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  • The Rise of China and the End of the World as We Know It
  • Arif Dirlik (bio)

The evidence is all around us, yet it is still not easy to overcome a sense of the absurd prognosticating of the end of the world. Authoritative analysts of capitalist modernity like Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek tell us that “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”1 According to sociologists and social analysts such as John Bellamy Foster and Naomi Klein, certain doom awaits us anyway if we cannot imagine the end of capitalism. Unbridled capitalism has created an ecological and social crisis that is readily recognized by all but the most intransigent of its perpetrators. Contemporary capitalism fosters a culture of self-indulgent consumerism and a developmentalist mentality that refuses to give up on faith in the limitless exploitability of nature and the equally limitless powers of technology to overcome any obstacles an embattled nature might throw up. Contemplating the end of the world might serve as an antidote to a faith that increasingly seems illusory. Still, it is no easy task to imagine the end of the world—except for the religious zealot or like-minded secular counterparts suffering from incurable addiction to apocalyptic thinking.

Difficult as it is, there is much to be gained from imagining the end of world in thinking through some of the more intractable problems of the present. I do so below, focusing on the People’s Republic of China, whose impressive development over the last thirty years has been accompanied by an equally impressive destructiveness that has produced both awe and ambivalence. If there is a suggestion of parody in my title, it is not intended to discredit the prognostication but to invite reflection on the relationship it indicates: the rise of China, or more properly, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the impending end of the world as we know it.

The end of the world as we know it may be understood in two senses. The end of the world in a literal sense, which is no longer the purview of a lunatic fringe or religious millenarianism but has moved to the center of global concerns, backed with the authority of science, so that it is those who would deny the possibility that appear as the unredeemable lunatics. Less drastically [End Page 533] but equally poignantly, it suggests the end of the world as we have known it, which is a fate that has befallen many with the rise of the modern world, who now seek to recover what they have lost, threatening to bring the same fate upon the victors of modernity.

The PRC figures prominently in both senses. The PRC’s development over the last three decades has been greeted with enthusiasm, mixed with a good dose of anxiety. Most often noted among its achievements are accumulation of wealth on a sufficient scale to reconfigure the global distribution of wealth and poverty, large-scale poverty reduction as measured by global institutions such as the World Bank, seemingly overnight urbanization of a paradigmatic agrarian society, and creation of a “middle class” large and hungry enough to raise global consumption to unprecedented levels. Less conspicuous but no less significant is the impact of the PRC’s “rise” on societies of the global South not only as a source of investment and affordable commodities but as a rival to advanced capitalist societies that has opened up new spaces for political maneuver.

Other achievements evoke greater ambivalence, among them the PRC’s rise to global power status that challenges the order (or disorder, depending on perspective) secured by US hegemony, and what sometimes sounds like bragging rights to be number one in everything from global trade and voracious consumption of raw materials to environmental destruction at home and, increasingly, abroad. It has drawn ongoing criticism for its abuse of human rights, perversion of its own laws in the suppression of citizens’ rights and freedoms, creation of one of the most unequal societies in the contemporary world out of one of the most equal only three decades ago, dispossession and exploitation...


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pp. 533-540
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