Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The China Collective

There's a strange and ambivalent column in the New York Times by David Brooks about collectivism versus individualism in the light of the Olympic opening ceremony. 'The ideal of the harmonious collective,' he writes, 'may turn out to be as attractive as the ideal of the American Dream.' He concludes: 'It's certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.' As with discussions of libertarianism, the outer edge of individualism, this is a debate in which the terms are just too slippery. Individualism is defined by a collective just as the self is defined by the collective enterprise of language. Collectivism is defined by the individual just as society is defined by individual judgment. Seeing China as solely collectivist and America as nothing but individualist is an illusion. To a large extent, these are matters of rhetoric. That these two countries are different is indisputable, but differences between nations can seldom be reduced to a simply duality. Brooks rightly says that the rise of China is cultural. But he means it is not just economic. I think it is only cultural and culture can only be felt.


  1. Can we separate the economic from the cultural?

  2. I don't think that your off-the-cuff definition of 'libertariansim' is very useful. There are lots of varieties of libertarianism but I don't think extreme individualism characterises many of them. Many libertarians, such as Hayek, stress collaborative beahaviour as the key to human flourishing. But they all believe that collaborations are only legitimate and, ultimately, successful, to the extent that they are uncoerced, and see the state as the principle threat to freedom. Ideological conflict between libertarian camps or factions arises when it gets all blurry as to whether or not a state action constitutes coercion. Is taxation the moral equivalent of armed robbery, for example. Libertarians of different stripes answer that question in all sorts of ways. Both Hayek and Milton Friedman, supported some kind of welfare state, let's not forget. Just thought I'd mention it, in passing, since 'libertarian' seems to be getting a bit of a kicking round here at the moment.

  3. One thing that struck me is that the Chinese seem to do all sorts of spontaneous things and the athletes and crowds seemed relaxed and happy. Maybe they are not so afraid of their Government anymore... maybe that helps.

  4. Perhaps Brooks' column was strange and ambivalent because he frapped it off in twenty minutes after doing no more research than watching the opening ceremony on NBC where the wise presenters laboured at great length to explain to a simple, naive public that China is a COLLECTIVIST SOCIETY. Not really knowing much about the topic, and with the words of the philosophic titan Tom Brokaw ringing in his ears, Brooks most likely fired off some copy and then promptly forgot about it. Or perhaps I'm being cynical.

  5. The point is that Brooks is searching for another Cold War, another conflict that pits us againt them. It's a conservative trope that's worked well for decades. Our way of life is always under attack; there's always a tempting alternative luring wayward nations from the one true faith; and it's our responsibility to recapture our glory and defeat rival ideologies.

    So Brooks goes halfway around the world, and all he can see is difference. He thinks in binary terms. If China is succeeding, it must mean that our way of life is failing. If we're individualists, they must be collectivists.

    Really, it's just sad.

  6. With apologies to Gertrude Stein Brooks is as thick as a brick, is as thick as a brick, is as thick as a brick

    Or a one-dimensional BOZO as/are all of his "right"-thinking fellow travellers in the culture wars.

    The trouble is, is that he is taken so seriously. He belongs in the same retard school of cultural ANAL-ysis as Dinesh DSousa, Jonah Goldberg and the entire "intelligent design" movement.