30 November 2015

A few words on usury

Cross-posted from Christian Democracy Magazine:

It’s difficult to think of an economic activity more ubiquitous under capitalism than the charging of interest on loans meant for consumption. Modern commercial banking, including those banks in which most of us (myself included) have savings accounts, depends fully on the lending of money at interest, and has done so ever since the first silver-smithies of the Renaissance city-states of northern Italy and Flanders began printing their own bank-notes. We live in an age and a society where credit card debt and payday lenders are systematic and ubiquitous. And yet the sin of usury finds a round condemnation in a broad unanimity of Church Fathers both East and West.

So says Holy Father Basil the Great:
Tell me, do you seek money and means from a poor man? If he had been able to make you richer, why would he have sought at your doors? Coming for assistance, he found hostility. When searching around for antidotes, he came upon poisons. It was your duty to relieve the destitution of the man, but you, seeing to drain the desert dry, increased his need… And just as farmers pray for rains for the increase of their crops, so you also ask for poverty and want among men in order that your money may be productive to you. Do you not know that you are making an addition to your sin greater than the increase to your wealth, which you are planning from the interest?
And so says his brother, Holy Father Gregory of Nyssa:
Do not live with feigned charity nor be a murderous physician with the pretense to heal for a profit; if you do this, a person trusting in your skill can suffer great harm. Money lending has no value and is rapacious. It is unfamiliar with such trades as agriculture and commerce… Money lending wants everything to be wild and begets whatever has been untilled… Usury’s home is a threshing-floor upon which the fortunes of the oppressed are winnowed and where it considers everything as its own. It prays for afflictions and misfortunes in order to destroy such persons. Money lending despises people contented with their possessions and treats them as enemies because they do not provide money. It watches courts of law to find distress in persons who demand payment and follows tax collectors who are a nest of vultures in battle array prepared for war. Money lending carries a purse and dangles bait as a wild beast to those in distress in order to ensnare them in their need. Daily it counts gain and cannot be satisfied. It is vexed by gold hidden in a person’s home because it remains idle and unprofitable. Usury imitates farmers who immediately plant crops; it takes and gives money without gain while transferring it from one hand to another.
Holy Father Gregory the Theologian, in full agreement with his friends the brothers Basil and Gregory, holds that the usurer
is gathering where he has not sowed and reaping where he has not strawed; farming, not the land, but the necessity of the needy.
Archbishop Saint John Chrysostom preaches against usury with his wonted vigour:
Nothing, nothing is baser than the usury of this world, nothing more cruel. Why, other persons’ calamities are such a man’s traffic; he makes himself gain of the distress of another, and demands wages for kindness, as though he were afraid to seem merciful, and under the cloak of kindness he digs the pitfall deeper, by the act of help galling a man’s poverty, and in the act of stretching out the hand thrusting him down, and when receiving him as in harbour, involving him in shipwreck, as on a rock, or shoal, or reef.
And again:
Of what favour canst thou be worthy? of what justification? who in thy sowing of the earth, gladly pourest forth all, and in lending to men at usury sparest nothing; but in feeding thy Lord through His poor art cruel and inhuman?
Note that again and again in the homilies and writings of the Eastern Fathers we can see at work an agrarian analogy with money, and one at that all the more striking, because the analogy serves to contrast the two. Ss. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazanzius and John Chrysostom all understand perfectly well the wickedness of treating money like seed corn, and they all use the analogy of farming (which they naturally consider an honourable occupation) to highlight the contradistinction. ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees’, or so the old saw goes—but often the hawkers of such platitudes wield them as weapons against the poor and indebted, as a way of upbraiding their laziness, profligacy or other presumed moral flaws.

When used today, the platitude of course ignores that the monetary system that we live with treats money as though it grows on trees. Commercial banks literally increase the money supply by lending at interest; money created in this way exists as a bookkeeping entry, listing the loan as an asset of the bank which lent it. Moneylending, as S. Gregory of Nyssa very aptly observed, ‘has a reed for a plough, papyrus for a field and black ink for seed’. Now, calling to mind my brief earlier treatments of wealth and money in the Church Fathers, who insisted that wealth should be intrinsically tied to work, a distinction has to be made between two different kinds of loans. It is not necessarily usurious, for example, to contribute a loan to an industrial firm, to a small business, to a farm or to some other productive project which can be reasonably expected to pay back over time, and do so by making, raising or providing things which are useful to human flourishing.

What the Eastern Fathers are condemning here in their treatment of usury, are loans which maldistribute wealth by making the acquisition of money the aim of its own lending. Using loans to prey upon the basic living and consumption needs of the debtor—food, clothing, shelter, education—these things justly fall under S. Gregory of Nazanzius’s damning description of ‘farming the necessity of the needy’. The money so produced, as the Church Fathers clearly realised, does not grow on trees—it grows on the desperation and insecurity of the poor. Payday lending easily falls into this category, as does most credit card debt, particularly in the wake of deregulation. But usury is not restricted only to these kinds of small-scale individual lenders, and any examination of usury has to take into account the pressures of necessity on poor people to appear as though they consume at a standard they can’t actually afford, just to secure the necessities of living. S. Basil in his exegetical homily on Psalm 14, counsels the poor to constrain their own spending and remain free, without becoming entangled in debt, even to ‘persevere in terrible situations’, but he also makes clear that he only so advises them ‘because of [rich men’s] inhumanity’. As the popular essayist Barbara Ehrenreich writes,
If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced. If you need a loan, as most poor people eventually do, you will end up paying an interest rate many times more than what a more affluent borrower would be charged. To be poor—especially with children to support and care for—is a perpetual high-wire act.
But payday lenders and credit card companies are only the most obvious end of the problem in its modern manifestation. It is the logic of commercial consumer lending itself, of collateral and credit scores, that precipitates a desperate environment into which the poor are unceremoniously cast, such that more cut-throat forms of usury can prey upon them. In fact, S. Basil bears forth this logic explicitly as one of the reasons for condemning usury in his homily:
the avaricious person, seeing a man bent down before his knees as a suppliant, practising all humility, and uttering every manner of petition, does not pity one who is suffering misfortune… rigid and harsh he stands, yielding to no entreaties, touched by no tears, persevering in his refusal. But, when he who is seeking the loan makes mention of interest and names his securities, then, pulling down his eyebrows, he smiles… fawning upon and enticing the wretched man with such words, he binds him with contracts.
Because it ought to be regarded as a medium of exchange, and not as a commodity with its own ‘intrinsic value’, money cannot rightly have such a self-reflexive teleological orientation. If money is used in a usurious way, it becomes, in S. Basil’s words (echoing Aristotle), an ‘unnatural animal’. It involves using the debtor’s labour and the debtor’s need to consume for mere survival—in other words, the debtor’s very flesh—for the sole satisfaction of the creditor’s lust for wealth, in a way which precludes the debtor from participating fully in his own pro- and co-creative work, what Fr. Sergei Bulgakov would perhaps controversially call his own sophic genius. A monetary system informed by Patristic ethics would do its best, on behalf of all those who make their livings through wage labour, to structurally discourage usury.

