25 June 2015

Charleston

What happened in Charleston, South Carolina last week, on the 17th of June – with six women and three men, all black, being gunned down in a historical black Methodist church by a young white supremacist – is, I am finding, incredibly difficult to talk about. There are simply no words adequate for me to express either my outrage or my grief about this horrific crime that cries to Heaven for vengeance. I am not sure there can be words adequate to describe such wanton desecration of the living icons of God, within a place set aside for prayer, for reasons of ideological or racial purity. Yet this incident cannot pass by unremarked, and it must not pass by unnoticed and forgotten. The victims deserve far better, and we as a country owe them both remembrance and redress.

This is not simply to be treated as an isolated incident. Nor is it simply to be treated as a mental illness. The murderer cannot have acted alone: he had to have gotten the gun from somewhere, yes, but he also had to have gotten this heinous ideology from somewhere. And the ideology, more so than the gun, is the truly troubling thing.

But we aren’t mature enough yet to talk about ideology, and so we get into surface-level arguments over symbolism and markers of tribal affiliation. I am not in favour of the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia being flown from public buildings. I see no sense in the cause of the Confederacy which it is supposed to represent. The flag’s having been used over and over throughout American history as a symbol of race hatred – including most recently by the murderer in Charleston – is bad enough. But the fact that the original use was as a symbol of political anarchism and revolutionary violence in defence of (take your pick) slavery, violent territorial expansionism or nakedly-exploitative trade and taxation policies makes it (at least to my monarchist-inclined mind) an odious political symbol anyway. The odious uses of this flag should not, of course, be ignored; nor should the particular legacy of racism as tied up with slavery and Jim Crow in the American South. The geographical context of the shooting matters.

But this argument shouldn’t stop with the flag. A discussion over a church shooting like this shouldn’t even primarily be about the flag, but rather the ideology the shooter meant it to represent. The people who make this argument about the flag and other markers of Southern identity politics are indulging in a deliberate distraction. It makes racism and white supremacism a ‘Southern problem’, when in fact it is a problem which concerns all of us. Put as simply as possible, for starters, every portion of the country which has endorsed, signed onto or practised redlining policies is directly complicit in white supremacism. From 1934 to 1977, American taxpayer dollars went into explicitly discriminatory housing subsidies aimed at keeping widespread segregation of the black community from mainstream white America a de facto part of public life. And it’s a de facto part of public life which, in many Northern urban centres particularly, has not gone away.

The entire regional aspect of the American race debate, at least on the part of white liberals and white conservatives, seems counter-productive to me. Blaming the South for racism allows Northern liberals ‘off the hook’, leaving many of their own racial presumptions and practices unexamined. Likewise, blaming the South for racism perpetuates there a horrid kind of wagon-circling politics with its own racial blind spots not only left unexamined but actually flaunted. Blaming the South for racism is an oversimplification, and like all oversimplifications, it has a tendency to be wrong as often as it is right. And, as Rod Dreher so aptly puts it, ‘This is how cultural conflict turns into trench warfare, and [how] sin — yes, sin — does not get confronted, and repented of. It’s a dead end.’

The facts of racism in America are not, and should not be, comfortable. Particularly not to Northern white liberals (or even ex-liberals like me) who like to think of our hands clean of it. Charleston is our problem, too. Shame on us for thinking we can rinse our hands so easily of it by bickering over a flag. Prayers for the people of Charleston, and especially for the parishioners of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, for the souls of the victims (may God make their memories to be eternal), and for their families. And Lord have mercy upon us all.

11 June 2015

Poor Moses just can’t catch a break


The problem with being the political leader of the Hebrews is that you inevitably catch flak from every direction, and a lot of it particularly from America.

For one thing, you have the Republicans who would not hesitate to lambaste Moses as a worthless vagrant demagogue with a criminal past. Why are you going after the Egyptians? they ask. Why do you want to punish the Egyptians who have built such a prosperous society by their own know-how, initiative and hard work? Don’t you have any grasp of the sound principles of economics at all? Don’t you realise that the Hebrews are the envy of the world for being able to live here, in the most advanced culture and civilisation of the ancient world? And yet here you are, a no-good thug who murdered an Egyptian in cold blood, who pals around with Midianites and illegal immigrants, stirring up the envy of the Hebrews against the decent, upstanding, hardworking Egyptian job creators! What are you going to do, feed them with unearned handouts of manna from on high? Begone, in the name of Isis, Osiris, Ra and the Invisible Hand!

