30 December 2014

Yugoslavia and the betrayal of democracy

Cross-posted from Oriental Review and Global Research:

I have recently been reading a book by Czech economist Jaroslav Vaněk entitled The Participatory Economy: an Evolutionary Hypothesis and a Strategy for Development; it was written in 1971 and therefore at places feels a bit dated, but it contains many ideas which are both prescient and utterly profound, and perspectives which even at this late date came to me as surprising and counter-intuitive. The book makes the argument for a market-based economic democracy in which the cooperative, worker-managed firm holds a central place, and asserts that this setup: a.) would provide a basis for a larger number of firms in the market, better-proportioned in size with regard to one another; b.) would reduce the most crass and cutthroat aspects of capitalistic competition in the market; c.) would make full employment easier to attain; d.) would significantly reduce inflation and runaway ‘growth for growth’s sake’; whilst at the same time it e.) would operate very close to an optimal level of economic efficiency. Though when Vaněk veers into social theory to make the cases for the equivalence of political and economic self-determination or for the ‘convergence’ of economies both planned and market, he heads out onto thin logical ice, the central argument itself is intriguing. Even more intriguing is the case-study he makes of the Yugoslav economy during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Vaněk asserts that Tito’s Yugoslavia in the wake of the Stalin-Tito split was the closest society in the world to his ideal of a worker-managed economy, and that as a result it was able to provide an example of a highly-efficient, humane and human-scaled economy, sporting near full employment, incredibly high educational standards and a high standard of living, which was the envy of many of the other nations in the region. He notes that the Yugoslav economy was built through a long process of trial-and-error, but that its income growth between 1951 and 1959 was unparalleled anywhere else in the world except Japan. Under the influence of Yugoslav economists Edvard Kardelj and Branko Horvat, it was, so it seems, a successful experiment in the flavour of economic democracy advocated by Vaněk (and before him, non-Marxist leftists in the British tradition, namely William Morris and G. D. H. Cole).

Vaněk’s sketch of Tito’s Yugoslavia is intriguing and appealing, and indeed counter-intuitive to most American audiences. It opens up a view to the possibility of a more humane economy, one with a greater eye to the organic participation of (as opposed to the state- or market-segregation of) the human person in his own work – an important theme which has been touched upon also by His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. Indeed, Vaněk is at his most beguiling when he begins to explore the decidedly non-Marxist, non-materialist – moralistic, spiritual, even religious – dimensions of his economic vision. He places a great deal of emphasis on man’s fundamental roles as creator and as co-creator, as participants, however imperfect, in the work of God. Vaněk is concerned – as indeed all religious men and women ought to be concerned – that the ontological disconnect in both capitalism and communism between moral man and the fruits of his work forebodes an exchange of the true for the merely expedient (as in advertising); an exchange of artistic and religious pursuits for mere accumulation; an exchange of meaning for mere diversion. The words Vaněk uses for this alienation under both capitalism and communism are not sparing: ‘purposeless’, ‘self-centred’, ‘incomplete personality’, even ‘mutilation’. It is little wonder indeed that he seeks after a more participatory model in which this systematic alienation between creator and created may be eased!

Much as I can sympathise with these aims and concerns, I do indeed have some deep problems with Vaněk’s political analysis, though. Vaněk is an idealist, as many Czechs indeed still are, and holds a burning zeal for political democracy which shines forth very clearly in his writing. There is not only charm and wit but also a thirst for truth in his reasoning, and it is difficult not to be swayed by it. And yet there is still a tragic dimension to the democratic project that he too-often overlooks; the Yugoslav experiment did not occur, and likely could not have occurred, in the context of Western-style liberal parliamentarianism. Given the recent history of my own nation, I believe it a highly incredible position also, that the adoption of a degree of political democracy (what he calls ‘inner’ self-determination) correlates in any meaningful way with a nation’s respect for the sovereign integrity (‘outer’ self-determination) of other nations. In fact, what ultimately happened to Yugoslavia in the wake of the Soviet collapse provides a highly tragic counterexample.

Once its usefulness as a geopolitical buffer between the West and the Soviet bloc evaporated with the dissolution of Soviet Union itself, the Yugoslav economy was deliberately sabotaged and broken by the political nexus of IMF-managed Western capital. As historian Michael Parenti describes it, previously Yugoslavia had borrowed from the West in part to expand its domestic consumer production, and previously the IMF had obliged. But one of the preconditions of the IMF loan given to the Yugoslavs in 1989 was the imposition of what, by now, should look like an all-too-familiar prescription: austerity. Public programmes were slashed; wages were frozen; the currency was devalued and the system of worker-managed firms began to fray as their sources of investment began to dry up and as the legal framework which had supported them vanished under IMF ‘restructuring’. These reforms were pushed through at the beginning of the following year, to disastrous effect on the unique Yugoslav economy.

And the following collapse of Yugoslavia’s now-fraying political institutions was given a hearty push by the Bush Administration in the form of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act of 1991, which denied aid to any regions of Yugoslavia which failed to declare independence within six months. The targets of this act were Yugoslavia’s industries and state assets, which Western capital interests were eager to acquire. Opportunistic politicians, encouraged both politically and economically to rebel against the Yugoslav government, began fanning the flames of nationalist ressentiment in every corner of the former republic – which already had ample grounds to grow in an economic environment where ordinary folk were now beholden to foreign interests, powerless, jobless, destitute and increasingly desperate.

The dismantling of Yugoslavia was a tragedy. It was a tragedy in part because of the hollow nature of the democratic idealism upon which the Yugoslav government was depending in the West. And it was a tragedy in part because the West viciously betrayed and stamped out not only the Yugoslavs – of whom over a hundred thousand were murdered and four million driven from their homes in the resulting fratricidal wars over the decade to follow! – but the Yugoslav model as well, which might have been instructive in some ways for political and economic practice in both West and East.

It is indeed necessary, both in the West and in the East, to continue to find ways of easing the alienation which occurs when the ordinary person is severed from the fruits of his work, the spiritual gulf that leaves, and the corrosions of induced passions and wants, of directionless work and of meaningless leisure. Vaněk’s participatory economy based on worker-managed firms – both in theory and in his example of 1950’s and 1960’s Yugoslavia – provides one interesting, and by no means wholly unconvincing, vantage point from which to do this. But it is also necessary, now as much as ever, to cast a critical eye upon the idealistic democratic language in which the geopolitics and finance of America and Western Europe are wont to cloak themselves. Here again the example of Yugoslavia is unfortunately instructive.

22 December 2014

Consistent life ethic, Zoroastrian-style

A Parsi Zoroastrian family from Gujarat (image courtesy Livemint)

I have Alexander Patico at Orthodox Peace Fellowship to thank for this one!

Reminding us (as we all ought to be reminded at this time) that the Magi who visited Jesus in the Gospel of S. Matthew were Iranian Zoroastrians, he very kindly posted an excerpt from the Zoroastrian sacred scripture Avesta which does more than hint at a complementary pro-life ethic which makes responsibility for caring for children familial first, but secondly the social responsibility of the child’s neighbours and the community of believers more generally. Here is the quote, from the Vendidad 15, verses 13-19:
‘If a man come near unto a damsel, either dependent on the chief of the family or not dependent, either delivered [unto a husband] or not delivered, and she conceives by him, and she says, “I have conceived by thee;” and he replies, “Go then to the old woman and apply to her for one of her drugs, that she may procure thee miscarriage;”

‘And the damsel goes to the old woman and applies to her for one of her drugs, that she may procure her miscarriage; and the old woman brings her some Banga, or Shaeta, a drug that kills in the womb or one that expels out of the womb, or some other of the drugs that produce miscarriage and [the man says], “Cause thy fruit to perish!” and she causes her fruit to perish; the sin is on the head of all three, the man, the damsel, and the old woman.

‘If a man come near unto a damsel, either dependent on the chief of the family or not dependent, either delivered [unto a husband] or not delivered, and she conceives by him, so long shall he support her, until the child be born.

‘If he shall not support her, so that the child comes to grief, for want of proper support, he shall pay for it the penalty for wilful murder.’

O Maker of the material world, thou Holy One! If she be near her time, which is the worshipper of Mazda that shall support her?

Ahura Mazda answered: ‘If a man come near unto a damsel, either dependent on the chief of the family or not dependent, either delivered [unto a husband] or not delivered, and she conceives by him, so long shall he support her, until the child be born.

‘If he shall not support her ... It lies with the faithful to look in the same way after every pregnant female.’

