29 August 2011

‘The deity which disappears’ (or, the impossibility of moral atheism)

I have long struggled to understand the appeal of authors like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. To give but one example, there is no doubt in my mind that Christopher Hitchens is an entertaining writer, but hardly could I go a page in God is Not Great without thinking that perhaps his intended cure is worse than the disease he is attempting to diagnose. He complains that all religion is lethally violent and seeks to control others’ beliefs; yet he turns around and supports pre-emptive strikes against Iran, ultimately because its people hold different political and theological views than we do. He complains that all religion is either founded in ignorance and wishes to stay there, or wilfully distorts the truth; yet he mischaracterises historical figures at whim (poor St Augustine with all his critical genius and learning – even for his time – he dismisses as an ‘ignoramus’; and let us not go into the bile he heaps upon believers in modern times, when he is not simultaneously attempting to cast Dr King in the ill-fitting role of ‘humanist’!), whether out of ignorance or out of a desire to distort fact for polemical purposes. With distinct relish he accuses religious folk of all manner of sexual abuse all the way up to child rape, then turns around and lambastes them for the prudishness of wanting to protect people from sexual predation through legislation (like that against abuse, rape and underage sex, perhaps?).

Sadly, the sort of atheism which has been branded and bottled and sold on the popular press for a very pretty penny by the aforementioned authors is actually very little different than the fundamentalism it spends most of its time reviling (when it is not first in bad faith – no pun intended – setting up fundamentalism as the authoritative voice within religion, rather than as the modern aberration any honest historiographer of religion must call it).

We may observe that it has its own creation myth: that the ‘enlightened’ world is a mere four hundred years old and was created practically ex nihilo in a very short time by its own sainted elect: Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume and Hobbes. It has its own dogmas: that for any available question which might enter the mind of a human being, her answer will unfailingly come from the purveyors of the scientific method (thankfully, those same purveyors – for the most part – have in-built a more professional modesty which circumscribes their own field of expertise). If one disagrees with this dogma, one is damned to the outer darkness of ‘irrationality’ (where there is unfailingly much by way of wailing and gnashing of teeth). And its self-appointed prophets appear more than willing to spread their doctrines by sword and nuclear fire against their ‘irrational’ (and thus safely dehumanised) opponents abroad, and enforce their ostensibly tolerant order with a torture-empowered national security state at home. There is a New York Times-bestselling industry in half-baked nouveau atheist tomes (and a loyal following besides) which must be the envy of many a televangelist and religious self-help author.

Now, these observations should not really come as any surprise. I’ve tried to make it a point, as Dr Wang Hui often tries to do, to point out the ways in which two seeming opposites (such as modern American liberalism and modern American conservatism) are actually more alike than different. My question here, though, is why. The answer, as authors such as Bill Egginton (author of In Defence of Religious Moderation) and Fr John Haught (author of God and the New Atheism) have pointed out, lies in the nature of how both the nouveau atheists and the fundamentalists conceive ‘truth’. Is God a hypothesis which can be proven or disproven? (Both the nouveau atheists and the fundamentalists tend to say ‘yes’.) Is there a penultimate, infallible and simple guide to metaphysical / existential / moral questions? (Again, both the nouveau atheists and the fundamentalists are in accord on this point, though they differ on what that guide actually is.) Both the nouveau atheists and the fundamentalists agree that a literalistic reading of a religion’s holy books is the only valid reading, and that the groups which hold to these literalistic readings are the only followers of ‘true’ religion – and the rest of us are merely following ‘watered-down’ or ‘lukewarm’ versions.

Both Egginton and Haught make the only responsible reply to this last assertion: that the founders of the religions the fundamentalists purport to follow (and the nouveau atheists purport to debunk) insisted on a transcendental model of truth and a multi-layered reading of scripture (whatever it happens to be). The humanistic moral legacy to which both groups of extremists lay claim is, in fact, the child of theology: which is ultimately the study of a truth which is eternally and ultimately suspended – a glimmer on the horizon, ‘an eagle on the mountains’, in short (in the words of GK Chesterton), ‘a deity which disappears’. Its humility is also its radicalism: the higher the mountain of our knowledge grows and the further we can see from it, the more distant and paradoxical appear the solutions of epic questions: of evil, of free will, of the nature of creation; and the more monsters we can slay in their pursuit.

