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).

11 May 2015

Be very, very careful about Patristic quotes…

… particularly if you don’t know whether or not they’re authentic.

The blog Byzantine, TX and the Acton Institute PowerBlog both posted, back in 2009 and 2010, respectively, a quote from S. John Chrysostom against public forms of charity, which sounds like it could have come out of a nineteenth-century Whiggish evangelical sermon or a Tea Party pamphlet. The quote’s authenticity was brought into question once by Richard Barrett at his blog Leitourgeia kai Qurbana, and also by Fr. John Sanidopolous at the excellent Mystagogy blog. Thus far, no one seems to have been able to trace a proper provenance for the quote back beyond a popular compilation of unsourced quotes by an Anglican vicar in Cambridge, Robert van de Weyer. But the quote still comes up quite regularly, particularly with links back to the Acton blog or Byzantine, TX on Google searches for S. John Chrysostom.

And the responses by these bloggers on having been corrected in a brotherly spirit have been somewhat… disappointing. The Acton blog has, to date, not even bothered to post so much as a caveat, and the poster basically told his commenters to do their own research. To his credit, the blogger at Byzantine, TX posted an edit saying the quote had been called into question, but he also complained multiple times that so much fuss shouldn’t be made over an ‘old post’, and several of the commenters to his blog basically took the position that ‘I don’t care whether or not S. John Chrysostom said it; it’s still right’. But, as Richard Barrett pointed out, obviously it does matter whether or not S. John Chrysostom said it, because it lends a heavy weight of Patristic authority to a point of view that looks like it might not, in fact, deserve it.

Again, as far as I can tell from what I have read so far in the Orthodox blogosphere, no one who has greater access to S. John’s work than I have has yet been able to find a direct attribution to one of his homilies or his other works, or even been able to tell where Robert van de Weyer found it. So, I must concur with the honourable Romulan Senator Vreenak on this.

05 May 2015

Four beginnings, or three?

I have to wonder if there is any good scholarship as yet devoted to bringing that great classical Chinese philosopher, Meng Ke 孟軻 (Mencius), into contact with modern Russian philosophy. I’m sure there is, and truth be told I haven’t had the willpower or the resources to really get digging for it yet. I wanted to offer here, though, a few loosely-organised thoughts comparing and contrasting Mencius’s theory of moral anthropology with that of Russian Christian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov – or rather, more specifically, the moral anthropology found in the Mencius with that found in The Justification of the Good – because the parallels I had noticed are incredibly interesting and offer a potentially deep window of overlap.

There is a lot I could write about Solovyov. His thinking, even in this one slim volume, is incredibly dense. But here it’s only his moral anthropology I’m concerned with – his understanding of human nature and how his ethical theory arises out of it. Solovyov’s moral philosophy begins with an exposition of the proclivities, grounded deeply within human nature, toward some end beyond the scope of natural human life.

His discourse on the ‘justification of the good’ begins with an assessment of the ‘primary data’, drawing on Darwin in particular, and discovers in human nature one fact which distinguishes it from all other forms of lower life: namely, the feeling or awareness of shame. Shame denotes a negative, alienating reaction to one’s own animal (in Solovyov’s telling, sexual) nature, one which cannot be accounted for by the brute evolutionary logic of self-preservation and transmission of one’s genome from one generation to the next. Shame directs human attention to an end outside of mortal existence, to the awareness that the human life was directed at some purpose outside of that life.

It excites and necessitates the accessory feelings of pity and reverence, and these Solovyov takes care to rank thus: shame regulates our moral interactions with our own ‘lower natures’; pity regulates our moral interactions with other human beings, those we recognise as our equals in likeness; and reverence regulates our moral interactions with our parents, and by extension all those superior and prior to us in age and wisdom. These ‘fundamental feelings… exhaust the sphere of man’s possible moral relations to that which is below him, that which is on a level with him, and that which is above him’, and all other virtues can be explained or examined in light of the proper development and orientation of these three basic moral feelings.

