September 22, 2021

How long ago was it that the received wisdom held that capitalism and democracy were the conjoined twins of 21st century statehood, with the one unable to survive without the other?

Who knows, perhaps there are as yet some true believers out there, shaking their heads more in sorrow than in anger each time Putin, Erdogan or Xi Jinping do something a bit dictatorial, as if they just don’t get it. Yet the success of China in particular at getting very rich while remaining a one-party state suggests that, as with belief in Marduk, patron god of Babylon, it is time to let that faith go.

Embracing capitalism is not without risk, of course, and the degree of control exercised when China was a Maoist dictatorship is no longer feasible. That said, the technologies developed in Silicon Valley have enabled all kinds of fun opportunities for surveillance and repression, and China’s conformity-inducing social credit has blazed a trail that others will follow to one degree or another. But it would seem that those regular, faintly terrifying nudges are no longer sufficient for Xi Jinping’s party, which now seeks to exert still more direct influence over people’s lives, and specifically over the culture they consume.

For instance, at the start of August an article appeared in China’s biggest state-run news agency comparing video games with “electronic drugs” and “spiritual opium”. A few weeks later, online lists ranking celebrities by popularity were banned to “rectify chaos in the fan community” . Before the month was out online gaming companies were barred from providing services to minors except on Fridays, weekends and holidays, and even then only between 8pm and 9pm.

Next, reality TV shows with “abnormal aesthetics” featuring “sissy men” were forbidden, with viewers encouraged to “love the party, love the country, advocate morality and art”, and instructed to “consciously abandon vulgar and kitsch inferior tastes, and consciously oppose the decadent ideas of money worship, hedonism and extreme individualism”.

What is going on? Many in the media have speculated that we may be witnessing the birth of Cultural Revolution 2.0, but given that Xi himself was denounced by his own mother, imprisoned and then exiled to a rural village for seven years during Cultural Revolution 1.0, it seems unlikely that this is a model that would appeal to him. Besides, that was not an orderly top-down set of mandates, but rather war waged on the Party hierarchy by Mao, who encouraged the youth to rise up against their elders under the slogan “to rebel is justified”.

Xi Jinping’s view is the opposite: to rebel is very much unjustified. The “kids these days” energy is strong: there is too much freedom, too much fun. Rather, his approach recalls the approach to culture that was standard among all 20th century totalitarians, who were much concerned with the state of their subjects’ souls (as opposed to mere authoritarians who accepted lip service in exchange for obeisance).

Take the clampdown on “sissy men”, for instance. Among the many things banned by Saparmurat Niyazov, the late despot of Turkmenistan, was ballet. The media, always on the lookout for a quirky dictator story, reported on this as something eccentric and amusing. However, I once interviewed a former regime apparatchik who recalled watching the dictator humiliate a male ballet dancer on TV, berating him along the lines of “what kind of man prances about in tights?”

Niyazov was not randomly banning a style of dance on a whim; rather he was suppressing what he regarded as a feminising influence which had entered the country via Russian colonialism. The models of manhood he highlighted in his book The Ruhnama were Noah (in his Islamic incarnation) and stern Turkic warriors from a legendary past — and himself, of course.

Think also of Mussolini, stripping down to dig ditches with workers, seizing every opportunity to model virile masculinity. Or think of just about every single monument or painting in every dictatorship ever, whether they be Right-wing or Left-wing, all of them depicting men as hard, tough, resolved, stoic. All totalitarian regimes take a strong interest in enforcing specific ideas of gender (although it should be noted that communist iconography frequently depicted strong, stoic women working alongside their men) to demonstrate the behaviours their subjects are expected to perform.

Likewise, we should not be surprised that Xi Jinping’s party is instructing artists and performers to behave themselves and promote specific ideas. Totalitarians take culture very seriously. Mao was a poet and bibliophile, as was Stalin, whose quip that writers were “engineers of the human soul” was repeated by Deng Xiao Ping half a century later. Xi Jinping has authored a few tomes himself. To take culture seriously means that you fear the consequences when culture goes wrong. Little wonder, then, that the Party is instructing its most influential creators as to what they can and cannot do; it would be strange if it didn’t.