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, is very much a modern phenomenon: it treats mythical stories as literal fact, which not even the original authors and early commentators on Scripture took as such (both the Talmud and the Church Fathers were more interested in the import of Genesis as story than as scientific treatise). The nouveau atheists, likewise – as Haught notes – are not interested in engaging with actual religious traditions, but rather limit their discourse to ‘the unreflective, superstitious and literalist religiosity of those they criticise’. It is in the interests of both to assume that all truth can be known by human beings through the application of a single ‘code of codes’ (to use Egginton’s phrase), rather than admitting the metaphysical, existential and moral significance of myth.

Bill Egginton attempts to counterpoise to these allies-in-extremes a form of religious pragmatism, whose primary feature is just this humility in the face of transcendent truth. Let us take note, though, that it was (in part) the assumptions of pragmatism that rather got us into this mess. The separation of realms of truth into those foundational (or ‘fundamental’) facts which can be publicly used, and those unfounded questions which must be confined to contemplative solitude, was part of what gave both fundamentalists and nouveau atheists their ground against the religious moderates Egginton champions in the first place. More tantalising to me is Egginton’s insistence on myth as valid knowledge and valid discourse.

Let us turn, then, to the myths which the nouveau atheists espouse. The tenets of their mythical system may be described thus (here I paraphrase Fr John Haught):

  1. The universe is self-caused, and has no overall point or purpose.

  2. Every humanly-thinkable question has a natural explanation and a natural cause. The corollary to this is that every human attribute, including reason and what we perceive as freedom, can be explained in purely naturalistic terms.

  3. Religious belief is not only unnecessary, but epistemologically and morally harmful.

  4. Not only does morality not require religious belief, but people without religious belief are actually better people.

I actually hold (with Fr Haught, apparently) that a person holding to these myths is incapable of being truly moral, insofar as morality depends on the transcendental insight of the Golden Rule: regarding the Other as truly Other, but possessed of the same worth as Self. Leaving aside the question of whether the attribution of such worth to the Other is a religious exercise (I hold that it is, inescapably), we can see in practice how the nouveau atheists (Harris most dramatically) preclude meaningful dialogue even with religious moderates by damning them as ‘irrational’ – much the same way as fundamentalists preclude meaningful dialogue with their opponents by outright damning them. One doesn’t talk with ‘irrational’ beings, one medicates them, confines them, or in the last instance disposes of them. I wasn’t the only one to note that there was more than a whiff of the fasces about the assertions of Harris and pre-waterboarding Hitchens that we require an aggressive, imperial foreign policy and a torture state to keep unruly religious folk in line (particularly those brownish ones with the funny-sounding names).

Morality appears to be on much firmer ground with those who propound a mythology which a.) allows for the equality under their Creator of all beings capable of reason; b.) can be at rest in a state of doubt regarding natural determinism; and c.) is suspicious of all foundational truth claims which leave no room for paradox.

27 August 2011

Pointed video post - ‘For Whose Advantage?’ by Xentrix

It’s rather sad that thrash metal from Britain gets so often overlooked, particularly given the roots of thrash in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal – Motörhead, Judas Priest and Diamond Head being massive influences on the subgenre as a whole. Xentrix, along with a few other gems – Sabbat, Pariah (and their love-child, early Skyclad), Lawnmower Deth, more recently Gama Bomb and Evile being a few of the ones I enjoy – has some very notable output which should be listened to today. Just as true today as in 1990, during the first Gulf War:
They do not want to see their own stupidity
For whose advantage anyway?
This reckless nature you display
Is raping those who have to obey

On a very closely related note, there are some good posts by Neil Clark and John, linking to a very enlightening (if polemical) Counterpunch article, on the Libyan war – sorry, ‘intervention’ (a topic on which I have been sadly remiss since it began). I made the point that if we do go into Libya, it should be solely for the right reasons, and with sensitivity to the fact that our actions (‘our’ in this case being NATO) would come under heavy scrutiny from the Rest regarding our motives. It appears we have approached Libya, sad to say, with neither the necessary caution nor the necessary sensitivity. In the end, this will be to the advantage of the petrol companies; it very much remains to be seen whether it will be to the advantage of the Libyan people.

The smart money indicates that it is not.

21 August 2011

Pointless video post - ‘Brainwashed’ by Nuclear Assault

Herein is my latest exhibit in how truly amazing the late Reagan years were in terms of musical output - most of it (like Nuclear Assault here) stridently anti-administration. Nuclear Assault was a crossover byway of the New York thrash titan Anthrax, started by bassist Dan Lilker (also of SOD and, briefly, the sadly underrated German thrash band Holy Moses). Their music also happens to be virulently catchy, even if their vocalist is slightly grating - though I think their message is almost better suited to today’s media environment (replete with the inanities and distortions of 24-hour cable news) than it was even to the day and age in which they were singing. Please take a couple minutes to enjoy a solid headbang or two to ‘Brainwashed’, my good and gentle readers!

20 August 2011

Back in the Burgh with a killer case of jetlag

I need some orange juice – got as much as I could during my thirty hours on flights and in airports, but apparently not nearly enough, and that’s the only thing that has been proven to help me with jetlag. I’ll probably pop over to the Sunoco station soon and see if they have any. Got to bed at about 10:30 last night and got up at 3:00 in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep, so here I am typing random thoughts which will be posted later to my blog.

So, I’m back. And main glad to be – I missed Pittsburgh quite a bit. The bridges, the rivers, the skyline dominated by the Cathedral of Learning, the familiar streets and sights and smells (it’s been awhile since I’ve walked past a Jimmy John’s)… but that was before my streak of infernally bad luck hit. In my jetlag-drunk stupor, I left my house keys on the table and left the apartment to walk to the post office to check up on a package that had been marked ‘delivered’ but which had mysteriously gone missing. Neither post office I went to could help; and it was then I noticed that I was missing my keys, so I went to campus and called my landlord on a phone I borrowed from the Card Office. At that point, they were not willing to let me back into the apartment without proof that I was allowed to be there (the lease is in my roommate’s name, and he’s in DC at the moment), so I went to the computer lab to send an email to them, which I just managed to do before the skies opened up, complete with thunder and lightning, and the power went out. All over Oakland. For four hours.

Thankfully, I was able to borrow somebody else’s phone to contact my landlords, and they let me back into my apartment, if just to grab my computer and phone and keys and head out again in search of electricity and internet. Hillman had electricity, but internet was sketchy to say the least. (I’d gotten some orange juice at one of the only stores open on Forbes – 7/11. The others were Starbucks and McDonald’s; a passerby remarked to me that if ever Starbucks or McDonald’s shuts down, you know that it’s the end of the world.) Eventually, I gave up and went home with Jessie, and slept off some more of my jetlag.

So… yep. Here I am. Still jetlagged, and still writing about it. Can’t really much think of anything clever or worthwhile to say here; just let everyone know how I’m doing. I’m only back in Pittsburgh these couple of days; I fly out with Jessie tomorrow to Providence to visit the family. I’ve had just about enough of airports, I believe… At any rate, best to my readers, and hope these past few days have been kinder to them than to me!

14 August 2011

On the London riots

Of all the commentary I’ve seen thus far, Graeme over at The Roar of the Masses could be Farts seems to me to have it pretty much right - though I would argue that he is off in saying that ‘decency’ and ‘morality’ are meaningless concepts here, when he is clearly arguing the opposite: that it is a profoundly indecent and immoral society which so strongly denounces and insults the people living and struggling on the bottom rungs whilst willing to tolerate (with perhaps only a bit of feeble hand-wringing) a wealth gap in which the top 10% earn, on average, 100 times more than the bottom 10% (reaching its worst point, it should be noted, under a New Labour government). This is a structural problem, but sadly it will not be treated as such by those in and near the halls of power.

Also, check out the articles Graeme linked at the bottom of his post. Well worth the reading - particularly this one. I do not approach these issues, it should be noted, from a Marxian perspective - I’m still very much a ‘feudal socialist’ with notable MacIntyrean sympathies; at the same time, it is incumbent on us to be sensitive to the larger picture, the systemic outlook.

Just to be clear - I feel no more compunction to ‘stand with’ the rioters here than I do to support the folks in Xinjiang who went around attacking bystanders with knives. But likewise, I say this in the same spirit of ‘tough love’ that I gave to China in that blog post - I love Britain and what it could and should have been; but they have to rediscover that ideal and fight for it once again, instead of succumbing to the comfortable, stultifying and ultimately crippling logic of empire. And they won’t do it by picking up a broom and sweeping all the ‘undesirables’ under their collective rugs (or by shooting them with plastic bullets or hosing them down with water cannon, either).

See also the ever-redoubtable Neil Clark on the topic; also a much-needed voice here.

A fond farewell to Cathay and all her glories

Drum Tower 鼓楼

Kabobs and beer 串啤 - VERY spicy!

Well, this is quite a way to go. I’ve been suffering recently from a persistent headache that has sometimes gotten to migraine strength, the internet has been notoriously temperamental (more so than usual, that is) of late, and it is currently raining but not too hard (it was pouring earlier). Still, yesterday I got to do some more touristy things, exploring around the Forbidden City, the Drum Tower 鼓楼 and Andingmen 安定门 for fun, eventually going for kabobs and Yanjing beer and later karaoke with a few of my friends here. A fitting way to end my time in Beijing, actually!

The kabobs we had at this place (mantou 馒头 along with roasted chicken thighs with peppers) were ridiculously, lip-numbingly spicy; as a side dish we were served chilled pears with crushed ice as a ready fire-extinguisher (they disappeared in a hurry, that I will say). After that we talked about history (mostly ancient history - 夏商周 the first three dynasties of China, and what the defining marks of each era were) and spent a few hours at a KTV bar belting out tunes (naturally, the ones I picked out were Black Sabbath, Nightwish and Queensrÿche - though I was surprised to see the power-metal act Last Successor 末裔 on the setlist!). A lot of the available selections were pretty mainstream pop and pop-rock, mostly Chinese artists I hadn’t heard of (though I did a passable rendition of ‘99 Red Balloons’!). A very fun guys’ night out before I return home in a couple of days.

It’s strange; I’m very eager to get back - I miss my girlfriend terribly, along with mostly-English conversation, good cheese and internet that isn’t blocked / service-denied. But there’s a strange melancholy in my leaving, as it probably should be; I deeply love this country, and it comes to feel like home in a number of ways.

09 August 2011

Pointless video post - ‘Emerald’, performed by Skyclad (Thin Lizzy cover)

Pioneering British folk-thrash-heavy metal band Skyclad (the brainchild of Pariah’s Graeme English and Steve Ramsey, along with the incomparable Martin Walkyier of Sabbat, who quit Skyclad and rejoined his former band some years back), performing Thin Lizzy’s ‘Emerald’. Skyclad are awesome and would be if just for the masterful guitar and bass playing of the NWoBHM veterans at its core, and the inspired lyrical genius of Walkyier (with his penchant for puns and wry humour); but they are also a highly political band, exuding the kind of critical, anti-imperialist (and at the same time rooted) egalitarianism that I’ve come to greatly appreciate and embrace (as well as being environmentalist, though not of the noisome Malthusian sort who have grown in prominence recently). Check out also their patriotic ballad ‘Moongleam and Meadowsweet’ from their debut album The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth (deep, deep shades of Ralph McTell on that song, and not just in the singing); also compare and contrast with the considerably more critical (and slightly more punk-sounding) ‘Think Back and Lie of England’ from their 2000 Folkémon album.

Awesome, awesome stuff, regardless of whether they’re doing sweet-and-peaceful or heavy-and-angry. Enjoy, folks!

06 August 2011

Re-watching Raven in the Foregate through Anglo-Catholic eyes

Brother Cadfael (Derek Jacobi) with Hugh Beringar (Eoin McCarthy)

I truly and deeply enjoy the murder mysteries of Edith Pargeter (aka Ellis Peters), which are not only thrilling mysteries but masterworks of historical fiction in their own right – not only did they have a profound impact on my writing style and subsequent literary tastes, but also upon my theology. One gets the impression (through the views of her sleuth and the moral centre of the stories, the Crusader-turned-Benedictine Brother Cadfael) that Edith Pargeter’s own theo-politics are very Broad Church, but nonetheless a profound respect for both the monastic Teutonic Catholicism of the Normans and Saxons and (slightly more) for the hermit-revering Celtic Catholicism of the Welsh who inhabit her world, seeps through. Many of her books, Raven in the Foregate being one and the Heretic’s Apprentice being another, have deep theological implications (though at the same time, all of the views she plays around with are spoken through masterfully-portrayed characters, each with believable flesh-and-blood faults and failings), which struck me all the more on this re-watching of the screen adaptation of Raven in the Foregate.

