Review of Benjamin Schwartz’s “In Search Of Wealth And Power”

In Search of Wealth and Power by Benjamin Schwartz, published in 1964. Rating: 4/5.


In Search of Wealth and Power is a very dense but richly rewarding tome by Benjamin Schwartz, a noted China scholar. He focuses on the life of the translator Yan Fu to illustrate the culture clashes that arose when traditional Chinese civilization came into contact with Western philosophies.

Yan Fu was a translator and thinker who was one of the first Chinese to engage with Western thought at a deep level. He rejected contemporary thinkers like Zhang Zhidong, who aimed to integrate Western technics onto Chinese cultural foundations – not for him was the slogan “Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application.” Nor was he a Marxist, to consider society as a mere superstructure to underlying economic realities. Instead, Yan Fu emphasized that if anything there was “more materialism (in the ethical sense)” among Chinese than in the West, whose own material foundations were built on innovative legal, political, and spiritual foundations. In a nutshell, the purpose of Yan Fu’s lifework was to foster the evolutionary growth of these Western qualities, many of them quite intangible, so as to “enrich the state and strengthen the army.” Yet in so doing this through his translations and commentary he ran into many paradoxes, and grew disillusioned with Western thought in the last decade of his life – as did admittedly many Western intellectuals as well. At the end he (re)turned to a form of Taoist mysticism.

At the start it is important to note that Yan Fu was intimately acquainted with all major strands of the Chinese philosophical tradition. Confucianism had been the bedrock of the Chinese state since the Qin dynasty. It stressed the importance of filial piety, of the ruler setting a virtuous example of the people, and of keeping laws and regulations light; however, Yan Fu and numerous other members of the Chinese intelligentsia during that time were coming to see it as a regressive influence keeping China backward. For his own part Yan Fu has little patience with it, beyond keeping its few good parts – mostly those to do with family organization – and extending it to the masses, the armies and factories (much as he perceived Christianity to have laid the groundwork for English public spirit despite its purported theological errors).

The other strand that he drew on is Legalism, a far more practical doctrine that  contained the Chinese version of balance of power theory and Machievallian ideas about the state. Furthermore, Schwartz writes, “while the immediate aims of the Legalists may be narrowly fiscal, the germ of a notion of economic development is latent within this mode of thought.”

Finally, there was Taoism; although the least practical of the three, Yan Fu was extremely influenced by it. In its attribution of a deep and incomprehensible driving force he found deep parallels with the monist Western philosophers, as well as a metaphysical lattice to hold together the evolutionary process and the “ten thousand things”. It did not proscribe a frozen feudal order like old-school Confucianism, and it was the polar opposite of the crass materialism of Legalism. As such, Yan Fu considered it the ultimate anchor on which Western philosophical concepts could be moored, even going so far as to argue proto-democratic tendencies in the works of Zhuangzi.

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Poker And Capitalism

waterloo“[Poker] exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made [the United States] so great.” Just consider the array of similarities:

1. Though there are rules and etiquette loosely associated with it, otherwise everything goes: in other words, its fundamental nature is profoundly amoral. (This is contrary to the ideologues who claim that capitalism is either A) “moral” / God-sanctioned / Rand-sanctioned / etc or B) “immoral” / “imperialist” / etc; newsflash, it’s NEITHER).

2. Players governed by emotions that cloud out calculation lose out in the long run. Blocking out emotions is harder than it sounds, because as in real economies, even able and rational poker players are sometimes overcome by the “animal spirits” of the moment.

3. It is important to maintain a good reputation: for instance, if you become known for bluffing too much (or not bluffing at all), you are going to get called out on it and lose money. Under advanced capitalism every major corporation maintains a PR department.

4. The majority of people in many capitalist societies such as the US believe that they are good enough to get well ahead, whereas in practice that is rarely the case (e.g. median household incomes have been more or less stagnant since 1973). Likewise in poker, most players believe they’re really good at it – ask around and you’ll find that 75%+ of people who play poker say they win on average, despite the mathematical impossibility – but in real life, only <10% end up corralling most of the gains.

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The Transition 20 Years On: The Reckoning

It is now nearly 20 years since market reformers began liberalizing the economies of Eastern Europe, or as some smart-ass put it, trying to revive the fish in the centrally planned fish stews. These stews, cooked to diverse recipes from goulash socialism to Soviet “structural militarization“, were subjected to a wide spectrum of overlapping treatments ranging neoliberalism (the Baltics), market socialism (Belarus), and mercantile corporatism (Russia). Other fish stews just stagnated in anarchic stasis (Ukraine). Twenty years on, it is time to observe the oft-surprising results.

I used Angus Maddison’s historical statistics, CIA figures for 2009 growth except where available the results from national statistical services (Belarus & Russia), and the IMF projections for 2010 (adjusted upwards for non-Baltic nations with sharp recent falls in GDP to account for their stronger-than-expected recoveries) to create GDP (PPP) per capita indices for post-Soviet nations and Poland (generally representative of Visegrad) where the output levels of 1989 – the year of peak Soviet GDP – are set to 100.