21 December 2014

Ukraine, Syria and MH 17

Firstly, John Médaille has recently shared a most remarkable story from Sputnik News regarding the possible motivations behind the American-backed coup in Ukraine which unseated Yanukovych. George Friedman, the CEO and founder of intelligence contractor Strategic Forecasting (also called Stratfor, a corporation which does a lot of contracting work with the CIA), has admitted that American involvement in the coup in Ukraine was an attempt to distract Russia from its successful involvement in keeping the Syrian situation reasonably stable, where indeed a last-minute Russian-brokered deal managed to avoid a direct shooting war of the US against the Assad government.

Secondly, Investigative journalist Anatoly Sharij interviews a former Ukrainian soldier, who claims that a.) BUK 312 was under the control of the Ukrainian Army at the time MH 17 went down (and he had been a member of the operating unit); and b.) that BUK 312 did not shoot down MH 17. Also, since the story went public, according to OpEdNews contributor Michael Collins, the Ukrainian government has retracted the ‘damning’ picture of BUK 312, and Anatoly Sharij has been forced by the Ukrainian authorities to flee the country.

This is being reported by some alt news outlets (including Global Research above) basically as Ukraine confessing to having shot down the plane itself. It is true that the Ukrainian government has been caught in a lie here. A fairly big lie at that. And its subsequent behaviour, throwing its own press releases down the memory hole and going after journalists, is incredibly suspicious. That the Ukrainian government is responsible for shooting down MH 17 might turn out to be the reason why, but we should probably still reserve judgement there. Still – to quote Alice in Wonderland – curiouser and curiouser.

I certainly hope that real and impartial investigations into both claims can be successfully mounted (or, in MH 17’s case, continued). If there is some decent corroboration on both stories, it could open up a profound basis for critique of the dominant State Department line. In the meanwhile, my heart and prayers go out to the innocent people of the Donetsk Basin who are continuing to pay the price, being trapped by their loyalties and by a government which no longer values them.

19 December 2014

Sanctions are (still) breathtakingly stupid

Even if you’re not a fan of President Putin, the easiest and most effective way to ensure his recalcitrance to cooperate with the West on the world stage whilst simultaneously driving more and more Russians into his welcoming arms (including ones who weren’t already there) is precisely this way that the US Congress, President Obama and his minions in the State Department have been going about it: using sanctions. In spite of all the salivating articles you’re likely to find strewn about the Anglophone blogosphere gleefully predicting Russia’s impending doom – and, indeed, partly because of them – Russia is going to become a far more hostile place to America, Americans and American interests, both real and imagined, than it has any need to be.

It’s really not that tough to figure out why sanctions don’t work. America has created a situation where ordinary Russians are being made to feel the effects of having a government that doesn’t bow to America’s every whim. The Russian people understand quite well that they are under attack by the West: these sanctions are creating a siege mentality which builds ever greater sympathy for Putin and his government. The neocons can continue to scream ‘false consciousness’ in the press all they like; the reality of the matter is that Putin has played his domestic political cards masterfully even in the midst of what is likely to be a very tough economic crisis.

From a geopolitical standpoint, the stated aim of these sanctions against Russia – to get Russia to reverse course on Ukraine and Crimea – not only is not going to be fulfilled. Ukraine is likely to suffer far, far more on account of these sanctions than it would have if the American government had simply taken a more realistic stance on Russia’s security issues. Russian sympathy for the Novorussian fighters in Donetsk and Lugansk is likely to skyrocket, pushing Putin to be more and more open about giving them both military and financial aid. In the meanwhile, the Ukrainians in the west of the country are going to continue to be beggared by a venal, corrupt, illegitimate regime which privatises all the country’s state-owned assets and sells them at bottom-rate prices to European and American plutocrats, and bullied by that regime’s neo-Nazi enforcers.

Nothing good can come of this new sanctions regime, which has found support from across the American political spectrum: whether the progressives, the neocons or the supposedly-peaceable, supposedly free-trade-supporting libertarian right. The most recent round of sanctions, coupled with an authorisation of lethal military aid to the Ukrainian junta, was a notedly bipartisan effort – and, like all too many such bipartisan efforts, combines Republican sadism with Democratic cluelessness. The only dissent here has come from contrarians like Dennis Kucinich on the left and Daniel Larison on the right.

It is a sad day indeed – the cool heads are now to be found only outside the American political mainstream. One day, hopefully sooner rather than later, the American people will awaken again to the wisdom of foreign-policy realism.

15 December 2014

Torture and tortured logic

In reaction to the recent CIA report, with regard to the renewed debate over the rightness or wrongness of torture, the Holy Orthodox Church has spoken down the ages with one mind and one voice. Holy and Right-Believing Prince S. Vladimir, Baptiser of the Rus’, abolished torture as one of his first acts following his baptism. As the Orthodox Peace Fellowship puts it:
God reminded Israel, “You shall not enslave others because you were slaves in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21, 23:9) Likewise we, whose community includes so many victims of torture, should feel a special obligation to prevent torture because we know what it is like to be tortured. As a communal Church, each of us is included in the experience of our co-communicants and is accountable for protecting others from torture. Every time we enter the church building, see the icons, light a candle, we are including ourselves in the great flow of the Orthodox faith. When we prepare ourselves for the Eucharist, we acknowledge that we are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses,” many of whom were tortured and degraded. When we include ourselves in the Church, we are incorporating the lives and struggles of the apostles, martyrs, and saints into our own experience.
And in the words of the Basis of the Social Concept:
The Church insists on the need of humane attitude towards suspects, persons under investigation and those caught in criminal intent. The crude and improper treatment of these people can either fortify them on the wrong track or push them on it. For this reason, those awaiting a verdict should not be disfranchised even in custody. They should be guaranteed advocacy and impartial justice. The Church condemns torture and indignities towards persons under investigation.
No ifs. No ands. No buts. And this is in a highly nuanced and thoughtful document which, in good Orthodox mindset, is willing to speak to multiple conditions and scenarios in a broad scope, with the discretional humility of œconomia. There are no extenuating circumstances in Orthodox thought which can be brought to justify the torture of criminals or of criminal suspects, let alone of innocents. Zero. Torture is not only a gross sacrilege and degradation of the ikon of the living God in the human person, and therefore inherently, categorically wrong; it has the potential to warp and deform the spiritual development of all parties involved – policy-makers, perpetrators and victims all – making forgiveness and reconciliation prohibitively hard. The communicants of the Orthodox Church are all called to stand in solidarity with those who have suffered torture, no matter what other wrongs they have done.

At the same time, we must recognise that the same desires in the human heart which lead to torture and to its justification are there in every person. The line between good and evil runs, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn sagely remarked, through every human heart. And the heart which cannot recognise its own evil is usually far, far closer to it than one which can. As bloggers and consumers of social media too many of us speak in a rarefied atmosphere divorced from practical knowledge – I myself am as guilty of this as any. But we are all called upon to look straight into the dark corners of our own souls and our own lives, and to look upon them with repentence and seeking mercy from the only one who can heal them.

The findings of the CIA report are grim indeed, but they will likely come as a surprise to too few of us, and too many of us will be all too likely to excuse them however they can, or brush them under the carpet if they can. I wish that we will find it within ourselves as a nation to peer into this very dark corner of our collective national soul; I confess, however, that I find myself pessimistic about the prospects. The hard questions about how we got to this point, and how we – Democrats and Republicans both! – need to repent of it, are already being forgotten in the saddening game of political dodgeball which has followed it. We’re still too quick to blame everyone for our ills but ourselves.

For this, as an American citizen, speaking for myself and for my own country even to that very small degree which I am able and competent to speak for her, I am truly sorry and can only ask that the Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner.

13 December 2014

Oligarchy no more?

Russia is not an oligarchy, according to New York Times op-ed contributor Masha Gessen. Also according to Masha Gessen, President Putin is the man responsible. What I don’t understand, though, is: this is a bad thing… how, exactly?

With regard to Gessen’s stated concerns about Russia’s poor, yes, inflation is a problem and will probably remain so for some time. This is to be expected in a market economy like Russia’s with a strong state presence as it weathers a changing political and economic climate, and there is of course room for a certain angle of critique there. However, current oil prices are being made artificially low primarily by political manipulation between the US and Saudi Arabia, in ways that certainly won’t be sustainable in the long-term; so in Russia there are not likely to be mass unemployment or starvation or out-of-control austerity measures from above the way there was under Eltsin and the oligarchs whose loss Mr. Gessen is here mourning. And not to be underestimated is the passion of Russia’s population for the political ‘outer self-determination’ (to use the terminology from economist Jaroslav Vanek’s text The Participatory Economy) of their country, even if it is at the cost in the short run of a certain degree of political ‘inner self-determination’. Given that the oligarchical class has historically been destructive both to ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ forms of Russia’s political self-determination, their present absence is not likely to be mourned even in the face of an economic rough patch.

