February 08, 2009

The Asian Road to Victory

OK, folks; this is the 3rd in the series, which will also be posted at the Cyrano Online Journal (www.bestcyrano.org).

The Asian Road to Victory

There is by now a growing consensus that as the sun is setting in the West, it is simultaneously rising in the East. When Mao Zedong called the United States a “paper tiger” back in the 1950s, everybody laughed. Fifty years later, the remark doesn’t seem so funny.

Consider: by 2005, the trade imbalance between China and the United States was 202 billion dollars, having multiplied nearly twenty-fold in just fifteen years. China now holds 922 billion dollars’ worth of U.S. Treasury bills, and a total of almost two trillion in U.S. dollars. Its economy expands nearly 10% a year, while the American economy is hovering on the edge of a full-scale depression, and will need Chinese loans to bail it out. And while the American manufacturing sector gets weaker with each passing day, China has become the workshop of the world. It won’t be long before it starts to flex its muscles militarily as well.

Such are the conclusions of a number of distinguished economists and political scientists. What few of them provide, however, is an explanation for this turn of events. A notable exception is a recent book by the Irish journalist Eamonn Fingleton, In the Jaws of the Dragon, which makes the point that while the Americans spend like there is no tomorrow, the top-down bureaucratic system of China forces its citizens to save rather than consume. In this authoritarian, state-capitalist arrangement, a number of policies make consumer spending very difficult, with the resulting savings generating huge cash reserves that are then deployed in boosting key industries. It’s a coercive system, says Fingleton, and it works. (In fact, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did something similar during World War II, and the U.S. savings rate went from 5% to 25% in three years. The resulting capital was used to pay for armaments manufacture.)

Yet as Fingleton recognizes, the policy of restricted consumption and enforced savings has a deeper root to it, what he refers to as the “Confucian truth ethic.” Although there are real differences among the various schools of Eastern philosophy, they do have a number of important things in common; and as with the Judeo-Christian ethic of the West, these things go very deep. Whether we are talking about the I Ching, the Tao Te Ching, the Analects, or the Chuang Tzu, two items in particular stand out as central to this way of thinking: the notion that the truth is relative, or provisional; and that harmony is the ultimate end of society. Before I say any more about contemporary China, it might be worth our while to explore these themes in a bit more detail.

In a sense, harmony and radical relativism form the shadow side of the Western tradition, which prizes individualism and the reliability of (binary) logic and empirical evidence. This lends Eastern thought a “forbidden fruit” aspect, an exotic aura that exerted a strong influence on many young people in the U.S. during the sixties and seventies, especially. I remember my own introduction to it during that time, and the sense that a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. For Western individualism and scientific reasoning can finally seem oppressive, too tight a box to live in; in which case thought systems such as Taoism and Buddhism appear to be a breath of fresh air. “Go with the flow,” we all told each other during those heady days in California.

A particularly significant milestone of the genre during that time was the publication, in 1974, of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was Pirsig’s claim that this Eastern shadow tradition showed up in ancient Greece as Sophism, the bête noire of Plato and his school. In fact, so forbidden was this fruit for Pirsig that he finally went insane in the pursuit of the “lost” tradition. Whether or not the Sophists really were Taoists, however, is not the point. What matters historically is that they represented an alternate fork in the road to Platonic doctrine, and one which Plato did his best to squash. The founder of the school, Protagoras (after whom Plato named one of his dialogues), was fond of saying that “man is the measure of all things”; by which he meant that every person has his or her own truth, and that all of these are equally valid. Rhetoric was the issue, he taught his disciples, not logic; persuasion, not reason, was what counted in any given argument. For Plato, this was the philosophy of the mob, of people who were morally and intellectually dead and interested only in acquiring the gift of gab. As Pirsig notes, Plato won the battle–at least in theory–and the Western notion of truth (postmodernism and perhaps law courts excepted) is that it really does exist, and is not merely a function of who is speaking or how persuasive an orator he or she is. As the British philosopher A.N. Whitehead famously remarked, Western philosophy is essentially “a series of footnotes to Plato.”

But the East went in a different direction, and for those accustomed to only one way of thinking, it definitely casts a spell. “Choosing is a disease of the mind,” as one Eastern text puts it. All is in flux; there is no Yes or No. We must avoid getting attached to Right or Wrong, because they fluctuate depending on the person and the circumstances. “For each individual there is a different ‘true’ and a different ‘false’,” says the Chuang Tzu. By following the Tao, going with the flow, one attains the best possible outcome. As the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once put it, the Chinese are “crossing the river by feeling for the stones.”

