Eric Hoffer can tell us a lot about what’s going on in China right now

The huge protests engulfing China right now against lockdowns have left a lot of people wondering if these are just protests.  The size, and scope, and vehemence, and fearlessness of the Chinese public against their very oppressive communist masters has made them appear to be a mass movement.  In Shanghai, they are calling for the ouster of the entire Communist Party of China.  When a billion-strong nation rises up on a cause that has unified them such as this, there’s clearly the scent of revolution in the air.

The New York Times did a huge spread on the matter this morning, and it is worth looking at here.

I wrote about its particulars with Twitter videos from Chinese locals yesterday here.

How do we explain this, how do we judge it, and is this just another round of protests that ends up leaving the status quo, such as we continuously see in places run by other dictatorships beset by protests, such as Iran, Russia, Venezuela, and Cuba?

There’s an argument that it isn’t.

Lockdowns bring tremendous financial hardship.  They turn former middle classes into the poor, dependent on government handouts, if they can get them, which, in China, can be pretty meager, if that.

China, unlike many of those other places, has in the recent past seen a significant surge in economic prosperity brought on by trade with the West, with GDP typically hitting about 9% growth a year.  A lot of people moved from the countryside to the cities for this prosperity, seeking jobs in sweatshops, uprooted from their traditional villages and families, but doing better financially than they had in the past.

Now that prosperity is gone.  The Times reports GDP growth around 3% a year, and it had been sliding in the last few years.  Combine that with the hard blow of COVID lockdowns, which means 0% GDP for many individuals, as well as the knowledge that the rest of the world has rejected lockdowns and learned to live with COVID, and the whole picture amounts to a match and gasoline.

Who are the participants? 

Thomas Lifson observed to me this morning that they appeared to be the newly impoverished. 

Eric Hoffer, the great observer of social movements, had some thoughts about who joins mass movements with the most intensity, and one such category were people he called “the new poor.”

In his 1951 classic, “The True Believer” (downloadable at academia.edu), he wrote:

Not all who are poor are frustrated. Some of the poor stagnating in the slums of the cities are smug in their decay. They shudder at the thought of life outside their familiar cesspool. Even the respectable poor, when their poverty is of long standing, remain inert. They are awed by the immutability of the order of things. It takes a cataclysm — an invasion, a plague or some other communal disaster — to open their eyes to the transitoriness of the “eternal order.”

It is usually those whose poverty is relatively recent, the “new poor,” who throb with the ferment of frustration. The memory of better things is as fire in their veins. They are the disinherited and dispossessed who respond to every rising mass movement. It was the new poor in seventeenth century England who ensured the success of the Puritan Revolution. During the movement of enclosure (see Section 5) thousands of landlords drove out their tenants and turned their fields into pastures. “Strong and active peasants, enamored of the soil that nurtured them, were transformed into wage workers or sturdy beggars … city streets were filled with paupers.”

It was this mass of the dispossessed who furnished the recruits for Cromwell’s new-model army. In Germany and Italy the new poor coming from a ruined middle class formed the chief support of the Nazi and Fascist revolutions. The potential revolutionaries in present-day England are not the workers but the disinherited civil servants and businessmen. This class has a vivid memory of affluence and dominion and is not likely to reconcile itself to straitened conditions and political impotence.

There have been of late, both here and in other countries, enormous periodic increases of a new type of new poor, and their appearance undoubtedly has contributed to the rise and spread of contemporary mass movements.

Until recently the new poor came mainly from the propertied classes, whether in cities or on the land, but lately, and perhaps for the first time in history, the plain workingman appears in this role. So long as those who did the world’s work lived on a level of bare subsistence, they were looked upon and felt themselves as the traditionally poor. They felt poor in good times and bad. Depressions, however severe, were not seen as aberrations and enormities.

But with the wide diffusion of a high standard of living, depressions and the unemployment they bring assumed a new aspect. The present-day workingman in the Western world feels unemployment as a degradation. He sees himself disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things, and is willing to listen to those who call for a new deal.

Sound like this dynamic may be playing in China?  One notices that the people aren’t particularly afraid of the oppressors in China these days.

Wikipedia has a good summary of the central thesis of Hoffer’s argument, that mass movements are similar, whether their cause is good or bad, the way plants such as deadly nightshades and tomatoes have botanical similarities but very different results if they are eaten, as Hoffer himself noted.  This book has been in print for decades with generations of people each discovering something valuable in its concise, tight observations about human nature and society.  Wikipedia notes that everyone from President Eisenhower to Hillary Clinton have read this book and recommended it.  Movie star Marlon Brando was obviously into him — see here.  Hoffer’s observations about who joins these mass movements is especially valuable now for its insights that seem clearly applicable to China.

The old gray men ruling China from their palace in Beijing may look solid and in control around this point, but they now lead a nation of the “new poor” made even poorer by their draconian COVID lockdowns, hoping the repressive measures beats them into submission.  Will it work in a nation of one billion?  Can the whole nation be made into a lockdown prison to maintain party control?  We know they have controlled a lot, and we know that dictators cling for long times.  But with Hoffer’s observations, maybe the answer isn’t a 100% “yes” at this point.  Not anymore.

Image: LBJ Library via Wikipedia, public domain.

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