From a purely political perspective, though, it is generally considered a good thing for the wealthy in a particular state to be subject to the requisite laws and authorities of that state’s government, rather than the other way around. That this development is now finally happening in Russia is in fact something to be grateful for, yes?

01 December 2014

Ferguson redux

The grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, formerly of the Ferguson Police Department, in the shooting death of Michael Brown this past summer, has reopened the wounds in the most spectacular ways possible – with riots, with tear gas and with a stunning reticence on the part of ‘white’ America to grapple with its legacy of racism. This legacy lives on in too many ways to count – to give but one example, the American state and its agents assume black children are ‘guilty’ in ways that they do not consider white children to be.

This legacy has troubling and often tragic implications. A twelve-year-old black youth playing with a gun was shot to death by a police officer who did nothing to confirm the threat, the way he almost certainly would have done had the victim of this shooting been identifiably ‘white’.

That the grand jury procedure would have engaged primarily in trial procedure rather than determining, as they should have done, the sufficiency of the evidence against the defendant to go to trial, with the prosecutor demonstrably failing to do his job, was reason enough for outrage. It should also be reason for deep introspection about the way the American society fails to value black life as equal with white life. And the saddest and most damning part of it, is not that we remain a racist society, and not that we have failed to repent adequately of it, but that we cannot even bring ourselves to see that we have a problem, but must instead discredit and eliminate all those who have that effrontery to bear witness to our sins even simply by existing.

Lord, have mercy upon us all.

29 November 2014

A blessed Feast of Holy Apostle Matthew

I would by highly remiss if I allowed yet another year pass over without remarking upon the Holy Apostle Matthew, the first of the Evangelists and witness of Christ to the Parthians, the Medes and the Ethiopians, whose feast day we celebrate today in the Russian Orthodox Church. Being the saint for whom I was named would be reason enough, but Holy Apostle Matthew is noteworthy in these days in particular, and to Americans in particular, for several other reasons.

Firstly, that Holy Apostle Matthew was a Gospel witness to the Iranians is of great importance. Iran and her people, specifically magi, feature prominently in the Gospel which the holy Saint authored. Iran, the land where Prophets Daniel, Esther and Mordechai still keep their repose, was also the land from which the wise men hailed who first saw the signs of the birth of Our Lord and knelt down before him in adoration. Iran has long been a nation which has thirsted after the timeless and transcendental truths, before gold and land, before power and fame, and before worldly honour and glory; in her way, she was the one nation outside of Israel which was most receptive to the idea of one God, without form, whose overriding character lies in His goodness and His care for the weakest and most vulnerable members of human society. Her zeal, her thirst for truth and her expectation of God’s justice all continue to this day. Is it any wonder the wisest men of this land would, as in Holy Apostle Matthew’s telling, look for God (and indeed recognise Him!) in a lowly manger, in a poor town, born to vagrant parents in the occupied client state of Herodean Israel? And is it any wonder that, after the victory of Christ over death, Holy Apostle Matthew would fare eastward with the good news, to proclaim it there?

As Christians - as those who have heard what was preached by the Holy Apostle Matthew and others - those of us living in America and in the West generally should recoil in shame and horror before we would allow our governments to engage in the military destruction they so often threaten against that country, over an Iranian nuclear weapons programme that is continually fretted over but which never quite manages to materialise. Also, we are duty-bound to pray for the success of the diplomatic ventures that would both ease the fear on our side of an Iranian nuke and ease the material deprivation from sanctions on their own.

Secondly, that when Holy Apostle Matthew recounted the Beatitudes of Our Lord Christ, of the poor in spirit being blessed, he was speaking of a spiritual discipline against the illusions of pride and self-sufficiency. He was emphatically not giving licence or sanction to the wealthy to oppress the economically poor for any reason. Indeed, such oppression and such pursuit of wealth are grave dangers to the soul, as wealth is a cruel and callous master who will brook no such spiritual discipline oriented toward God. No one could possibly have a greater awareness of this than Holy Apostle Matthew, who was himself formerly a tax collector who would have known all too well the temptations of greed, and who recounts Our Lord saying clearly: ‘No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.’ Not only is it a gross distortion of the meaning of S. Matthew’s Gospel to justify the naked pursuit of wealth and the neglect of the economically poor by stressing the spiritual dimension of the Beatitudes in his account, but it runs directly counter to that very same spiritual dimension. My favourite Orthodox philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, put it thus: ‘The question of bread for myself is a material question; but the question of bread for my neighbour is a spiritual question.’

Thirdly, that it is wholly reasonable to expect that Holy Apostle Matthew, whose concern with the genealogy of Our Lord and the signs of his sacral kingship in the line of David are evident in his very mode of writing, and would have been shared by his fellow Hebrews but not by Greek-speaking Gentiles, would almost certainly have been writing in Aramaic first rather than in Greek. That S. Matthew’s account agrees in large part, even to the point of being identical to that of S. Mark’s, is not evidence that he copied his account from S. Mark, or that they both copied from some other source whose existence stands on much flimsier rational grounds than the Aramaic original text of S. Matthew. The Church Fathers beginning with Papias and Irenaeus assert that S. Matthew wrote his Gospel before S. Mark did; and there is no independent reason to cast doubt or suspicion on their understanding of the history of the texts - particularly not for the sake of modernist scholars of higher-criticism suffering from acute cases of chronological snobbery.

It is necessary for us to keep all of the above in mind. Holy Apostle Matthew’s life and works should never be forgotten, and still less what they all mean for us today, particularly we white Christians living sheltered lives under secular Western governments. Those whom we consider our enemies, we are called to love (S. Matthew 5:44). That the wealth and security which we hoard unto ourselves, even as S. Matthew himself did before Jesus called to him at Capernaum, can be a prohibitive spiritual barrier to our entry into the eternal Kingdom (S. Matthew 19:23-26). And that we ought not to trust in our own righteousness and wit and self-sufficiency, and demand signs and wonders in our comfortable self-satisfaction, but rather fast and repent in sincerity as did the men and women of great and proud Nineveh when the same sign was given to them (S. Matthew 16:4). Yet the life and works of S. Matthew show us the same thing that he tells us outright through the words of Our Lord: that with God, all things are indeed possible; as they were possible for him, they are possible too for us!

Holy Apostle Matthew, please pray with us, and entreat merciful God that He may grant our souls remission of our transgressions.

26 November 2014

Culture wars and the non-West

Cross-posted from Oriental Review:

In the United States we used to talk about the ‘culture wars’, as though the ‘culture’ was the battlefield, the undifferentiated contested space on which the wars were fought. Indeed, many of us still seem to think and speak this way. Our political and pundit classes will still often talk about a ‘war on Christmas’ or a ‘war on women’ in the public sphere. It used to be the case – and again, for many people, it still is – that such cultural battles were considered zero-sum existential battles between an almighty evil and the few brave, virtuous and true who were willing to stand up to it. The fights are, in their view, about the right to shape the public space in ways which reflect their deep-seated values, values which they believe ought to be universal. There is a certain tempting logic in this thinking, a certain comforting naivety taking its refuge in the trappings of myth, a certain idea that if only a few specific kinds of thinking could be purged from our national consciousness then the culture would be renewed.

I do not speak as a neutral voice here, if such a thing could possibly exist. I speak, firstly, as an American – and as one of the millennial children born to late baby boomer parents. I speak, secondly, as a ‘left-wing conservative’ – one whose respect for traditional lifeways was fostered by a succession of experiences in Indian Country, in a history class taught by an Anglo-Irish Tory, in a Beijing that was busily being bulldozed for the sake of Olympic showmanship, in Kazakhstan, in the thought of the Slavophils and in the embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church. (I would much sooner call myself a Miyazaki-ist than a Marxist.) As such, I am not entirely unsympathetic to the idea of culture as contested space, and I would love nothing better than to see traditional societies and communities make efforts to reclaim their own cultural spaces on their own terms.

But the issues pointed out by American ‘culture warriors’ both liberal and fundamentalist, are not even close to the entire reality that we face. They certainly don’t approach the hard realities we face now in the United States. Or even in and around the other centres of globalist culture.

What we have begun to see is that the boundaries of acceptable cultural output have begun to narrow and accentuate themselves in very strange and distressing ways – the landscape itself shifts under our feet; the battlefield becomes a bottleneck. It has sadly become the case that it is no longer ‘extreme’ to exhibit one’s body in public – for example, in a ‘pride’ parade – in ways which self-respecting protesters (even counter-cultural ones!) would have thought shameful and entirely beneath them, only twenty or thirty years ago. The infantile antics and language of the so-called ‘Tea Party’, though less explicit than the average ‘pride’ parade, likewise cater to the vulgar Caesarism of their political constituency.

