The Palace that Splits the Sky

 Thick, slate-colored smog presses through a towering maze of identical apartment blocks, a half-living ocean ebbing below: people hunched over carts and scooters, faces covered by dingy surgical masks, often little more than silhouettes backlit by the haze-dulled throb of glowing ads broadcast on wall-size screens. The smog is like a skin of concrete melded through the image, broken here and there by masked faces or the fleeting blue glitter of cellphones held aloft like fragile torches. This picture—or something equally gargantuan and brutal—is the spectral shape that China today takes in the public imagination. It’s familiar because it emerges almost automatically upon mention, in the same way that the mist-wrapped karstic cliffs and tranquil waterways of shanshui painting might have arisen in the minds of previous generations. And yet it seems somehow ominous, as if there were a monstrous, barely-visible giant obscured somewhere in that suffocating smog, looming over the mass of anonymous lives shuffling below.

 The smog-choked city is one half of a pair, its counterpart the glittering skylines that symbolize the “Chinese Miracle.” Together, they define not only a certain national character, but a planetary crisis and the many specters that are returning to haunt the world in an era of unprecedented luxury and unthinkable collapse. In a way, though, the image is also consistent with classical themes. During the Buddhist-inflected Tang Dynasty, also considered the golden age of Chinese Poetry, a similar pairing existed, symbolizing both the gargantuan power of the dynasty and the building crisis at its heart. Rather than black smog and glimmering cities, however, poets illustrated a civilizational battle between “red dust” (hongchen, 红尘) and cold, idyllic mountains, rendered in blue or green. The urban, mortal and barbaric were denoted by reds and yellows, in images that simultaneously invoked the dust kicked up by street traffic on unpaved roads in bustling cities and the swirling sandstorms of the desert frontiers, both notable features of a dynasty that saw unprecedented urbanization (producing some of the largest cities in the world at the time) and rapid imperial expansion westward along the silk roads cut through the Central Asian desert. At the same time, the breadth of the term hongchen grew. It could be used to describe small, fleeting moments of lust or the expanse of imperial luxury at the height of the dynasty. At its most expansive, the words took on a cosmological character, symbolizing the ephemeral world of mortals.

 The opposing image was one of distant cold mountains and the recluse-officials who populated them. These were, after all, poems often written by wealthy “hermits” who were not really hermits, living in a “wilderness” that was hardly wilderness, the poetry itself both a pastime of the ruling class and a way of securing imperial recognition.[1] The invocation of rustic shacks hidden in thick forests of mountain pine was a way of emphasizing the poets’ own clear-sightedness and moral purity—essential traits for aspiring advisors. Similarly, we can imagine today’s journalists perched in some office in the glittering skyline of Shanghai, writing the latest story about how the smog is so vast it can reach across the ocean to brush the face of North America. But the very polarity of such diametric pairings often obscures the truth that lies beyond their two dimensions.

 Only the most skilled poets were able to use these poles to triangulate that world beyond the purely symbolic—and often only after the vast tragedy had already begun to play itself out. Du Mu (杜牧), born to the Tang Dynasty’s final century of decline, offers a somber example. His entire life was lived in the midst of an empire that had been crippled by the An Lushan rebellion, but which had not yet undergone its final collapse. The century was instead one of slow, persistent crisis—a world already ended, in which everyone seemed to know that things were over and that the glory of the empire could not be regained, but were unable to imagine any world to come. Instead, the entire culture was one with its eyes turned backward, reveling in a luxury that was even then slowly rotting away, carried forward only by the inertia of the imperium settling to its death. Du Mu’s “Passing by Huaqing Palace” captures the feeling in a triad of musical quatrains: [2]