Yet, on the other side, you have a certain segment of the Democrats hectoring Moses for reasons which might look entirely different, but which amount to very similar things. Shame on you, you bigoted homophobic patriarchal sleazeball! they cry. How dare you force your antiquated, backwards and superstitious laws on the Hebrew people when they have nowhere else to turn! You just want to enslave all women with your self-serving strictures! How dare you limit the Hebrews’ personal freedom like that? They were better off in Egypt! If you were going to ‘liberate’ them, why didn’t you just take them all into this land of milk and honey by yourself?

But both the Democrats and the Republicans definitely agree on one thing. And that, along with certain Romanists who fancy themselves independent from both sides, and therefore really ought to know better. They all hate, utterly detest, the fact that Moses never disowned his brother Aaron. They all demand that the high priest Aaron never so much as speak to or for the lawgiver Moses, let alone as a brother. And they all love to blame Moses for the faithlessness and grumbling of the Hebrews. If only Moses and Aaron had simply let the Hebrews who wanted to worship the golden calf be free to do so, then all would be well, and the Hebrew nation would magically become spiritually healthy! The sensible position of Exodus is that it was Moses’s job, the job of the state and the political apparatus, to guide the people out from their slavery both physical and spiritual, but not to deliver them to the Promised Land. Or, as Solovyov put it, the state issues ‘a compulsory demand for the realization of a definite minimum of good, or for a social order which excludes certain manifestations of evil’, but it does not in itself constitute the final, highest good.

In the economic, social and spiritual realms all three, the state has a positive duty to assure a basic minimum of ethical comportment among the people. Moses was far from a perfect man, as we are made too well aware by his present-day detractors. And his own example of rule was not perfect, either. But at the very least, as God guided him, he did set forward this idea that the state has a positive role to play in the public life.

08 June 2015

The social conservatism of black America

Recently Gallup ran this poll, looking at attitudes toward sexual issues across political, religious and racial lines. Though levels of support for same-sex marriage and homosexual relations across the board are markedly, drastically increased from what they were even seven years ago, it is still very much the case that black Democrats are far more likely to oppose same-sex marriage than non-black Democrats, and among the African-American population at large, support for same-sex marriage is four percentage points below the national average. A Pew Research poll, marking changes in support of same-sex marriage over time by demographic, points to a similar trend.

The explanation offered by Gallup, and shared by Pew Research, for this social conservatism in black communities is simply (maybe too simply?) that black folks tend to be more religious than white folks. For the record, I don’t doubt at all that there is an important correlation there. Black people have been and remain the single most devout element of America’s demographic landscape, and this has some fairly obvious consequences regarding their stances on sexual ethics. But I do indeed have to wonder (as any good statistician ought!) if there is actually more going on here.

For one thing, the fact that African-American communities have been and in many ways still are actual physical communities of people, ones whose members’ means of physical mobility are limited by deliberate lack of investment, housing discrimination (particularly redlining), underfunded schools, over-aggressive policing and many other factors, probably makes a very significant difference. Being denied this access to the mainstream meant African-American communities had to develop, often ad hoc, their own alternative institutions and social capital. These are not necessarily communities of choice, but black people do tend to be invested more heavily in the places they live (because they live there and because they have to live there) than are white people, for whom the option to simply pack up and move out is not as prohibitively costly. That can give a powerful localist motivation to activists in the black community, such that they are more likely to be concerned with bread-and-butter issues that affect everyone in the community rather than protections for certain sexual behaviours that are necessarily private and exclusive.