And yet, it becomes not only ‘extreme’, but so beyond the pale as to be worthy of outright dismissal and ridicule, to question the priorities of the American foreign policy establishment, whether from the left or from the right. Speaking of the ramifications of our current foreign policy stance for America’s budget, security and public good is practically a taboo; let alone for the people of Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Mali, Syria and the Ukraine.

What we have begun to see is that a genuine civil discourse over public values and political priorities has been progressively displaced in favour of vulgarity, transgression and titillation – in ways which cannot simply be mere accidents of the times. The enemy is at his strongest when he convinces us he is not there. But there are, of course, beneficiaries to an impoverished public discourse which pushes further into the margins genuine considerations of culture or economy; namely, those who control the culture and the economy. Vulgarity, transgression and titillation all make good copy. They all sell. The very last thing they are is genuinely threatening to the grasp of the elites over public space. And they are readily exported.

This phenomenon of a radically-atomistic, depoliticised politics, of a public sphere characterised by commercialism, vulgarism, voyeurism and self-display, is one which has been quietly cultivated by the globalist elite over the past two decades throughout the world. Witness, for example, the rise in the troubled Ukraine of both radical feminist and neo-Nazi ideology, each displaying vulgar and exhibitionist, even violent, public sphere tactics parallel with the American gay ‘pride’ and anti-tax movements.

In China, there are certainly voices outside the reigning narrative of government authoritarianism versus liberal capitalism put forward by the Anglophone media. Wang Hui, though a thoroughgoing democrat, commits himself to two propositions which fundamentally offend the neoliberal globalist project. First, he argues forcefully in defence of the public rights of traditional communities (such as the Tibetans), in a way which relativises or suspends the formalism of an individual conception of rights. Second, he undercuts this very concept of ‘depoliticised politics’. He critiques, albeit from the left, a political sphere which edges out genuine political discourse whilst providing distractions in the forms of commercialism and spectacle. And he self-consciously adopts an idiosyncratic Daoist philosophical perspective which exposes the fundamental likeness and identity of popularly-perceived opposites, particularly with regard to Anglophone Western perspectives on Chinese history.

Perhaps not accidentally, the two countries which receive the most vilification in the Western press for their political ‘repression’ – China and Russia – are the two countries where a wider variety of political perspectives running counter to the dictates of the global hegemon are most actively striving to make a certain degree of headway. In China, both the thought of the New Left (represented by Wang Hui, Cui Zhiyuan and Wang Shaoguang) and the thought of the traditionalist-conservative, institutionalist branch of the New Confucians (represented by Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang) both attempt to offer authentic and thoroughgoing alternatives to formalism, to legalism, to atomistic individualism and to faceless neoliberal globalism. And in Russia, the older strains of authentic counter-hegemonic thought dating back to Khomyakov and Herzen – Slavophilia, populism, back-to-the-land – are all very much alive and relevant. Modern public figures as different in perspective and methods as Aleksandr Prokhanov and Archimandrite Tikhon are attempting to forge a path forward for Russia that doesn’t fall into the anti-cultural abyss that threatens the Anglophone West.

In a recent article in the Guardian, Indian novelist Pankaj Mishra, quoting sociologist Clifford Geertz, remarks on the ‘pervasive raggedness’ and the ‘shattering of larger coherences’ in the wake of the age of ideology. He speaks on how the ‘long-term losers’ of history are attempting to bow out of a game that they are beginning to realise has always been rigged against them. Parts of his analysis are somewhat overly-hopeful about the prospects of the non-West in the near future. On the whole, though, he is doing us Westerners a great service, by pointing to a healthy instinct in the non-West to seek solutions of self-rule after the example of Gandhi rather than after the example of Nehru.

One thing in particular is something that is difficult for us Americans to imagine, but equally important for us to realise. Our battles are not the world’s battles. ‘Culture war’ means something very different here in China, to the point where speaking about the American ‘culture war’ seems like a quaint exercise in parochial anachronism. Here the war is against an invading anti-culture, one which still fancies itself the best of all possible worlds, in whatever world it happens to find itself. The strength of these non-Western thinkers lies in their recognition that culture – specifically their culture – is not merely a neutral battlefield.

19 November 2014

Puritanism and the bullying of Matt Taylor

So, ‘Shirtstorm’, as they’re calling it. On 12 November, a brilliant but absent-minded astrophysicist named Matt Taylor (who happens to sport hipster beard and ink) celebrates the landing of the Philae probe from the ten-year-old Rosetta spacecraft on a comet on live TV. Not only is this an important landmark achievement in physics in engineering – landing a probe successfully on a comet has never been done before – but they are doing some very interesting analysis on the composition of the comet nucleus that could have far-reaching implications. But a certain segment of Twitter commentators decided that what was important was not the scientific achievement of Dr. Taylor and his team, but the bowling shirt that he decided to wear for the celebration: a kitschy shirt in the style of ‘50’s and ‘60’s pulp sci-fi, featuring scantily-clad women wielding guns.

And practically all of the easily-offended white Anglophone lifestyle-left on Twitter descended upon the hapless physicist (read: nerd) for his ‘casual misogyny’, starting with these people. Demands were made by these twits for Dr. Taylor to be fired. Two days later, Dr. Taylor broke down in tears as he apologised for his choice of shirt. Keep in mind, this shirt was not only a gift, but it was handmade for Dr. Taylor, by a friend of his who happens to be a woman, who was also baffled and upset by the Twitter-mob attack, which she characterised as ‘unreasonably cruel’.

A few thoughtful people called the white Anglophone lifestyle-leftist Twitter mob out for what they were: bullies. They attacked Dr. Taylor not for saying or for doing anything monstrously sexist, but simply for wearing something which symbolised his socially-marginal identity as a nerd. But because nerds are not and never have been viewed by the white Anglophone lifestyle-left as such, Taylor was both politically-safe as a target for their bullying, as well as being powerless enough such that they felt they could get away with showing him exactly where they thought he belonged in the pecking order.

Like most bullies, they weren’t satisfied with Dr. Taylor’s having caved to them, but rather demanded further groveling from him. And, like most bullies, they could dish out an ‘unreasonably cruel’ Twitter mob attack of their own, but when they got called on it by another group of Twitterers, they couldn’t take it, and characterised it as ‘backlash misogyny’. I recognise these exact tactics from middle school – they knew just where to be and just what to say when the teacher stepped in to make sure they could dodge the blame for having shoved the physics geek into the locker.

(To be clear, there are very real problems with misogyny amongst nerds; GamerGate and the ‘fake geek girl’ epithet being only the two most obvious. And these are truly worthy of critique. But wearing a kitschy T-shirt is clearly not quite on the same level as doxxing or stalking female game authors, threatening to shoot up schools or actively ostracising women from events.)

On one level, the critique of ‘Shirtstorm’ can and probably should stop there.

On another level, though, the substantive prudery (there is no better word to use, however loudly certain portions of the Twitter mob deny the charge) which underlies the criticism of Dr. Taylor’s pulpy T-shirt is reflective of a distinctly white, distinctly Anglo-Saxon, distinctly American, distinctly Protestant and distinctly Puritan theological manner of policing the proper boundaries of sexual expression – and not only for men. The Protestant suspicion (and abandonment) of the celibate rule and the specifically Calvinist abandonment of the doctrines of synergism and free will led the Puritans of New England to characterise natural human sexual desires as a defiling and pervasive ‘perversity’. Yet possibly as a coping mechanism, the ‘perversity’ the Calvinists sought to discover in their quest to root out and expose (or, in Chauvin’s term in the Institutes, ‘study to admonish’) sexual sin led them straight to the sexual-psychological releases found in the punishments of torture and public shaming.

Certainly on the core principle of the matter, there are some incredibly massive problems with singling out risqué or suggestive clothing as a marker of responsibility for socio-sexual reactions aroused in bystanders. Either it promotes a double standard, or it carries with it some massively unfortunate implications, particularly from a feminist point-of-view. But it is worth considering that the same Puritan inheritance, the same repressed impulse that underlies classic ‘slut-shaming’ behaviour amongst right-wing Protestants, underlies also this need for these waspish faux-radicals to publicly police and ‘study to admonish’ male ‘perversity’, and to send offenders (particularly ones with distinctly countercultural markers like Dr. Taylor’s) to the figurative stocks. The liberal culture-warrior and the fundamentalist culture-warrior here also mirror each other very closely.

EDIT: Thank you, Julie Bindel!

13 November 2014

Báječně, Prezident Zeman!