Solovyov carefully teases out his entire moral anthropology from these three threads. From them he fires broadsides both against utilitarianism and against the unreasonable psychological demands and shortcomings of the Kantian deontology to which his own philosophy owes so much. Utilitarianism falls short precisely in its confusion of ‘the good’ with pleasure, and in its need to derive moral principles solely from an account of human pleasure (no matter how refined). Kantianism, on the other hand, suffers in its divorce of an abstract, subjective form of the good from its fulfilment in human flourishing – this leads him to misunderstand the demands of the conscience and of moral feeling as foreign to actual moral decision-making. Though Solovyov might not expressly state his own ‘justification’ as in the virtue-ethical tradition, and though his thinking bears strongly the stamp of his German idealist influences throughout, his insistence upon a unity of means and ends, and of connecting lived experience with the project of ethical philosophy, do tend to place him somewhere within the virtue-ethical ‘stream’.

Solovyov’s emphasis on moral ‘feelings’ reminded me instantly of Mencius’s ‘four beginnings’. In the first part of the Gongsun Chou, Mencius says:
All men have a sense of compassion. As the ancient kings had such a sense, they had the compassionate system of government. Running such a government with such a sense, one would find it as easy to rule the world as to roll something on the palm of one’s hand. The reason why I say all men have a sense of compassion is that, even today, if one chances to see a little child about to fall into a well, one will be shocked, and moved to compass on, neither because he wants to make friends with the child’s parents, nor because he wants to earn praise from his neighbours and friends, nor because he hates to hear the cry of the child.

From this we can see that whoever has no sense of compassion is not human; whoever has no sense of shame is not human; whoever has no sense of modesty is not human; and whoever has no sense of right and wrong is not human. The sense of compassion is the beginning of benevolence; the sense of shame the beginning of righteousness; the sense of modesty the beginning of decorum; the sense of right and wrong the beginning of wisdom.

Man possesses these four beginnings just as he possesses four limbs. Anyone possessing these four and saying that he cannot do what is required of him is abasing himself. If he says that his ruler cannot do what is required of him, he is abasing his ruler. Let a man know how to develop fully all these beginnings he possesses, and it may be compared to the starting of a fire or the gushing out of a spring. If these are fully developed, he can protect the whole world; if not, he will not be able even to serve his parents.

Like Solovyov, Mencius recognises that human beings have the distinction of moral feelings to separate them from animals. And Mencius’s account of the ‘four beginnings’ bear an uncanny resemblance to Solovyov’s basic moral feelings. Mencius’s ‘sense of shame’ (xiu’e zhi xin 羞惡之心) and Solovyov’s are identical. His ‘sense of compassion’ (ceyin zhi xin 惻隱之心) is directly analogous to Solovyov’s moral feeling of ‘pity’. And his ‘sense of modesty’ (cirang zhi xin 辭讓之心) is somewhat culturally-coded into a Chinese mentality, deferring honours and rewards out of a knowledge of one’s place in the social fabric, but there’s enough of an analogy within that cultural coding to be drawn to Solovyov’s feeling of ‘reverence’ to be, at the very least, interesting.

Even more interesting: Mencius explains all other virtues, all other forms of morally-correct behavior from the very basis of ‘serving one’s parents’ to governing ‘all under heaven’, in terms of cultivating these ‘four beginnings’ into the virtues of benevolence (ren 仁), righteousness (yi 義), decorum (li 禮) and wisdom (zhi 智). Solovyov is likewise insistent both on the exhaustiveness of the possible scope of development of his three moral feelings to the point of moral perfection (involving the perfection of the world), and on the empirical awareness of human imperfection.