Discrimination may factor in other, less obvious ways. The ‘white’ American mainstream, and particularly the broadcast news media, still tend to portray black American men as aggressive, brutish, susceptible to vice, sexually predatory and voracious, a stereotype that was born out of the ideological needs of the slave system and which unfortunately has never quite gone out of style since. Black American women are likewise, for the same reasons, still often stereotyped as sexually-incontinent (the Jezebel canard) and lazy (the ‘welfare queen’ canard). Sexual conservatism among black people may also be seen as a technique of actively rebelling against these destructive stereotypes, as well as a means of potentially asserting independence from the social structures and expectations imposed on them from outside.

There may also be another explanation for why black people tend to poll as conservative on social issues, and that is a distrust of the ‘white’ cultural mainstream (a distrust which, considering the current circumstances of that mainstream and particularly its history with black people, is actually fairly healthy). This includes the news media, the judiciary, the police, the education system and the producers of mass culture. When the Zeitgeist of the American mainstream is dogmatically non-judgemental, deracinated, hyper-globalist, therapeutically-deist, sexually-permissive and obsessed with straining after a fictitious fact-value distinction, chances are the black people who have been left out of this mainstream for so long will be actively looking for something more solid to build upon.

As for us – that is, those of us non-blacks who are interested in building a philosophically-cogent political project on the nexus of economic populism and social conservatism – we need to recognise that black activists, black religious leaders and black communities are our natural allies. By and large, African-Americans share concerns which are both pro-poor and pro-life (meaning equally anti-torture, anti-war and anti-police brutality in addition to anti-abortion). But we can’t afford to be deaf to their genuinely-held concerns, the way ‘white’ American social conservatives have been since the 1700’s. We need to be at the forefront in combatting the racist legacies of redlining, predatory housing speculation and double standards in public education.

Also, I remembered this chart looking at various political attitudes toward morality and the proper role of government amongst various religious groups in America. I’m a little bit iffy on the methodology used to produce it, but it is an interesting graphic all the same. Note that the historically-black Protestant churches are nearly all concentrated in the upper-left corner along with Islam and Hinduism, whereas the white mainline (as well as the non-religious) tends to be far more libertarian in outlook.

01 June 2015

How Russians read the Prodigal Son


This is an interesting commentary from Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition, a ‘broadly Reformed’ network of Protestant churches who do evangelism, social outreach and advocacy. It takes a close and careful comparative look at how Russians and Americans read and interpret the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of S. Luke:
And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.
The Peterburgians interviewed by Mark Allan Powell in this analysis are far better about remembering the ‘mighty famine’ in the Lucan passage than the American seminary students are; the Americans are far more likely to remember the ‘wasted his substance with riotous living’ part. This shapes indelibly the way in which this passage is interpreted, and where the wrongs of the younger son are seen to lie. The Americans emphasise that the younger son was wasteful and spendthrift; the Russians emphasise that he had broken off contact with his father and saw himself as self-sufficient, thus leaving himself defenceless against misfortune. But it is particularly interesting in another way. It seems to be making an implicit, but still quite strong, argument against the Lutheran / Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura:
First, we ought to consult a variety of sources and scholars as we study the Scriptures. I know pastors who vary their commentaries based on theological diversity. Very well. But perhaps we should also consult commentaries from people in societies different from our own, to see what our cultural blinders may have screened out.

Second, we should consider how our sermons fall on the ears of others. We must be aware of the social context of our listeners and consider not only what we mean to say but how it might be heard. In order to get our intended meaning across, we must know the people we are preaching to and be able to understand how they hear us.

Powell mentions how Bible readers often remain “oblivious to what they themselves are bringing to the process, unaware that the sorting and organizing of data is influenced by particular factors of their own social location. People who hear our sermons do the same thing – they sort the auditory data, prioritizing, organizing, remembering, forgetting: they create a meaning that seems appropriate to them with little awareness of the extent to which their social location has influenced that process” (19).

Better Bible interpretation and better preaching happens when we keep social location and cultural background in mind: the social location of the Scriptures, of ourselves as interpreters, and of those who hear us preach.
An interesting insight indeed: to understand the Gospel we have to understand the people it is being preached to, and the position of the person preaching it! That is precisely the reason that the Scriptures cannot be the sole source of authority; we are always going to condition them through our own experiences, and there is a danger that our blindness to certain aspects of the text, and our heretical emphases on certain others, will influence our thinking about the text in ways which run contrary to the meaning of the text as it has been held by the community of believers. In order to ascribe any authority to the Scriptures, in other words, one has to be able to point to a living, communal body of interpretation and practice through which the Scriptures can speak. Without the Church, the living body and bride of Christ, without the Liturgy and the Sacred Tradition, Scripture itself loses its inward coherence and meaning and becomes subject to individual whim, cultural prejudices and passing fashion.