That the truth is contextual, says Fingleton, means that expediency, or the optimization of what is regarded as beneficial, is the true priority. Thus Zhou Enlai, the consummate Chinese politician, was said to have never told the truth–or a lie. In effect, he made no distinction between the two; he just “felt for the stones.”

Again, on an individual level, Eastern philosophy can afford a large measure of relief. The Western reality system exalts notions of intentionality and deliberate action; it holds that the world can and should be bent to the human will. But this doesn’t really work in human life, does it? We all eventually have to confront the fact that there are many things in life–perhaps the most important ones–that are simply beyond our control. “Those who would take hold of the world and act on it,” wrote Lao Tzu, “never, I notice, succeed.” Hence the Chinese concept of wu wei, or not-doing; which, properly understood, is not the same thing as passivity. Rather, it refers to surrender, to letting things take their course, follow the Tao.

The word “Tao” appears for the first time in the Analects of Confucius, and means the right way of conduct for both the individual and society. According to the American sinologist Herlee Creel, contemplative Taoism, which operates on the individual level, strives for inner harmony. But there is also, he says, a purposive Taoism, which seeks to use the techniques of nonaction and nonjudgmentalism as a means to power. In other words, be without desire in order to get what you desire. This theme–which is essentially one of pure manipulation–features big in the Tao Te Ching, a book that (like The Prince, by Machiavelli) gives advice to kings and lords, and sees the Tao as a technique of control. “The sage, in governing,” says the Tao Te Ching, “empties the people’s minds and fills their bellies, weakens their wills and strengthens their bones.” We are starting to approach the political philosophy of the Chinese state, in which 97% of the population (a total of 1.3 billion people) have full bellies (no mean achievement, by the way).

This, then, is a system of “soft authoritarianism,” in which relationships take precedence over laws–which are, as Fingleton points out, only selectively enforced anyway. Confucianism, he says, is “every enlightened despot’s perfect ideology.” Its emphasis on harmony is easily twisted into an insistence on conformity. (“The nail that stands out is likely to get hit down,” as the Japanese like to say.) It enjoins the people to passivity, and legitimizes authoritarian leadership. Indeed, it is hard to dissent from a system in which there is no right or wrong, true or false, but only that which supposedly promotes the commonweal. Those who try–like the Falun Gong movement that was founded in 1992, and whose doctrines are basically Buddhist–become the target of government crackdown in short order. The Communist Party’s monopoly of power is presented to the Chinese people as a “natural” fact of life: the way, the Tao.

Much of Fingleton’s concern in his book is over the way in which he sees America becoming “Confucianized,” the way U.S. corporations play ball with the Chinese state so as to acquire influence and get on the gravy train. Thus Yahoo , Google, and Microsoft all agreed to abide by China’s censorship rules in serving Chinese Internet users–for example, to expunge all references to Tiananmen Square and Taiwanese independence. In addition, top technology firms in the U.S. contracted with China to develop fire walls that block access of Chinese citizens to “dangerous” information, including important Western websites. Under the influence of the China lobby, pro-Chinese journalists and academics in the United States get their reputations enhanced, go to exclusive dinner parties, and receive lavish fees for lectures. Those who are critical are quickly left out of the loop, and barred from sources of research and information. In general, the Chinese system is one of institutionalized bribery, in which corruption functions like legitimate payment for services rendered. The process, says Fingleton, is destroying American values (Enron executives did wind up in jail, after all). It is China that is changing us, he concludes, not we who are changing China. We are not democratizing them–far from it. Rather, they are Confucianizing us.

All this is probably true, but it seems to be part of a larger, graver loss, that of the Enlightenment tradition itself. Eastern philosophy may be the shadow side of that tradition, but it should be clear by now that the shadow has a shadow. How can the West confront a nation whose government is endlessly slippery, and that meets confrontation with Sophism, in effect? And if, as Mao Zedong predicted, “the East wind will prevail over the West,” what will it be like to live in a world dominated by an ethos in which the truth doesn’t, for all practical purposes, exist, and in which everyone is expected to fall in step with some enforced “harmony”? There is a word for this type of regime: Orwellian. The loss of the Enlightenment yardstick of truth to some kind of pervasive amorality would represent a loss far deeper than an economic one, it seems to me. A Confucianized society in which truth is nothing more than expediency is its own kind of prison; “go with the flow” can become its own form of ego, and of repression.