The parallels are not perfect, but they are indeed close enough to lead one to wonder if Solovyov took an inspiration from Mencius comparable to that Aquinas took from Aristotle. (That is unlikely except in an indirect fashion, on account of his somewhat unfavourable stated attitudes toward Chinese culture and civilisation.) Solovyov argues extensively for his three ‘beginnings’ in a way Mencius feels compelled to do only through his famous child-at-the-well parable, but otherwise they begin constructing their moral anthropologies in strikingly similar ways.

The one difference – the key difference – appears to lie in the Christian understanding of the Fall of Man, to which Solovyov subscribes fully. Solovyov is painfully aware of the vast gulf fixed between the human need for moral perfection, and the human reality of moral imperfection; he argues that this gulf can be crossed only by and through the God-man. On empirical grounds, he doubts precisely the attainability of human wisdom on its own terms, yet he knows any such wisdom has to make reference to all three natural moral feelings.

Mencius, as is to be expected, places a distinctly pre-Christian trust in the human wisdom of past ages and former kings (xianwang 先王), and does not necessarily posit such a gulf between Heaven and human beings. This difference is what underlies Mencius’s adoption of a fourth ‘beginning’ of the knowledge of right and wrong. For Solovyov this knowledge cannot be anything but problematic outside its religious context, and outside the content of the intrusion of the God-man into history. This is a discussion I haven’t the space to get into here, and which I have addressed in part elsewhere; suffice it to say, the question of human nature, the Fall and the relation between Heaven and Earth is still a thorny theological and cosmological question which continues to plague Confucian-Christian dialogues.

But the parallels between Solovyov’s thinking and Mencius’s, as might be expected when they start from fairly similar understandings of human nature, transcend moral anthropology even to the level of political philosophy and economics. Mencius’s main theme when talking to kings, and his primary concern about the function of government, is precisely benevolence, which as shown above proceeds from the ‘beginning’ of compassion. Likewise, Solovyov refers explicitly to the state as ‘collectively organised pity’, making reference to Vladimir II Monomakh’s compassionate defence of the Russian peasantry from the Kumans and Dante Alighieri’s impassioned call for a monarch in Italy.

Both Mencius and Solovyov, each almost uniquely for their times, likewise placed a particular emphasis on humane care for, preservation and husbandry of the natural world. Mencius placed his emphasis on timely harvests and wood-cuttings, responsible use of fisheries and seasonal breeding of livestock, to ensure that even the weakest and most vulnerable members of society – the elderly and young children – had enough to eat and wear. Solovyov likewise stressed the moral treatment of natural resources, and he even echoes Mencius’s belief that such moral treatment would result in plenty:
Decisive check must be put on the treatment of the earth as a lifeless instrument of rapacious exploitation… if land is treated in the moral way and looked after like a being whom one loves, the minimum amount of land sufficient for each person may become so small that there will be enough for those who have not got any, without doing injustice to those who have.
Mencius and Solovyov furthermore share a concern for a distribution of goods which allows for sufficient living across all groups, with a specific concern for those most vulnerable and subject to disadvantage. They each reject full egalitarianism; Solovyov’s critique of contemporary socialism doesn’t quite exactly mirror Mencius’s lengthy lambasting of Xu Xing, as the issues concerned are somewhat different. But more importantly, both share a deep repugnance for the capitalistic mentality whose first concern is profit. (Mencius goes so far as to blame monopolistic profit-seekers – ‘mean fellows’ 賤丈夫 – for the grim necessity of taxing commerce in markets.) Though the two thinkers use different terms and address different audiences – Mencius being primarily concerned with the behaviour of rulers, and Solovyov more with that of the average reader – both show deep scepticism regarding false universals, and evince political understandings which we would now recognise as communitarian, and place emphasis on the right treatment of those physically and relationally closest to us as being the appropriate and proper points of moral contact.

There is absolutely a far deeper analysis that can be made regarding the points of contact and the points of divergence between these the ancient Chinese and the modern Russian philosopher, but I did want to point out here several of the similarities.

29 April 2015

Police action and nonviolence

Cross-posted from The Lanchester Review:

Though it should have been obvious with Ferguson, Baltimore has now proven that we – even and especially the liberal whites of the East Coast – ignore the recent spate of not exclusively but predominantly black deaths at the hands of policemen in the United States at our own peril. We have an urgent need to restore a language of common interest and common good with the people who are even now protesting – some peacefully, some less so – in the streets of Baltimore. This need cannot, and will not, be encompassed by a simple unilateral demand for one side to lay down its arms and submit. As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in his piece for The Atlantic: ‘When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.’ He goes on to ask, rhetorically, where the calls for restraint were when the actual instances of police brutality were happening.

Coates doesn’t quote Chesterton, but indeed here he might well have been able to. ‘They preach,’ Chesterton wrote, ‘that if you see a man flogging a woman to death you must not hit him. I would much sooner let a leper come near a little boy than a man who preached such a thing.’ What so galled Chesterton about the preachers of nonviolence of his day, was precisely that their hypocritical moralising served as cover for an utter lack of sympathy for the weak when they are bullied by the strong. That is precisely what galls Coates here and now about the preachers of nonviolence in Baltimore. As the best representatives of the pacifist tradition will tell you, though – and this includes disciples of Chesterton such as Mohandas Gandhi – it isn’t enough simply to insist on peace as a negative ideal, let alone a self-serving one. ‘Violence is any day preferable to impotence,’ wrote the Mahatma. And here Gandhi was speaking in concert with the Church Fathers and the sainted Greek authors of the Philokalia, who interpret anger as a dog capable equally of biting wolves and sheep. The dog needs to be trained upon vice and wickedness, and must not be led to attack the weak, the innocent and the good – ‘be angry and not sin’; or as S. Isaiah the Solitary put it, ‘without anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy.’

Where Coates, Chesterton, Gandhi and the Church Fathers all tend to agree, is that anger, the root of violence, must be directed against injustice; and that a pacifism that ignores the weak, that is deaf to the demands of justice, is in actuality not opposed to violence but is actually a form of impotence, a moral sloth. It is frankly impossible to speak intelligibly about violence or the evils thereof, in Baltimore or elsewhere, without first having and using the grammar of justice. It is impossible to read the writings of Chesterton, Gandhi or the Church Fathers as atomised individual practice; in fact, they make no sense if they do not apply equally to individuals and to societies.

But what has all this theorising to do with Baltimore?

Simply put, the state’s right purpose is justice. The ruler is the minister of God for good, and a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil – so says S. Paul. It is the job of the Christian to uphold the law and to support the state in its capacity, as the great Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov put it, as ‘collectively organised pity’. But what do we do when this ‘collectively organised pity’ becomes indolent, indifferent to suffering, and indeed pitiless to the weak, as here and now, in Baltimore? What do we do when another Freddie Gray dies? What do we do when the agents of the state overstep or wilfully ignore their right purpose?

As Coates, Chesterton, Gandhi and the Church Fathers would have it, anger is not only an understandable reaction when one encounters a wrong – it is a necessary one. But revolutionary violence and the untutored anger it enshrines always has been, and is still, a feral dog which bites wolves and sheep alike. The right reaction to events like those in Baltimore falls somewhere in between. Those who preach nonviolence selectively at the powerless fall directly under Chesterton’s condemnation, and rightly so. Freddie Gray is dead, like a dozen other black men throughout the country, with no sense or reason behind his death. This must be answered somehow, and will be. But likewise, those who use acts of injustice to undermine the authority of the state and indulge anarchistic rebellion against even the right use of authority are clearly also wrong. There can be no excuse for rioting, arson and banditry, because even if those are directed against the powerful, the weak will still be made to suffer for it. The residents of Baltimore themselves, in fact, are indeed struggling to channel their anger into more spiritually-useful directions, peaceably, and against the state’s injustice rather than against the state itself. But they appear to be doing so not because of the hypocritical pacifistic moralising being levelled at them, but rather in spite of it.