29 November 2015

Classical Confucianism and the self-institution dialectic

One of the favourite passages of the neo-Confucians who place their penultimate concern in issues of personal pietistic self-cultivation, comes from Yan Yuan, the twelfth chapter of the Analects 《論語》 of Confucius:

The duke Jing, of Qi, asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, ‘There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son.’ ‘Good!’ said the duke; ‘if, indeed, the prince be not prince, the minister not minister, the father not father, and the son not son, although I have my revenue, can I enjoy it?’
And yet, is it indeed that simple? Can we dispense with the questions of government, of society, of institutions entirely, if we just focus on the single fundamental relationships between father and son, or mother and daughter? After all, parents are parents and children are children, merely by virtue of the brute reproductive biological fact. In a certain sense, this is not something Confucians can ignore, because one can’t really have society without natural families or natural family relationships, and given the attention Confucius places on these relationships throughout the classical canon, it would be ridiculous to assert otherwise. But thankfully, classical Confucianism is much too subtle to fall prey to such pietistic oversimplification. How, one is led to ask, does one become a good father or a good son, let alone a good prince or a good minister? So says the pre-Qin Book of Rites 《禮記》, in the very first chapter:

They are the rules of propriety, that furnish the means of determining (the observances towards) relatives, as near and remote; of settling points which may cause suspicion or doubt; of distinguishing where there should be agreement, and where difference; and of making clear what is right and what is wrong.
And again, two verses later – just in case it wasn’t clear:

The course (of duty), virtue, benevolence, and righteousness cannot be fully carried out without the rules of propriety; nor are training and oral lessons for the rectification of manners complete; nor can the clearing up of quarrels and discriminating in disputes be accomplished; nor can (the duties between) ruler and minister, high and low, father and son, elder brother and younger, be determined; nor can students for office and (other) learners, in serving their masters, have an attachment for them; nor can majesty and dignity be shown in assigning the different places at court, in the government of the armies, and in discharging the duties of office so as to secure the operation of the laws; nor can there be the (proper) sincerity and gravity in presenting the offerings to spiritual beings on occasions of supplication, thanksgiving, and the various sacrifices. Therefore the superior man is respectful and reverent, assiduous in his duties and not going beyond them, retiring and yielding - thus illustrating (the principle of) propriety.
What are we to make of this, then? Parents are parents, and children are children. Can they not be trusted simply to know this and act accordingly? Why should they need the external regulation of the rites? Why should Confucius say that character cannot be established without the rites? Turning to a closely-related topic, a later chapter of the Book of Rites which deals with music, the Yueji 《樂記》, brings to light part of Confucius’s dialectic between the self and her (natural, political and social) environment – as it pertains to musical theory. As demonstrated here:

All the modulations of the voice arise from the mind, and the various affections of the mind are produced by things (external to it). The affections thus produced are manifested in the sounds that are uttered. Changes are produced by the way in which those sounds respond to one another; and those changes constitute what we call the modulations of the voice. The combinations of those modulated sounds, so as to give pleasure, and the (direction in harmony with them of the) shields and axes, and of the plumes and ox-tails, constitutes what we call music.
Music, that is to say (in Confucian terms) an interplay of meaningful sounds in harmony, depends on a right relationship between the self and the things of the external world. It is no accident at all that rites and music are so closely related to one another in Confucian thinking; they mirror and complement each other, and both are taken as the bases for the development of a just order and a good society. And they both help to attune the roots of virtue which lie in the self with affections (dong 動) for the external things and people which gave rise to that self, and without which the self would have no reference for itself. For what universal appeal it has, Confucianism as a coherent philosophy rests heavily upon this dialectic, which is why so much attention is paid to rites and music, and especially those particular, culturally-specific and (to use the Hegelism) sittlich forms of music and ritual which were ascribed to the Xia (夏, 2070 – 1600 BC), Yin (殷, 1600 – 1046 BC) and Western Zhou (周, 1046 – 771 BC) societies which preceded Confucius. As far as Confucius and his disciples were concerned, a society could not be just which did not pay honour to its forefathers – and therefore the answers to questions of justice and moral conduct were to be sought in the wisdom of the Stone Age sages and the Bronze Age kings.

All this is not to say, of course, that Confucius would hold that these particularistic forms should be ossified for their own sake and never be adjudged. The needs of the time (and not its wants or bad habits) are paramount in Confucian thinking; the principles that would need to be upheld in any potential ritual system are also made clear in the Book of Rites:

The appointment of the measures of weight, length and capacity; the fixing the elegancies (of ceremony); the changing the commencement of the year and month; alterations in the colour of dress; differences of flags and their blazonry; changes in vessels and weapons, and distinctions in dress: these were things, changes in which could be enjoined on the people. But no changes could be enjoined upon them in what concerned affection for kin, the honour paid to the honourable, the respect due to the aged, and the different positions and functions of male and female.
Confucianism risks being severely flattened, reduced in dimension and bereft of its classical (and indeed pre-classical) moorings, if it is turned merely into an ideology of pietism, quietism and individualistic self-cultivation. This is one of the reasons why the increased attention paid to institutions, first during the Qing with the Jesuit-influenced Changzhou scholars and now again with the political Confucian school on the Chinese mainland, is so interesting and indeed vital to Confucianism’s continued relevance. It is necessary for the individual Confucian to keep herself attuned to her social and natural surroundings through rites and music. That implies a positive politics of virtue, rather than simply a negative libertarian vision of the social and legal world.