28 May 2015

Re-thinking the nation-state: a re-Orientation


Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

Dr. Wang Hui’s book China: From Empire to Nation-State, for which I have a brief review written here, is nothing else if not provocative, and I do mean that in the best possible sense. Wang’s argument that the Chinese nation-state has certain non-teleological Confucian political-philosophical elements deeply embedded in its ‘constitution’, broadly stated, that are pre-modern and anti-modern even though they support a modern structure, is not only itself well-argued. Along the way, though, he also demonstrates (and effectively explodes) the orientalist, creation-mythological nature of the modernism that underpins the rise of the nation-state generally, and how the empire/nation-state dichotomy has (mis)informed both liberal and Marxist thought about China. He demands of Western scholarship and society a rethinking of its relationship to the nation-state.

In certain quarters, it now seems passé to talk about nation-states, whereas in others it is starting to seem necessary and downright urgent. Global finance has made it so that practically all sectors of the manufacturing economy enjoy full mobility of capital across any and all national borders, even though labour does not – thus allowing global financiers and large corporations to exploit low labour costs and standards of living to produce as cheaply as possible. In some quarters, it seems a return to the nation-state now seems to be the rule of resistance. China and Russia, along with a handful of other nations worldwide – notably Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia, Belarus, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Uruguay, Greece – have returned over the past decade to a kind of red-tinged, semi-populist nationalism as a means of protecting what gains they have managed to secure from globalism, and as a means of preventing any further losses. Other nation-states, particularly in central and southern Asia – Iran, Bhutan, Cambodia – have governments which equate the nation-state with alter-liberal or even anti-liberal religious positions.

It isn’t my place or my intent here to criticise either of these particular strategies. All resistance to hegemonic ideologies, and particularly to liberal capitalist modernity, will of course be piecemeal and will have to be tailored to the conditions and needs of local communities. But Wang Hui demonstrates more than argues that the building of the nation-state has necessarily involved the dissolution of local, mediated and traditional forms of authority and knowledge. In China’s case, even though the re-tailoring of the imperial Qing state into a modern nation-state was founded on Confucian moral-political-institutional categories and concepts foreign to the teleological modern mindset, the same re-tailoring meant ending the administrative power of the patriarchal clan and curtailing, often quite significantly, the traditional self-government and communal rights of various tribal and theocratic peoples (Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan, Hui, Qiang, Zhuang, Miao) within China’s borders.

In Western Europe most obviously, we have been witnessing the outcomes of an experiment in technocratic empire-building, based on a set of secular, democratic and neoliberal capitalist rules. The resistance on the periphery to this experiment – in Hungary, in Greece, in Slovakia – has been almost entirely couched in nationalist and populist terms. But it seems to be a measure of how much has been lost already with regard to local authority and knowledge, and how little the technocratic capitalist European empire feels the need to regard or value such, that the nation-state is now considered the go-to site of localist resistance to the capitalist, mass-cultural logic that gave rise to it in the first place.

Wang Hui’s thorough dismantling of the various warping Western, development-theoretical glosses on Chinese nationhood does serve a very useful purpose: it forces us to re-think and re-evaluate some of our basic political categories. China’s adoption of nation-state rules on terms foreign to the European context, can be taken to show either that the normative basis for the nation-state is more flexible than it is generally conceived to be, or alternatively that the nation-state is not an inevitability with regard to government.

