Monday, May 25, 2020

Yi, li and the illiberal age


A map of China during Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC)

We are living in an age of profound liberal decline. Liberalism still operates, in name, as the foundational doctrine of the remaining active international organisations. These institutions are still active. However, they are increasingly empty of ideological content, and dependent on bureaucratic inertia. In short: the hold of liberal doctrines and institutions on the reins of order in the world is slipping, badly. The agents of liberalism themselves, particularly in the Triad (Washington, Brussels and Tôkyô), have taken it upon themselves to gain for themselves ever more expansive political, military, police and surveillance powers over the masses they govern. As an ideology, liberalism has lost the globe-conquering spirit which propelled it to the heights of power following the fall of the Soviet Union.

On the international level, the agents of international liberalism have openly allied themselves with people who openly advocate the most violent and extreme brands of takfîri-Wahhâbi theocracy in the Middle East, fascism in the Ukraine, and nihilism in Hong Kong. In doing so, these agents of ‘rules-based liberal international order’ show that even they themselves have lost faith in the persuasive and rational power of liberalism as an idea. What remains is force.

Given my illiberalism, some might expect me to rejoice in this. I do not.

From a strictly historical perspective, eras of decline and fall are horrible, messy, and come at immense human cost. There will be nothing glorious or sweet about the fall of the liberal order or the end of the liberal era.

The current situation roughly corresponds to that which prevailed under the Spring and Autumn Period in China. We are already beginning to see regional hegemons vying for power and asserting their dominance over their neighbours. The one key benefit to the coming Spring and Autumn is that – just as the Hundred Schools of philosophy blossomed into being during this period in Chinese history – perhaps as many as a dozen discrete variants of illiberalism will be seen on offer. Some of these illiberalisms will be shown as beneficial, and others will be shown as world-historical frauds. I would not be surprised in the slightest if Antichrist were to appear in the coming decades. (If it sounds like I’ve been reading Spengler and Solovyov lately… good!)


Painting representing the Hundred Schools of Thought (諸子百家) in China

Given this Spring and Autumn-like coming global political landscape, perhaps it is best to look at the phenomenon from the perspective of Chinese classicalism. I realise that, the Ru philosophy of Confucius being a participant in the events it describes, there is a sense of anachronism to this which cannot be overcome. Even so, none of us – least of all yours truly! – can really extricate ourselves from our historical time or perspective. So perhaps I may be forgiven for using philosophical terms and concepts from another time to describe our current predicament.

Two useful concepts when understanding the increasingly illiberal global political landscape that we currently inhabit may be the Ru concepts of yi 義 or ‘justice’, and li 禮, which is commonly glossed in English as ‘ritual propriety’. The competing social doctrines I’ve previously outlined: of democratic socialism, of civilisational realism, of Marxism, of integral nationalism, of Shî‘a Islâmism, of Sunnî Islâmism and of fascism – to which I will also add the social doctrine of nihilism – do differ along several dimensions. I think it is useful to sort them first by the uniting principle of justice, and secondly by the dividing principle of ritual propriety.

There is a clear divide between these social doctrines when it comes to the Ru conception of justice, as we can see from how they now congregate into discrete gæopolitical blocs which either favour or oppose the current ideological superstructure of domination of the world’s political and œconomic life by the Triad. These power blocs are driven by rival conceptions of yi: of what constitutes the substantive proper order and common good among and above states, and of what constitutes the proper meaning (zhengyi 正義) of the ends of the state.

If we consider the power of the Triad as a hegemony (ba 霸), then at present, there are a set of illiberalisms in righteous resistance: these are represented by the civilisational realists of Russia under Putin, the (predominantly Shî‘a) Muslims of the Muqâwamah represented by ’Asad and Khamenei and Nasrâllâh, and the various remaining Marxist and socialist states in East Asia and Latin America. There are also, as mentioned above, a set of illiberalisms which are in alliance with the reigning hegemon: with the fascists of Eastern Europe and the Sunnî Islâmists of the Gulf States making common cause under Washington’s direction. The relations of the remaining illiberalisms, including the democratic socialists and the integral nationalists, may be described as opportunistic: democratic-socialist states (like Germany, Bulgaria and Slovakia) and integral-nationalist states (like Orbán’s Hungary, Modi’s India or Erdoğan’s Turkey) will try to compromise with or resist the Triad’s demands as they find convenient.