Some time ago, I was talking with a Mexican colleague of mine, a very brilliant teacher and administrator who had read up on China and was aware of some of these issues. “There may come a time,” he said with a sigh, “when we shall actually miss the gringos.”

What a thought, eh?

©Morris Berman, 2009


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just an initial reaction to your essay:

As many have pointed out (including Berman himself), the Enlightenment tradition also can, and has, become equally as oppressive, in the fullness of time -- as equally oppressive as what is being called it's "shadow" side (i.e., the relativism of Confucianism and Taoism). Each tradition has its oppressive historico-social dark side, as it were.

In any case, for at least Taoism, there's more to be said -- more to be said, that is, about the "inner" tradition (as opposed to the historico-social side of it).

In the writings of at least one prominent traditional Taoist, Chuang Tzu (arguably the inheritor of Lao Tzu's tradition, but whose take was less social and more interior), we can find a distinction between "views" and Tao. It is the views that are relative. There's an argument to be made that Tao -- the "principle" or "origin" of things -- was not itself relative, but rather was the very means by which there could be any relativity at all. The Tao "contained" the views, or "unified" them -- but it was a unity of contraries, or a kind of "complementarity" that was Tao or principle. To take a standpoint, to approach Tao with a "view", is to disrupt the unity of contraries (or the "harmony" of opposites). The function of the distinction between relative points of view and Tao is to justify an ethical/moral point: don't become attached to the views (not that one should not advance a view, or that anything goes). What "goes" is that which is in harmony with the Tao. In other words, all action and thought is conjectural, and when they no longer "fit the case", should be abandoned. But nonetheless what is eternal is the Tao (principle of harmony), and *that* is the ultimate standard by which views are to be judged. This is not relativism, but something more subtle. (Or at any rate: there are relativisms that say there's no standard *at all* by which to judge truth, and other philosophies that just say that there are no fixed truths, but that there *is* a standard, nonetheless, which fixes the changing truths!)

Obviously, such things can get foggy in the historical and social nimbus that tends to develop around comforting and profound ideas -- and Berman's essay (as I see it) makes that case (though that's not the immediate aim of the essay itself). For example: when a whole society embraces the "way of Tao", inevitably, someone has to judge "this does not fit the case", and then uses "being out of accord with Tao" as the justification, and so you get totalitarianism, quite easily out of this (that's why Lao Tzu also teaches a philosophy of weakness of the governor, the rulers and the sage, to "be as weak as water" and to "leave no trace").

Now, about the Greeks. As is fairly well known, Heraclitus (c. 6th cent. BCE) argued for a similar view as the Taoists, famously claiming that "all is flux" and that "you can't step twice into the same river". But what it not so well known is that Heraclitus also seems to think that there is a kind of principle or "origin" common to all, and that is what human beings ought to be guided by (i.e., the source of wisdom is within and corresponds to that which is recognizable in the things without). And Heraclitus seems to think that this principle "common to all" is a war or battle of contraries (at least this is how Greek scholar Philip Wheelwright translates it -- a view corrorborated by noted historian of ideas Pierre Hadot in his recent, and excellent, essay "The Veil of Isis"). This, clearly, is not relativism either: there is a truth (which, as Heraclitus says, "nature loves to hide") and it is a battle "within" the things. In other words, the principle is a paradox -- both a thing and its contrary subsist in nature ("what brings about birth also tends to bring about death", and so on).

There's also an argument to be made (see Heidegger's several works on this score) that this knowledge of what we can simply call "being" was already being "rationalized" by Plato in the 5th/4th cents. BCE (who awkwardly tries to tuck the mystical elements under the rug, it seems), and esp. by Aristotle (4th cent. BCE). Out of *this* comes, eventually, the Enlightenment tradition.

The extent to which the Enlightenment tradition is opposed to the older Heraclitan and Taoist traditions is a subtle matter, as is the question as to whether we're any better off if either holds sway socially or historically. But, as for their interior merits, I think both traditions have something to offer us: freedom from ideological attachments (Heraclitus/Taoism); the freedom from "tutelage", and an open/free search for truth (the Enlightenment).

In any case, my remarks are not so much a criticism of the essay, but a reminder that for every wisdom tradition, there are always two sides to it, the one historical-social (the "exterior" face), and the other "interior" (what I'm sure we'd all call the "authentic" one: personal and alive and close to the source).