28 November 2015

Confucius on education ‘reform’

From Xueji 《學記》 in the Book of Rites:

According to the system of teaching now-a-days, the masters hum over the tablets which they see before them, multiplying their questions. They speak of the learners' making rapid advances, and pay no regard to their reposing in what they have acquired. In what they lay on their learners they are not sincere, nor do they put forth all their ability in teaching them. What they inculcate is contrary to what is right, and the learners are disappointed in what they seek for. In such a case, the latter are distressed by their studies and hate their masters; they are embittered by the difficulties, and do not find any advantage from their labour. They may seem to finish their work, but they quickly give up its lessons. That no results are seen from their instructions -- is it not owing to these defects?
It strikes me as fairly clear from this passage that Confucius would not look kindly, either on modern China’s primary and secondary education system and priorities, or on our own. The heavy emphasis on quantifiably benchmarking students according to standardised test results, and that in only a narrow range of ‘practical’ subjects like STEM, is contrary to what Confucius says here about the primary aims and goals of education. Suffice it to say, the Master who inspired East Asia’s cultural dominance of the world prior to modernity, would have inclined far more heavily toward Diane Ravitch’s critical point-of-view than toward Michelle Rhee’s or Nick Kristof’s.

23 November 2015

Michael Schuman on Confucian anti-capitalism

Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒

This Salon article, an excerpt from Michael Schuman’s book Confucius: And the World He Created is from eight months ago, but it is brilliant all the same. Here are a couple of the good bits from early in the piece:
The tattered condition of the Confucians’ footwear reflected the limitations of Confucius’s enthusiasm for free enterprise. The great sage may have preferred a small, efficient state, but that doesn’t mean he was in favor of unfettered private commerce. Confucius had an inherent distrust of the pursuit of wealth, and this attitude became infused into later Confucians and their views of business and businessmen. Although Confucius did not preach asceticism (like his Hindu counterparts in India), he did see nobility in poverty, or at least the stoic acceptance of poverty. The true gentleman, in Confucius’s eyes, did not desire riches. “The gentleman seeks neither a full belly nor a comfortable home,” he said. Even those men who sincerely tried to act in a benevolent fashion could not be trusted if they also coveted luxury. “There is no point in seeking the views of a gentleman who, though he sets his heart on the Way, is ashamed of poor food and poor clothes,” the sage said.

For the most part, though, Confucians thought that China’s elite did not earn their riches honorably. The Confucians tended to disapprove of commerce in general, seeing finance and trading, which they considered “secondary” economic activities, as inherently corrupting and ultimately dangerous for a country’s overall well-being. Rather than actually adding to production, merchants, they believed, merely bought and sold what others made through sweat and toil, skimming off unwarranted profits in the process. Confucians preferred economic policies that favored the farmers, whom they portrayed as honest laborers engaged in the “primary” activity of producing real goods.
Oh, and it gets even better! Schuman has some very interesting things to say about Han-era Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu, the man pretty much single-handedly responsible for bringing into being the much-maligned (among liberals) ‘institutional Confucianism’ 制度儒學:
In his critical memorial to Emperor Wu, Dong Zhongshu blamed the economic ills of the day on the concentration of wealth in the hands of a powerful and greedy few. “The rich bought up great connecting tracts of ground, and the poor were left without enough land to stick the point of an awl into,” he complained. “How could the common people escape oppression?” That’s why he, and many other Confucians after him, pressed for measures to improve income equality. Dong preferred a landownership system that equalized the size of plots across the populace, in that way ensuring that each farming family could sustain itself and would not be exploited by large landlords. He did not get heard on this point, and Confucians reiterated this recommendation for centuries to come.
It was a very pleasant surprise to me that Schuman got it right. Even though nothing immediately came of it, Dong Zhongshu put his career and his life on the line in speaking truth to dynastical Han power on behalf of China’s poor and oppressed agrarian class, advocating for land reform, a reduction of unpaid corvée labour, an end to the state-run iron monopoly, a robust defence of the commons (in which he was followed by He Xiu), a civil service based on virtue rather than on nepotism and an end to China’s costly and destructive wars with the Xiongnu. He was by no means an apologist for power. Neither, indeed, were a number of ‘institutional Confucians’ who came after him - men like He Xiu in the late Han and Gong Zizhen and Kang Youwei in the Qing. The ‘thin edge of the wedge’ that Chinese right-liberal intellectuals want to drive between a robust sociopolitical read of Confucianism and those among China’s populace who might possibly want to empathise with it, is based upon a wholly ahistorical, even mendacious claim: that the ‘institutional Confucians’ are thinly-veiled evil totalitarian oppressors, and that the more quietist Confucians of the Song-Ming school (whose modern representatives are Tang Junyi, Xu Fuguan and Mou Zongsan) are the only legitimate outlet for Confucian concerns. I am certainly grateful to old China hands like Michael Schuman who undertake the task of defending the historical honour of Han-era Confucianism (and those influenced by it) and demonstrating that this was not, in fact, the case.

19 November 2015

Remembering Holy Father Filaret of Moscow

When I was chrismated into the Orthodox Church, one of the gifts given to me by the man who welcomed me into the Church, Fr. Sergiy, was a book of Select Sermons by Metropolitan Saint Filaret (Drozdov) of Moscow. His sermons bore the mark of an experienced and forceful orator, but one who was at the same time singularly judicious in his choice of words. Even in their translation, which was singularly Victorian in its verbiage, each clause and each parallel structure, punctuated by prayers, strike you suddenly with their contemplative and poetic power. At the same time, Metropolitan Saint Filaret can be somewhat difficult to quote, indeed because he spends a great deal of time carefully exploring grand mysteries through his prose; his writings do not lend themselves to pithy bon mots, and it strikes one that his writings would be impoverished if they did.