The Roman Catholic academic Johan de Tavernier of the Université Catholique de Louvain, who studies both Orthodox and Catholic social doctrine, has pointed out that – for all the similarities between the two corpuses of social thinking, and for all the affirmation of certain Catholic social concepts by and within the Orthodox tradition – one of the more ‘surprising’ differences between Orthodox and Catholic social thought is that Orthodoxy does not link the nation to the state. This may seem counter-intuitive. The popular caricature (not unknown in Catholic or Protestant circles) of Orthodoxy as a ‘tribalistic’ creed, with each nation having its own autocephalous and territorial church, is sadly common and sadly bolstered by the fact that many Orthodox themselves believe their faith demands a commitment to a certain nation-state expression. This is a major problem within Orthodox churches today.

But Orthodoxy not only condemns extreme nationalism as heretical following the Ecumenical Council of 1872, it also tends to address the nation as distinct and separate from the state, and understands ‘nation’ in both a political and an apolitical sense. This does indeed stem from the Byzantine (and later Russian) imperial heritage of holding together a polity which includes many different peoples, a heritage which is not always to be considered healthy. But it is also an important ecclesiological and Christological distinction. It is the distinction between the political leadership of Moses and the religious-cultural leadership of Aaron, and also the dual embodiment of Our Lord both as a Jew by culture and as a citizen of Rome – and dutifully loyal to both. (And yet, we cannot allow ourselves to forget that the Jews and the Romans – His nation and His state – both conspired together to put Him to death!)

But this separation, far from weakening the Orthodox witness in an age of nation-states, actually gives Orthodox social thought the needed degree of manoeuvrability to be able to engage with Wang Hui’s challenge. The Basis of the Social Concept commands believers, in no uncertain terms, to have a positive, active love of nation – a self-giving attachment to one’s particular paternity and homeland – and also to be thoroughly obedient to the state as befits the rightful agent of earthly justice and charity. Yet Orthodox social thought has always very carefully avoided the one-sided logical identification of the nation with the state, and thus afforded itself the doctrinal resources to avoid an antinomy between the universal demands of the Church and the universal demands of the nation-state. The political ethics of Western Christendom have been badly warped by precisely this antinomy of Church and state dating back to the investiture controversies, with both Church and state caught up in making increasingly ‘deep’ and competitive demands on the loyalty of their subjects. The vertical formal universalism of Roman Catholic ecclesiology (and thus also of political and social thinking); the coagulation of Western nation-state politics; and the mutual distrust and competition for political, cultural and economic power between the two; all are in many respects the offspring of this antinomy.

The outward opposition between the cooptation by the state of various independent and informal folkways into a uniform mass culture to bolster its legitimacy on the one hand, and the vertical cosmopolitan integration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy on the other, masks a common outlook with regard to the ends and limitations of secular government. Through nationalism, a secular government essentially rationalises itself upon one or more contiguous and organic communities of people; as Western Christendom has reacted (often understandably!) against these stifling forms of nationalism with claims of universal jurisdiction and an antagonistic or competitive stance vis-à-vis the secular state, it has been long fighting a losing battle.

The sui generis example of China’s Confucian-tinged multinational nationhood, or anti-modern modernity as portrayed by Dr. Wang, could be read as an example of how Western political science and social theory could benefit by borrowing certain ‘Eastern’ (i.e. Chinese, Russian, Byzantine) distinctions between demos and polis. It is a natural tendency for Pilate and the Jerusalem crowds, thinking themselves self-sufficient in salvation and fearing the coming victory over death, to find themselves united in purpose against Christ. As followers of the last it isn’t our place to damn them or to confuse them, but instead to stand between them, sanctifying each and witnessing truthfully to both.

27 May 2015

Two Lewises, sounding very much alike

First off, Lewis Black here:
I don’t really like Hillary Clinton. But [Marco Rubio] is saying she’s the past. We need someone who is going to take us to the future. And he’s the one who is going to take us to the future. And I’m sitting there thinking he doesn’t get it.

Not only do we need to get back to yesterday, we need to get to the day before yesterday. That’s how far behind we are. Don’t tell me about the future. What are you going to do? Magically make racial tensions disappear, Marco? The future is to go back and pick up the strands that have been staring you in the face and start working on them.
Where have I heard something like this before?
We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road, and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
I am an avowed fan of both Lewises, just for full disclosure. (Though I do have certain points of disagreement with Mr. Black, particularly when it comes to religion.) But it is truly fun to see a self-described ‘democratic socialist’ make an argument about the myth of progress and the future-pointing direction of American politics which sounds so classically conservative! Bonus points to him for taking Marco Rubio to task from just such a conservative perspective, and showing that the Republicans are just as (and in some ways, even more) susceptible to the calls of an errant and heretical myth of progress.