Prof. Berman, not coincidentally, provides us with one of the best studies on this issue (the exterior vs. interior traditions), which hardly needs mentioning.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

A couple of side notes, before I reply:

1. Are you Gregory Vlastos, or is he dead by now? Or maybe you're Edward Lee, my old Greek philo teacher? In any case, why not come out of the closet?

2. Something I've said a # of times to different correspondents: try to keep your letters fairly short--about half the length of this one would be the maximum. It's a great letter, but most readers don't want to wade through rather longish correspondence. Thanks!

As for the content: you know, this is a subject with so many aspects and layers that it cries out for Talmudic treatment, clearly. I also was very hesitant to post this essay, since my knowledge of Eastern thought is fairly thin, so I figured I'd get massacred. But then I thought, oh so what?

Anyway...1st off, Heraclitus was no Sophist; he would never have agreed to anything like "man is the measure of all things." He makes this quite explicit: see Wheelwright, "The Presocratics," Fragment 2, e.g. (corresponds to Diels, "Fragmente der Vorsokratiker," #2): "although the Logos is common to all, most men live as if each of them had a private intelligence of his own." Or Fragment 15 (Diels #89): "The waking have one world in common, whereas each sleeper turns away to a private world of his own." Or Frag 120 (Diels #41): "Wisdom is one--to know the intelligence by which all things are steered through all things." This is clearly not Sophistry, although there are a few "relativistic" fragments in his corpus (e.g., Frag 58=Diels 7: "If all existing things were smoke, it is by smell that we would distinguish them.").

As for the pt you make abt Taoism, I'm sure you are right; but I still can't help feeling that the truth remains a hazy concept within it--and perhaps very hard to grasp except with the 'inner eye'; whereas in the Western tradition, I mean going back to Bacon and Descartes and then forward to the Enlightenment, there is no ambiguity about the rejection of ambiguity. That the Enlightenment tradition got distorted, of course, is a matter of historical record.

I had forgotten how much fun academic debate can be! Thanks for writing.


4:55 PM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

First: about the posting limit. I seem to consistently go overlimit, and maybe we should make a definite cut-off: excluding these remarks, my comments below come in at about 380 words -- not too bad for some remarks on pretty complex stuff. Maybe we can make the limit something like 400 or 500 words, and be done with it? This way, we know exactly where to cut it off.

Now, back to the main thread --

Sorry for not revealing myself earlier -- but now you know who it is (maybe I'm channeling your former profs?).

A few things:

On Heraclitus: you're absolutely right that he was no Sophist (radical relativist), but inasmuch as my thesis is right (that Heraclitus shared the same subtle conception of truth as the Taoists), then if it's not right to call Heraclitus a relativist, so too for the Taoists (mutatis mutandis, as they say).

A couple more points about Chinese traditions:

Confucianism can also be absolutist, as opposed to relativist: take a look at the socio-cultural reception of the "Confucian virtues" in China (and watch Zhang Yimou's films) -- moral or epistemological relativism might have been a fancy of the Confucian man of letters, but there were certainly rights and wrongs in practice, and they were definite and determinate and unassailable.

Moreover, speaking of one of these virtues ("rectification of names"), even in scholarly and sagely writings on the question, there is an obsession with matching the "name" with the "reality" -- and there is the overwhelming presupposition that there *is* a definite reality to which a name refers and with which it ought to be in accord.

Consider this: neo-Confucianism was a major development of 13th cent CE Chinese thinking. It's useful to consider that this tradition advocated for a renewal of an *earlier* methodology: the "investigation of things" (sounds like Heraclitus again!), and there's an argument to be made here that while relativism might have been somewhere in the background, this method was nonetheless akin to the kind of science, e.g., Karl Popper imagined we have here in the West (i.e., a fundamentally conjectural discipline).

I'd argue that what marks off Western from Eastern science is not a lack of relativism (arguably, the openness of the Enlightenment quest for truth is a kind of relativity: truth is out there, but we may always get it wrong, and we have to accept that -- i.e., sometimes our view "does not fit the case"), but rather the rise of geometrical/mathematical forms applied to a study of motion (change). That really gets science going right up until now.

Anyway, as you say, this really lends itself to Talmudic hermeneutics (i.e., unending inquiry), and so I'll quite here.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Mike,

Well, this cd turn into an endless talmudic discussion, so for the sake of our less talmudic readers, I'm going to reply and then put this topic to rest.

Re: Heraclitus: what I think I already demonstrated is that he did *not* share the same conception of truth as the Taoists, so I think your argument fails.