Holy Father Filaret, born Vasiliy Mikhailovich Drozdov in Kolomna in 1782, was the son of a deacon who later became a priest; the son, following in the footsteps of his father, studied in seminary in the Moscow oblast’ between 1791 and 1803, when he graduated from Moscow Holy Trinity Theological Seminary. He was educated in Latin, in Greek and in Hebrew; the latter languages he taught as a professor at Holy Trinity, and his lectures and homilies on the Orthodox faith were so profound and so well-regarded that he began to be known as ‘the new Chrysostom’. He took the tonsure in 1808 and joined the clergy the same year; by 1812 he had been made rector of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy. It was at this time that Holy Father Filaret was witness to Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia, and was called upon to compose a special liturgical prayer for the occasion; it was at this time that he began to preach on the need for Russian Orthodoxy to re-found itself upon its own Patristic basis, rather than continue trying to keep up with the scholarship happening in the West. This was, at the time, a highly controversial opinion, and one at odds with an upper-class and a nobility which was still looking to France and Germany for cultural and spiritual guidance. Later he would also come to champion and contribute to the task of translating Holy Scripture into contemporary Russian, himself authoring translations of several books of the Old Testament; this was also a highly-controversial project, opposed at times by the Tsar and by other Church hierarchs.

Holy Father Filaret continued in his tireless efforts for the Church, and the time he did not spend in writing and in study, he spent on charitable works within the Church, including a shelter for orphans and the children of poor clergy. It was remarked by his staff that they didn’t know when he slept, but that he was always to be seen writing at his desk. In 1821 he was appointed Metropolitan of Moscow, and as Metropolitan of Moscow he would continue in office for the remainder of his earthly life: forty-six years. His intellectual efforts bring the Holy Scriptures and the Church Fathers directly into the lives and minds of the common people of Russia corresponded and even overlapped in certain ways with the thought of the Slavophils who were his contemporaries: people like Yuri Samarin, Aleksey Khomyakov, Ivan Kireevsky and the Brothers Konstantin and Ivan Aksakov. Though he had been a defender of the institution of serfdom earlier in his career, and though as the emancipation was being discussed he voiced grave reservations about the possible repercussions to the social order, he nevertheless came to draft the 3 March Manifesto of Tsar Aleksandr II. which, on that day in 1861, freed all the Russian serfs.

Metropolitan Saint Filaret’s insistence that the Church existed ‘on behalf of all and for all’, and thus that the message of the Church must be communicated to all for the benefit of all, and his additional project of keeping Orthodox theology grounded in the teachings of the Church Fathers rather than looking to a modernising West as a spiritual and cultural signpost, had a considerable impact on the contemporary direction of Russian thought. It might be wrong to claim Metropolitan Saint Filaret as a Slavophil himself, but it cannot be denied that he and his cultural projects had an indelible influence on Slavophilia.

At the same time, Holy Father Filaret was very far from being reflexively anti-Western! The following prayer, often attributed to him, was in fact written by the French Roman Catholic archbishop François Fénelon, but Holy Father Filaret had no problems introducing it to into an Orthodox prayer life:
O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Your will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul, and with the firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforseen events let me not forget that all are sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering or embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of this coming day with all that it will bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray You Yourself in me. Amen.
Divinely wise and holy hierarch Filaret, pray to God for us!

16 November 2015

Elite education and the Slavophil dilemma

I was brought to mind of this question whilst reading the recent book on contemporary Confucianism, The Renaissance of Confucianism in Contemporary China, which treats the radical-traditionalist political philosophy of Confucian gentleman Jiang Qing with a wide variety of criticisms and reactions. Some of these criticisms are extended exercises in question-begging and missing the point – Lo Ping-cheung’s broad intimations of fascism and totalitarianism are tiresome, and Chen Hung-yee’s obscurantist insistence on Xu Fuguan’s Old Text scholarship being superior to Jiang’s New Text scholarship is downright frustrating in that it has practically no force of argument behind it. Others, however, are utterly fascinating. Wang Tangjia’s attempt at correcting and fashioning a Confucian theory of gender based in-part on Jiang Qing’s ideas, as well as Hong Xiuping’s inquiries into what a Confucian academy would end up looking like, both seemed fruitful and thoughtful. And Zhang Xianglong’s inquiry into Jiang Qing’s universalist tendencies gets at what is, in my humble opinion, a major weak point in Jiang Qing’s political-philosophical programme. Even the infamous Daniel A. Bell’s probings into the possible overlaps between Jiang Qing’s political philosophy and those of Gan Yang and other ‘left-Confucians’ left me wanting to read further into this tradition. (Full disclosure: Zhang Xudong’s Whither China?, which has one of Gan Yang’s English-language essays, has been on my reading-list for ages. I will get to it eventually…)

But it strikes me that Jiang Qing is susceptible to, and in some ways only partially manages to avoid, one of the perennial problems of those non-Western thinkers (and even some Western thinkers, like Christopher Lasch) who have striven mightily against liberalisation, modernisation and bureaucratisation, and on occasion sought to use some of modernity’s own weapons against itself. Jiang’s hostility to soul-destroying careerism and consumerism, to parliamentary pandering and to bureaucratism, is as utterly unalloyed as, for example, Konstantin Pobedonostsev’s. To some extent, even the indignation that Pobedonostsev bears on behalf of the common people who get cheated in democratic systems into voting for the destruction of their cultural inheritance and their posterity, is shared by Jiang. And though Jiang faces this problem to a lesser extent than Pobedonostsev does on account of his unabashed defence of elite privilege, the Slavophil’s dilemma touches him all the same.

As Berdyaev pointed out, it would be a grievous mistake to characterise the Slavophils as mere autocrats or obscurantists. The writings of Khomyakov, Kireevsky and the Brothers Aksakov have in them the seeds of what came to be known as narodnichestvo. In their own time, they held aloft the ideal of the Russian peasant commune. In doing so, they critiqued a ruling class which had, from the time of Tsar Peter, sold off their own cultural inheritance of Eastern Orthodoxy and a deep connexion with the land, in exchange for the appearance of being Western. Naturally, this did not endear them at all to said ruling class, which censored them heavily! But therein lay the tragic irony of Slavophilism. They stood upon a kind of paternalistic, patriotic, populist ‘commune’-ism, which, as it historically played out, in the name of the peasantry afforded to the king, to the nobility and to the intelligentsia a dignity which they themselves denied and sought to disavow. Jiang’s own paternalism is more elitist than populist, but it has a similar communitarian trajectory, and thus suffers from a similar kind of irony. Jiang is disavowed, often vehemently, by the Chinese intelligentsia he champions, which itself is far too eager to trade away its own cultural birthright for a mess of capitalist pottage.

