By Rob Krawczyk
In this short series, we open out a number of conceptual statements the New Silk Road Project might come to inhabit this summer.
As the philosopher Isabelle Stengers writes: part of the capacity to track a project’s development means understanding its space of “percolation”. So is: as with the meandering histories of thermodynamics, in which a number of descriptions of equilibria and the importance of entropy converged and competed, it is impossible to predict which single research trajectory will prevail. “Connections between concepts, theories and actors may become locally denser until, at some point, a threshold is reached and things begin to “flow”” (Stengers, 2010: 237). ‘It is furthermore all those absent histories, all the questions that weren’t asked or were left unanswered, that delineate the true space of percolation” (Stengers, 2010: 238).
In this short series, conceptual statements become channels chasing this space of percolation and what manifold ways The New Silk Road Project might flow.
World hothouse with many rooms
The New Silk Road is a column of foam.
For the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, ‘foams can be precisely described as tension sculptures of film membranes. In the physical context, foams are defined as multi-chambered systems of air pockets within solid and liquid materials whose cells are separated by film-like walls’ (Sloterdijk, 2016). Sloterdijk introduces foam into a media and material theory of modernity. For Sloterdijk, the guiding morphological principle of the world we inhabit is no longer the orb, but rather foam, its ‘individual spheres of influence are not absorbed into a single, integrative hyper-orb, as in the metaphysical conception of the world, but rather drawn together to form irregular hills.’
In this configuration, globalisation is less a flattening than a tendential pulling together of inner contexts, where what is mistaken for the instantaneous and simultaneous, and ‘confusedly proclaimed in all the media as the globalisation of the world is, in morphological terms, the universalised war of foams.’ The New Silk Road is a cosmic machine in this way, scattering a neighbourhood of aqualine spheres across the spine of three continents, weaving polyhedral oases in black, grey and fractal forms — of financial, industrial, mineral and technology clusters — stacking into dense columns of foams, stretch-strained through distance.
The New Silk Road is a hyper-cubist, multiperspectival tension sculpture par excellence
Of its stretched-strained and fractal form, type The New Silk Road, Belt and Road Initiative, BRI, OBOR, yidai yilu, 带一路, Один пояс — один путь into your respective search engine, in your respective location and your respective language and a different view of the Belt and Road will unfold. Shine a torch through a foamy aqualine neighbourhood and the light will scatter.
For the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, in an article published in the WorldPost this January, “The world is returning to pluralism after American hegemony.” For Alek Chance in The Diplomat, this fact is not lost on President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. Elsewhere prior, Grzegorz Stec wrote that “the BRI is neither a strategy nor a vision, it is a process” to which we responded that the pulsing swarm of electromagnetic frequencies encircling Xi’an to Moscow to Rotterdam and back only begins to effect its world-frame as the ‘exogenous reverberation of infra-global-structural effects interiorly filtered into a series of strategic trajectories to deal with intravened surplus’ — a slightly verbose way perhaps, of stating that the Chinese leadership listens and learns from the West (how much can be said vice versa, the U.S. caught in anti-Chinese trade war hysteria; the UK beholden to contain the new in old ways. In an illuminating exchange at the 19th CCP Conference in October, Zhang Yuyan (张宇燕), head of the World Economic and Politics Faculty of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, drew at length on the works of Adam Smith, and what is known as “Smith Theorem” (斯密定理) among the Chinese leadership, as a reason for supporting free trade and economic openness, while also exploring at length how over two thousand years ago, Chinese philosophers and historians provided precise descriptions of the link between free trade and economic prosperity: the “Chronicles of the Grand Historian” by Sima Qian for instance and the Taoist classic the “Huan Nan Zi” which made reference, like the canonical Smith, to labour specialisation and comparative advantage. Neither texts are a world close to required reading by UK leadership.)
For Chance, this return to pluralism after American hegemony is met in OBOR’s official rhetoric, which ‘reliably frames the context of BRI within observable trends towards a “multipolar,” “globalised” and “culturally diversified” world that is headed for a purportedly more equitable future.’ Chance continues:
These phrases [multipolar, globalized, culturally diversified] are often used to articulate foundational principles of Chinese foreign policy more generally. Moreover, they constitute implicit critiques of what is perceived to be a hegemonic or unipolar American-led order in which diversity (of regime-types at least) is not respected, and in which mutual benefit, win-win cooperation and other principles of sovereign equality are not genuinely embraced. In other words, rhetoric surrounding BRI reliably hits all the notes of what can be called China’s “pluralist” rather than “liberal” vision for the future of the international order.
This differentiation is evident in other talking points regarding BRI: it is not the Marshall Plan, nor is it even to be referred to as a strategy. To Chinese political thinkers, both concepts invoke a sense of self-serving utility that the PRC continually distances itself from — the “geopolitics” allegedly behind the Western-led liberal order. For this reason, BRI is always vaguely described as an “open” or “inclusive platform.” Official media guidance requires that it be described as an “initiative” even though within China it is sometimes referred to as a “strategy.”
If one reads through enough state media or official speeches on Belt and Road, it becomes apparent that a stylised history of the original Silk Road plays an important role for BRI. By constantly hearkening back to the history of East-West exchange, Chinese outlets seem to be interested in propagating a narrative of a particular kind of globalisation in which China had a central and ostensibly benign role. In this old “Silk Road Spirit,” which Xi Jinping seeks to make anew, value-indifferent trade — not politics — drove interconnectedness and the advance of civilisation.