The screen version makes a few simplifications and takes several liberties, notably with the character of Deputy Sheriff of Salop Hugh Beringar (though some glimmers of the old Hugh surface: when Cadfael asks him cagily if, should he by chance have spoken with a noted rebel and fugitive from the King’s justice the night before [which he had], Hugh would want to know about it – Hugh dryly replies ‘no’), but it follows fairly closely Pargeter’s intense portrayal of the period’s history. The Church, though in principle seated above temporal politics, nevertheless gets involved massively in the anarchic fray between King Stephen and Empress Maud. Abbot Radulfus is commanded by Henry of Winchester to replace the late priest of the Foregate of Shrewsbury with a political partizan loyal to King Stephen – Father Ailnoth. In the movie as in the book, Ailnoth is nearly the embodiment of the creeping legalism that was strangling an ever-more bureaucratised Church. Where the previous parish priest of the Foregate, Father Adam, was forgiving, compassionate, sensitive to local customs and concerns, Father Ailnoth – though well-read and intelligent – insisted on a peculiarly functional reading of the letter of the law.

In the movie, we get to see several examples of this. He leaps to the defence of a sadistic, murderous knight who shares his political allegiance (even while the knight has a defenceless, wounded prisoner shot dead rather than taken to trial). The poor Saxon farmers working on Church land under Father Adam’s supervision are immediately evicted by the Norman Ailnoth. When they plead for their traditional rights and spoken agreement with Father Adam to be respected, Ailnoth gives them a cold ‘not-my-problem’ and notes that he is only under obligation only to written law; when they appeal to his conscience on behalf of their families, Ailnoth lambastes them for having children while poor. He refuses to hear the confession of a young, unmarried pregnant girl in distress, which is suspected to drive her to her death under mysterious circumstances. He is portrayed as an austere ascetic who sees the mass of humanity as beneath him and worthy of contempt – in a peculiarly Puritanical moment, he orders all of the flowers to be taken out of his chapel and destroyed.

On the other side, we have the pious, if struggling and all-too-human, residents of the Foregate taking their concerns before Abbot Radulfus, who is torn between his need to keep King Stephen and the Church hierarchy sweet, and his desire to see the Foregate restored to the harmony it had under Father Adam. Ailnoth is ultimately found drowned in the Severn, caught up by a mill-wheel with a gash on his throat and a large bruise from a blow to the head; and pretty much the entire Foregate is held under suspicion on account of their grievances against Ailnoth.

I won’t get into spoilers; suffice it to say that the movie does a fairly good job of sticking to the book, except that two of the characters are changed to have a second romance subplot which wasn’t there in the original. It was particularly interesting to me in that Ms Pargeter seems to be making a passionate plea for greater charity and generosity of spirit in the Church; a plea which is echoed even more intensely in the movie. If the Heretic’s Apprentice was her most ‘Protestant’ novel (and even then that’s arguable, as her supposedly ‘orthodox’ heretic-sniffing antagonist himself holds some downright Calvinistic beliefs about Hell and predestination), this is certainly her most ‘Catholic’ one. For Ms Pargeter, knowing Scripture is good, intelligence is good, and even rigorous morals are good (particularly the near-Klingon sense of personal honour and fair play she lends her heroes, whether monastic like Cadfael or secular like Hugh Beringar) – but unless it is all directed toward a greater end and expressed in charity, compassion and justice, it is all in vain.

I very much enjoy the way Ms Pargeter carefully weaves together a rich universe of a slightly-fictionalised 12th-century England, which is romantic and religious without being revisionist or saccharine. And I highly recommend this movie (but read the book first!). Both are sure to please history and theology nerds as well as mystery buffs.

05 August 2011

Just for the record…

Matt Damon is awesome. If you haven’t seen the video, you should. Mr Damon is, in spite of his use of colourful metaphors - quite voluble and articulate on the subject and gets at the very heart of the Christian idea of vocation. Teaching is a profession which, by its very nature (and particularly in our anti-intellectual society, which tends to treat them like dirt) attracts those driven by caritas - even though they do enjoy living and must, like the rest of humankind, eat, they aren’t teaching just to collect their next paycheck.