How, then, do those of us who are sympathetic to Jiang and to the Slavophils the square this circle? Should we even try? We see on the one hand a system of democratic rules and institutions whose flaws are now growing all too evident. Political activism and journalism have been blended together in a hellish Rupert Murdoch crucible, to form an insidious poison that attacks truth: on both sides of the American political spectrum, truths which challenge our presumptions and comfort are immediately not only dismissed, but attacked. And again, on both sides of the political spectrum, officials aspiring to election then feed parasitically upon these cancers of the intellect, and actually draw strength and legitimacy from their voter-bases, specifically for being unaccountable to reality.

But these problems don’t originate at the bottom. They never have. Opportunist manipulation of the democratic process originates with the elites; in the United States, it has always been somewhat the case that land-owners, merchants, bankers and speculators have used the religious and national sentiments of poorer segments of society for their own material gain. However, Goodwyn is right to note that the election of 1896, in which Mark Hanna used massive amounts of his corporate wealth to turn William McKinley’s campaign into a stage-managed spectacle, as a tipping-point in the way elite politics are done. And of course, May Fourth was hardly a peasant-driven movement, even in the slightest: it was driven entirely by the students and the intelligentsia.

Jiang’s own willingness to trust even a still-embryonic future Confucian elite with China’s destiny, given the damage they have sustained in the past (some of it, it can fairly be said, self-inflicted), struck me at first, and indeed still strikes me, as somewhat naïve. Having read his response to Hong Xiuping, I can appreciate that he is starting on a multi-generational project that we have no real way to gauge as yet. All I can say, though, is that I wish him and his Academy the very best, and hope for all of China’s sake that they succeed in cultivating true gentlemen.

14 November 2015

Terrorism, outrage, selective memory and uncomfortable questions

Two weeks ago, on the 31st of October, 224 passengers – Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian – on a Russian Airbus, Metrojet flight 9268, were killed in a plane crash in the Egyptian Sinai; Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack. Two days ago, on the 12th of November, two suicide bombers affiliated with Daesh killed 44 and wounded another 239 people in Beirut: the targets were Shi’a Muslims living in a Hezbollah-friendly neighbourhood. Yesterday, another Daesh suicide bomber in Baghdad killed 19 Shi’a and wounded another 30. And now a fourth tragedy has taken its toll on Paris, where 129 people were killed and another 200 wounded in another terrorist attack. Once again, Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack. Depraved attacks on civilians, just like this one, happen all the time in Syria, and have been for the past three years.

Yet it is the Paris attacks that have garnered the most media attention from the West, and certainly the most sympathy. The 224 dead Russians just days previously had been the target of blasphemous scorn and mockery from the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which itself had been the target of a terrorist attack in January this year. There has been relative media silence about the killings in Lebanon and Iraq. Yet Facebook is now filled with French flags and the republican tricolour is even as we speak flying from public buildings around the world.

That last is not a bad thing, considered in itself. There is absolutely nothing wrong with showing sympathy for the victims of the Parisian terror attack. But let us be absolutely clear about this. The party which has claimed responsibility for all of these heinous atrocities, Daesh, would simply not exist if it had not been for a number of factors, chief among which are the 2003 war in Iraq, and a civil war which has been actively, maliciously fomented in Syria by numerous actors – the French government ranking high among them, right alongside ours and Britain’s.

The selective outrage that pours out effusive white-hot grief and anger over white secular French victims, while passing quickly over brown Shi’ite and Christian Arabic victims stems, I believe, from a highly-selective memory. At that, a selective memory driven by a prideful need to leave uncomfortable questions of recent imperialism and state-driven violence unexplored. We in the West, broadly speaking, including France, Britain and the United States, do not particularly like being confronted with the fruits of our own evil. Such confrontation might provoke reflection; it might provoke questioning of our authorities; it might provoke contrition and repentance. How much simpler it is when we can draw the line between good and evil, straight down neat geographical and political lines!

It’s no comfort at all to the victims, of course, who have little enough to do with the actions of their governments, even in an age which still hasn’t quite managed to drop the pretense of being democratic. But reality isn’t quite so simple. The attacks of Daesh are heinous and wicked enough, but they are not mindless and they do not happen in a vacuum. The uncomfortable question should be asked: would these attacks have happened at all if the American and French governments had treated their Russian and Syrian counterparts – the ones who are now forced to fight Daesh, the latter for its very survival – with greater respect, or paid greater heed to the warnings that had always been given to us?

But it strikes me that this selective memory is a necessity, indeed a psychological crutch, for those who subscribe to the insane superstition – I know not what else to call it – that the interventionist foreign policy our governments in the West have been pursuing consistently this past decade and a half serves any real purpose, or will somehow keep us safe. Has France’s belligerent foreign policy toward Syria kept it safe from attacks like this one, or the one in January? Has anyone’s safety and welfare been served at all by our aggressive and punitive posture against Russia? Is our selective attention in these cases coming from an unwillingness to acknowledge the lack of accountability in our own political institutions, and our ignorance and powerlessness in the way that they function?

13 November 2015

Pointless video post – ‘بندر لندن’ by عجم

Iranian-British roots band Ajam عجم has so far only put out one full-length album, Raghse Mardooneh رقص مردونه, but it’s a high-quality one all the same! This one was recommended to me by Dr. Amir Azarvan over at Amirica. It is a strange mix of folk, beat and hip-hop elements that, to be honest, took some time to grow on me; but grow on me it did. This one - written about the police of London, or so I would imagine (I have only just begun learning Persian) - is a particularly contagious earworm. Happy listening, gentle readers!