Pretty much every Christian tradition – Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant – has historically emphasised that, as a rule, we have to obey our secular civil governments. But no Christian tradition worthy of the name will say that a blind eye must be turned to injustices when we see them, and especially not those injustices in which we ourselves are complicit. Even those who are angry at the injustices they see, and allow their anger to escape untamed are, in fact, better off than those who have grown passive and indolent, and allowed their anger to be choked off at its root by impotence.

24 April 2015

The Medz Yeghern, 100 years on

On the 24th of April 1915, the Turkish government rounded up around 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople, and ordered them to be taken to holding camps in Syria and in the Turkish interior. This action left the Armenian community leaderless, confused and incapable of resistance to the heinous, hideous enormities that were being planned against it by the Young Turks leadership, as its answer to the ‘Armenian question’. These actions included robbery, torture, rape, mass killings and death marches into the Syrian Desert; the death toll amongst the Armenian community at the hands of the Ottomans was as high as 1.5 million. In addition, hundreds of thousands of other ethnic Christians – Assyrians and Greeks living under Ottoman rule – likewise perished at the Ottomans’ hands. This much is the history, and it is very well-documented. The Armenian Genocide – and it very much is a genocide, as Pope Francis made very clear recently and as His Beatitude Patriarch Kirill has held for a long time – was a definitive event in Central Asian history, if not world history. Other genocides in history, including the Holocaust of the Jews, were made possible only by reference to the Great Crime against the Armenian people.

It is noteworthy that the Great Crime happened under the watch of a ‘modernising’ government, which espoused the nationalist and liberal ideology which characterised the rising bourgeois class of 19th century Europe. The Armenian genocide was of an entirely new class of crime, but it was one which was made possible by an entire preceding century of colonial warfare, which saw, among other things, the ignominious invention of the concentration camp by the British Empire in South Africa. World War I was ultimately a war between the rival empires of Germany and Britain, and the logic which led to the Ottoman Empire’s attempted extermination of the Armenian people was an imperialist logic.

And the Armenian genocide cannot be considered in isolation from the First World War, nor from the rest of 20th century European history generally. Though Turkish Muslims figure prominently among the guilty, the Great Crime cannot be written off as a sin unique to the Islamic world. The crime was undertaken by Ottoman Turks, but it was undertaken primarily by Westernising Ottoman Turks – the Committee of Union and Progress – who espoused first free-market and then German national-liberal economics, who espoused the positivism of Auguste Comte, who sought to politically reform Ottoman Sunni Islam through itjihad, who sought access to European institutions, and who committed themselves to same legitimating ideological force of nationalism that defined the European order after 1848.

Though many Armenians themselves participated in the earliest efforts of the Committee, it was precisely out of such nationalist concerns that Armenians came to be seen as potential traitors to Russia. Also, it was precisely out of this positivist ideology of the Young Turks that Armenian life came to be considered expendable – a necessary sacrifice to Turkey’s scientifically-guided material and social evolution. Islam, insofar as Islam was a cultural marker of Turkish national awareness, is also responsible, but its doctrines are not implicated nearly to the same degree.

In addition, the genocide was committed with the knowing, willful complicity, and in some cases active cooperation, of their German and Austrian allies. It is imperative to hold modern governments responsible for recognising and atoning for the genocide, including the modern governments of Turkey, Germany and Austria, because these modern European nations were built upon the same ideologies and historical forces which ground so many Armenians into the desert sands. There is Armenian blood in the foundations of the Turkish state, and of the European supra-state order insofar as that order includes, prefigures and legitimates the Turkish state as it was formed from the ashes of the Ottoman one.