 From Chang’an looking back at the embroidered folds of the city

The mountaintop’s many gates open one by one

A rider kicks up red dust and the concubine smiles

No one else knows he comes to bring her lychee



 In Xinfeng, yellow dust rises through the green trees

Several riders have returned from their investigation in Yuyang

The song “Raiment of Rainbows and Feathers” plays on a thousand peaks

Until dancing feet shatter the central plain



 Music and song have left every nation intoxicated with peace

The towering palace splits the light of the moon

Lushan dances to a reckless beat struck between the clouds

Wind passes down the layered peaks carrying the sound of laughter


 Each quatrain requires some minor contextual translation. Overall, the poem is looking back at the dynasty on the eve of the rebellion, under the reign of the Xuanzong Emperor. This was an empire at the height of its decadence, enjoying a cultural renaissance, helmed by a thriving metropolis, with bustling trade across a vast geographic expanse. Despite the building crisis, society was lulled into placidity. Du Mu begins with a symbol of imperial decadence: Emperor Xuanzong’s favorite concubine, Yang Yuhuan, had a taste for lychee, which could not be grown in the arid north. Xuanzong therefore mobilized massive resources to establish a relay-network of the fastest riders to gather lychee from the far south and transport it to Chang’an, the imperial capital, before it would spoil. The city itself is characterized as heaping (堆) and embroidered (绣), but the red dust kicked up by the rider takes on an ominous character, signaling something beyond just the bustling of a metropolis at the peak of its glory.

 The next quatrain places emphasis on this suspicion, as another set of riders are described kicking up dust on their return from Yuyang, the domain of An Lushan and the location that would soon be the epicenter of the rebellion. These riders are, in fact, the imperial officials sent by Xuanzong to investigate An Lushan’s loyalty. Bribed by An, the officials returned with reassurances that all was peaceful. Du Mu therefore pairs the return of the investigators with the playing of a popular song renowned for its heavenly sound across the heights of society. The song, meanwhile, is accompanied by an image of dancing, but now even more clearly ominous: it is a dancing that shatters (破) the central plain—a symbol of the dynasty itself and, notably, the site of the most violent battles of the rebellion. The disaster, however, is elided. The final quatrain jumps forward to a bittersweet series of images, recognizable only to those who have lived through the catastrophe: a false peace had settled on the dynasty as An Lushan dances for the emperor. The space of the poem is now defined by stark inequality, the moon split by the palace, the laughter of the oblivious ruling class drifting down the city’s peaks and palisades to the reader—and echoing forward in time to Du Mu himself, living in the ruins of that ended world.

 The poem thereby exceeds the traditional coupling of red dust and lofty, cloud-touched mountains so common in the pre-rebellion golden age. Instead, Du Mu uses these polarities to triangulate the looming disaster sitting behind the dust and the clouds—even though its true breadth is so unimaginable from his own position (in a dynasty that had collapsed but not yet ended) that it can only be communicated through elision. Something of this persists in the contemporary proliferation of smog and skyline. The alternately ecstatic and apocalyptic tone of such images masks reality under an oversimplified polarity, even as this polarity seems to signify the crisis and inequality of our own era. On the one hand, these images serve as an Orientalist specter, similar to the cyberpunk Tokyo of previous decades but now reimagined in the context of apocalyptic climate change. On the other, the constant reproduction of near-identical pictures occludes the actually ending world with a spectacle of its own demise—not only is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but the never-ending flood of apocalyptic fantasies often obscures the deeply mundane mechanisms of the decline. And, like Du Mu’s poem, the image contains a strange sort of infinite regress. The dust kicked up by the riders and the clouds enmeshing the dancing figure of An Lushan are both, in their own way, the specter of the coming rebellion. Similarly, the monstrous giant obscured in the smog is, in fact, the smog itself: a dimensionless, concrete void, consuming even the image and thereby hiding reality in plain sight.