It has certainly been established that trade relations historically along the Silk Road by Sea were mainly peaceful prior to the arrival of European colonisers. For well over a thousand years, ‘Chinese, Arab, Indian and Southeast Asian ships mostly did not carry guns. The ports in which they called, from East Africa to Southern China, were multicultural and cosmopolitan. Muslims, Buddhists, Confucians, Zoroastrians and Christians mingled’, indeed it was only at the behest of the Portuguese in the 16th Century — which brought a ‘Crusader and naval conquest mentality’ from a violent internecine Europe to the trade routes of the Indian Ocean’ — that the gun entered its modern berth of naval diplomacy (Nolan, 2016).
The New Silk Road is a hyper-cubist, multiperspectival tension sculpture par excellence
And it is a fact which is embraced by the Chinese leadership in which each individual sovereign bubble is given primacy for its own political system, beliefs and economy — its perspective — in exchange for a folding-in to the hyper-cube foam, wherein China is not the leader but is its centre of gravity.
History again loops the equation however and this vision of a pluralistic, “open,” and multicultural order is not without historical parallel and precedent. Indeed, what held together the other side of the peaceful old silk roads was the ancient Chinese political cosmology of tianxia and its world-model of a tributary system in which ‘the exchange between China as the center of the world and the peripheries of other countries was defined in terms of the son of heaven’s obligation to pay greater gifts to the tribal chieftains, who were, in turn, the “sons” of their emperor “father.”’
Indeed in this sense, if the New Silk is a hyper-cubist, multiperspectival tension sculpture par excellence, then it is a tension sculpture with ancient stilts at its base, hardly glimpsed from the headstrong heights of today. Indeed, if the New Silk Road is a column of foam, then it is one which constantly pulls on the sense of what is to come and what was before. In foam science, a column’s expansion of forms is a process called coarsening whereby as foams age, gravity drains their liquid downward, and smaller bubbles are absorbed by larger ones. Perhaps in this sense, we begin to get at the real process of the New Silk Road as a foam fold-in of countless spheres in a connected and co-fragile condition of shared anthropocenic futurity— world hothouse with many rooms. Its political coarsenings in this sense extend as the tragi-theatre of escape and embrace to the eviscerating ballroom of a world gravity-dance. As Chance concludes, the dancers’ shapes twist and turn in complex, decisional series:
Series 1: Free Spin. ‘At the diplomatic and strategic levels, publicly endorsing BRI may contribute to the legitimation of a particular view of globalisation and international order. This carries implications for the future character of trade, financial connectivity, infrastructure-led development and global governance.’
Series 2: Feather Step. ‘The overall approach and the rhetoric of BRI consistently seeks to promote a Chinese vision of multipolar global governance, an important element of which is the rejection of prioritising democratic norms or providing external foundations from which to challenge state sovereignty.’
Series 3: Inside Turn. ‘As an aspect of China’s continuing inability to allow for a more market-driven economy, BRI also represents and enables a potential shift in leading economic norms. It is of course perfectly natural and expected that China’s signature foreign policy initiative will reflect its broader normative vision for world politics.’
Series 4: Heel Turn. ‘But prospective partners or BRI supporters must carefully evaluate the degree to which the initiative may bring about revisions to anything from environmental and social safeguards in infrastructure development to internet governance. Such an evaluation must draw on existing studies of BRI’s centrality to China’s long-term economic planning, and an awareness — which should prompt further study — of how the initiative instantiates China’s vision for the future of globalisation.’
Sloterdijk closes on the world’s ballroom more ambiguously, if modernity, he writes, is ‘the era of increasing co-fragility; it could, à la longue, constitute the transition to post-bellicism.’ In co-fragile systems, Sloterdijk continues,
‘one can no longer achieve much with such concepts as independence and autonomy. Where high density becomes stable, the whole of sovereignist reason to date could descend into folklore along with its strategic concepts. One cannot rule out the possibility that an age of cooperation lies ahead, one that will replace imperial logic and disenchant the conventional political collectives, the stirred-up peoples. Because these are phenomena that develop over long periods, we will have to await the judgement of later generations. Then one will see how the nation-state and the fiction of peoples will fare in the next two hundred years. Whether one is justified in posulating a macro-historical law of growing density, extending to a super-context that embodies a stable final foam, is a question I shall leave open […] One thinks from a distance of Newton’s definition, which states that bodies are denser when their inertia is more intense. World civilisation would then be a state of highly integrated, hyperactive inertia. Perhaps people will one day assert that density is destiny’ (Sloterdijk, 2016).
Indeed, in 2014 when President Xi began his tour of Europe in a sequence of speeches, he drew on ideas of density a la longue, as Nolan writes, ‘President Xi clarified China’s conception of the bridge between China and Europe along the New Silk Road by Land and Sea. He paid close attention to the importance of infrastructure development, including ports, airports, roads, rail, water, electricity and telecommunications. These are vital in order to stimulate commercial relations, which are the foundation of enhanced mutual understanding. Xi spoke: ‘History tells us that only by interacting with and learning from others can a civilisation enjoy full vitality. If all civilisations can uphold inclusiveness, the so-called “clash of civilisations” will be out of the question and the harmony of civilisations will become reality’ (Nolan, 2016).
Of course inertia is a double edged state, and as much ink has gone in recent days on disagreement, pull-out and the rise of China as gravity-course pre-cataclysm. A world hothouse with many rooms does not unfortunately discount its hotheads.
In the next of this short series, we open out the cluster as a conceptual statement writ large of the New Silk Road. Via Combie and Spreafico’s significant paper in this area, we explore how the economic spheres folding-in to Beijing’s gravity machine are utilising cluster policies to develop and diversify into their own rooms with many views. The abstract below sits in preview and in the percolation stream: