02 October 2010

Some thoughts on George Grant, modernity and a brief sketch of China with some hints at its current dilemma

From left to right: Dr George Parkin Grant, OC, FRSC; Confucius 孔子; and Dr Sun Yat-Sen 孙中山

My apologies again for having neglected my blog for so long – I have been incredibly busy in recent days, and this has not let up at all in view of a dreaded Public Administration midterm on Monday, along with statistics homework and a summary of the Baylis and Smith chapters on terrorism and nuclear proliferation for Global Governance.

My fun-reading, not wholly unrelated to the questions being asked in Global Governance, has been George Parkin Grant’s Lament for a Nation. In it he poses some very hard, very searching questions – it was very similar in effect for me as reading Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man in that it made me question very deeply my own place in the universe and how to negotiate it with the social-justice ideals I claim to profess. I am, for better and for worse, a male white upper-middle-class American with a bachelor’s degree – this places me very firmly in a position of privilege, a beneficiary of modernity and empire. Using Ched Myers’ literary-historical method of reading the Gospel as a guide, I would have to read myself into the story in the position of the wealthy young man and in the position of the scribes and teachers of the Law – people who derived benefit from their statuses within the Roman Empire. Likewise, George Grant’s book made me question my own place in the world.

Grant is adamant, having drunk deeply the waters of the Socratic-Platonic well and of the existentialist well also, that we are shaped in our thinking and in our doing by technology, that we are seduced by the promise that we can have final mastery over the workings of the universe. Grant sees this promise as something to resist, since it has a nasty habit of destroying local, grounded modes of being. The promise of technology is wedded to its offspring in corporation capitalism, which itself is the instrument of American imperial influence worldwide, and it is wedded to the ideology of ‘liberalism’ (by which he means the tradition of Locke and Smith more than the tradition of Rawls), which emphasises the liberation of the passions of the individual (defined as a constellation of ‘natural’ negative and property rights) and the inevitable progress of history toward said liberation. Liberalism, Grant argues, places no checks on the desire for imperial dominance and sees no need to offer grounds for any transcendent notion of the Good; as such, it is the perfect ideology for a humanity which wants to divorce itself from nature and pursue its own selfish ends individually without reference to anyone or anything else.

Grant sees Canada succumbing to the dynamic American world empire on all fronts, having given over control of its own foreign and defence policies, having handed over to a corporate elite all of its wealth and culture, and having forsaken its founding Tory values of tradition, of social welfare and of the common good. He sees Canada now occupying the space of the ‘little brother’ in the American imperial project, reaping many of the benefits while shouldering but few of the responsibilities.

So now I’m left thinking – as an American, very few if any traditions make any kind of real claim on me; instead what I have done is cast back much further along a thinner line to a connexion with British traditions and culture and with the kerygmatic Palestinian community of the followers of Jeshua ben Josef of Nazareth through the organic structure of apostolic succession, wilfully subjecting myself to such traditions through my religion (the Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Communion). Yet this, in many ways, is not enough. Repentance starts with self-searching, and I find that much of what I do (and what I plan to do in the future) is also dependent upon the promise of technology, and also dependent upon the patronage and privileged position empire has given me. What I do now and where I go from here are now questions to which an extra dimension is added, particularly given my interest in working in China.

Now here is a country which historically took as foundational a traditional mode of social thought – fundamentally different culturally but with some striking intellectual parallels to the radical Tory tradition Grant cites as Canada’s founding philosophy. This mode of social thought belongs to one philosopher by the name of Kong Qiu 孔丘, better known as Confucius 孔子, who claimed to be transmitting a tradition of humanist thought going back to the Duke of Zhou 周公旦 for future generations. Confucius’ philosophy was dedicated almost in its entirety to promoting good social relations between people, and building a society in which human beings, rather than wealth or individual gain, held ultimate value. (Notable is one episode in the Analects wherein after a barn fire he asks after the well-being of the servants but not of the horses, which symbolise material wealth: ‘厩焚。子退朝,曰:“伤人乎?”不问马。’)

The tale of China’s recent intellectual history, however, is a highly troubled one. Most Imperial dynasties (with some notable exceptions) tended to favour Confucianism as it was easily adapted into a pro-establishment philosophy, though in many cases in history it also provided grounds for social critique and even ‘revolution’ 革命 wherein an Imperial family which had abused its power and caused people to suffer, having lost the tianming 天命 (the divine mandate), could be overthrown and replaced with a more virtuous and compassionate family. This changed with the most recent revolutions, however, which really were revolutions in that they replaced more than just the reigning family.

The Xinhai Revolution辛亥革命opened China’s intellectual class to Western ideas through the thought of Sun Yat-Sen 孙中山, whose own philosophy was difficult to define – even though he was highly critical of both imperialism and Western market influences, he was nevertheless highly influenced by his own Western upbringing and education. Western ideas and political leverage continued to play a role in China’s politics and economy through both Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong (though Mao Zedong was borrowing ideas rather from Marx and Lenin). The attempt to oust Confucian thinking and values from the consciousness of the Chinese people, having started with Sun Yat-Sen, was brought to a head under Mao through the disastrous Cultural Revolution 文革. How successful this attempt has been, I do not believe I am the right person to ask, nor do I think it is yet clear. I think it can be argued, however, that Deng Xiaoping’s reforms of the late 1980’s, done in the wealth-first spirit of Western market liberalism, were (ironically) made possible only by the values upset of the Cultural Revolution.

China’s modern society, as a result, contains a broad mixture of deep organic tradition and cooptation of technological modernity (and the resulting logic of empire). Given the amount of control their society has, I’m not sure Grant would be over-quick to lament the death of their nation in spite of this creeping homogenising influence. I hope – and would very much like to think – that China’s recent spiritual shift toward Buddhism is indicative of a desire to return to a deep organic tradition that can provide a sense of meaning and stability and humanity in a world run amok with the pursuit of wealth at the expense of people. But that is certainly not for me to decide; and if I should choose to work in China, I need to gain a deeper awareness of this history while continuing to ask myself the really hard questions. What are my own purposes? What do I want to accomplish, and for whom? Can I accomplish this in ways which are mindful and respectful of the depth of tradition where I am?

Next up on my fun-reading list: A Dream of John Ball by English socialist author and high-fantasy pioneer William Morris, and hopefully something by Richard Hooker.

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