The Spectral and the Material

 We offer a simple hypothesis: that the very polarity of contemporary China can be used to triangulate, however distantly, a path that leads to a world beyond the black smog, red dust and cold, glittering cities of this one. This is because China and the many questions that it poses play a contradictory role for both the dominant ideology of “no alternative” capitalism and for the prospects of a communist opposition to the world as it presently exists. At the moment, all attempts to focus in on the “China Question” have tended to end in a sort of inconclusive mist. Neither self-professed Marxists nor mainstream commentators seem able to settle on any account of what, exactly, China even is. The result is an endless proliferation of often humorous oxymorons and role-reversals. The Wall Street Journal picks up the theoretical leftovers of Bukharin, Lenin and CLR James, declaring the Chinese economy a variant of “state capitalism.”[3] Meanwhile, even otherwise insightful Marxists readily accept either the Chinese state’s positive narrative of its own “win-win” hegemonic expansion, or the dire picture painted by US warhawks, who envision the rise of a new Cold War.[4] Such analyses rapidly invert and fold in on one another until they’re reduced to indistinct shapes cloaked in a smog of platitudes and cherry-picked investment numbers.

 But this also creates a sort of analytic opening: the China question, if approached outside the bounds of ideology or orthodoxy, with a rigorous Marxist method seeking to understand the basic laws of motion of the world as it exists, offers an unparalleled window into the future of that world, which we call the material community of capital.[5] In the centerpiece article of this issue, “red dust” is repurposed from its classical provenance to describe this material community, a fitting description for the mode of production in which all that is solid melts into air. But what melts into air doesn’t truly disappear, instead amassing in crisis, in rust belts of mummified labor, in seething riots and toppled regimes. The ominous smog enclosing those cities is therefore a sort of living illustration of the transition itself, as if it were capital’s phantasmic form pillaging its way across the surface of a hollowing earth. If the smog levels in Beijing are finally decreasing, this merely means that the shapeless monstrosity has descended elsewhere: now Hanoi, now Dhaka, now Dar es Salaam and Lagos. The image of the smog-choked city, then, marks the expansion of the material community and symbolizes the way that this expansion and the relations of production that drive it are obscured by the real abstractions that they themselves generate.[6]

 The basic, defining feature of subsumption into the material community of capital is the subjection of production and all attendant features of life to the overarching demands of such real abstractions. Among the most important of these is the need for value to continually accumulate, conceptually rendered as the “common sense” that economic growth must be constantly increasing, and that any pause or decline in growth rates will cause an economic and social crisis of massive proportions. This is not simply a belief that people hold, nor is it a dynamic driven by the “greed” of consumers or capitalists. It is a real abstraction because an entire constellation of material forces produce real effects in line with its logic, regardless of the belief systems or moral purity of the people who staff such systems. The material community of capital is a “material” community precisely because of this inversion between subject and object. It is not a human community, but instead one in which the machine-logic of capital has taken on an autonomous character. The prime mover in this community is therefore not masses of people, not leaders, nor even cultural or religious institutions, but capital in process. Everything else is reduced to a merely material mediation for the spectral circuit of accumulation. 



 Within the inverted logic of this system, the smog seems to quite literally build the city. Its movement across the surface of the earth determines the new sites of industrial power, those masses of people huddled beneath it appearing now as little more than appendages of capital. But despite its reality, the spectral shape of capital is still an abstraction—and it is abstracted from the activity of human beings. While that ocean of humanity beneath the smog might appear to be an extension of it, then, the specter of capital actually latches onto people like a parasite, and labor acts not as its natural limb but instead as an ill-fitting prosthetic. The drive of capital is to domesticate humanity to its rule, but the very irrationality of the economy ensures that this domestication will always be incomplete: humanity will always be simultaneously essential and superfluous to the logic of accumulation. In this issue we attempt to map out the shifting, spectral fog of the expanding material community of capital and the masses of people seething within it.