Confucianism may have been absolutist in practice; the question is, what's the practice? In actual practice, if Fingleton is right, it has a rather slippery quality to it. Bringing Popper into it won't work: Eastern thought precisely lacks his criterion of falsifiability that is the hallmark of scientific or Enlightenment thinking. It seems to me you are very much off base here--as you'll see if you read the classic essay by Joseph Needham, "Human Law and the Laws of Nature," which can be found in his book, "The Grand Titration." He addresses the question of both Confucianism and Taoism vis-a-vis Western thought quite astutely, it seems to me.

Finally, Western science is characterized by a number of things, not just the application of math to motion. And the 'relativity' you refer to is merely probabilistic, and this even applies to quantum mechanics. Once you say 'the truth is out there,' you are no longer a relativist (regardless of how hard it is to find it).

Fin! (and thanx)

5:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quick note: Even professional scholars who specialize in Heraclitus cannot agree what Heraclitus means by "logos". To get an idea of just how difficult translating Heraclitus is, see the following review of Pierre Hadot's book The Veil of Isis, to which Mike referred: http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=9583.

"And if, as Mao Zedong predicted, 'the East wind will prevail over the West,' what will it be like to live in a world dominated by an ethos in which the truth doesn’t, for all practical purposes, exist, and in which everyone is expected to fall in step with some enforced “harmony”?

I think that we live in that world, already. No one has ever been able to demonstrate convincingly that absolute truth in the areas of value, or value-judgments, exists. Nietzsche has also demonstrated conclusively, to my mind, that "truth" is, at best, human truth. Even that changes constantly.

"There is a word for this type of regime: Orwellian."

There is a word for the regime under which we live, as well: Huxlean. Both regimes are vile, to my mind, and I'd like to see each destroy the other. Then, let the new barbarians sweep in, like flensing beetles, to work their magic, and let's start over! (All the while hoping that Spengler and Walter Miller are wrong!)

3:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For Western individualism and scientific reasoning can finally seem oppressive, too tight a box to live in; in which case thought systems such as Taoism and Buddhism appear to be a breath of fresh air. “Go with the flow,” we all told each other during those heady days in California. "

Sorry, but I think you are making absurd generalizations about some abstraction called "Eastern thought." Taoism and Buddhism are very different from each other, but they were inextricably combined in the Mahayana (which includes Zen). This seems to be due to the influence of Max Weber's rather superficial understanding of "Eastern thought."
It's a bit absurd to make this claim when the early Buddhism always rejected non dualism and relativism:


"AN 4.5: Anusota Sutta — With the Flow {A ii 5} [Thanissaro]. A reminder that the popular advice to "just go with the flow" finds no support in the Buddha's teachings."


4:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"and as with the Judeo-Christian ethic of the West, these things go very deep."

Judeo-Christian ethic? Sorry, but it all came from the Pagan Hellenistic culture:

""There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. Whether it enjoins or forbids, the good respect its injunctions, and the wicked treat them with indifference. This law cannot be contradicted by any other law, and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation. Neither the senate nor the people can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice. It needs no other expositor and interpreter than our own conscience. It is not one thing at Rome and another at Athens; one thing to–day and another to–morrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must for ever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. God himself is its author,—its promulgator,—its enforcer. He who obeys it not, flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man. For his crime he must endure the severest penalties hereafter, even if he avoid the usual misfortunes of the present life."

On the surface, the above quote could have been written by Thomas Jefferson or John Locke. It was, however, written in 51 BC by Marcus Tullius Cicero in his work on political philosophy, The Republic. "


"Christians, particularly in the scientific renaissance did in fact believe that their God was a rational being who had created a rational universe and that he wished them to uncover that rationality, however they were not alone or in any way original in this belief; in fact they had themselves taken it not from the Bible or any of the Patristic writings but from a Greek heathen, Plato."


4:12 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Hell, I knew I was playing with fire, posting this thing. All I can say is, I hope we can avoid an influx of flensing beetles (or rabid tuna, for that matter).


5:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi everybody
I'd like to contribute to the debate proposing a different terminology. Due to word restriction, I’ll be very schematic, using abstract ideal types. I hope you'll give me the chance to go deeper in further posts. Bringing back the ancient western/eastern split could misleading in a world with a different power structure. Interpreting Zygmunt Bauman quite loosely, power now has turned itsef inside out, shifting from the centre to the outskirt (it's literally our environment) and its privilege is invisibility. Technology, politics and economy have almost managed to turn the planet into a great Truman show, a cosmic tamagochi controlled from the outside. The shift is from Society (based on social contract and mutual agreement between the parts) to what I call Immunity (a system run by an uncontrolled elite separate from the "contaminating " masses).Ironically, I find this new condition perfectly platonic (clearly a Plato turned sophist in the course of this many reincarnations in history), the sad conclusion of the Gnostic ecstasy. United States were the main actor of this transition and here lies the schizophrenia of your country. West Coast versus East Coast, Atlantic versus Pacific (symbolically speaking, not geographically). Europe schizophrenia is more ancient: the conflict between Community (based on subsistence and glued together by a religio, a common mythic narrative) and Society, Mediterranean Sea versus Atlantic. This, for example is what the Reform and the religious conflicts were mainly about, I think. So, putting all together in a big bulk and call it West has no longer much sense (It never had, in my opinion). Of course the perspective of China taking over and playing the tamagochi in a Taoist fashion is terrifying, but it's just a different shade of terror: as Kevin said, from huxlean to orwellian.
Mucha carne en el asador, I put too much meat on the grill, I know. Take these words just as hints. I'm just an agronomist with a passion for humanities.

Great hugs,

Marco Pianalto.

P.S to Morris,
Are you coming to Spain for conferences? Looking forward to it !!!!! Bye.

3:55 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Marco,

Different shade of terror, whiter shade of pale; what can I tell you?

As for Spain: some talk going on with my publisher about sending me to Madrid and Barcelona in May for the lanzamiento of the Spain edition of "Edad oscura americana." Probably depends on the peso-euro exchange rate. Remember to ask me again in 2 mos., hopefully I'll know more.


10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From my own travels and observations, conversations with friends, and reading, China is one huge environmental disaster zone and it seems to me that it is only a matter of time until nature is going to say check-mate or play its trump card---with devastating results.

Plus I have recently read a book titled The Coming China Wars by Peter Navarro which describes the multiple pathologies within China, and the entirely negative effect of China's actions and policies on the world stage altogether.

Perhaps then the finer points of which philosopher said what, and when, seem to be completely besides the point.

As an aside I recently read that most of the worlds computers are now made in China. The author pointed out that it was more than likely that the Chinese authorities had/have arranged for micro-chips to be placed in all of them. As a means of obtaining information of all kinds and for who knows what else.

Such an exercise being an example of long-range strategic planning.

Plus I quite like the idea of memes as enunciated by Howard Bloom in his The Lucifer Principle.

Meaning (to me at least) that the Chinese meme now has a psycho-energetic momentum of its own which is beyond any human attempts to control or steer it.

As does of course the Western and Islamic memes too.

12:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another reaction:

China in particular (these days), and the East in general, still seem to be used as mere screens on which Western writers project their own fantasies and fears.

Western critical theory has obsessed over multiple truths and contingency and whatever for decades (at least). Holding China up as a land where such doctrines are more fully understood just seems like a huge, Western fantasy to me, and probably to many who have spent significant time just living in China, forging relationships, etc. As is often the case, when you live in a new land, you're usually not surprised by those differences which you've come to expect.

So musings about East/West relationships tend to seem oversimplified to the point of being useless, in which case erudite rhetorical style might mask far baser fears of the amoral Yellow Threat.

What China is often not portrayed as in such debates is, seemingly, a culture with its own continuous intellectual history (with something in the gap between Confucius and Mao), which cannot be adequately grasped by footnoting it, along with Western intellectual history, to Plato.

5:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous wrote:

"Perhaps then the finer points of which philosopher said what, and when, seem to be completely besides the point."

"Plus I quite like the idea of memes as enunciated by Howard Bloom in his The Lucifer Principle."

News flash: Philosophers have something to do with the creation of memes, and that's putting it mildly. Therefore, determining as best we can what exactly they mean seems to be not "besides [sic] the point", at all.

10:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Berman, It seems in certain ways you're arguing against yourself and some of the facts (as I understand them). I remember when the news broke that Google had agreed to block access to certain web sites and information they offered no apology and in their explanation didn't tell lies but probably didn't exactly tell the truth either. If they (and the other companies you mentioned) had been faithful to what we consider to be American values of freedom of speech and information then they wouldn't have compromised with the Chinese but they did---so that seed had to fall in fertile soil. It seems to me if the driving motivation is profit at any cost then whether it's called Taoism or American Enterprise the result is same and the players are able to recognize this and form a bond. The Chinese do appear to be very malleable but then look at us---barely a peep for the last 30 years as education, health care, you name it, has eroded.

