22 September 2015

Sam Crane and the ‘village people’

… No, I don’t mean those Village People, macho man. If there is one ideal type for which Confucius and his follower Mencius reserve their most unsparing and scathing commentary, it is that of the xiangyuan 鄉原, which translates loosely to ‘village worthy’, or as Legge puts it in his rather more prolix fashion, ‘good, careful people of the villages’. Mencius says of them (in the Legge translation):
They are those who say, “Why are they so magniloquent? Their words have not respect to their actions and their actions have not respect to their words, but they say, ‘The ancients! The ancients!’ Why do they act so peculiarly, and are so cold and distant? Born in this age, we should be of this age, to be good is all that is needed.” Eunuch-like, flattering their generation – such are your good careful men of the villages…

If you would blame them, you find nothing to allege. If you would criticise them, you have nothing to criticise. They agree with the current customs. They consent with an impure age. Their principles have a semblance of right-heartedness and truth. Their conduct has a semblance of disinterestedness and purity. All men are pleased with them, and they think themselves right, so that it is impossible to proceed with them to the principles of Yao and Shun. On this account they are called “thieves of virtue”.


Dr. Sam Crane’s working paper, which he seems to be revisiting, comes very, very close to ‘thieving virtue’ in a sense that Mencius would have deplored. Once again, in it, one sees a certain degree of worry over Confucianism’s irrelevance in modern American life. ‘Confucianism is not catching on the United States,’ reads the very first sentence. This is a concern that I tend to share, if only on account of the fact that Americans need to expand their philosophical horizons to encompass something deeper than the thin but all-permeating cultural demands and expectations of personal self-gratification, self-serving ‘rights’ paradigms and consequentialism. Americans desperately need to let go of their lusts for wealth and war and material comfort, and Confucianism was (at least my own) first step into a much broader philosophical world, even though I didn’t ultimately stay there. So I do have some personal stake in this project.

It seems, to his credit, that some of these issues are not lost on Dr. Crane. The United States, as ‘the global hegemon, the core of the world-economy and the frontrunner in military might… engendered, in the minds of many of its citizens, a certain cultural and ideological self-satisfaction … an “arrogance of power” narrowed the national focus’. But that is exactly what makes the sequel so frustrating. None of this cultural or ideological self-satisfaction, none of this arrogance of power, none of this narrow national focus in American life goes questioned further, let alone challenged, in the entire course of this paper. Globalism is praised as bringing ideas into contact with each other, and as bringing about a heightened consciousness of China as a geopolitical competitor and trading partner, but the centrality and the privileged hegemonic position of American political and economic ideologies are never questioned, only assumed.

The crux and conclusion of the essay is precisely the single biggest intellectual complaint I have had against Dr. Crane from the very beginning, and that is that he is not interested in bringing Confucian voices into interlocution with American liberalism, but rather making Confucianism synonymous with and supportive of American liberal values, practice and zeitgeist. He champions the Kantian democrat Mou Zongsan, the man who denied the possibility of a distinctively-Confucian metaphysics, and rejects the comprehensive and radical Confucian Jiang Qing. He wants to strip Confucianism of its entire critique of institutions and politics, seeing in such a predilection for ‘centralized political power and authoritarian pre-modern social practices’ which might make it uncomfortable to sheltered American ears. The political aspect of Confucian thinking must be cut out and thrown away, to leave space for an entirely individualised understanding of Confucian role-ethics, which in the end is a self-defeating proposition. A communitarian question presents itself: how does one even get as far as understanding social roles and responsibilities in such a context? If all individuals are self-defining, infinitely malleable, and not answerable to authorities outside themselves, how can we even say they are interdependent? In short, Confucianism, in order to render itself agreeable to American audiences and their sensibilities, must cut off its own balls. ‘Eunuch-like, flattering their own generation – such are your good careful men of the villages.’

