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Saturday, November 26, 2011
Current Affairs ... Foreign Relations/World Affairs ...

The recent failure of the Congressional “Super Committee” to fulfill its mission of mapping out a future fiscal budgeting course for the USA so as to avoid the kind of sovereign debt crisis that is now bringing Europe to its knees is rather discouraging. At the same time, our seemingly productive economy is sputtering; but even when running well it increasingly fails to distribute its benefits fairly between rich and poor. This all hints, to me anyway, that the American Constitutional model of representative democracy along with our tradition of economic freedom is breaking down; it just isn’t working anymore despite its great success over the past two centuries.

Representational democracy and free markets were never a pretty things to watch, but when the chips were down and America was threatened, the major political parties and corporate leaders always put their immediate partisan interests aside to find solutions to a big threat. Well, there was one major exception – regarding the issue of slavery. Economic and social divisions were pushed to the point of rupture by that one; a block of states seceded, and it took a long and terribly bloody war followed by years of political strife to settle the question. But during the two major world wars and the long cold war that followed them in the 20th Century, the Democrats and Republicans became fairly skilled at finding just enough ground for consensus to protect the nation.

But today, amidst growing premonitions of future economic mayhem, the Democrats and Republicans have decided to stick by their guns and wait to be proven right. Unfortunately, what is most likely to occur is that they will both be proven pig-headed and totally wrong. The voting public today is quite disgusted with our leadership, and swings back and forth ideologically from election to election, in search of something better. I can’t help but wonder if at some point in the near future, our unsatisfied nation is going to flirt with the old notion of raising up a “strong man”, i.e. selling off some of our political rights so as to get things done. That may be what our short-sighted Democrat and Republican leaders are unintentionally moving us toward.

Former OMB chairman Peter Orszag wrote a good article which proposed that demographic and social trends (including increasing wealth and poverty concentration) are encouraging and perhaps forcing our national leaders to choose ideology over the kind of practical compromise that is needed to run an outfit as big as the US Government. I’m not totally convinced that this explains all of what is happening these days regarding political partisanship – but I agree that something is changing, that our country is wandering into unknown turf and encountering challenges that the Founding Fathers could never have imagined. Future shock is here, and the US Constitution and our democratic tradition seem quite threatened by it.

Nonetheless, our nation has and continues to promote and recommend representative democracy and free markets to the rest of the world, as the most enlightened way to run a country and its economy. We admit that it isn’t perfect, but as the announcer used to say at the beginning of the 1964 TV show Slattery’s People, “democracy is a very bad form of government . . . but all the others are so much worse”.

Back in 1954 and 1964, the big alternative to democracy was centralized communism, which clearly was “so much worse”. Go back to 1934 and 1944 when fascism was in the mix, the contrast was all the more pronounced. But with 2014 coming up and classic communism and fascism long buried (we hope), we are heading into a strange new form of competition, one rooted not in the perverted European enlightenment ideals that fostered communism and fascism around a century ago, but with ideas and ideals crafted over a millennium ago in a place far, far away.

I certainly am thinking about China. Given the miracle of rapid economic growth that China has experienced in the past 20 years and the currently misfiring economic engines of the western democracies, one needs to wonder if the developing world will increasingly look to China as its model for future nation-building. There was a good article in the NY Times a few days ago written by a Chinese scholar named Yan Xuetong, intriguingly titled “How China Can Defeat America”. Mr. Xuetong does not envision any sort of military victory against the USA on China’s part, nor a “make them go bankrupt” strategy either. In fact, Mr. Xuetong admits right away that despite its rising military, economic and technological prowess, China doesn’t have nearly as many friends in the world as the US does.

But China does have a heritage of thinking and civilization that goes back perhaps 1200 years, and Mr. Xuetong implies that this will be China’s ace-in-the-hole as the 21st Century unwinds. According to Xuetong, there have always been three major forms of governance – tyranny, hegemony and humane authority. Perhaps the USA began with ideals of humane authority, but its growth into a superpower over the past 100 years or so have required it to become “hegemonic” — i.e., not tyrannic against its population or neighbors, but “frequently indifferent to moral concerns and often us[ing] violence against non-allies.”

Regarding today’s China, Mr. Xuetong does NOT claim any higher moral ground. In fact, he criticizes its exclusive focus on economic growth, gained at much cost (especially environmental degradation and injustice to minority and rural populations). Mr. Xuetong contends that China’s ancient political philosophers such as Confucius and Mencius agreed that humane authority would win in any competition with hegemony or tyranny. Thus, he calls on China’s present leadership to “establish a harmonious society free of today’s huge gaps between rich and poor . . . replace money worship with traditional morality and weed out political corruption in favor of social justice and fairness.” He feels that if China could rediscover its ancient wisdom tradition regarding humane governance, it could win the hearts of the people of the world, and thus beat America.