 With this focus, we open with “Red Dust,” the second in our three part economic history of China, focusing on the details of how the socialist developmental regime crumbled, and why the territories, populations and industrial structures that composed it were so readily transferred into the global capitalist system. In this piece, we narrate not only the domestic crises that led to China being engulfed in the red dust of capital, but also the global crises in the capitalist system that made such an opening possible. One cannot be understood without the other, and neither can be properly rendered without a comprehensive awareness of the basic laws of motion of capitalism and the ways in which they reshape territories to suit the accumulation of value.

 This territorial dimension is a central theme throughout. How do we understand the role of borders, nations and the states that attend them when capital has grown to encompass the world? There is no longer an “outside” to the system and therefore no true “periphery,” yet the hierarchies imposed by capital’s circumnavigation of the globe have not only deepened, but also folded in on themselves. Previously unthinkable regimes of austerity, formerly reserved for the debt colonies of the global south, are today imposed on Greece, Spain and the poorest parts of the United States. There is no longer any border separating the material community of capital from something else, and yet borders proliferate within it at an unprecedented rate, accompanied by new, ever-more-intricate forms of exclusion. Now unopposed, the material community’s essential laws of motion become undeniable: capital must pose limits to itself, constantly differentiating, overcoming and falling back into the cycles of crisis, war and terror on which it thrives.

 We therefore return here to that older concept of red dust as signaling the frontier of an expanding imperium and hinting, maybe, at its collapse. On the one hand, our economic history examines the last great expansion of the material community’s border, after which the capitalist system truly did encompass the vast majority of the population of the world. On the other, we offer two windows into China’s contemporary borderlands, each written by friends of the project: one, “Eternal Enemies” by J Frank Parnell, offers a detailed history of anti-Chinese sentiment in neighboring Vietnam. The evolving perceptions of China are traced from ancient origins, through the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century, to conclude with the present era’s swirl of conflicts in Vietnamese industrial districts and across the South China Sea, aided by online conspiracy theories. The other, “Spirit Breaking,” by Adam Hunerven, provides one of the most attentive illustrations of Uyghur life in Xinjiang, detailing the brutal practices of the state in what can only be described as a regime of apartheid, occupation and settlement in Chinese Central Asia. The emphasis here is on narrating the ways in which the state has extended its reach into everyday life, attempting to reshape the essence of local ways of life and to “break the spirit” of the population. The pairing of these two pieces offers an interesting contrast, one illustrating perceptions of the Chinese state in a nation separate from China, but with a substantial shared cultural lineage, and the other portraying the systematic suppression of life within the borders of China justified in terms of national continuity and targeting a population with a distinctly non-Sinitic cultural tradition.

 Finally, we swim into the black smog itself in an attempt to feel out the shape of capitalism and crisis in the core of China today. In this issue, we offer one original article in addition to our economic history, one original interview and one translation. Our article “Picking Quarrels” details the changing character of struggles in China, drawing from the best data available in order to provide an updated picture of class conflict in the country in more recent years. At the same time, the article also focuses on the dangerous process of data collection itself, telling the story of Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu, who were imprisoned for archiving and analyzing the very data that we draw from. In this way, we hope to balance large-scale structural analysis with an account of the personalized struggle that lies behind the numbers. 

 As in all issues, we also attempt to provide some additional first-person perspectives on these events in the form of interviews and translations. The interview we include here, “A State Adequate to the Task,” is particularly expansive, and provides essential background information that illuminates both our economic history and our breakdown of contemporary class conflict within China. The interview is conducted with Lao Xie, a Chinese theorist with a detailed understanding of Marxism, an interest in the immediate class conflicts occurring in China (and the world generally), and the ability to shed the uniform of dead revolutions in favor of a clear-eyed analysis of the present. We talk with Lao Xie about his perceptions of the contemporary class structure of the country, the project of state-building undertaken by Xi’s administration, the spectrum of oppositional politics currently active and the prospects of the Chinese proletariat.

