The Magic of Concepts: History and the Economic in Twentieth-Century China

The Magic of Concepts: History and the Economic in Twentieth-Century China

by Rebecca E. Karl


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In The Magic of Concepts Rebecca E. Karl interrogates "the economic" as concept and practice as it was construed historically in China in the 1930s and again in the 1980s and 1990s. Separated by the Chinese Revolution and Mao's socialist experiments, each era witnessed urgent discussions about how to think about economic concepts derived from capitalism in modern China. Both eras were highly cosmopolitan and each faced its own global crisis in economic and historical philosophy: in the 1930s, capitalism's failures suggested that socialism offered a plausible solution, while the abandonment of socialism five decades later provoked a rethinking of the relationship between history and the economic as social practice. Interweaving a critical historiography of modern China with the work of the Marxist-trained economist Wang Yanan, Karl shows how "magical concepts" based on dehistoricized Eurocentric and capitalist conceptions of historical activity that purport to exist outside lived experiences have erased much of the critical import of China's twentieth-century history. In this volume, Karl retrieves the economic to argue for a more nuanced and critical account of twentieth-century Chinese and global historical practice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822363217
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/03/2017
Pages: 230
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.48(d)

About the Author

Rebecca E. Karl is Associate Professor of History at New York University. She is the author of Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History and Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, and co-translator (with Xueping Zhong) of Cai Xiang's Revolution and Its Narratives: China’s Socialist Literary and Cultural Imaginaries, 1949-1966, all also published by Duke University Press. She co-translated and coedited (with Lydia H. Liu and Dorothy Ko) The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory.

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The Magic of Concepts

History and the Economic in Twentieth-Century China

By Rebecca E. Karl

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7332-2


The Economic, China, World History

A Critique of Pure Ideology

Do not build on the good old days, but on the bad new days.

— BERTOLT BRECHT, "Conversations with Brecht"

One of the more enduring academic legacies of the Cold War has been the continuing domination of historical problem consciousness by a focus on the economic as history. Now no longer necessarily pertaining to or drawing upon an old-style Eurocentric (or American/Japanese style) modernization theory, nevertheless, "successful" modern history continues to be understood as the rationalization of state and society in the efficient development of productive resources and labor power, coupled with economic openness to the outside world abetted by an already existing, recently revived, or newly cultivated cultural disposition toward industriousness and personal enrichment, all of which feeds national wealth, power, and capital accumulation on a global scale. Named "capitalist" or not, these concerns with economic success have been folded into the congeries of empirical studies that have animated recent inquiry into China in its current conjoining to the booming field of what is called world history. In this combination, modernization cannot be treated merely as a discursive problem, nor as a metaphysical symptom of the dominance of Hegelian teleological history in national narrative. Rather, it must be seen as the material instantiation of a system of ideological power relations privileging a supposedly normative set of socioeconomic, political, and cultural practices as the center of contemporary and historical interpretation and desire. The conceptual institutionalization of these relations is what I call a pure ideology.

The recent manifestation and ascendance academically of this pure ideology has come in the form of world history as an economic history story, a form that aggressively revises parts of the previous Cold War variety of world history that narrated the cultural history of the singular genetic rise of "the West" and the economic realization of its imaginary, particularly its cultural and intellectual prowess. This Cold War narrative is now often (and correctly) dismissed as pure Eurocentrism (where "the West" is historically European and then, since the 1950s, American and Japanese). Previously excluded from such a narrative because of what was understood to be its cultural and political unfitness, China and the longue durée of Chinese history have now been adduced quite profitably to the new world history as an economic story. In this metamorphosed new-style world history, China has not so much converged with the West as become the latent phoenix rising from the ashes of past glory and temporary abjection to new-style commanding heights.

This essay critically focuses on this new sinocentric world history, as it is narrated through the modality of economic normativity as universal history. I argue that the academic institutional premise for the internationalization, transnationalization, or globalization of histories in a universal economic form serves ideologically as a tactic for smuggling a certain type of normative expectation back into the center of the global narrative. I am concerned in particular with how these normative economic expectations dominate inquiry into as well as determine the very ideology of world history as an object of knowledge. I build my argument from the perspective of Chinese historiographical concerns with the economic at two particular junctures: the 1930s and the 1990s — loosely periodized; each is an axial moment for the rewriting and rethinking of Chinese history in its relation to world history. While in the 1930s, the concepts used to write and think these histories were still contested, by the 1990s, the social scientificity of economic inquiry had been settled. By contrasting the critical 1930s to the normative 1990s, I wish to suggest that the current supposedly depoliticized social scientificity achieves a seamless joining of China to the new world historical paradigm by establishing that cultures can be diverse (and this is where contemporary world history departs most radically from the culturally exclusive Eurocentric modernization theory of the Cold War period), even while economic pursuits (if not their forms) are said to be normatively similar (as evidenced in the quantitative flattening of differences). It is thus the economic — as quantitative social scientific method — that becomes the pure ideology of China and/in world history, and it is the current thorough multiculturalization — in the guise of multiplicity of forms — of this normativity that authorizes and legitimates such purity.

The purpose of my exploration and critique is twofold. I wish to examine the ideological foundations in current scholarship of the recentering of China in world history as a supposedly postideological endeavor. When Eurocentricism is taken to be the content of hitherto-existing ideology, and normative economics is taken to be the anti-ideological anti-Eurocentric orthodoxy, then the opening of the purview of world history to non-Europe can claim not only legitimacy but some success. As Eurocentricism is the commonsensical target of almost all scholarship on China these days, all one needs to prove one's anti-Eurocentric bona fides often enough is to eschew certain terminologies and analytics (such as "capitalism," which is supposedly so thoroughly "Western" or "European" as to be unsayable in relation to non-Euro-American societies!). Yet this most narrow view of ideology merely turns a historical economic-political problem (capitalism and its global expansion) into an ahistorical cultural one (Eurocentrism); by gesturing to banish the cultural bias, such studies assume that the economic-political and historical ones melt away as well. Yet the quantitatively measured normativity of economics is anything but postideological or postcultural, as it is premised upon the affirmation of what counts as the economic as a social scientific fact. Since social scientific modes of inquiry are born of the transformations of European and American societies into capitalist ones, what counts as relevant activity and practice is limited. Whether economics is defined in Marxist (capitalist) or Smithian (market-driven) terms — to name one recent (spurious) distinction that has captured a certain academic imagination — is of little consequence on this meta-ideological scene, since that particular dispute over the "name of history" is merely another way to solidify a national continuity ("Chinese history") as an object of cognition while deflecting all inquiry into the centrality of "the economic" to the quantitatively measurable standard of a priori practices.

Second, in exploring the pure ideology of the economic, I wish to highlight the importance of discussions of the economic in the 1930s and 1990s, where the echoes and yet vast differences between these two decades allow me to investigate how China and/in the world is shot through with the historically specific character of the era informing the emergence of the problem. That is, with the increasing reifications of the global (the world) itself — where "the world" can only mean the mainstream world of limitless capital accumulation — the very historicity of the problem of China and/in the world floats free in time and space. The process of reification, I would argue, is rendered particularly visible in its social-academic establishment in the 1930s and 1990s, when the problem of world history and the problem of Chinese history were both in great contention. As a consequence of my focus on the reification of the world as the global accumulation of capital, in the following critique I purposely skip China's socialist period (the 1950s–1980s), precisely because socialism did in fact, albeit quite unsuccessfully, pose a challenge to the reifications of "the world" as the capitalist teleology of all histories. Indeed, the vengeful acceptance and ideological instantiation of "the world" in its 1990s reified form of neoliberal (market) capitalist norms can be indexed to the serial repudiations globally of socialism's erstwhile systemic challenge.

The Economic Trinity

In my usage, pure ideology refers, on the one hand, to a form of Gramscian hegemony: a social common sense secured through a class process whose historical tracks are concealed. As Antonio Gramsci notes in this regard: "Every time the question of language surfaces ... it means that a series of other problems are coming to the fore: the formation and enlargement of the governing class, the need to establish more intimate and secure relationships between the governing groups and the national-popular mass, in other words, to recognize the cultural hegemony." The establishment of a supposedly postpolitical economic history along with its dispassionate scientific language wielded by a technocratic/scholarly class of experts is one of the more recent global hegemonic projects; its cultural reach and appeal are certainly not confined to China studies, of course, but that is the arena of particular interest here. That interest in part can be said to reside in the fact that the incorporation of China into the pure ideology of the post-political global economic history project has yielded an entirely new cottage industry in the "reorienting" of world history around a Chinese center. In the idiom of Gramscian hegemony, one could say that the pure ideology of contemporary China studies, ostensibly freed from overt coercion by the U.S. state or Eurocentric academic conventions as well as from Maoist socialist straitjackets, has passed into the Zizekian sublime. It acts as pure form rather than necessary content; it is both the mostcommonsensical and the most unattainable object of desire and thus must be continually striven for as if "it" exists.

On the other hand, in a Kantian sense, pure ideology refers to a structure of thinking where knowledge is premised on subjectivist experience. The subjectivization of the historical real points to a process of self-validating legitimation through a naturalization of the relation among experience, subjectivity, and truth. The contemporary dominance of the economic as history, particularly as such an approach is adduced to humanistic, culturally essentialist, and identitarian arguments based upon the antihistorical foundationalism of perdurable culture and impermanent experience, draws upon this Kantian structure. It affirms that human behavior and experience of the world is always-already economic, in the classical political-economistic sense. With the ostensible universalization of developmentalist dreams — the so-called China dream included — in a neoliberal ideological form, the tendential refashioning of social scientific inquiry into a handmaiden of a corporatized and militarized functionality of knowledge and value is all but complete. In its critical and complicit analytics, the pure ideology of the economic is an epistemological, historiographical, and historical problem: it is a problem of our present.

When one looks at recent trends in China studies, particularly in their relation to recent trends in world history, the high-profile, ongoing reevaluation of China's pre-nineteenth-century economy looms as exemplary of this type of pure ideology. The economic-history-as-world-history trend has nicely dovetailed with the latest disciplinary call for internationalizing histories (as if nineteenth-century China weren't already international by virtue of having been assaulted by imperialist-capitalist aggressions!) even as histories are also enjoined to be more micro, local, and experiential. Beyond the internationalizing imperative — so-called China-centered histories — the new turn has academic roots in and substantively contributes to the rush toward global or world history, now written in an economically universal while benignly culturally diverse idiom. (The universality of the economic is animated and facilitated by the celebration of postpolitical cultural diversity.) In this version, the practice of world history informs a general turn away from studies of historical imperialism, colonialism, and violent aggression in favor of inclusionary narratives derived from a multipolar model of civilizational cultures and particularisms. At the same time as the China-and/in-the-world trend has become central to and by the postcolonial unmasking of Eurocentrism, it also has become important in the attempts to rescue China for (a unique) or from (a Eurocentric) modernity. The types of universalisms, then, are different between then and now: where previously universalism pointed to convergence with Europe (and America or Japan), now universalism points to culturally particular developmentalism and growth as pure ideological desire for success and state-national power. In such a guise, this trend presents itself as something new.

