Hong Kong Protests May Give Marx the Last Laugh

It should now perhaps be clear that the Hong Kong protests, the scale of which has taken everyone by surprise, are no longer about the now-moribund extradition bill which would have allowed the mainland government to legally extract citizens it deemed ripe for trial. The social and political crisis has long been simmering underneath the surface of a seemingly freewheeling bastion of financial capitalism.

Late-stage capitalism is a term coined by Europe socialists in the late 1930s that has come to refer to modern capitalism post-World War II. Over the years, the term is often used to refer to the severe economic inequalities of capitalism and the social and political unrest it would lead to.

A dystopian vision of this is now being played out in broad daylight in one of the most capitalistic of the global cities, with the working class pushed to the brink by inequities of transnational finance. We saw some of that resistance in the Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong in 2014.

The echo chamber of media commentaries continues to explain the unrest in terms of local politics, and democracy and the like, and those explanations now sound increasingly trite. They seem to be missing the big picture.

It helps to turn to Karl Marx for an overarching framework to make sense of the angst behind the great Hong Kong revolt. The bearded German political theoretician didn’t say capitalism will not succeed but what he did say was that it will succeed too well, and thus there is no reason to believe why it won’t become a victim of its own success.

Wages, he theorized, would eventually be squeezed to the point that workers would find their economic positions to be intolerable. Yet the new working class, unlike the peasants of the past, is literate and they would find ways to resist. Throw smartphones and social media into the picture, and then you have a social movement on steroids.

It so happens that China, the new face of global financial capitalism, is also Hong Kong’s political master. It is an easy target and the unlikely mix of incendiary factors means it is hard to predict how and where this movement might lead to.

Hong Kong’s working-class is one of the biggest losers of financial globalization. It is a city in which the poor are literally unable to flee the rich, as nouveaux riches mainlanders and state-backed capital rush into the city, which has now become the unlikely gateway of its global empire.

The crowded and congested urban space, as epitomized by the “shoebox apartments,” has become the embodiment of a survival-of-the-fittest modern jungle engineered by global capitalism.

The economic inequality is mind-numbingly jarring. It is a city in which one out of every four citizens live under the poverty line, while one out of every four is also a US dollar millionaire.

This Beijing-led global financial empire is hard to put your finger on but it does come cloaked in interesting-sounding acronyms such as BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) and GBA (Greater Bay Area). They are emblematic of the machine that is the new Chinese financial empire.

The debate has already shifted. Hong Kong protesters have admitted that the protests are no longer about the extradition bill and say they wanted “Liberate Hong Kong” but the city was never an independent country in the first place. It is worth asking why liberate Hong Kong now, if they didn’t call for its liberation when it was a British colony.

The wide-scale resistance is as much about democracy and freedom as it is about the economic and financial absurdity of late-stage capitalism as represented and led by Beijing. Those outside Hong Kong might want to pay heed, for what it says about how seemingly stable societies could slip into anarchy overnight.

Hong Kong, the Asian finance hub, is long the preferred nest of the global banking elite. It is also a city where the cracks in the transnational banking system – now under daily assault from both the new tech startups and the big tech players such as Facebook (which has modeled its new coin Libra after the Hong Kong dollar) – are perhaps most conspicuous.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that the city is also home to some of the most ambitious start-ups in fintech and blockchain that are threatening to take over and challenge the dominance of the last footholds of finance such as banks and stock exchanges. Some are even challenging the future of central banks and sovereign currencies they issue, through the clever use of new innovations in payment technologies such as Bitcoin.

That global finance as epitomized by big Wall Street banks based in cities such as Hong Kong are frogs in boiling water is no secret, especially with the onslaught of crippling global regulations since the last great financial crisis of 2007 that pushed the world to the brink of apocalypse.

Perhaps it is also not a coincidence the protests are happening in the city where the working class had to bear the brunt of the so-called quantitative easing aimed to save the big banks and restart the global economy post-crisis. The resultant cheap money – a lot of that coming from the mainland Chinese – severely punished the Hong Kong working class by pushing rents to stratospheric levels.

It is, therefore, no surprise that youth of Hong Kong, who now have perhaps nothing to lose, is revolting. And it is also no surprise that it is happening in the urban jungle with little or no social policy and where they feel crushed by late-stage capital of the new and rising Chinese empire. Marx may have the last laugh.