Saying something like this, especially as the president of a NATO member country, takes some real smělost. I love it!
The Czech president says he has no reason so far to consider Khodorkovsky a political prisoner, although this is a wonderful pretext for cleansing oneself. He instead believes that Khodorkovsky was a swindler. The only thing that Zeman does not like about the Putin regime is that Putin did not imprison other oligarchs together with Khodorkovsky.
Moreover, Mr. Zeman has been an outspoken supporter of the territorial integrity of the Chinese nation and has pursued a strong cooperative stance toward China, which has earned my in-laws’ approval of the man! And whereas the Western press have a pretext for concern-trolling Viktor Orbán’s government on trumped-up human rights, well, ‘concerns’, in the case of Mr. Zeman they have little choice but to complain about his potty-mouth (when in truth, the only real vulgarities he used were the name of PR itself and references to their lyrics). At this point, it is quite easy enough to mock the Western press in its double-standards on free speech and political autonomy, but I do worry that when the raw ragged edges of NATO begin to fray, the colour-revolution handbook and the IMF-imposed austerity handbook will be broken out on the dissenting governments, and things could get quite ugly.

In other news, though, at least a few people seem to be engaging in some level of introspection on the matter over what this subtle shift in central European politics will mean in the short- to middle-term.

In the meantime, a big hearty bravo to Mr. Zeman, a man who isn’t afraid to talk common sense! I would pay good money to have a pivo or three with the guy!

08 November 2014

So much good stuff recently!

Where to start?

Well, logically, let’s start at the beginning. Let’s start with President Putin’s recent clarion call at the Valdai International Discussion Club to the recognition of the contradictions and collapse of the neoliberal world order, a collapse which he hints could (God forbid!) lead to another world war. Putin speaks measuredly, with care and with precision here, but delivers his blows against the reigning hegemon with all the acuity of a master fencer. He speaks like a classical European conservative, of the dangers of imposing order on the world by ‘universal diktat’. He details the threats facing his own country, and of the threats facing the world order: terrorism, organised crime, extremism of both political and religious varieties, piracy, trafficking in drugs and human flesh – all encouraged by breakdowns in the social order, and often ones following a direct or an indirect intervention by the United States government.

It’s well worth reading in its entirety, as one may do in English here. But the money quote is as follows:
We are well aware that the world has entered an era of changes and global transformations, when we all need a particular degree of caution, the ability to avoid thoughtless steps. In the years after the Cold War, participants in global politics lost these qualities somewhat. Now, we need to remember them. Otherwise, hopes for a peaceful, stable development will be a dangerous illusion, while today’s turmoil will simply serve as a prelude to the collapse of world order.

Yes, of course, I have already said that building a more stable world order is a difficult task. We are talking about long and hard work. We were able to develop rules for interaction after World War II, and we were able to reach an agreement in Helsinki in the 1970s. Our common duty is to resolve this fundamental challenge at this new stage of development.
On the other hand, we have this brilliant postmortem by veteran journalist Patrick L. Smith on the American news media’s non-coverage, or rather selective coverage, of this speech. Here’s one particularly enjoyable highlight:
Here is Schmemann on the Ukraine passages of the presentation: “In Mr. Putin’s version of the Ukrainian crisis, the United States was the instigator of the protests in Kiev that led to a ‘coup’ against President Viktor Yanukovych and the subsequent fighting. One American participant told Mr. Putin she was hard put to recognize her country as the one he was describing.”

Well, confused American participant, you make an interesting point. Washington has created a version of events in Ukraine that amounts to a parallel reality, and people such as Schmemann are paid to perpetuate it. If it is of any help: There was a coup, there were neo-fascists among its leaders, the State Department backed it, and the evidence of all this is indisputable.
And speaking of the lovely Grey Lady. She is quite put out, very clearly distressed and seemingly confused, the poor dear, about how to interpret Viktor Orbán’s successes in Hungary. Is it an atavistic regression toward the Soviet bloc, from a man who won his fame fighting the same? Or is it a new, dark and dangerous ‘right-wing populist’ star rising over the Magyar lands? Saying both at once leaves one with the impression that she doesn’t quite know which way to jump. Well, whatever it is, it is quite clear from her tone of distress that our dear Lady Grey simply doesn’t like it. Which is all the more reason for us to like it – those of us Americans who prefer our nation to be peaceful and law-abiding, that is!

Speaking of peaceful and law-abiding Americans – which is to say, Americans abiding by the eternal law of God rather than by the dictates of tourism-obsessed city governments gone mad – all hats off indeed to the inimitable nonagenarian Mr. Abbott of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who has received his second criminal citation under a new city ordinance for the horrific crime of feeding homeless people. Bravissimo, Mr. Abbott! And Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has an incredibly profound piece discussing this case.

Lots of positives for today, actually – little glints of hope amongst the flotsam! I’m in a pretty positive mood right now – just finished up with a conference in Nanjing on the topic of the New Silk Web. It was very productive; got to meet a lot of very smart, interesting and good people from China, from Pakistan, from England, from Germany and from my own country, and discuss with them everything from halal food to techno-anarchism, and from Thomas Piketty to Han-dynasty traditional Chinese thought. It’s been an exhausting but remarkably rewarding day.

05 November 2014

Just asking

How is it that certain ideologically-driven elements of American court historiography (usually and unconvincingly self-describing as conservative), after rightly decrying the brutal and inhumane practice of mass human sacrifice by the Aztecs, then go on to excuse American race-based chattel slavery in historicist terms as a temporary glitch and a product of the times (and hey, everybody else was doing it too!)?

Amongst such ideologically-driven elements, one must wonder: do such historicist and moral-relativist excuses apply only to Americans and their forebears?

Again, just asking.

Pointless video post – ‘Ride’ by Cathedral

One of the traditional doom metal bands (well, not quite traditional) that I have come to really enjoy recently is Cathedral. Lee Dorrian, after a brief stint as the frontman for Napalm Death of grindcore fame, very clearly turned in a completely different direction after he formed the band. I have to admit, I have a certain guilty appreciation for all the instances of ‘hey’, ‘come on now’ and ‘alright’ that pepper his lyrics, but other than that this band takes its lyrics quite seriously. While they might not be as playful and pun-happy as, say, Skyclad, there’s definitely more than a bit of clever wordsmithing going on in these songs. One can look quite a bit deeper, of course, but the song titles themselves are quite tantalising in their sesquipedalian glory, with tracks like ‘Phantasmagoria’, ‘Karmacopia’ and ‘Fangalactic Supergoria’. And the tunes themselves are heavy and catchy as hell, to boot, with an old-school rock-and-roll vibe and more than a bit of psychedelia for good measure. Enjoy the ‘Ride’, gentle readers!

30 October 2014

The illusion of ‘whiteness’

One of the biggest scams ever pulled on us so-called ‘white’ people – the one which has destroyed the great basis of our wealth and communal health in exchange for what has largely consisted of the illusion of power, the one which angry ‘white’ people should be really, really angry about – was rich landowners telling them that they were white. The white race is, in actuality, a nakedly artificial political description, and the sorts of conservatives who say that white people should be proud of their achievements are in actuality anything but conservative. What they are conserving is an imaginary norm rather than a real community of people and lifeways. They are perpetuating a scam, among the several aims of which is to dissolve the sense of communal belonging which ties the vestiges of Old World immigrant traditions to modern life.

In 1600, there was no such thing as the ‘white race’. One of the reasons why I am adamant that racism is a historically-circumscribed and explicitly-modern phenomenon is precisely because people had no grounds to think in ‘racial’ terms prior to their invention. Discrimination in one form or another may have always been a problem, but it is not only lazy but downright wrong to say that racism has been. I say this because the historical proof is in the texts themselves. The ‘white race’ was essentially legislated into existence by the Virginia colonial government in 1691. And it was legislated into existence as an act of class warfare not only against blacks but also against white people whose families had been brought over as uncompensated labourers – in other words, slaves – from Ireland and Scotland. Specifically, it was done to prevent poor Gaelic whites from commiserating with enslaved Africans, and to prevent the solidarity and collaboration of uncompensated labour across ‘racial’ lines.

People from Ireland and Scotland in the early colonial period were generally of two kinds. Some were political prisoners and debt slaves who were sold into forced servitude in the New World as a free and mobile labour class. Others were political and religious dissenters, often with Jacobite sympathies. However, political refugees and servants under indenture did not provide a broad enough labour pool for the needs of conquering a new continent – a gap which the Atlantic slave trade rushed in to fill.