Matt Damon is right here in more ways than one. The education problem in the United States is a lot more systemic than just bad teachers. Part of it - a large and substantial part of it - is the cultural expectation (on teachers and on students!) underlying the viewpoint both the Reason.tv reporter and cameraman express here. This expectation demands that education prepare students for ‘the real world’ - meaning a highly bureaucratised, technocratic and impersonal system which looks for a certain set of commercially applicable skills, among which is not creative, broad or moral thinking. Modern American society doesn’t want creative students or creative teachers; it wants cogs in a capitalist machine. Our society overvalues the knowledge-ideal of τεχνή (tekhne, from which comes our word ‘technical’) as a model of education and undervalues παιδεία (paideía, from which comes the English ‘encyclopaedia’) - learning for its own sake, particularly in the liberal arts. I tend to think of the scorn that is regularly heaped upon college English majors, or (in the United States, not so much in China) the awkward silences, looks of puzzlement and comments of ‘so what do you plan to do with that?’ that accompany my pronouncement that I studied philosophy in college.

A paideia ideal of education for its own sake won’t fix everything, naturally. What I hope it can do - as with many other believers in a liberal education - is open up people’s minds and hearts to the idea of vocation: of not just a skills-focussed ‘job’ interchangeable with any other, whose only end is making money. Vocation is a committed labour one undertakes to the greater glory of humanity and - ultimately - of God; though most teachers in American public schools are likely alien to such language, I argue that they are on a similar path. It is not a job, as Mr Damon notes, to which people flock because they envy the pay or the benefits. And, with a few notable exceptions, the teachers I had the good fortune of working with as part of my Peace Corps and AmeriCorps service in both American and Qazaqstani public schools did have the best interests of their students at heart. (The administrators, on the other hand, were a notably mixed lot.)

Here is the original video of Matt Damon cussing out the cameraman:

And some Holy Moses for good measure! \m/

04 August 2011

On the violence in Qeshger

Tempers flared. Knife-wielding attackers lashed out at the law and anyone nearby. Hostages were taken by desperadoes. Lawmen shot first and asked questions later. The Chinese West erupted once again in violence, leaving at least 18 people dead. Ms Räbiya Qadyr of the World Uyghur Congress blames the Chinese government; the Chinese government blames the ETIM and terrorists ostensibly trained in Pakistan. I have remarked on the situation that took place two years ago. It greatly saddened me then, and it saddens me now. I have a great deal of sympathy for the situation of the Uyghurs in East Turkestan, given the prejudice, cultural and religious humiliation, poverty and poisonous inequality they must still endure.

However, I have felt – and still feel – that even though Xinjiang (as with Tibet) is and would be vastly better off under Chinese rule than as its own independent country, China must hold itself critically to the ideal of the ‘harmonious society’ it has set for itself, rather than taking it as a given that it will occur with greater attention to ‘scientific development’. Here I don’t think we can afford to ignore the possibility that we are seeing the tragic results of a developmentalist market ideology – it is almost a certainty that the wealth gap between ethnicities in Xinjiang took off in the early 1980’s in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, and then again under Jiang Zemin – that has certainly had unequal outcomes and has very likely a consciously unequal implementation. Uyghurs are increasingly upset at the lack of economic opportunities close to home, the inaccessibility of institutions of higher learning, the Mandarin language barrier. Much of the ‘development’ carried out in Xinjiang under the Great Western Development Strategy has been extraction-based, carried out by state-owned or large commercial enterprises. It has been heavily localised in the north of the region, with nearly all of the managerial jobs going to Han Chinese and a sizeable share of the profits going back east to corporate headquarters.

Something also has to be done about regional prejudices among the population – the prevailing stereotype of Uyghurs amongst Chinese, particularly in the east, is that they are back-biting and ungrateful recipients of Han Chinese largesse, that they are intractably backward, violent and untrustworthy sneak-thieves. To be sure, the Uyghurs are not the only victims of prejudice in China – Han Chinese just as gleefully stereotype amongst themselves (indeed, much the same way as we do here); I’ve heard the same descriptors (particularly the ‘untrustworthy’ bit) applied to people from Henan – which, not coincidentally, also happens to be one of the regions with the highest poverty rates in China. However, this particular prejudice does undeniably contribute to an atmosphere in which prophesies of violence fulfil themselves.

