Sunday, November 4, 2012

Reification of civilization

Someone posted a link to the following article on the Facebook: 'A Point Of View: Is China more legitimate than the West?'
In my first talk I explained that China is not primarily a nation-state but a civilisation-state. For the Chinese, what matters is civilisation. For Westerners it is nation. The most important political value in China is the integrity and unity of the civilisation-state.

They see the state as the embodiment and guardian of Chinese civilisation. Its most important responsibility - bar none - is maintaining the unity of the country. A government that fails to ensure this will fall.

But does the Chinese state, you may well ask, really enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of its people?

Take the findings of Tony Saich at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. In a series of surveys he found that between 80 and 95% of Chinese people were either relatively or extremely satisfied with central government.

Or take the highly respected Pew Global Attitudes surveys which found in 2010, for example, that 91% of Chinese respondents thought that the government's handling of the economy was good (the UK figure, incidentally was 45%).

Such high levels of satisfaction do not mean that China is conflict-free.

On the contrary, there are countless examples of protest action, such as the wave of strikes in Guangdong province for higher wages in 2010 and 2011, and the 150,000 or more so-called mass incidents that take place every year - generally protests by farmers against what they see as the illegal seizure of their land by local authorities in cahoots with property developers.
Here is my response:

The biggest problem with the article is that it is full of logical holes, non-sequiturs. Let's assume that the Chinese people look at themselves as a civilization, not some chance community (such as the American society). Therefore what? Why shouldn't the government that keeps that civilization together be democratically elected (not that I am a friend of the democracy; I am just examining the argument)? How do we know that the government that came to power through some oligarchic bureaucratic power struggle will be more effective at this allegedly nationally-sought goal than a democratically elected one?

Or, for that matter, why is the government's job to 'preserve the unity of Chinese civilization' (whatever that means; after all, the people in the country don't speak the same language in the south and in the north; there are many different ethnicity, many styles of food and music, etc., etc.)? Perhaps private organization in charge of the particular aspects of the culture — and in charge of unifying them and standardizing them — will be more effective. If such unification and standardization is indeed what the Chinese people want, they can choose those organization themselves, and the organizations will compete on the free markets for the effectiveness of this 'service'.

Then there is the moral argument. As long as you feed the slaves and keep them happy, your forced ownership of them is justified. (I mean, yeah, sometimes the slaves complain because there is not enough food and the work conditions created by the overseers are harsh, but they don't object to being in slavery. Well, some do, but who cares about those few?)

95% support? That's nothing. In N. Korea, 100% support the Dear Leader. In Russia, in some regions more than 100% voted for Putin.

The idea about Chinese economy overcoming American in six years is a myth. Within six years it will crash. Laws of nature cannot be violated so easily. And today, yes, the GDP figures are high, but people are still living in poverty. During WWII, GDP figures were high in the US too. And living conditions were worse than before the war — the figures were a result of war spending on bullets and tanks.

In regards to China being not a nation but a civilization (and that's why a few mafia members can decide for one third of the world's population how to live), this is my favorite concept, reification:
Reification (also known as concretism, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness) is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating as a concrete thing something which is not concrete, but merely an idea.
In other words, 'civilization', 'tzibbur', 'community', 'hurricane', 'forest' are all concepts. They are useful concepts for understanding complex phenomena and emergent properties, but the moment we think of themselves as having an independent life of their own (such as 'tzibbur owning land'), we make the mistake of reification: falsely making something abstract into concrete.

But, in fact, this is a useful article. If we understand the exact points in which it is wrong, we will also understand why Western democracy is a failed liberal system that does not liberate people from governmental oppression, but in fact simply kicks the can of oppression down the road.

It reminds me of Peter Singer's (and the like) articles about abortion, in which he argues in favor of infanticide (e.g., of sick babies), because after all, there is not much difference between an infant and a fetus. Once we understand why he is wrong (that it's ok to kill newborns), we can understand why abortion is also wrong.

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