond respect for China’s legitimate aspirations. We do not have to ignore, excuse, or support the actions of a repressive government because it calls its system “socialist.” The US left’s revival has been partially facilitated by the fact that we cannot plausibly be labeled as agents or sympathizers of a hostile foreign power. Throwing this advantage away would be a major self-inflicted wound.

During World War I, labor organizer and future Communist Party leader William Z. Foster supported Liberty Bond drives because the war was such a strong spur to unionization. Some will be tempted to take a similar approach to the great power conflicts of our own time. It will not be easy to take advantage of today’s potentially more favorable environment for domestic reform in a principled, anti-imperialist fashion. The first step is understanding the new terrain so we can keep our footing.