The common retort to the people who express such concerns as I am doing now is that the speaker is a Westerner who has an interest in undermining China’s sovereignty. I do not speak here as a Westerner, but as a friend of China; and I have no wish to undermine any legitimate country’s sovereignty. Indeed, I certainly believe that China can do better. But the government, the businesses, the society all have to be willing to look honestly in the mirror – whether with regard to a tragedy of mere chance (such as the train accident two weeks ago), or with regard to a wholly human tragedy such as this one in Xinjiang. What China needs most today may just be another Lu Xun.

02 August 2011

The distributist model, not quite dead in China

Having worked and researched at PlaNet Finance China for two and a half months now, it certainly appears as though there is a long way to go in mitigating the excesses of both state and market here, particularly when it comes to financing small businesses. On the one hand, there is only one among the five large state-run banks which pulls its weight much at all in terms of small-business lending , and that is the Agricultural Bank of China. There is, as is to be expected somewhat, a self-serving relationship between the state-run banks and large businesses here. Mr He (何先生, a good, loyal and efficient People’s Bank of China or China Banking Regulatory Commission functionary from Beijing) enjoys having banks loan money to Mr Ge (葛先生, a liberal, well-respected member of the Shanghai executive class) because he knows Mr Ge can pay him back and produce the GDP growth he desperately wants; and Mr Ge enjoys his privileged access to loans from Mr He because it means he can leverage that much more power over Mr Zhang (张先生, who might be a hard-up farmer in rural Gansu or a worker from Anhui sending remittances back to his family), who is in many real ways shut out of the entire process. The names might be different, but the dynamics are the same everywhere in this brave new neoliberal world.

On the other hand, though, even in Beijing and other large cities around China, the family business – the getihu 个体户 – continues to be a quietly persistent feature. I noted in one of my past blog entries that I enjoy frequenting a small restaurant on my street, run by one family from Sichuan. Ninety-nine percent of China’s formal economy is made up of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs, though many of the enterprises here considered ‘medium-sized’ would actually be considered ‘large’ in the United States), and they account for a solid majority of jobs. When it comes to financing, however, the situation becomes tough on account of the problems mentioned above. Several different approaches are being tried – rural credit cooperatives, mutual funds, village and township banks, and the Postal Savings Bank (which, along with the Agricultural Bank of China, is one of the few unqualified success stories coming from either the public or for-profit banking sectors); even so, credit is bottlenecked. Many family businesses still turn to pawnshops, loan sharks or other shady side ventures for funding, if they look for funding at all, and end up indebted. I think PlaNet Finance China is doing a fine job of keeping their horizons broad – I was pleasantly surprised at their positive reactions to the critique by Ha-Joon Chang of common microfinance practices, and a heartening approach to microfinance which gives equal if not greater weight to SME financing as to ‘classic’ microfinance.

Hopefully, Mr Zhang will not go without other allies in the coming decades. Though much of the Chinese New Left is still wrapped in nationalism and veneration of Mao Zedong, there are a few voices within this movement who are calling for a solution that carries the spooky echoes of a distributist economic philosophy. I’ve mentioned Wang Hui 汪晖 already fairly frequently in my blog, but it also strikes me that his colleague Cui Zhiyuan 崔之元 is also trying to articulate and study a kind of human-scale market economics which directs private property to what might be considered distributist ends (this depends on our reading in his use of the term ‘socialist’ a broader, religious-tinged tradition which includes the thought of Ruskin, Oastler, Morris, Maurice, Cole and Penty – though both Dr Cui and Dr Wang would likely describe themselves as influenced more by the liberal utilitarianism of JS Mill and the post-Keynesians). This article provides a very interesting perspective of the work of Dr Cui in Chongqing under Party Secretary Bo Xilai 薄熙来. It’s worth a read even if one doesn’t agree with all of the policies and directions the Chinese New Left is taking. Particularly of interest to me is how Dr Cui sees China’s institutional environment as more malleable and amenable to change than those in the West.

Dr Cui Zhiyuan 崔之元博士 of Qinghua University

I have two weeks left in Beijing, and I am left with the bittersweet emotions of leaving a beloved friend to return to an even more beloved home. I hope everyone there is doing well; I should have time and opportunity to make a couple more posts before the long flight home. Be well, gentle readers.