11 November 2015

Appealing to the wrong dystopian author

The recent high-profile altercation between two Yale staff and a handful of Yale students has unfortunately brought in all the usual suspects in the American nattering class (Friedersdorf, Chait, Goldberg, Drezner, Hinderaker, etc.) into a discussion of ‘political correctness’, ‘free speech’, ‘illiberal leftism’ and the rest of it. As usual, the focus seems squarely aimed in all the wrong places. One way in which this is done is that several commentators (including Chez Pazienza and Brendan O’Neill) and have taken to describing the students’ position as Orwellian. When used in this way, what they mean is that their position is reminiscent of his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

But that’s not anywhere close to the right analogy. What Orwell was describing was a totalitarian state which uses total surveillance and the manipulation, simplification and artificial restructuring of language to make people afraid of, and psychologically incapable of, behaving or thinking in a way that the state does not approve. If anything, the inappropriate descriptions of the issues at stake Yale are in fact more Orwellian than the actions of the students themselves. Twitter and YouTube have made it so that Big Brother is always watching you, and your every action in a public space (and in some private spaces) is instantly made available for the scrutiny of the masses, of the media and of the State. And the repeated restructuring of Yale campus politics into a national rubric that opposes two abstract political concepts, ‘political correctness’ against ‘free speech’, impoverishes a discussion that requires greater depth. The behaviour of the American nattering classes reflects much more directly the themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Allow me to be clear. I am just such an illiberal leftist as some among these self-appointed champions of an abstract principle of ‘free speech’ decry. I hold that measures of censorship or curtailment of absolute free expression, in the right circumstances and as long as it is done for the right reasons, can be completely justified. But on those grounds – again, at the risk of engaging in the same kind of Orwellian judgement of a situation to which only the Twitter-YouTube Panopticon grants me access – I cannot endorse or approve at all the kind of behaviour evinced by the Yale students who confronted Dr. Nicholas Christakis on campus. The shrieking and hectoring of the student in question strikes me as rude, selfish and self-absorbed. But more to the point, the reasoning is profoundly hostile to the aims of any properly-oriented censorship! The university is clearly expected, not to educate into truth or to encourage self-reflection in the Socratic sense, but to provide ‘comfort’ and a ‘safe space’ for the students. To provide a surrogate ‘home’ to the students. Striving for truth is not the end goal, but instead a perpetual hedonistic puerilism, and a surrogate society which takes the place of the natural family.

O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!

Yes, I am arguing that the dystopia we’re staring into is less what Orwell imagined, but rather more along the lines of what Huxley did. The devaluation of natural parenthood; the pursuit of sex and other materialistic distractions for purely hedonistic reasons; the use of education not to prime youth for the pursuit of any kind of transcendent truth in adulthood, but rather to condition students to function, purely ‘technically’, in pre-allocated social roles. This dystopia is what underwrites the demands for the creation of ‘safe spaces’, in which the flight from pain and emotional distress is given priority over self-reflection and inquiry. What is frightening about the Yale students’ demands is not that they hold the reins of state power (yet), or that they have any control over the way in which information is gathered or disseminated to the public, but rather that they exemplify the hive mindset hinted at by Huxley, violently intolerant of anything which disturbs their ‘comfort’.

More a propos to the discussion, though, is not the environment of the university. We subsist in a culture where individual, consumer preferences reign over all else – over concrete ties to place or to history or to family, for example. If I may paraphrase and slightly elaborate on Jacob Levy’s point for a moment: on the basis of consumer preference, we engage in self-segregation by race, by class and by ‘culture’. This self-segregation is perpetuated by our choices in city and neighbourhood planning, as well as by our consumer choices. Within the news media we listen to, only a very narrow band of opinion and personal views are tolerated – again, all in the name of consumer preference. We medicate children in an attempt to get them to conform to a technical model of public education that treats knowledge as a consumer commodity and teaching as something akin to retail. Still more to the point, we have raised them in a cultural environment wherein marriage is considered a contract-relationship, and wherein divorce can occur over even minor disagreements. And somehow we act surprised when these children, raised in such environments, have difficulty brooking or countenancing disagreement themselves… some self-awareness of where responsibility lies in this equation seems called-for.

07 November 2015

The Iranian principle in Rustaveli’s epic

Tariel, Avtandil and Pridon

Man in the Panther’s Skin (ვეფხისტყაოსანი Vefxistyaosani) is a marvellous work of literature, Georgia’s national epic poem, composed during the reign of Holy Right-Believing Tamar, Empress of Georgia, by the poet Shota Rustaveli. Even in the English translation by Marjory S. Waldrop, some portion of the original poem’s power and depth shines through; the tales of love between Avtandil and Tinatin, and between Tariel and Nestan-Darejan, would be moving enough in any language. Western readers can understand easily enough the martial ideals, those of knight-errantry and courtly love, at play in Man in the Panther’s Skin. But the cultural context of the entire work is in fact Iranian; as Shota Rustaveli himself notes, his is a ‘Persian tale, now done into Georgian’ (Vefxistyaosani 16). In fact, it is typical of the reign of Holy Right-Believing Tamar – herself more than half-Ossetian; who used for herself the Persian Imperial title ‘Shahanshah’; whose second marriage and love-match was to her Ossetian general and distant cousin, David Soslan; and whose most trusted nobles, the brothers Mkhargrdzeli, were Christian Kurds – that the cultural output of Georgia’s Golden Age of political independence should be Parsophil in the strongest possible degree.

Georgia has had a long and amiable contact with the Alans (Ossetians), a Christianised Iranian people, manifested both in Tamar’s heritage and her choice of husband. Its on-and-off imperial-tributary relationship with Iran stretches all the way back to the Achaemenid and Arsacid dynasties and all the way forward to the Qajars. This history gives it a prime vantage point at the edge of the Iranian mir, the world of Greater Iran. The Iranian principle hinted at by Aleksey Khomyakov, the Oriental civilisational principle of spiritual and creative freedom, the preference for poetry and song, is exemplified firstly by the fact that it is an epic poem in the tradition of Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh that crowns Georgia’s Golden Age. But further than that, the Iranian principle is manifested in the poem itself, in its character and in its moral outlook.