14 May 2015

An anti-modern modernity (with Chinese characteristics)

Cross-posted from The Lanchester Review:

One of the single most insightful scholars and most penetrating critics of modern China I have encountered so far is Wang Hui (汪暉), the professor of literature at Tsinghua University. Having read his book The End of the Revolution when working for PlaNet Finance in 2011, I was at once stricken by his unique, daoistic propensity for showing how two nominally-opposed intellectual, scholarly or cultural tendencies in fact share the same underlying principles and ontological orientations. (This is a technique I have myself tried somewhat clumsily, on occasion, to adopt as my own.) He is often cast, with strenuous reluctance on his part, into the role of the intellectual leading light of the Chinese New Left, but I have noted before certain strains running through his work which we might consider classically-conservative. Dr. Wang would certainly not call himself that either, but he does have a particular knack for retrieving, elucidating with unvarnished sympathy, and finding a place in considerations of contemporary questions for overlooked historical narratives, concepts and literary ways of being.

Wang Hui’s conservative streak comes readily to the fore in his excellent work China: from Empire to Nation-State, available in English on account of a recent translation by Michael Gibbs Hill, which is at bottom a critique of modernity and the assumptions by which the category of ‘modern’ is applied to China. He doesn’t question that China is a modern state, but he has very grave doubts about the entire narrative construct of modernisation by which China has come to be understood: both in terms of its normative character, and in terms of its analytical appropriateness. Instead, he argues that China’s modernity has been uniquely and indelibly shaped by certain key pre-modern, or even anti-modern political and moral concepts.

Wang demonstrates very deftly that ‘modernisation’ as it was theorised by Machiavelli, Smith, Montesquieu, Mill, Hegel, Marx and others depended upon positing a mythical primordial Asia, an ‘Oriental despotism’ characterised by rural-agrarian life, mystical obscurantism and a dialectic of tyranny and servility, out of which the modern, urban-bourgeois, scientific and republican European nation-state could emerge. The reflection of this mythical ‘modernisation’ construct through colonialism back upon Asia is therefore fraught with internal contradictions – these he explores, interestingly enough, by way of comparison with Russia. In discussing Lenin’s ‘Democracy and Narodnism in China’, he argues that both the Westerniser and the Slavophil tendencies share a concept of the empire/nation-state binary (which had then become also an East/West binary), and take different directions in reacting to, deflecting or appropriating the Western view of Russia.

As Wang sees them, both the reigning models of Chinese modernisation – the Marx-Fairbank model which posits Chinese modernisation as a reaction against European colonialism and the Opium Wars, culminating in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution; and the Kyōtō School model which seeks ‘sprouts of capitalism’ and evidences of a nation-state sensibility arising out of the Northern Song Dynasty – are overly simplistic, and both implicitly rely on a Whiggish locus of ideas about the substance of modernity. Instead, he argues, reformist political dialogues within China located the ideal society in the distant past, and focused their attention on the rupture between rites-and-music on the one hand, and institutions on the other. To do this, reformers within China referred to the ritual moral substance of political forms of Chinese antiquity – such as the well-field system and the patriarchal clan system – when advocating egalitarian measures. They made use of a front-loaded Confucian philosophical and political vocabulary that doesn’t neatly map onto the universalising ideologies of the Enlightenment, but rather draws upon a long tradition of reformist neo-Confucian thought based upon a naturalistic, contextual ‘heavenly principle’ (tianli 天理). ‘Song Confucians,’ Wang argues, ‘would find the way modern people link social change with a teleological view of time to be quite foreign: their criterion for evaluating change was not time, but rather an internal criterion—“the propensity of principle” (lishi 理事).’