Precisely those loci of ideas (including political and institutional ideas) where a Confucian interlocution might have the most positive impact: these are the ideas and subjects Dr. Crane would prefer Confucians not to touch. Confucians must be made to ‘agree with the current customs’ and ‘consent with an impure age’. ‘Philosophies and religions’, he argues, ‘must flow with the political-economic tide’: a tide which is ‘inexorable’, a tide which is globalist, capitalist and atomising. Even though a Mouist-Confucian concept of an interdependent self might be allowable, in Dr. Crane’s view, if it pays sufficient tribute to a libertarian understanding of government. Dr. Crane inveighs against any kind of Confucian political commitment in typically vulgar right-libertarian terms, repeatedly invoking permutations of a Rothbardian language of ‘coercion’ and ‘force’ to polemicise against Jiang’s constitutional proposals. Anything which questions the political ‘presumptions of personal independence and autonomy’ is to be thrown out a priori for its ‘unsuitability’. ‘Born in this age, we should be of this age.’

And this is ironic. Dr. Crane likes to use the language of fate when describing globalism. But we are seeing, worldwide – not only in the BRICS countries and the Third World, but in Western Europe as well – a growing grassroots resistance to the demands of capitalist globalism, both on the political left and on the political right. In Eastern and Southern Europe, in Latin America, in Africa and in Asia, there is a growing dissatisfaction with: the unfairness of the global economy; the growing gap between a transnational, jet-setting, obscenely-wealthy elite and an increasingly-uprooted global poor; the realities of climate change; the immense human failures and tragic devastations of NATO-led foreign policy. All of it bespeaks a deep crisis in the very institutions which Dr. Crane refuses to allow Confucianism to examine in-depth. Jiang Qing’s deep institutional dismantling of both Chinese and global modernity, motivated as it is by concerns for the world’s ecology as well as concerns of economic fairness, may in fact have far more intellectual firepower behind it for the moral needs of our age, than the eunuch-like flattery of a faux-Confucian ‘village-people’ ideology which serves as a handmaiden to Western politics.


  1. Just saw this. Thanks for reading the paper. We obviously disagree. I would resist the characterization here that I am an apologist for all of the ills of global capitalism. My project is a good deal narrower than that. So, I would challenge you: please demonstrate, empirically (as opposed to an idealistic assertion of what you might want the US and/or the world to be), how Confucianism is making any sort of meaningful inroads into American culture? If it is not, how exactly would you propose (again, beyond simple polemics against a straw-man Crane you have created here) that Confucian ideas take hold in the US? My own sense is that "culture" is meaningless if it is not rooted in material social and economic conditions (yes, I am myself intellectually rooted in Marxism). Thus, there can be no "Confucian culture" without some sort of associated Confucian economic and social practices. And I surely do not see such things happening in the US now. America is, regardless of whether I like it or not, a liberal society. If Confucianism is going to gain meaning for Americans, it must do so within the context of that liberal society because by itself Confucianism is incapable of transforming the social and economic foundations of that liberal society.

  2. Dear Dr. Crane,

    Thank you for reading my blog, and thank you for the pushback. This clearly isn't my best writing; my apologies for the polemical and straw-mannish tenor of it.

    I'd like to reiterate my appreciation that you clearly have some sense of the problems that you'd like to see Confucianism begin to solve (attachments to wealth and war and material comfort), so it's clear that you're not one of the 'village people' Mencius inveighs against.

    But what continues to frustrate me is that you're not amenable to any deep, psycho-social critique of the structures and institutions that allow for and encourage those same attachments. And, as evinced here, I have strong allergic reactions to world-historical determinism, whether in its Marxist form or in its Fukuyamaist form. There have been too many reversals, collapses and world-historical game-changing events throughout history for me to believe that American-style liberal democracy is fated to conquer all before it.

    I'm convinced that if a project like Jiang's is to get off the ground, it has to involve both the macro-level political structure and the micro-level one. To use your terms, it has to be both 'top-down' and 'bottom-up', and frankly, his current strategy of intentional living in a Confucian academy is an intriguing one. It might be worth watching his academy, and see if it takes a long-view multi-generational approach, building an intentional community around itself which includes more than just scholars, who can live close to their parents and provide them with material support.

    As for American society... honestly I have no clue. Something has to give on our part, and that can't be sugar-coated. I can only speak as an American from a radical family background, exasperated with his own warlike and profit-driven time. (Much as Mencius himself spoke as a Chinese man exasperated with his own warlord contemporaries.) It was their principled radicalism that attracted me to them in the first place.

    That's where I'm coming from on this. I have greater hopes in the long run for localist and communitarian alternatives than I do for parliamentary ones; and it's always struck me that Confucianism in the main has greater adaptability to localist and communitarian concerns.