Saturday, March 05, 2016

Flora Sapio on Taisu Zhang, "China’s Coming Ideological Wars"

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

Americans (and I use the term quite broadly) have cultivated a somewhat sophisticated love-hate relationship with ideology. Americans tend to use it as a pejorative, as a system of thinking about things that may be artificial, or better put, brittle. It is rarely a match for the more profound normative systems offered by natural law, or religion, or those ancient systems of ethics and morals that produce our laws, norms, social and economic structures. These are natural--in their the scientific or religious sense--and thus more robust than "mere" ideology, now understood as a self conscious construct. They are not constructs of the devious mind seeking to build systems the way Dr. Frankenstein built his monster.  In a sense, there is an undercurrent in thinking about ideology that would see in it an exercise in an inversion of failure--ideology produces facts from truth.

There is a little of that in much American engagement with (mere) ideology. And that ideological substructure (if I am permitted a little word play here) is all too apparent when Americans tend to view the normative structures of Chinese societal or political organization. The cultivation of this perspective is important and may be deeply culturally embedded, especially within our intellectual classes. But it does serve to provide a necessary orientation when Americans engage in the project of comparison, generally, but especially of assessment, of systems that are quite formally distinct. To consider an ideology--say Chinese ideology--is to consider the instrumental political platforms of factions playing out against a broader, and implicitly more legitimate, normative system which is either ignored, resisted or masked by the ideological games of elites, whose legitimacy is weakened thereby. 

It is with this in mind that Flora Sapio, Jean Mittelstaedt, Shaoming Zhou, and I thought it would be useful to consider these issues through the lens of a recently published essay that nicely raises some of these themes. Taisu Zhang, "China’s Coming Ideological Wars: In the reform era, economic growth reigned supreme. But now, a revival of competing beliefs has polarized Chinese society," Foreign Policy March 1, 2016.

Our thoughts may be accessed here:

Part I: Flora Sapio
Part II: Jean Christopher Mittelstaedt
Part III: Larry Catá Backer
Part IV: Shaoming Zhou

This post includes Flora Sapio's thoughts, which follow.

Flora Sapio on  Taisu Zhang, "China’s Coming Ideological Wars: In the reform era, economic growth reigned supreme. But now, a revival of competing beliefs has polarized Chinese society,"
Science is made by moving gradual challenges to old paradigms, and slowly constructing new paradigms. I enjoyed reading Professor Zhang Taisu's article, because the article contributes to the collective enterprise of constructing a new paradigm for China studies. The article does so by challenging part of the conventional wisdom about the role ideology plays in China, and putting forward a new thesis that explains why ideology is witnessing a resurgence.

The conventional wisdom Professor Zhang challenges is what I call the “moral void thesis”. According to the moral void thesis, Marxism-Leninism is notoriously skeptical to moral values, because it sees values as part of a superstructure created to justify the existence of economic and social inequality. China's adoption of Marxism-Leninism caused the rejection of existing value systems, as these were seen as contributing to inequality, and led to the adoption of a new ideology. The difficult events that took place from the 1950s to the late 1970s and 1980s however caused a deep disillusionment with Marxism-Leninism, and culminated in a moral crisis. As a result, China's leaders and its people abandoned ideology, and embraced pragmatism. The “moral void” thesis, in all its forms and variants, is widely shared within the field because it offers a powerful and simple explanation of the very complex dynamics at work in China's political, economic, and social system.

Against this thesis, Professor Zhang argues that a process of re-ideologization is under way. The growing importance of ideology is rooted in anti-Western nationalism. Anti-Western nationalism is an intellectual “backlash against [the consensus]”, that “China should, in a word, Westernize”. In the 1990s and 2000s, such a consensus was widely held by “most Chinese intellectuals, but also most of business leaders, and even come officials”. Anti-Western nationalism caused a convergence of New Leftism, Neo-Confucianism, as well as the resurgence of a political rhetoric closely reminiscent of Maoism, and indebted to Chinese classical philosophy. These different strands of thought are coalescing to produce a new variant of a leftist ideology, which may not be “more reliable than liberal ones”. For ease of reading, I will refer to this argument as the 're-ideologization argument'.

Professor Zhang's article reaches the normative conclusion that, in the end, any variant of a liberal ideology would be more reliable than any variant of a leftist ideology. Its factual conclusion is that “the Western notion that Chinese politics are simply rooted in pragmatism will soon die out.”

My comment to Professor Zhang's article does not engage the article's normative conclusion. Neither does it challenge the factual premises on which Professor Zhang's factual conclusion is based. Rather, I will illustrate three possible responses to the argument, and explain the reason why none of them is really viable.