Rustaveli’s continued use of celestial metaphors for each of his main characters – the knights Tariel and Avtandil, and their respective lovers Nestan-Darejan and Tinatin – is the first hint. Many times they are referred to as ‘sun’ and ‘moon’; at other times they are described in the language of ‘rose’ and ‘nightingale’, or likened to various precious stones. Another such hint is the all-important value that each of the characters places on the spoken word – an oath unbreakable even to the point of death. Tariel swears himself to Nestan-Darejan, and after she is engaged to the Khwarazmshah has to prove his oath to her in the bloodiest possible way. Likewise Avtandil, who swears a brotherly pact with Tariel, absconds from the court of his king Rostevan in order to fulfil his oath, even though doing so certainly means alienating the king and possibly never seeing Tinatin again. The tragic potentials of the oaths sworn by the lovers in this epic are what drive the story; an audience steeped in Iranian cultural expectations would have seen the spiritual struggles as much an integral part of Tariel’s and Avtandil’s heroism as their feats of physical and martial prowess.

But there is even in these unbreakable bonds, a joy that surpasses and eclipses the entire realm of necessity. As Tariel exclaims to Avtandil toward the end of the poem, ‘I greatly hate too much fear, respect and ceremony in a friend, I hate unbroken sternness, gloominess, majesty; if one be a hearty friend let him tend towards me!’ (Vefxistyaosani 1464) In matters of love no less, Rustaveli condemns necessity and champions a spiritual freedom: Nestan-Darejan’s choosing Tariel as her husband is something Rustaveli celebrates without reservation, and the rebellion she inspired in Tariel against her parents’ intention to marry her to a Khwarazmian Turk is ultimately cast in a heroic light.

However, in plain keeping with the Iranian civilisational principle as described by Khomyakov, Rustaveli is also clear: spiritual freedom does not entail libertinism, levelling or political democracy. Rustaveli has a natural inclination toward a strong and vigorous monarchy, impressing on the reader the virtues of Rostevan and Tinatin as ideal monarchs, characterised by generosity and fair dealing with those they rule. Rustaveli’s inclination is hierarchical and anti-bourgeois. The passionate heroism of the nobility (in Avtandil and Tariel) and the steadfast honour of the labouring classes (in Avtandil’s servant Shermadin) are both cast in a favourable light; however, the representatives of the capitalistic merchant class (Usen in particular) are regularly depicted as cowardly, drunken, greedy, lascivious and false-to-oaths. Usen’s wife Patman, though, proves herself capable of heroism on multiple occasions, on behalf of Nestan-Darejan, a fellow woman in distress and captivity.

Rustaveli is sometimes cited as a ‘humanist’, though this would entail a parallel with Renaissance-era Italy that is wholly unwarranted and out-of-tune with his cultural, moral and religious commitments. It is still somewhat anachronistic, but probably closer to truth, to claim Rustaveli as a neo-Platonist and as a personalist, concerned as he is with the spiritual lives of his characters. Yet even this does not entirely capture the close kinship either in form or in substance that Rustaveli’s work has with the Persian poetic tradition, and casts Rustaveli unwitting into the role of a Western-facing writer – which, as might be discerned from his subject matter, is far too simplistic a role for such a talented and sensitive poet. Greater attention ought to be paid to the transmission of Parsophil ideals in Holy Georgia’s most celebrated author.

06 November 2015

Blessed Martyr Elias (Fondaminsky)

Four Martyrs: UL, S. Maria (Skobtsova); UR, S. Demetrius (Klepenin);
LL, S. Elias (Fondaminsky); LR, S. George (Skobtsov)

Blessed Martyr Elias (Fondaminsky), honoured on the New Calendar today, also known under the nom de guerre of Bunakov, was a close associate and co-martyr of Righteous Martyr Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris, her family and the Paris circle through which she operated the Orthodox Action social charity. A Jew by birth, he was drawn by his ill-fated elder brother Matthew into the same vein of revolutionary politics that Mother Maria was, and felt the same attachment to the narodnichestvo of the Social Revolutionary Party that Mother Maria had, soon becoming one of its leaders. Elias wed his childhood friend, Emily Gavronskiy, in 1903, whose inclinations toward Orthodox Christianity almost certainly influenced him later in his life. In 1906, however, he found himself fleeing - as many left-wing intellectuals of that era did - to France, where he joined the circle of Orthodox activists, clerics and philosophers that included Archimandrite Lev (Gillet), Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, Nicolas Berdyaev and the notorious terrorist-turned-counter-revolutionary Boris Savinkov. He returned to Russia in 1917, barely escaped capture by the Bolsheviks, and took part in the conference at Iași to overthrow the Bolsheviks.

However, in spite of his disillusionment with revolutionary politics, Elias never gave up his commitment to radical politics nor his social service to the poor and disenfranchised. He saw a hope for Russia’s national salvation in what Constantine Skorkin calls, in his brief essay The saintly Eser, an ‘original synthesis of Christianity, socialism and autocracy’. (God bless all such syntheses! Solzhenitsyn’s was just another such, as was that of Saint John of Kronstadt, as was that, albeit in a more amorphous form, of the Slavophils he followed. And not for nothing was Official Nationality founded on a similar three-legged stool!) Maria Skobtsova came to Paris in 1923 with her husband and children and soon immersed herself in charitable work and in the Paris community of Russian émigrés and exiles; she soon befriended Elias Fondaminsky, who shared her politics and religious convictions. Of them their mutual friend Theodore Pianov said: ‘It is difficult to say who had the greater influence on whom, Mother Maria on him or him on Mother Maria.’ He played an active role in the founding of Maria Skobtsova’s Orthodox Action, though the declining health of his wife toward the end of the 1920’s, and her death in 1935, prevented him from doing much active social work.

Given the opportunity to flee for a third time, this time from the advance of the Nazis in 1941, he chose to stay and share the fate of his fellow Jews. This choice meant a life of poverty and eventually his death. Lay theologian George Fedotov remarked about this choice: ‘In his last days he wished to live with the Christians and die with the Jews’; Mother Maria, herself within three years to be arrested and sent to a saint’s reward together with her son and her spiritual father Demetrius Klepenin, said of him: ‘It is out of dough like this that saints are made’. Elias was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Compiègne, where he accepted Orthodox baptism among the prisoners; after this he was sent to Auschwitz and there martyred at the hands of the Nazis.

Blessed Elias, witness for Christ Our Lord amongst the poor and the downtrodden, pray to God for us!

Many thanks to Jim Forest of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and to Constantine Skorkin!