Black slavery and ‘white’ Gaelic indenture were aimed toward the same end, but broadening the pool of rootless free mobile labour brought with it its own problems, the first of which was numerical strength. Early on in the history of the Middle Passage it was far from unheard-of for black and white slaves to raise joint insurrections. The solution to this problem devised by the Virginia colonial legislature, brilliant in its diabolical subtlety and simplicity, was to sow distrust between them by granting special privileges to the Gaelic slaves and denying them to the black slaves… on the basis of skin colour. The Marxist analysis is largely correct on the merits, that the ‘white race’ was a political wedge driven straight down the middle of the nascent working class, one that could disguise itself in a ‘natural’ camouflage.

‘Whiteness’ as a standard of informal and legal access to the mainstream American body politic demonstrably varied from generation to generation – and it could be granted or rescinded depending on the political climate. At the beginning of the century, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe – classified ‘racially’ as Slavs and Iberians – were denied access to the American mainstream on the basis that they had ‘poorer physical and mental equipment’ and ‘radically different ideals and standards of living as compared with the Celtic and Teutonic races’. (I’ll be honest, it blew my mind that my Bohemian immigrant grandmother’s family would not have been considered ‘white’.) However, even the Teutonic ‘race’ was not exempt from exclusion – over the course of the twentieth century Americans of German descent were denied access to the American mainstream on the basis of political fear.

Thus far went the traditional leftist critique of race. But a potentially rich traditionalist-conservative critique of race lurks on the other side of the equation. Whereas old-guard leftists have been concerned with the economic inequalities associated with unequal access to the American mainstream, traditionalists are and should be concerned with the character of that mainstream. After all, one side effect of the political invention of race was that it served as an unspoken and infinitely flexible solvent of traditional communities as they immigrated in waves over to the United States. Even though Slavs and Iberians were denied access to the American mainstream on account of their foreignness and especially their Catholicism and Orthodoxy, assimilation to the bland liberal Anglo-Saxon Protestant norm was always an option. Heads could be kept down. Noses could be kept to the grindstone. Names could be changed. Languages could be forgotten. Religious practices could be kept under the table or outright abandoned.

Certain elements of the liberal project still seek to extend the cultural normativity of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism across the entirety of modern American society – as such, they are still having difficulties getting minorities, especially traditionally-conservative black, Irish and Eastern European working-class enclaves on-board with their project. But traditionalist conservatives themselves have no such weakness, since they tend to value the cultural uniqueness and close ties of each of the ethnic enclaves, whether they are rural Appalachian Scots-Irish, Midland Eastern European, northeastern Italian or even (especially in the case of some traditionalist Catholics) southwestern Latino.

The weakness of the traditionalist conservative position is that too many of them misdiagnose ‘whiteness’.

The ‘white’ identity is not under threat. Indeed, under the influence of modern mainstream liberalism, the ‘white’ identity has expanded to include a number of those previously considered racial minorities. The ‘white’ identity, being an identity with no reality outside of power politics, is infinitely flexible. Rather, because of this, the ‘white’ identity is a threat, precisely to the cultural uniqueness, religious values and informal communal ties of each ethnic enclave. ‘Whiteness’ is and always has been a political invitation into the American mainstream, deracinated, globalised and undifferentiated. And it has always been an invitation extended in bad faith.

Take for example the model minority du jour, the Asian-American minority. They are being used (most recently by one Mr. William James O’Reilly, Jr.) as a mascot to deny the very idea of ‘white privilege’ – because they work hard and play by the rules of American mainstream society, so the argument goes, they are rewarded with success. The failures of blacks and Hispanics to attain the same successes are, so the corollary goes, totally due to their own lack of initiative and shortcomings as measured by the standards of laisser-faire capitalism. Wait, what was the phrase again? Oh yes, ‘poorer physical and mental equipment’ and ‘radically different ideals and standards of living as compared with the Celtic and Teutonic races’. Asian-American ‘success’, which as Ms. Haruka Sakaguchi explains is to a significant degree the result of selective immigration policies, is being used to shield the wealthy from a systematic critique.

We’ve sacrificed our names, our cultural practices, and even our religious convictions in this attempt to ‘act white’ – and when we finally get there we’re no better off than when we started. Except our one-percenter overlords give us more opportunities to kick the black guy. Maybe it’s my ‘poorer mental equipment’, but to this stupid lazy bohunk it looks a lot like we slightly-more-ethnic newfangled whiteys have been getting played this whole time. We’ve sold off our birthrights, and not even for a mess of pottage. We didn’t even get the pottage! Instead we got to think of ourselves as ‘white’, as equal in an illusory way to the Teutonic Protestant norm – the norm of capitalist ‘success’. And we are now seeing the results of Asian-Americans having made the same Faustian bargain.

This should upset traditionalist conservatives as much as it upsets leftists, even if it is for different reasons. The last remnants of the organic communities of the Old World, and the transcendent values they brought with them, got sacrificed by their children for the sake of conforming to an imposed, nakedly-political community.

28 October 2014

Hanfu – a tale of traditionalist resistance

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

In 2003, a power-company worker named Wang Letian in Zhengzhou, Henan Province began doing something unprecedentedly strange, almost unthinkable in Chinese society with its subtly conformist pressures. He walked down the street, in broad daylight, wearing traditional Chinese clothing. And not just any traditional Chinese clothing – he did not choose, for example, the tangzhuang which was common during the Qing Dynasty. Mr. Wang chose to wear a pre-Qing hanfu (漢服) – and was the first person to do so in a public setting in 358 years. He may or may not have intended it, but his small act sparked a significant subcultural interest in reviving traditional Han clothing in China. Amongst many Chinese people, particularly young people, there is a desire to assert some material form of local, national and cultural pride which finds a ready expression in the hanfu.

The location here is significant. Zhengzhou is the capital of Henan Province, China’s cultural (and agricultural) heartland. Henan is home to Luoyang, Kaifeng and Anyang, three of China’s most important historical imperial capitals from the Xia, Yin, Zhou and Han Dynasties all the way down to the Song Dynasty. And yet, in recent years, Henan and its people have faced various difficulties. The famine of 1942 during the Sino-Japanese War hit Henan hardest of all, to the point where children were sold to other families so that they wouldn’t starve to death. In the wake of ‘reform and opening’, Henanese farmers were some of the hardest-hit by the corporate-driven land expropriation that followed hard on the heels of Deng’s privatisation programme – only the farmers of Anhui Province to the southeast suffered more. As a result, many migrant workers (mingong 民工) came out of Henan to work in urban centres of capital like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Henan was routinely (and unfairly) portrayed and ridiculed in Chinese popular culture, particularly during the early 2000’s, as violent, criminal, backwards, superstitious, given to vice and (worst of all) poor.

It would be more than somewhat naïve to dismiss the class or regional origins of the hanfu subculture out-of-hand. Wang Letian was not, of course, a migrant worker, but in 2003 he was a proletarian power-plant worker in Henan’s biggest urban centre. And as an element of material culture, the hanfu of course hearkens back directly to a time when Henan was China’s centre and had not been left behind by the post-Deng rush to riches. Wang himself speaks of his gesture in nationalist and aesthetic terms, though: ‘In the end beautiful things will meet with people’s approval,’ he says. ‘Not to mention, the hanfu has always been our thing… in the great family of China’s 56 ethnic groups, only the Han do not have their traditional dress. Following [our] tragic history, only the Han traditional clothing style died out; we need to revive [this tradition].’

The hanfu subculture has not stayed in Henan. It has gained attention and interest from all over China, particularly from young people and particularly from young women. It has also attracted a great deal of criticism, which runs in several related veins. One WangYi (163.com) article from 2012 criticised the movement as ‘attention-seeking’, ‘awkward’ and reminiscent of ‘time-travel’, which covers most of the bases of the criticisms levelled at the hanfu subculture.

The first criticism, the criticism that gets the most air-time, is that the hanfu is ‘awkward’. It is ill-suited, the critics assert, for the practical demands of everyday clothing in modern urban life. The long design is imagined as impractical for the demands of work, school life, play and so on. The second, related criticism is that the adoption of the hanfu is essentially a form of misplaced nostalgia which has no place in modern Chinese society. The third criticism, running somewhat at odds with the first two, is that it is essentially a movement by individuals seeking to show off or an inauthentic attempt at copying a privilege enjoyed by other nations: that the current focus on clothing is superficial and shallow, and does nothing substantial for the spiritual question and the question of national dignity which it attempts to address. Still other critics do not dismiss the importance of the hanfu movement, but rather see it as trending dangerously in the direction of Han ethnic chauvinism, playing to historical victim complexes and potentially alienating China’s minorities.