And in some ways it is new. Forsaking the older scholarly conventions of a stagnant China vegetating in the teeth of time as compared to a dynamically progressive Europe; forsaking, as well, the dreaded "Western impact" theory of Chinese history, which held that China needed to be shocked into movement by the superiority of the West, these new histories do, of course, debunk a whole pre- and postwar sinological tradition about China's supposed historical and contemporary unfitness for modernization. (Clearly, the fact that contemporary China is growing wildly helps break down these older prejudices as well.) Yet, rather than mark out genuinely novel theoretical perspectives, the ostensible break from cultural Eurocentrism through the embedding of the Chinese economy into an a priori global (capitalist or market-driven) frame of teleological developmentalism actually entrenches these studies ever more deeply in an economistic paradigm of history, now updated for the anti-Eurocentric and culturally pluralist market-centered neoliberal present. That is, when the trajectory of the pre-nineteenth-century Chinese economy is articulated as a challenge to Eurocentrism as a historiographical cultural problem (e.g., Kenneth Pomeranz's The Great Divergence, on which, more below), it immediately can be and is harnessed to buttress arguments for China's alternative or even unique path to modernization or development (e.g., Chinese economist Yao Yang's work on this topic, which represents in many ways the trend toward turning China's "unique path to modernization" into a model of extractable global lessons for the rest of the developing world — the so-called China model of growth). This adaptive adoption is facilitated by the perspective offered in these new works that accept economic growth — whether termed "market" or capitalist or otherwise — as the teleological goal of all history; that accept developmentalism as the one and only viable goal of all historical societies and all viable states and cultures. By pluralizing its cultural forms and historical modes, such scholarship merely relocates the geographical center and chronological scope of the global economy to include China. Indeed, the relocation of the global economy's center to include Ming and Qing China (fifteenth to nineteenth centuries) has turned almost instantaneously into a defense of "development with Chinese characteristics" (a political-cultural claim), which, in turn, represents the ghostly return of one repressed object of modernizationist historical and historiographical desire: the need for a strong central state capable of disciplining and rationalizing society for economic takeoff while building from and reinforcing economistic cultural norms in popular attitudes. While an older modernization paradigm used to be reserved for "the West," the contemporary rise of China opens the world to a new inclusionary impulse promising a more superficially culturally diverse, albeit economically monotone, global space.

With these broad developments in historiographical and historical norms, the current ideological upshot of the trend to affirm China's centrality to world history avant la lèttre, as it were, is to legitimate the historical teleology of developmentalist globalization and of China's fitness to be included in "it." This not only endows China with an essentialist genetic historical presence that appears to have primed it for (belated or delayed) historical success, but, more perniciously, it endows the global with intrinsic, inevitable, and ahistorical characteristics, spatialities, and temporalities that predate any historical materialization of the logic of globality itself. It is here where what could be called modernizationism's trinity — the state-cultural complex, economic development, and a priori global connectivity — becomes the pure ideology of China studies at the same time as it becomes the pure ideology of a brave new world. The admixture presents a depressingly complicit pure ideology of China in/and the world.


Excerpted from The Magic of Concepts by Rebecca E. Karl. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction. Repetition and Magic  1
1. The Economic, China, World History: A Critique of Pure Ideology  19
2. The Economic and the State: The Asiatic Mode of Production  40
3. The Economic as Transhistory: Temporality, the Market, and the Austrian School  73
4. The Economic as Lived Experience: Semicolonialism and China  113
5. The Economic as Culture and the Culture of the Economic: Filming Shanghai  141
Afterword  160
Notes  167
Bibliography  199
Index 213

What People are Saying About This

The Empire of the Text: Writing and Authority in Early Imperial China - Christopher Leigh Connery

"Rebecca E. Karl limns new categories of analysis, uncovering ideological structures that despite being in plain sight, have until now been underexamined. With original and polemical interventions into a range of intellectual positions, The Magic of Concepts will be a central point of reference in ongoing theorizations of globalization and world history."

China and Global Capitalism: Reflections on Marxism, History, and Contemporary Politics - Lin Chun

"Given the importance and originality of Karl's core argument about the 'repetition' of the 1930s and 1980s/90s, The Magic of Concepts makes a much needed intellectual intervention in debating history and politics in China today."

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