My illustration of these responses is not to be read as implying that I endorse, or do not endorse, any of them. In keeping the article's normative conclusion distinct from its factual conclusion I am agreeing with the position that a statement about how facts are in the world does not necessarily have to imply a judgment about values, or any other kind of normative judgment. Of course, it may be said that facts are interpretive. If, today, the sky outside of my window is blue, then the sky is blue. This fact could be interpreted as meaning many things, and each one of these possible interpretations may provide the starting point for a different value judgment. Any of these value judgments could be challenged by using facts, and interpretations, of a contrary sign. A counter-argument would invoke a different set of facts and interpretation of a yet contrary sign, in a spiraling crescendo of intellectual antagonism, that the walls of China studies' scientific paradigm could only barely contain.

A first possible response to the re-ideologization argument would call for a much deeper analysis of Marxism-Leninism, because a more careful analysis would prove how Marxism-Leninism always had a moral philosophy of its own. If Marxism-Leninism has a moral philosophy of its own, then the “moral void” thesis should not have been advanced in the first place.

Performing a textual analysis of the works of Marx and Lenin to understand what values underpin classical Marxism-Leninism does not mean that the researcher is a Marxist-Leninist, that she believes in Marxism-Leninism, or advocates Socialism. A body of thought that inspired revolutions, the European resistance against Nazism, or simply attempts to strengthen the political, social and economic rights of persons in the most diverse countries, perhaps should not be dismissed as the daydreaming of Karl Marx and the young Friedrich Engels. Perhaps, this body of thought should be considered a political philosophy worthy of a serious academic analysis by the China field too. Yet, any deep engagement of Marxism-Leninism could potentially produce misunderstandings and equivocations of this and similar kinds. These misunderstandings and equivocations would make a relaxed discussion among proponents of different positions more difficult, if not impossible.

A second possible response would examine each one of the implications of the moral void thesis, and deny that ideology ever died. Pragmatism, it could be argued, is indeed an ideology. [But...what is an ideology?] This response would hold that the pursuit of economic opportunities and material well-being is morally neutral. Wealth, however, acquires its true meaning only if it is observed in light of those higher moral values that can give meaning to human life and human action. The blind pursuit of material wealth, detached from the cultivation of moral values, can leave a person prey of a moral void. The response would go further, and hold that Marxism-Leninism was either unable to provide any moral values or, if it could provide some moral values, then those values could not justify the pursuit of material well-being. At this point, opinions on where the right set of values should be searched for would diverge towards well-known, predictible directions.

Some could argue that The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, with its ethics of individualism, thrift and hard work, and its views of material wealth as a sign of divine benevolence, could be the right inspiration to those who are searching for the right set of values. Others would instead search for those moral values in China's rich philosophical tradition. Yet others would deny the importance of all moral values and all metaphysics. This response, too, would make any discussion of China's politics and ideology impossible, if proponents of such different value systems refused to agree on a set of common premises. Reaching such an agreement can be exceptionally difficult: sometimes, the value-system that gives meaning to one's existence admits of no compromise.

A third possible response would point out each one of the flaws and the short-comings of Western democratic systems, comparing and contrasting them with some version of “authoritarianism”. This response would have the obvious flaw of grouping a variety of political systems and political cultures under the label of “Western”. The “West” is not synonymous with the United States and the United Kingdom, and authoritarianism is not synonymous with China.

Each one of these strategies would have the advantage of drawing a broad support, and perhaps provoke an equally broad opposition among the public. Such an effect could attract much attention towards the person who advanced any of these theses. But, there is an additional effect each one of these strategies would produce, an effect eventually much more enduring than the fifteen minutes of fame everyone, the Author of this comment included, will sooner or later enjoy. Each one of these responses woud contribute to increasing the polarization between 'us' and 'them', 'friend' and 'enemy', 'East' and 'West', throwing a little drop of oil over the flames of an increasingly volatile international scenario.

This fact alone can raise a host of ethical questions about research, the role of researchers, and the effects of public debate. But, this is not the site where any answer to those questions should be attempted.

I will conclude this comment by saying that speech can be a right, or it can be a privilege. The question of what speech is is debated. A privilege, however, is not a right. A privilege is not something one has by the fact one is alive, and a human person. A privilege is something exclusive, that society confers upon the speaker, provided the speaker has done something to prove she deserves to enjoy that privilege. The Athenians believed that all persons were born into a natural state of ignorance, and that a person needed to receive formal education in the ways of the Athenians before she could join deliberations taking place in the Agora. An ordinary person who lacked those skills, but also those who were not born in Athens, did not enjoy the privilege of speech, and could not take an active part to deliberations on what was best for the Athenians.

We no longer live in old Athens. We never lived in old Athens. Today, limitations to what an acceptable discourse is only exist in the minds of a few die-hard Foucauldians and Gauloises-smoking, postmodernist European intellectuals. But, to those who are not based in the United States, reading the tea leaves of the American debate about China can at times be difficult.

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