Some of my other blog-posts about Saint Ilya Fondaminsky, his thought and his writings can be found here:

04 November 2015

Zoroastrian distributists

I just happened upon the most remarkable website!
Holos means the Whole. Chrestian comes from a Greek word meaning ‘useful to’. Holochrestianism is about ‘being useful to the whole’ or ‘serving the common good’.

By Democracy we mean that political influence is widely distributed. We believe power should be shared among a large number of people. Nevertheless we also believe that power should be wielded by those most able and inclined to wield it to good effect. This implies both that people need to work at developing the ability to be good political actors and that not everybody will have the same abilities or should wield the same amount of power.
All of which I am in favour of, naturally, from a political point of view. But wait, there appears to be more...
Holochrestian Democracy is not just a way of running a society but also a project to create the conditions that a Good Order of Society be achieved – in other words primarily the creation of the Holochrestian Demos. This process is one that could happen from the grassroots upwards with many individuals working to build little ‘droplets’ of the Holochrestian Demos. Each droplet being a small cluster of people orientating themselves to the task at hand, growing the strength of their association, strengthening their mutual bond of trust, discovering and developing the group culture and modes of action and greater resilience in adversity. Then educating and developing themselves to serve the wider common good with greater commitment to the goal of a well-ordered society, greater enlightenment to reality and greater capability of useful action.

Such a process is one that will be or will at least look similar to the growth of a religious movement. In the first instance it is up to each leader of each droplet to decide on his own religion. Nevertheless the chances are that they will find assistance within the long-standing religious traditions such as Jesuchristianity and Mithraism.

This blog promotes Mithraism (or Zoroastrianism) as our preferred religious tradition while recognising the huge contribution that Christians have made and continue to make. In particular we recognise the value of the Christian Social Teachings also known as the Catholic Social Teachings which are largely based on a natural law approach and are relatively accessible to non-Christians. We also see a lot of common ground between our Holochrestian Democracy movement and the older Christian Democracy movement.
Modern Zoroastrians, finding common ground with localism, Christian democracy and distributism? Sounds like a particularly awesome idea! The website features several articles authored by Chesterton expert Dale Ahlquist. And this view in the Zoroastrian community is apparently one with no small amount of backing elsewhere. Ervad Marzban J Hathiram of the Parsi website Frashogard has posted a touching obituary to one of India’s great advocates of local organic farming, the lately-departed Bhaskar Save, celebrating his fight ‘against corporate cronyism and the machinations of pharma and agro multinationals’. Sounds like as good a fight as any!

02 November 2015

Зеленый-коллективистический-охранительный христианский персонализм Солженицына

I just finished reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Letter to the Soviet Leaders. As with everything Solzhenitsyn writes, it is truly a pleasant surprise, and he reminded me much more strongly of Wendell Berry or Edward Abbey than anyone else, or of the Chinese Confucian philosopher Jiang Qing. In common with the last, his primary outlook is a conservatism that is informed at the deepest possible level by an ecological conviction, a profound and abiding suspicion that his beloved country is despoiling and destroying itself through its ideological commitments to endless economic growth, to limitless technological mastery and to a spiritually-deadening consumerism. His detestation of the Soviet system is primarily a detestation of its ideology, and the way in which that ideology is poisoning ‘the soil and the waters and all of Russian nature’ – as well as the human ecologies of the family and of the society.

Three charges he levels at the Soviet ideology: firstly, that it is barrelling toward a needless and catastrophic war with China (one which by God’s grace never happened!); secondly, that it is pursuing a model of industry which is harming Russia’s natural environment while leaving vast swathes of Siberia underdeveloped; thirdly, that it is wasting the talents and the spiritual character of its people, particularly its women and children, in useless and degrading endeavours. And above all these charges he issues a much broader attack on the Soviet ideology, and the way in which it blankets all inquiries in a thick miasma of lies. Solzhenitsyn doesn’t have a problem – and indeed, he takes considerable pains given the polemical thrust of his Letter to make clear that he doesn’t have a problem – either with collective farming or with an authoritarian mode of government. He merely insists, true to the Slavophil roots of his ideas, on the older forms of collectivism, some voluntary (the village, the town) and some less-so (the family). He even champions the original intent of the local soviet, and asks that they be given the authority which they had been promised from the start.

If this Letter is on one side a broadside against Soviet overreach, against the ideological make-the-world-anew zeal which dumps toxic industrial and nuclear wastes into Russia’s lakes and rivers whilst fomenting revolution abroad, on the other side it is a patriotic call for the Russian town and the Russian village. It is a conservationist plea for the Russia whose towns were ‘made for people, horses, dogs—and streetcars too… humane, friendly, cosy places, where the air was always clean, which were snow-clad in winter and in spring redolent with garden-smells’. Rather than being merely a jeremiad against Soviet authoritarianism, it is also a plea for the elder Russia, whose ‘authoritarian order possessed a strong moral foundation’, that of ‘Christian Orthodoxy’. Over and against the Soviet emphasis on regimenting the lives of its women and children, Solzhenitsyn desires to liberate women from the degradations of the workplace, and children from the regimentation of an inhumane school system which, not allowing any room for personality in the child, also allows no room for the natural respect which schoolteachers are rightly due.

The attentive reader will be struck by the twin edges of his thrusts. There is ample reason for the West to have begun to distrust Solzhenitsyn, because practically all of the critiques he levelled first and most powerfully against the Soviets, could indeed be turned again and levelled against the modern West. Solzhenitsyn’s Letter makes only this explicit reference to the West: that in losing a war to North Vietnam, it has lost its confidence and moral courage, and has ‘grown weak and effete’. But forty years later, with the Soviet Union gone and one sole superpower left standing victorious, what part of the Ideology Solzhenitsyn decries, what part of the faith in Progress, can we not own? True, we are not Marxist. But do we not risk war with China over ideological differences? Do we not neglect our own countryside and spend our efforts in shipping arms and revolution abroad? Do we not choke our air with emissions and befoul our waters with the byproducts of fracking? Do we not make dual-earner households a necessity of the family’s economic survival? Do we not invade every home with television, laden with lies and propaganda?

The economic and political elites of the West all but disowned Solzhenitsyn because he would not fall in line with the dogmas of democratic capitalism. But now it is more necessary than ever to listen and to heed his green, cooperativist, conservationist and Christian personalist epistle to his homeland.