The first and second criticisms are particularly interesting for their assumption, and indeed assertion, of a set of cultural norms governed by the demands of Western capitalism. In modern China the Western business suit is associated with ‘success’, defined in terms of monetary gain and superior social status. For women, western brands are practically always preferred to domestics. Practically the best thing one can say about a piece of clothing in Beijing or Shanghai is that it is ‘in vogue’ (shishang 時尚), and the types of clothing that invariably receive this assessment are European in design. One of the very last things one would say about the hanfu is that it is shishang – for this reason, it is dismissed as either a mere piece of nostalgia, as something that comes out of a period drama, or as something ‘impractical’ in the terms laid down by capitalist modernity.

The third criticism is somewhat more well-intentioned, but the idea is that the hanfu movement doesn’t go far enough and that it gets mired down in trivia in the quest for the Chinese national soul seems a bit grandiloquent and even misaimed. For one thing, the Bard’s (ironic?) quip in Hamlet that ‘the apparel oft proclaims the man’, though it is now used to enforce modern clothing norms, is not entirely untrue. What you wear does say something, and not necessarily something merely superficial. For another thing, the traditional Chinese classics outright proclaimed this. The Book of Rites states: ‘The son of Heaven, every five years, made a tour of Inspection through the fiefs… he ordered the superintendent of rites to examine the seasons and months, and fix the days, and to make uniform the standard tubes, the various ceremonies, the instruments of music, all measures, and the fashions of clothes. Whatever was wrong in these was rectified.’ Classical Chinese thought saw nothing ‘superficial’ about material culture calendars, weights and measures, music or clothing; all had the potential to either to proclaim or to blaspheme the sacred and transcendent. To limit this quest for the Chinese soul to more abstract pursuits is to reduce the Chinese soul itself to a modernist Cartesian abstraction, in a way that can only be self-defeating!

Nowadays, though, the risks for the hanfu movement are largely internal, and regard its relation to the culture around it. The big question for the movement is: to what extent does it seek to normalise the use of traditional dress? Many of the movement’s leaders, and certainly Mr. Wang himself, would say that they want to make hanfu a common and unremarkable sight in normal everyday Chinese urban life. Others would be content to keep the hanfu merely for important events – especially weddings, graduations, coming-of-age ceremonies. One real problem is touched on by thoughtful articulators of the third criticism, and that is that the hanfu is still sometimes broadly considered a novelty and a spectacle in modern Chinese culture. There is the risk of the ‘hipster’ factor, that hanfu becomes something worn for show in wilful or ironic self-alienation. Very obviously it isn’t a panacea for China’s national anxieties. But hopefully it can become and remain a form of healthy cultural expression in its own right.

That caution having been made. Here’s to the hanfu movement: with its local and proletarian roots; with its assertion of a national identity against the demands of deracinated, global capitalist anti-culture; with its ‘impracticality’; and with its attempt to bring something transcendent and beautiful back into China’s material culture.

24 October 2014

The danger of ideological monarchism - Japan

Empress Myeongseong of Joseon

The Mad Monarchist is probably a textbook example of the dangers of making even a well-intentioned ideology out of monarchism – which is to say, when you reduce monarchism to an unreflective devotion to any system with monarchical characteristics, regardless of how those characteristics are reflected at the levels of theology, of politics or of policy. Now would probably be the proper point for me to point out that I am, to quote a certain Romanist saint, ‘the king’s good servant, and God’s first’. I am a monarchist, insofar as that is demanded by my religion and insofar as the saints, the apostles and the Tradition of the Orthodox Church support monarchy as just and wise. But my sympathy for monarchy ends precisely where its implementation eats away at its own legitimacy, where it undermines its own raison d’être. (And, unlike the Mad Monarchist, I neither conflate nor confuse the one with the other.)

Take, for example, the Mad Monarchist’s devotion to the Empire of Japan, a devotion of the most quixotic, naïve and even unfeeling character. Japan is a brightly-coloured but empty shell. The Emperor remains, but as essentially a cipher. And in history, the Empire of Japan has arguably done more in East Asia to undermine the cause of monarchy by its own actions, great and small, than Mao Zedong could ever hope to do. This is, obviously, a highly controversial claim, and certainly TMM himself would dispute it. But his history of Japan’s actions on the world stage is highly incomplete, and I think it would be well to look carefully at some of the bits he overlooks.

The fact that he does not begin with, but rather glosses over, the millennialist Donghak rebellion or with the First Sino-Japanese War is highly significant. Japan certainly did not act as a friend to the Korean monarchy (which had requested military assistance from the Qing Dynasty), but used the Donghak rebellion as an excuse to undermine the legitimacy of the Korean government.

It is clear that there were legitimate issues of government corruption at stake in the Donghak rebellion, and that the Joseon Dynasty had some real problems negotiating the power balance between their two hostile neighbours, as well as some truly unsavoury cultural practices. However, the Korean caste system – which by this point had already weakened and was beginning to show certain fractures – was gradually being reformed out of existence under Qing influence. The Donghak rebellion, however, created an opportunity for an expansionist Japan to claim that the Qing were in violation of treaty, and therefore to declare war on the Qing. Once the smoke had cleared, the Japanese were in control of Korea and had begun embarking on a course of reforms inspired by Donghak demands. To give credit where credit is due, the redeeming feature of these reforms was the abolition of serfdom and the dismantling of the caste system – though, again, that was already being reformed out of existence prior to the Sino-Japanese War. Other than that, everything that the Japanese did in Korea was practically perfectly calculated to humiliate and discredit the cultural values which underwrote Korea’s monarchy.

There is no question about this. East Asian monarchies have historically placed a great deal of emphasis on form, on ritual and on music. Joseon was no exception. One of its means of resisting Qing influence was its use of the Ming Dynasty calendar to determine dates – this was the Joseon state’s explicit way of expressing loyalty to the Ming Emperor and to the Confucian ideals that he represented. The Japanese, who fully understood this, abolished the Ming calendar and replaced it with the Japanese one. The two messages sent were crystal-clear: Joseon was no longer an independent monarchy, and the monarchical rituals demonstrating the Korean devotion to the Ming Emperor no longer applied. The Mad Monarchist says that ‘the Japanese were much more careful than other powers in ensuring that the monarchial principle was not damaged’ by allowing the Korean royal family to retain its lifestyle; but this is exactly wrong, and this must be attributed either to an ignorance of Confucian philosophy or to a blinkered devotion to the Japanese state. The Japanese had done something far worse to the monarchy: they had cut the taproot between the Joseon monarchs and their past allegiances, the Confucian inheritance, the Korean people themselves.

The Japanese added insult to injury by centralising and bureaucratising the administration (that is to say, making a legalist standard of merit normative rather than a Confucian one); by reorganising Korea’s geographical subdivisions; by robbing Korea of its own monetary policy, introducing Japanese currency and thus ensuring its finical dependence on Japan; and introducing the Western practice of remarriage for divorced and widowed women. In 1895, the Japanese orchestrated the murder of the Korean Empress Myeongseong (the woman responsible for rehabilitating Catholicism in Korea) – an historical tidbit that the Mad Monarchist quite conveniently elides. Still worse, they burned her body, which was from a Confucian view a calculated insult to her father and particularly her mother, and by extension the entire Korean royal family.

As far as Korea was concerned, the Japanese occupiers were regicides, though no doubt The Mad Monarchist considers this an ‘incredibly petty’ point. The Japanese managed to extradite the men responsible for this most heinous crime to a military tribunal in Hiroshima, and proceeded to acquit them all. It was after this constant barrage of crimes and insults directed specifically against the monarchy that traditionalist Confucian scholars and peasants united in the Uibyeong uprisings against the Japanese. TMM seems to be under the mistaken impression that the later act of keeping and educating the Korean crown prince in Tôkyô was some sort of act of friendship, but he seems utterly ignorant of the old warring-states Japanese practice of keeping the close kin of one’s enemies as hostages in the capital… just in case one of these Uibyeong uprisings came close to succeeding.

With regard to Russia, I have already talked some about the underappreciated life of Russia’s last monarch, the Tsar S. Nikolai II of Russia. The cowardly Japanese sneak attack on Port-Arthur, and the subsequent war between Russia and Japan, both gave significant intellectual ammunition to Tsar Nikolai’s domestic political opponents, who took every opportunity to portray him as both belligerent and incompetent when in truth he was neither. The Japanese military supported anti-Tsarist movements from that point on, particularly giving their logistical support and funding to Konni Zilliacus and the Menshevik revolutionary Georgiy Plehanov to coordinate with other anti-Tsarist and republican agitators in Paris and Geneva, whose activities culminated in the revolution of 1905. The Japanese were no friends to the Tsars. Only when it was demonstrably too late for the monarchist cause in Russia did Japan lend its aid to the White armies.