The culture favored by impressionable young people, meanwhile, is all the more to be watched. Totalitarians are obsessed with childhood; in Hitler’s Germany toddlers received puzzles featuring stirring scenes of the Wehrmacht in action, while dolls had the correct kind of (Aryan) features. Sergei Mikhalkov, author of the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem, was a celebrated children’s author.

In Mao’s China you couldn’t listen to The Beatles but you could hear the Chairman’s slogans rendered in song, while as late as 1985 Soviet Komsomol officials, concerned about the spread of bourgeois culture via the new medium of taped music, circulated a list of Western artists and their ideological crimes to provincial authorities in the name of “intensifying control over the activities of discoteques.” Thus was Donna Summer blacklisted for “eroticism”, Sparks condemned for “neofascism and racism”, Pink Floyd denounced for “distortion of Soviet foreign policy” while The Village People, bizarrely, were found guilty of “violence”.

And, of course, all regimes sought to control children’s time, in ways that are far more invasive than restricting access to video games. Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, the USSR and Mao’s China all had official youth organisations (China’s Young Pioneers exist to this day), ostensibly similar to the Boy Scouts; only whereas that organisation was founded by a man keen to encourage clean thoughts and camping skills, the totalitarian versions were run by the state and mixed the fun and games with political indoctrination. In the USSR, you could start young in the Pioneers, graduate as a teenager to the Young Communist League before eventually make your way into the Party.

However, as much as Xi’s recent spate of mandates has parallels in totalitarian regimes of the past, many of the things he is banning or restricting trouble people in Western countries, too, and are also often addressed with repressive measures, albeit usually by means other than government fiat.

A concern with “sissy men” might seem remote to us now, but the idea that males should model specific, positive forms of behaviour is hardly alien. The #MeToo movement saw the downfall of many a powerful man whose behaviour was exposed and then amplified by journalists on a mission to bring down the most egregious abusers. “Toxic masculinity” was suddenly a ubiquitous term, and while bad (as opposed to illegal) behaviour was not banned, the social costs of acting in a certain way increased dramatically, ending careers with the same finality as any government intervention. But those men had at least done something wrong; boys who are guilty of nothing at all may these days simply be medicated with drugs such as Ritalin to ensure that they behave in a socially desired fashion.

The idea that popular culture itself is subversive is likewise not unknown to us; the Catholic Church was appalled by Hollywood in the 1930s, while parents burned horror comics in the 1950s, and MPs debated whether Alice Cooper ought to be allowed to enter the UK in the 1970s, and the tabloids were disgusted by video nasties in the 1980s, and so on, ad infinitum. Even if governments are reluctant to enact bans or mandates, sufficient social pressure can and has led to self-censorship and voluntary submission before standards enforced by industry bodies. It’s not that long since something as innocuous as Michael Jackson’s Thriller video was forbidden to be shown before the watershed. Today, meanwhile, the panopticon of social media guarantees that few celebrities will deviate from the same approved set of doctrines.

Nor is the concern for what children do with their time unique. The days of kids roaming about on abandoned building sites and lobbing rocks at each other for laughs are long gone. Today’s helicopter parents loathe the idea of unstructured time and are constantly looking for productive activities to ensure that their children grow up into the “right” kind of person, i.e. a version of themselves, but even better. However, whereas in the bourgeois West it is left to parents with sufficient means to ensure that their offspring can experience the joys of a rigorously managed childhood, in China all kids can benefit from being told exactly how long they can spend on the things they enjoy, regardless of social status.

Totalitarians everywhere dream of a world of virtue, where everyone shares the same, correct opinions (theirs). Xi Jinping has the advantage of being able to rule from the top down, whereas in the West those who would seek to instrumentalise culture and engineer our souls have to advance in a messier way, via peer pressure or through a gradual process of institutional capture.

These two approaches are not equivalent; I would much rather live in that messy world, where it is a lot harder to gain dominion. Even so, regardless of whatever short-term victories are achieved by those who dream of total control, the history of the 20th century teaches us more than simply what their techniques look like: it also shows us that our would-be masters are always ultimately frustrated — though not before considerable damage is done first, of course.