 Our final translation, “The Awakening of Lin Xiaocao” offers a different perspective, giving a first-person view of this decade’s largest sequence of struggles, and also portraying the inherent limits of “workers’ movement” politics in China today. In its capacity as a strike narrative, the account is unparalleled in its detail, and has exerted some degree of influence via its transmission across organizing circles in China’s factory districts. It therefore represents both an on-the-ground account and an example of the type of analysis promoted by the country’s labor activists. We include our own preface to this piece, relating its content to our own analysis of the event described, and the broader questions examined within the preceding article and interview.  

 Taken together, these three final pieces provide a window into a second sort of frontier: the possible border between this world and whatever comes next. Like Du Mu, we exist in an era of expansive, drawn-out catastrophe, born long after the crisis began but not yet certain of its ultimate outcome. And like the poet, our work attempts to put into flesh our own suspicions of the empire’s coming end. But we also recognize that the edge of the empire can, at the moment, be glimpsed best through elision. In our writing, then, we attempt not so much to make hard—and inevitably faulty—predictions about the immediate future, but instead to capture the tone of the present and sketch out the structural limits that this moment imposes on the cascade of history. Because any firm date placed on a vast cascade of social and environmental collapse is merely an academic attempt to compress decades of attrition into a single year. The truth is that we don’t yet hear the sounds of coming war, just a vague echo of its potential buried in the reckless rhythm of the music drifting down from the palace, and in the riotous dancing of an era intoxicated into peace. But we also see the cracks opening beneath those dancing feet, as the earth begins to shatter.   





[1]                      For more on the exact nature of the eremitic tradition in Chinese literature, see the Introduction to our article, Red Dust, included in this issue.

[2]                      We know of no consistent, quality translation of this poem in English. The translation that follows is therefore our own (although it must be noted that we are not professionals in the translation of ancient Chinese poetry). It should be taken as a haphazard bricolage of direct translation and existing fragments, and is not designed as an attempt to capture the original (we think untranslatable) lyrical qualities of the quatrains, but instead to emphasize the bittersweet tone underlying the meaning of the piece.

[3]                      Stanley Lubman, “China’s State Capitalism: the Real World Implications,” The Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2012. <>

[4]                      We have responded to a number of such misconceptions in this issue of the journal, as well as elsewhere on our blog. One such example is our “Scenarios of the Coming Crisis,” June 22, 2016, available at: <>

[5]                      The term “material community of capital” was used most consistently by Jacques Camatte, editor of the Left Communist journal Invariance. Originally a member of the International Communist Party and follower of Amadeo Bordiga, leader of the early Italian Communist Party, Camatte wrote extensively in the late 1960s and early 1970s on then-newly-discovered writings by Marx. Soon after, however, Camatte would break with Marxism, formulating a series of theoretical positions that would influence later anarcho-primitivists. For more on some of the debates that emerged from the European ultra-left, see Endnotes, Issue 1. For an overview of Camatte’s work specifically, see: Chamsy el-Ojeili, “’Communism … is the affirmation of a new community’: Notes on Jacques Camatte,” Capital & Class, Volume 38, Issue 2, 2014. pp. 345 – 364

[6]                      This sort of abstraction is “real” as opposed to “ideal” because it doesn’t take place in the minds of the participants. It is generated by their actions—it is absolutely not an issue of imagination—but it nonetheless produces a subsequent abstracting effect, such as the ability to equate non-commensurate commodities with a universal measure, money, that itself embodies socially necessary labor time abstracted through capitalist relations of production and the completion of the commodity circuit in exchange. All of this obviously generates derivative forms of “conceptual abstraction,” which shape the perception of economic reality, but these are wholly dependent and by no means necessary for the real abstraction to continue operating. There are today a range of uses of the term “real abstraction.” In its strictest sense, as originally argued by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, it applies only to the exchange process. But it is also reasonable to argue that exchangability acts as the foundation for a whole series of subsidiary real abstractions ultimately rooted in this process. It is at this secondary level that real abstraction acts as a material substrate conditioning the logic of ideology.