His argument becomes really interesting when he argues that this internal Confucian political dialogue shaped the realities of the emergence of ‘modern’ Asian nation-states in ways which a Whiggish narrative of modernity cannot explain. How did it happen, he asks, that Tibet, Xinjiang, Dongbei and Inner Mongolia became part of ‘China’ when they do not share cultural and print-linguistic ties with the Han people? And how did it happen that some nations which have shared cultural and print-linguistic ties with the Han – Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Burma – did not join in the nation-building project of ‘China’? The standard explanations of how nations form, he argues, are not enough – nor are explanations which refer to colonial relationships within ‘China’, though those certainly existed.

Instead, he argues, in some ways echoing the intriguing cultural conservatism of Jiang Qing, the flexibility of ‘Chineseness’ which shaped its modern national experience was inherited directly from the morally-legitimating categories laid down by a political Confucian orthodoxy. Ethnically non-Chinese (Turkic, Mongolian, Manchu) claimants could and often did appropriate the moral-political Confucian resource of ‘Chineseness’ as a tool to maintain dynastic legitimacy. But that sword cut both ways: the ethnically-Han people they ruled could then appeal to their monarchs’ claims to ‘Chineseness’ in their appeals for social justice and equitable distribution of goods. This positive aspect of ‘Chineseness’ was supplemented by a negative, defensive idea of ‘China’ that emerged from the long Qing engagement with modernising colonial powers, and from the piecemeal but fully-conscious adoption of certain centralising facets of the nation-state by Qing reformers, precisely to prevent further fragmentation and colonial exploitation.

The picture that emerges from Wang Hui’s lengthy interrogation of the various cultural, political, legal and philosophical strands surrounding and penetrating a ‘modern China’ or a ‘modernising China’ is a subtle and complex one. The good professor uses his humane literary intellect to tease out the tangle of deadweight puppet strings that both hold up and hold back this ‘modern China’, and attempts to cut it loose from its false self-understandings. A ‘free’ China, for him, is emphatically not ‘free’ in a bourgeois capitalist sense, nor even ‘liberated’ in a Marxist sense. It’s fascinating to see an intellectual, reckoned a ‘leftist’ in Chinese discourse, defend certain non-teleological and anti-modern Confucian political ideas and understandings as necessary for China’s continued ‘modern’ reform and development. Dr. Wang himself is likely quite aware of the irony; the reason he eschews the term ‘left’ to describe himself, after all, is because he feels a terminology imported from a Western revolutionary context has very limited traction in a Chinese one.

China – and indeed, the non-Western world at large, as Pankaj Mishra might say – is a very interesting place at this moment in history on account of theorists like Wang Hui. Bright minds, that is, who aren’t afraid to take up the cultural and intellectual tools which some might deride as outdated, old-fashioned or backward, and use them to reconstruct paths which resist or run counter to the current neoliberal global order. Russia’s rediscovery of its own humane, personalistic, selectively-liberal and post-liberal philosophical tradition (Solovyov, Berdyaev and Il’in particularly) lies along this same trajectory. Dr. Wang’s brief but subtle interaction with the antecedents of that tradition shows that these two projects are needfully intertwined.

My own interest in China stems from the fact that an immensely long body of civilised tradition – a body which goes back, with few interruptions, for 3200 years – is brought into a constant, disruptive and disorienting contact with the most frantic, brutal and unvarnished forms of modernity. And unlike in other nations – like Japan or Korea – no serious attempt is made to paper over or downplay or explain away these violent juxtapositions. No soothing political noises are made to the effect that one can have a society grounded in Confucian values that is at the same time fully integrated into a value-demolishing global economy. Tradition has not yet been reduced to an ersatz of itself in the service of modern ideologies.

This state-of-affairs provides Chinese scholars of China from various intellectual strains – people like Wang Hui, Gan Yang, Zhang Xudong, Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang – a unique and uniquely-interesting set of vantage points. These vantage points will of course be valuable to subsequent Chinese policy-makers and intellectuals going forward. But in a way, scholars like Wang Hui speak also to a modern world where contact with tradition has already, to a significant extent, been lost. We in the West need to be startled out of some of our assumptions, about our own loss of historical perpective and agency within a cloud of universalistic developmental myth-making, and about how we’ve gotten to where we are (and whether we are better for it).