Now, I would not claim to be an expert at ancient Confucian thought. But I have become interested over the past few years in Oriental spiritualities (I’m a regular practitioner at a local Zen sangha), and in my readings I have learned a few things about classic Chinese political philosophy. And the first point I would make is that the old Confucians did NOT have the regard for democracy that grew out of ancient Greece in roughly the same era. They basically presumed the existence of a monarch, a powerful “strong man” ruler. But they expected that ruler to govern lightly, to trust in natural ways and the natural goodness in all people, to allow such goodness to manifest itself in day to day matters. They called upon the traditions of schooling and meritocracy to promote intelligent leaders who would do all they can to understand any challenges and do the right thing for the nation. They constantly reminded their leaders that they are also mere mortals, nothing special, and have no right or mandate to lord it over their subjects.

In his article, Mr. Xuetong does not say a peep about free elections and lawmaking assemblies and competing political parties. He is hooked on Confucius and “traditional morality”, which puts more emphasis on the second word in the phrase “humane authority”. Right now, China seems to be going the way of hegemony, by spending big sums to build up its military might and extending aid and commercial development to Africa and South America.

China is trying to play the technology and business game, something that we Americans have a big jump on. If our political and economic systems somehow muddle through the next quarter century and an autocratic China otherwise plays our game on the world front, I don’t think that the USA needs to worry about being “defeated” by China. Democracy is still attractive and desired in many places, as the Arab Spring and the continued revolts in Egypt prove. But if China’s people and its leaders were to discover in their ancient values and traditions a way to build an authoritarian yet humane alternative to representational democracy, one that works well in a chaotic post-modern / information-based economy, then in that case . . . all bets are off!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:26 pm      

  1. Jim, “Probably not” to your first question;” definitely yes” to your second question: (Democracy failing, China rising?)

    First of all, America’s system of Capitalism has a long history of depressions; I can think of 2 major ones. There was one in the early 1800s that triggered the beginning of the migration to the West of this country. That depression lasted I don’t know how long. Then who can forget the one of 1929. Born in the middle of it, I can remember vividly parts of it and don’t need to do a lot of studying to remember it. Even during and after WWII we really were not out of the depression yet. It was only after WWII that the depression began to end in the 1950s. So that means the depression within the lifetimes of a lot of us old folks lasted some 20 years. Not anything that we just one day “came out of.”

    As I look at things now, I find myself wondering just what could possibly be the matter with “us”, thinking that there could unending “growth” in the economy. At some point “growth” will reach its peak and start to decline. It’s built in to the system, so it seems to me.

    I certainly agree with you that today the voting public is disgusted with our leadership, yet it doesn’t really know what to do—any more than the leaders seem to know. Has anyone in the past known what to do to end depressions? Seems not. They just continued on with life until somehow it “ended” and a new “thing” came to be.

    And as to China: Sure, it’s probably going to be the up and coming “youngster” in the mix. China is all for Capitalism (as I have read recently)—but for Capitalism with a “Chinese twist.” That is, China’s leaders want the parts of Capitalism that get people motivated to do positive things in the society but doesn’t want to lose control over how Capitalism works or over its people.

    Then too, I think back to the 1980s. It was Japan that was tops in the Capitalistic business. Anything “good” was made in Japan. I remember one time saying to my class that it used to be that things made in Japan were very poorly made, but in the 1980s it became a fact that truly good quality things came from Japan—much more so than from the U.S. itself. (I remember the lovely smile on the face of a Japanese student in my class at the time. He loved it.) But now Japan isn’t on “top” any more for a variety of reasons.

    On another note, there are the small, but growing movements in the U.S. that should be watched: One is the promotion to buy “made in America”; the second is the movement to buy from small business on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, both are small, but potentially powerful, movements. It will be interesting to see what happens with those movements and what impact they have on the depression we are now in.

    Then too, as to your point about the old Confucians who did NOT have a regard for democracy—and the point about the monarch: Our heritage in this country is from England, and England’s history is notorious for not being particularly worried about the “common man.” In fact in the 17th century when America was just beginning, the Royals were considered far above the common man; it was almost as if, in England, the common man were a lower subspecies of the REAL humans—royals. We here in America certainly took a stand against that attitude.

    And lastly, about your point regarding the urge for freedom and Democracy in various parts of the world—particularly Arab nations and even China itself. It fascinates me that somehow or other, all one has to do is introduce money and the possibility of the “regular” person being able to make a lot of it by hard work that brings out in these same people the desire for freedom and Democracy.

    Certainly, the world is in for a lot of huge changes in many ways we likely cannot even yet imagine. Such change may not be a bad thing; it will, however, be a difficult thing to ride out and come to what it will be. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — November 26, 2011 @ 11:58 pm

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