Turkey denies that what happened was genocide, precisely because it fears its own foundations upon a wholly-secular nationalist ideology are too brittle to hold up under such critique. Turkish national pride would not then, fearing Armenian disloyalty, allow them to live; Turkish national pride will not now, fearing the justice of Armenian claims, permit them to be spoken of. But nations cannot be built or sustain themselves upon lies in this way. Either Turkey will admit the truth of the historical crimes on which she was built and shift to a sounder foundation, or she will fracture and splinter. As the fundamental antinomies in a secular order founded upon ethno-religious genocide become ever clearer, either Turkey will crack down further upon free expression, or the truth will come to light. Though Europe’s guilt – including Germany’s and Austria’s and even Britain’s – is clearly lesser than Turkey’s, her problem is nonetheless far thornier in some ways. How does one address having been a willing accomplice in such a crime? How does one address having been an instigator? How does one address being a bystander, but one which perpetuates the lies and the distorted anthropology through which the crimes were allowed to happen?

I get a strange and nagging feeling that Solzhenitsyn’s storytelling in particular would be of use in this question. His writing usually carries with it the theme which he himself expressed pithily in 1974: ‘[Violence] does not always, not necessarily, openly throttle the throat, more often it demands from its subjects only an oath of allegiance to falsehood, only complicity in falsehood.’ Neither Europe nor the United States should take this as an opportunity to beat Turkey over the head with its moral superiority and smug self-satisfaction, wrapping itself in the hypocritical smokescreen of ‘human rights’. The Armenian genocide, as the template of genocide from which all others since it have drawn, needs to be treated with greater depth; doing anything less would be complicity in the same falsehoods which allowed it to arise.

EDIT: President Obama has elected not to recognise the Armenian Genocide at its centennial commemoration. Jack Quirk sums up my attitude toward this sheer and wilful act of cowardice perfectly.
Turkey’s denial of the genocidal nature of the Ottoman actions against the Armenians is simply absurd. The decision of the American administration to acquiesce to the absurdity is craven. Suppression of truth cannot be justified in terms of pragmatism. Whatever short term inconveniences may attend angering the Turkish government by stating a simple fact, the United States, in the long term, doesn’t need an ally that refuses to face reality.

22 April 2015

Pointless video post - ‘Stonebreaker’ by Corrosion of Conformity

Corrosion of Conformity with some really solid, bluesy, whisky-drenched Orange Goblin worship here. Or is that the other way around? CoC has been doing the whole biker stoner-rock thing a trifle longer than Goblin have, after all. But the entire In the Arms of God album is just… immense. No other real way to put it. They have had a lot of practice blending thrash, doom and Southern rock in just the right proportions to have the maximum explosive potential, never getting stuck in any rut but always driving relentlessly, belligerently forward. I’ve been listening to some of their older, more politically-charged material as well; they’ve certainly matured musically since the age of Blind, but they’re no less angry and socially-conscious, it seems, if ‘Dirty Hands Empty Pockets / Already Gone’ is any indication. Brilliant stuff. Enjoy!

15 April 2015

Pan, Xu and the perpendicular politics of China

A highly-important study was recently released earlier this week by SSRN, by Jennifer Pan and Xu Yiqing of Harvard University and MIT, respectively. This study is the first attempt to gauge the ideological spectrum of Chinese society, and the results are… interesting, to say the least. They shouldn’t come as any surprise, though, to people who have been studying Chinese society carefully since the mid-1990’s. The study is based on the zuobiao.me survey, a Political Compass-style quiz based on the Chinese context. Of course, there are some massive and, as the authors of the study freely admit probably insurmountable, external-validity problems when relying on a self-reporting survey; random sampling is all but impossible in a Chinese political context. But the data themselves are still immensely valuable. The key finding that Pan and Xu have identified is that the Chinese political spectrum is largely one-dimensional – but in a way which runs exactly perpendicular to the political spectrum in the Anglo-American West.

