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