8:13 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Susan,

Except that for the Chinese, according to Fingleton, it's not about money. Profit doesn't drive that system; power, via bureaucratic control, does. So it's a capitalism that is not quite capitalism. And not every company behaves like Google, and Fingleton is not shy about naming names (both US companies and individuals) that are playing along with the Chinese. An additional pt is that corruption over there is fully institutionalized, part of a seamless web of how the system operates, whereas here we have agencies to oversee corporations, and if they really are corrupt (Enron, Madoff), they get into trouble.

Of course, I have to say that many pages of his book have no footnotes, which does bother me, despite the fact that he is a long-term Asia-watcher. That aside, my article probably didn't do justice to the subtle ins and outs of China vs. America, as he describes them; but I think if you read his text, you'll see that the two systems really aren't equivalent.

9:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book you quoted but your explaination makes sense. My knowledge of China is pretty limited, I admit, so I went to see a documentary on the building of the Three Gorges Dam----"Up the Yangtze" which I'd recommend if you or your readers haven't seen it. If China is the next on the list to be the world's superpower it's influence will be baleful.

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I usually enjoy postings on this blog, but this essay is a big disappointment. So the whole thesis of the essay is:
1. Chinese government/society is relativitistic and "Confucian" as it values social harmory above all, including "truth"
2. This is due to the influence of Daoism
3. This leads to Orwellianism and the truth oriented Platonism is better than Eastern model.

The whole thesis falls apart as the reality is that:
1. China has become a brutal capitalistic totalitrian state rather than a model Confucian state. This is due to earlier adoption of communism, cultural revolution's purge of Confucianism, and current adoption of ruthless Capitalism. If you want to find a model Confucian country, the best you can do is South Korea or Singapore.

2. Confucianism's main emphasis is not "social harmory," but proper relationship between various individuals, states, etc. The core relationship between that of father and son, which is the basis of state-subject relationship. This is the origin of filiel piety. Another important idea is the idea of heaven's mandate, that the rulers can lose father of "heaven" by acting against what is proper/nature.

3. Daoism is not a relativistic in the sense of sophism. Rather, it emphasizes that "truth" (yes, there is truth in Daoism) cannot be described in human words. "Those who tell you the Dao does not know it." Still, Lao Tzu goes on to describe Dao. Like Confucianism, I hardly see any influence of Daoism in the vast majority of Chinese population.

People's Republic of China as we know her today is more a product of: earlier Asian developmentalism, 90's Friedman liberalization, and totalitarianism. However, she has re-embraced socialism (China sends numerous scholars to Nordic countries to study their form of socialism), and is also attempting to reform it's legal system (less corruption, rule of law).

FYI, I studied all the texts mentionedi n the original article and more. I used to be a student of Chinese politics and spent some time in China.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

Many thanks for your input. I'm in between airplane flights rt now, so can't really respond in detail; but I suspect that the thesis does hold up, though it could use some modifications. Still, you obviously know more about China than I do, so who's to say. I do wish there were some scholarly debate over the Fingleton book, so that these issues could be refined and hashed out; but so far, I haven't really seen very much.


11:06 AM  
Blogger Avital Pilpel said...

Berman's entire thesis, I am afaid, is upside down. China is succeeding because it adopts western science and technology -- which, being objective, actually WORK, unlike the Eastern mysticism and relativism which, like all mysticism and relativism, simply doesn't work.

4:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Avital Pilpel wrote:

"unlike the Eastern mysticism and relativism which, like all mysticism and relativism, simply doesn't work."

Simplistic over-generalizations, such as yours, don't work very well, either. Do you even know what the words "mysticism" and "relativism" mean, I wonder?

10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Berman, one important recent development that goes unmentioned in your discussion of Fingleton's book is the rapid spread of Christianity in China. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, China was a site of much missionary activity, but fittingly enough it has been only after the liquidation of much traditional Chinese culture by the communists that people have become receptive to the Christian religion. The emergence of an often bitterly competitive, roiling market economy is certain to cause many uprooted people to long for a transcendent ethic around which to build one's life and upon which to establish relationships of trust. The growing popularity of Christianity has led many religious conservatives in the US to look to the Chinese not as global antagonists (like the godless Soviets) but as future co-religionists. Hopefully, such a development will serve to moderate tensions between the two nations.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Peter,

It could, at least theoretically...The problem is that theory and practice can exist side by side without really influencing each other. So the Chinese might become Christian, and still, in practice, act like Confucians (as Fingleton describes it). In the same way, the Christian nations of Europe and the US have behaved barbarically toward nations they exploited and subdued--that's the historical record. G.W. Bush, after all, is a very different type of Christian than, say, Jimmy Carter.