As Pan and Xu put it:
Individuals who are politically conservative, who emphasize the supremacy of the state and nationalism, are also likely to be economically conservative, supporting a return to socialism and state-control of the economy, and culturally conservative, supporting traditional, Confucian values. In contrast, political liberals, supportive of constitutional democracy and individual liberty, are also likely to be economic liberals who support market-oriented reform and social liberals who support modern science and values such as sexual freedom.
Western politics is no stranger to the idea of the sexually-libertine, secularist free-market libertarian, so the Chinese ‘right’ is not something which will take many in the West by surprise. But the idea of a socialism which is also socially-conservative (in spite of the efforts of yours truly), might still take a number of Anglophone readers by surprise.

Part of the reason China is so fascinating to me is precisely because it is in such a good position to examine, explore and critique the antinomies of Western political thought. Ideology is something foreign to Chinese society generally, but as the society has already developed several antinomies and pathologies distinctive to itself, ideology has begun to emerge on a completely different set of assumptions than it has in the West.

It has developed in accordance with a ‘depoliticised politics’ of the sort critiqued by Wang Hui in The End of the Revolution, and the current ideological debates can be thought of as two differing reactions against the state-driven authoritarian pragmatism of current official circles. (What so many outside observers still get so wrong about the Chinese government is that they call it fascist, communist, or state-capitalist when in fact the reality is much more banal. The Maoists are gone. The Chinese government consists of the technocratic, antidemocratic disciples of Dewey and James.) Ideology in such a context derives its force from the way in which a people who have long been disconnected from their own public sphere need to negotiate this depersonalised and depoliticised state, and in which they need to legitimate, compare and contrast their own experiences to those they find on the outside.

The two political ‘sides’ run perpendicular to Western politics. Whereas Western politics are divided between a liberal left and a conservative right, Chinese politics are divided between a liberal right and a conservative left. In America we are broadly used to seeing leftists as urban, upper middle-class, college-educated coastal cosmopolitans, and rightists as rural, working-class, relatively uneducated, agricultural interior parochialists. The exact inverse holds true in China. Leftists in China tend to be rural, working-class, agricultural and from the interior. The coastal cosmopolitans, on the other hand, hold views similar to American libertarians.

On one level, this should not be surprising. Western politics taken as a whole, is the norm which the Chinese ‘right’ by and large embraces, and against which the Chinese ‘left’ militates. It is only natural and understandable that the Chinese ‘left’, with its critique of the modern West and its scepticism about the applicability of Western political categories to a Chinese context, should draw upon traditional resources, shore up traditional structures of authority, uphold the nation-state as a bulwark against unwanted foreign influences and hold culturally-conservative positions. But on the other hand, it is possible – and indeed necessary! – to analyse this entire construction with a critical eye, as Wang Hui does. Adopting nationalism as a medicine against liberalism is, as the Chinese say, to tear down one wall to build up another (拆東墻補西墻). The modern Chinese nation-state is unfortunately always already the instrument of a secular understanding of social anthropology and all the political realities associated with it.

I don’t say this unsympathetically. I’ve taken the zuobiao.me test before, and came off as an ‘authoritarian conservative welfarist’: (-0.4, -0.8, -1.0). I’m rather an oddball in the West with my blend of economically-leftist, culturally-conservative politics. But, given my Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan fandom and appreciation for political Confucians like Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang, I fairly solidly identify with the culturally-traditionalist Chinese Left, although my localist, religious qualms about concentrated state power render me a rather mild authoritarian by Chinese standards. But at some level, it’s precisely these localist and religious qualms that I feel the Chinese Left and the political Confucians will have to adopt as they run up against the hard limits of their nation-state.

Still, the question of Chinese politics is an immensely interesting one. There’s now a site to watch – Chublic Opinion – which will be exploring some of the implications of the raw dataset from zuobiao.me, as well as analysing the paper by Pan and Xu later this week. It’s run by someone who appears to be my political opposite, but I do highly encourage my gentle readers to give it a look! It’s sure to be very interesting. Also, I imagine the Sinica Podcast will be running a discussion on this topic soon, so stay tuned for that as well!