So which national ponds look like they’ve been subjected to grenade fishing, and which ones have the liveliest fish? Drumroll…

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Philosophical Musings #2

4. Freedom from fear, the only real freedom.

Political scientists try to rank countries based on their levels of “freedom”, frequently arbitrarily defined and applied (Freedom House, Economist Democracy Index, Polity IV, etc). Yet despite the inconsistencies and difficulties with quantifying something as abstract and intangible as freedom across cultural and civilization borders, for all but the most committed postmodernists, it nonetheless seems safe to say that North Korea, say, is less “free” than the US – for example, in that in the former there is no prospect of me publicizing this text.

That said, this does not mean that the US is necessarily free either, or more specifically, that the majority of its citizens are free. Yes, it has many blowhard radio “pundits” and angry blogger people, but they mostly vent their feelings in favor of the status quo, the System (and those who don’t usually post anonymously anyway).

But there are plenty of examples of people who are too afraid of giving their 2 cents. Some people I know were paranoid about me even replying to a Facebook contact from the Bay Area National Anarchists* on the theory the FBI might be watching them. American journalists too afraid to report anything contrary to the bipartisan party line (though the culture war certainly gives a good illusion of diversity, albeit on ultimately inconsequential matters). Employees, especially unconnected foreigners, who are too afraid of the sack or consequences for their career to stand up to managerial tyranny, corruption, and incompetence – I know plenty of such cases.

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The Meaning of Sublime Oblivion

This fragmentary text was found by priests of Kǎichè, May He Live Forever, Great Lord of the Last Empire, in the Year 220 AF. It was contained in a far north KHE resilience that had survived the Flame Deluge that ended the Age of Legends. Further excavations are now ongoing at the site, under the supervision and protection of the Guardian of the 7th Chimera Horde (Mosike).

Modern natural science has hacked away at the idea of a Designer God as more and more phenomena have fallen prey to rational explanation. All the arguments for God’s existence yet dreamt of sink under one paradox or another – cosmology through infinite regression, ontology through elementary logic, and teleology through evolution – the latter of which has even displaced God as the cause of directionality in universal history. While Darwin originally applied it to explain the development of the biosphere (the thin layer of flaura and fauna that covers the Earth), it has since been extended into the boundless past-and-future (Vernadsky’s and de Chardin’s theories of universal evolution). However, evolution is as hopeless as traditional objects of belief when it comes to explaining truly deep metaphysical questions…like why are we? Science can keep shaving away swathes of time in its quest to get closer to the Big Bang, yet it is unimaginable that pure positivism could ever explain the reason behind it.

The only possible resolution is to posit that the world of forms, the realm of mathematics, is not only a deeper reality than what we perceive – it is the only reality. What we perceive as spacio-temporal reality is but an extraordinarily complex, by our standards, mathematical object. This is an incredible claim which will doubtless be met with incredible incredulity. While proving it is impossible, it should be accepted as axiomatic, internalized in the same way that we accept that two parallel lines never meet in Euclidean geometry. Science over the centuries has rejected old folkish beliefs that matter was continuous and elemental (earth, fire, water, etc) and replaced them with evidence that space-time is made up of discrete, if very small, units – cells, atoms, ‘chronons’. There seem to be fundamental limits on observation into the worlds that lie hidden within Planck distances and in between Planck time. So if the universe is discrete, it can in principle be run by a universal computer.

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Green Communism

Thesis. The current capitalist-industrial System is incapable of surmounting the limits to growth on planet Earth because markets and technology, today’s salvation gospel, are no deus ex machina to the energy-and-pollution predicament of industrial civilization. Nor is this System in principle capable of preventing ecological overshoot because growth in physical throughput is the very basis of its existence. As such, we need to transition to an entirely new way of thinking about politics, society, and the economy – Green Communism. This is a system based on technocratic planning using the latest tools of operations research and networking; political control based on ubiquitous 2-way sousveillance to detect corruption and free-riding; and spiritual succor from transcendental values linked to ecotechnic sustainability, instead of today’s shallow materialist values embodied in the System’s “myth of progress”.

By repressing the economic potential of eastern Europe and China throughout much of the 20th century, one of Marxism-Leninism’s greatest legacies is to have indirectly postponed humanity’s reckoning with the Earth’s limits to industrial growth in the form of resource depletion and AGW. Had Eastern Europe and Russia become industrialized, consumer nations by the 1950′s-1960′s instead of the 2010′s-2020′s; had China followed the development trajectory of Taiwan; had nations from India to Brazil not excessively indulged in growth-retarding import substitution, it is very likely that today we would already be well on the downward slope of Hubbert’s curve of oil depletion, and burning coal to compensate – in turn reinforcing an already runaway global warming process.

Though one might refrain that socialist regimes tended to focus on heavy industries and had a poor environmental record, this pollution tended to be localized (e.g. acid rain over Czechoslovakia, or soot over industrial cities); however, CO2 per capita emissions – which contribute to global warming – from the socialist bloc were substantially lower than in the advanced capitalist nations. Furthermore, it should be noted that the overriding spur to heavy industrialization in the first place was the encirclement by capitalist powers, which created a perceived need for militarization (most prominent in the USSR from the 1930′s, and now North Korea). This process also distorted other aspects of those regimes, e.g. the inevitable throwing aside of universal pretensions (in practice, though not in rhetoric) in favor of nationalism, and what could be called a reversion to the “Asian mode of production” with industrial overtones, which could be used to describe Stalinism, or the militarized neo-feudalism of the Juche system of North Korea. So one cannot point to those countries as “proof” of the superiority of capitalism; to the contrary, we should take away the lesson that any anti-capitalist transition should be universal if it is to survive.

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