8:13 PM  
Anonymous Peter Y P said...

Dear Morris,

I don’t know if you want to move beyond this topic, but your review of Fingleton’s book is so thought-provoking that I find myself compelled to venture a couple of points which have been lingering in my mind.

First, the question of Chinese power goes beyond the merely economic fact of a nation becoming rich. Rather, it strikes at the question of what country is best positioned to succeed in a world afflicted by the scarcity of vital natural resources and in which the most developed nations are undergoing a widespread crisis in confidence. The US, for example, allows its young people to become immersed in a brain-rotting mass culture which, against those faddish intellectuals who would associate “complexity” with virtue, actively undermines the mental capacities necessary for careers in the practical and profitable fields of study like hard science. Thus, most of our engineering students are from abroad, especially from rising powers like China and India, where national self-recrimination has not yet become a source of cultural capital or an avenue to a successful career in the academy (an observation Pareto would have made: making a display of guilt becomes the license to pursue selfish pleasures). Europe, as you note in DAA, is in danger of becoming an armed retirement community - the glories of its past feels more real than its inchoate future, while one of the enduring legacies of WWII has been a lasting suspicion, if not the stigmatization, of the active, affirming life driven by passion and commitment.

The advantage of China is that it is a strong state in a period when liberal states have succumbed to the sway multinational corporations, which, moreover, no longer enrich these states but instead actively harm them. The leap from the relativism of the Taoist-Confucian worldview to Orwell requires, however, an intermediate step, the absence of which accounts for some of the bewilderment on some of the earlier posts. This mediating step is the political philosophy of Hobbes, in which morality is banished from the political sphere, and which is devised for essentially self-centered individuals who want to maximize their profits while maintaining their security. That China is closer to the strong state of Hobbes provides it with an advantage over the US in an age of scarcity, in which consumerism will become impossible and in which the coercive powers of the state might well be key to the coordinating the efforts and burdens of the population for the sake of survival and stability. An inverted form of arrogance, in addition to outright arrogance, prevents many Americans from confronting such dire realities, not least because they want to believe the Chinese will become “like us.”

But one factor that may hinder China’s rise to geopolitical dominance is, I think, the problem which dogged the USSR. As Churchill said of the Soviets, they could swallow eastern Europe, but they could not digest it. Lacking a universal vision, how much influence can China truly maintain in the world? Moreover, a Hobbesian state cannot satisfy the hunger for virtue or for authenticity that led to the French Revolution.

1:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And yet China is becoming heavily Americanized in ways that don't seem to fit this argument. We have the rich and "everyone else" -- they have a far higher concentration of wealth in a far smaller slice of their population, and those with money seem to be acting like Westerners, not Easterners. We have a minority actively trying to reduce our impact on the environmnet while another minority bludgeons ahead making money on the status quo, and the majority in the middle goes along because it's cheaper or can't be bothered to worry about it or hates the tree-huggers on principle; China pollutes and pollutes and pollutes with seemingly no regard for Nature, because that's the path to industrialization which then leads to wealth, or at least a living. We have a military-industrial complex to enforce our will on anyone and everyone; China, thanks to WalMart, now has the money to modernize what have always been laughably obsolete armed forces, and is talking about using them in ways we'd find very familiar. We've been a land of automobiles for nearly 100 years; China was a land of bicycles 15 years ago, but look at the traffic now. In short, China is transforming itself into us, or as close to us as you can get with their infrastructure and population. Should I be more or less worried than I already was?

4:48 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

You may be right; check out my discussion of China in the post entitled "How Chic Was My Progress." It's a complicated issue: on the one hand, China is starting to look like the US in Mandarin; on the other, the reigning ideology is one of 'harmony' above everything, so that the profit motive may ultimately be contained by a different mental framework. I suspect the Chinese leadership is itself torn by the tension this creates, and is struggling to solve it.

Thanx for writing-


10:45 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

A miss Panama contestant was asked who Confucius was at the contest. Her reply: Why, Confucius invented confusion! he was the most ancient Chinese/Japanese. God bless her

1:16 AM  

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