Towards Qing China, Japan was very little better. It is again highly convenient that The Mad Monarchist fails to recognise Japan’s active support for Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary republican programme, both ideologically and materially. Sun fled to Japan when he sought asylum, and Japanese parliamentarians – especially Inukai Tsuyoshi – actively supported Sun’s anti-monarchist Tongmenghui. No such official support was given in Japan to Kang Youwei’s Confucian Qing loyalist reform movement, the Baohuanghui, which later became the Progressive Party. Again, only when it was too late for monarchist movements to stand on their own merits in China, did the Japanese give them anything resembling aid – and then always with the same strings attached as applied in Korea. What they did was never out of a desire to support monarchy with all of its local customs and characteristics intact. It was always to subvert the organic monarchical forms and replace them instead with imposed Japanese ones.

Speaking as an otherwise-sympathetic monarchist, The Mad Monarchist’s entire read of the history of East Asia is characterised by an extreme bias and a naïveté of the political and intellectual history of the region which borders on wilful ignorance. And of course, holding modern Japan up as any sort of monarchist model for the rest of Asia is utterly nonsensical.

Japanese society is sick – they have left off reproducing themselves to the point where they are in the midst of a horrific demographic crisis which will strain their society to the breaking point. Their public officials have long since cast off for vulgar capitalist reasons any sort of Confucian concern for their own elderly, let alone humane management of their own ecological or political resources for future generations. Those same public officials are seemingly making up for this by puffing out their chests and posturing with all their might over territorial disputes with China and South Korea. Not monarchism, but vulgar Caesarism rules – as long as Japanese men can afford to satisfy their perverse onanistic needs, and as long as Japanese women feel that making money in the Japanese corporate world is more important than the business of bearing and rearing the next generation, they will continue to support the most ugly and venal sorts of symbolic politics imaginable, particularly against their Chinese and Korean neighbours. The monarchy has done nothing to prevent this erosion of the bedrock on which it stands – and indeed, as long as Japan remains a subservient American client-state, its monarchy can do nothing.

23 October 2014

Black Lagoon

I really can’t say I’m as much of a weeaboo as I used to be. Politically I’m not a Japanophile at all. Actually living and working in East Asia – China and Japan – cured me of that. And going to college pretty much turned me off from most Japanese cultural exports. There’s a plasticity and sterility to them which, to tell the truth, kind of rubs me the wrong way. Nowadays I mentally sort Japanese anime and manga into four broad categories:
  • Art. Anime and manga with endearing characteristics that can pass for a soul on something deeper than a cursory inspection. Generally has one creator with a consistent, clear creative vision, who wants to do his own thing regardless of what the market pressures him to do – which in Japanese culture makes him or her essentially a megalomaniac or a crazy outcast bastard. Generally also has a storyline which doesn’t succumb to plot clichés and cardboard-cutout characters. Examples include: Last Exile, Jûni Kokki, Cowboy Bebop, Hakujaden, Samurai Champloo, Haibane Renmei, basically anything with Miyazaki Hayao’s name attached to it (and possibly anything by Studio Ghibli generally).

  • Cheap, hackish commercial schlock. Anime and manga that blatantly and shamelessly ride the crest of some popular trend or obviously try to cash in on something. Usually accompanied by a collector card game or a line of overpriced plastic toys. Generally has a predictable paint-by-numbers plot populated by paint-by-numbers heroes fighting villains-of-the-week. Often accompanied by unrealistic huge piloted robots. Or unrealistic huge piloted robots capable of space travel. Or unrealistic huge piloted robots that can join together to form even more unrealistic, huger piloted robots. Or katanas. Or katanas that can destroy in one swing unrealistic huge piloted robots capable of space travel which can join together to form even more gAAAAHHHHHHggguurrrggggl… you get my drift. Basically heartless, soulless brightly-coloured crap, made as cheap as possible and animated, directed and produced by committee for maximum possible payout. Examples include: One Piece, Naruto, Yû-Gi-Oh!, Digimon, Fushigi Yûgi, Full Metal Alchemist, Cardcaptor Sakura, Transformers (the originals and especially the Michael Bay remakes), practically anything with Gundam in the title, practically anything that played on FOX Kids, and so on. Yes, I’m prejudiced. Go cry me a river.

  • Cheap, hackish commercial schlock with a certain sense of comic self-awareness. Plays the irony factor occasionally. Slightly hipsterish in orientation, or at least comical in a certain sense. May have cardboard-cutout characters but at least plays them off each other, breaks the fourth wall for laughs, or undermines them in certain ways which are amusing for the viewer. May or may not have certain mo lei tau tendencies. Usually authored by at least one artist with a sense of humour, though probably also with a profit motive and a massive ego. Examples include: The Slayers (self-aware low-budget D&D-styled schlock par excellence!), Excel Saga (utter mo lei tau brilliance), FLCL, the original Dragon Ball (not any of the sequels), Dr. Slump and Rumic World.

  • Pretentious poseurish bullshit. My very least favourite form of anime and manga – truly the bottom of the barrel. Tries to be deep. Fails miserably. Clearly influenced by the original run of Eva. Too much so. In all the wrong ways. Often to the point where it may include quotes by or allusions to Greek, German, French or Danish philosophers it clearly doesn’t understand (bonus points if it uses the original language in a flowery cursive font; triple points if it has Engrish misspellings; tenfold points if at any point it includes sakura flower petals floating by). Tries to be dark and edgy. Comes off as boring, mopey and emo. Features plots which are needlessly drawn-out, don’t make sense, or both. Features characters which are cardboard-cutouts but which tries its hardest to convince us they aren’t. Probably has an intentionally-misspelled title, a title with capital letters in the wrong place, or over- or misused punctuation marks. Has a single artist or author on medications, who is also possibly a suspect in multiple child molestation cases. Textbook example and my personal nemesis: DeathNote – which holds the distinction of being the only anime ever to make me actively root for the Chinese state censors. Other examples: SaiKano, any of the spinoffs or remakes of Eva (the original is debatable), Witch Hunter Robin, Rurôni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal, Code Geass.
Which leaves me with the question of what to do with Black Lagoon, which I just recently watched. After having watched it, I still can’t decide if what I watched fell into the category of art, pretentious poseurish bullshit, or maybe a new category – self-aware pretentious poseurish bullshit.

What it is is remarkably entertaining and darkly funny. If Quentin Tarantino (complete with his brand of vaguely left-wing politics) directed Pirates of the Caribbean set in modern-day Southeast Asia, with an artistic style that is clearly trying to ape Cowboy Bebop, the result would look very similar to this. And one of the main characters is a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, blue-streaking, dual Beretta-wielding, hotpants-rocking tattooed Chinese-American badass raised on the wrong side of Manhattan. How badass, you say? Put it this way: anytime she opens her mouth or twitches her finger she can roundhouse kick Chuck Norris before shooting him in the damn face.

Citizen of the fucking year.

The series can’t avoid being political, though I’m not decided yet whether it’s a good thing or not. And because of its following the main character Rock, who as a low-ranking young Japanese salaryman is a minnow thrown into the shark pool that is Tortuga the fictional Thai port town Roanapur, its politics come off at first as vaguely quasi-anarchist. He gets kidnapped by pirates and his bosses essentially try to get him killed in order to prevent the pirates from completing their contract, but after he learns of and then foils their plan, disillusioned with the Japanese corporate world he turns pirate himself.

And, not to give away spoilers, but the ranking superpower on the world stage often makes its weight felt in this series. When the main characters aren’t Tarantino-ing neo-Nazis in the style of Inglourious Basterds, that is. Or getting into fights with unstoppable Colombian ex-mercenaries, busting the heads of Philippine Islamists, protecting a one-woman international counterfeiting ring from Cuban-American Mafiosi or abetting the massacre of entire yakuza clans by ex-Soviet gangsters. It’s a real mixed bag that way.

Where it gets into the pretentious bullshit territory, though, is when Rock ends up in a sort of pointless existential crisis on account of a sympathetic Heidegger- and Sartre-quoting villain-of-the-arc. Philosophically it is literate (unlike so many of Eva’s countless imitators) and it makes sense both for him and for the villain, but in terms of the story I’m not entirely sure it tells us anything we didn’t already know about Rock – and it certainly doesn’t resolve anything. (Though maybe that’s the point. Argh.)

I’m not undecided on the quality of this series. It is remarkably well-made. Gratuitous? Gleefully so. But even the gratuitousness has a point to make. And the characters really do grow on you, even the ones who would be the most unlikeable in real life, and that’s all to Rei Hiroe’s credit. The artwork is pretty derivative, but the story is better than decent! I’m giving it my recommendation.