The growing informal alliance between modern Russia, modern China and modern Iran is based on a common understanding that what constitutes proper order and proper meaning among and above states is not the same as the substantive commitments underscored by the œconomic and military hegemony of the Triad over the world. There is a shared sense of justice between China, Iran and Russia – at least as regards the concrete political engagements each state is engaged with vis-à-vis the combined financial and military power of America, the EU and Japan. But the Ru conception of justice alone cannot account for the differences among the plethora of illiberalisms we are faced with, and for that we must borrow another concept from Ru: that of ritual propriety or li 禮. Yi highlights the commonalities which hold political blocs together. Li helps us to distinguish the differences within those blocs.

Ritual propriety is concerned primarily with the establishment of right relationships between people, as detailed in the Book of Rites (or the Li Ji 《禮記》), and also the establishment of a proper form of government. Although the notion of the relationship between church and state did not exactly exist at the time in which Confucius wrote, the entire idea of the Rites, in establishing rules of official decorum, was to regulate and create liminal boundaries for an order between the earthly powers of the ruler and the moral powers of Heaven. For Confucius in particular, the most important power of ritual propriety was to act as a constraining force on the libido dominandi of the ruler, by means of the interpreters of Heaven’s decrees – the scholarly class (shi 士).


It’s worth considering that for several of the illiberal ideologies mentioned above, there simply is no consideration of ritual propriety. Fascism acknowledges no transcendent authority above the leader of the state, while takfîri-Wahhâbi theocracy rolls all aspects of the state into a particularly horrid version of the transcendent authority. In the former case, the voice of God is brutally silenced at the will of the Führer. In the latter case, the voice of God is docilely made to say whatever the khalif wants Him to say.

Also: among Russia, China and Iran – even though they are making common cause on the level of what constitutes international justice, being opposed to an order which squeezes and immiserates poor countries for the comfort of the rich ones – there exist dramatically different attitudes toward ritual propriety. This can explain in part the divergences in governing ideology between civilisational realism and muqâwamah, and between both of these and Xi Jinping Thought.

I sort these differences in ritual propriety in the following way. China tends to adopt a Westphalian perspective wherein, in the interests of sovereignty, the sæcular authorities hold the reins of power over religious expressions but do not dictate what those expressions are. Iran, on the other hand, constrains the government’s political power by referring it to the ’Âyatollâh, who is the supreme spiritual authority in Twelver Shî‘ism. Russia is currently attempting to thread a balanced approach between these two, after having flirted in its Tsarist period with the Chinese-Westphalian model of regulating religion by means of the state. Unlike in fascism or Wahhâbism, none of these configurations completely destroys religion and subsumes it into the state, or completely destroys the state and subsumes it into the religious authority. But neither are these configurations liberal. The Jeffersonian liberal model in the United States – and later the model of French Revolutionary laïcité – created a hard separation of state and religious authority, in which the state would run all public functions while the religious authority would be confined to the private sphere. In each of these models – the Russian, the Chinese and the Iranian – religion and the state have a dynamic and dialectical interplay with each other.


Roman Catholics in China

Ironically, from a Western perspective, the People’s Republic of China’s attitude toward ritual propriety is probably the easiest to understand. China still operates out of a perspective broadly inherited from the Jesuits at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, in which the prince vies for power against the Pope (or the various Protestant missionary societies). The various religious upheavals of the nineteenth century – such as the disastrous Taiping Rebellion – have taught China that religion can be, and often is, a dangerous force which the state must keep in check. The attitude about religion in China is thus directly analogous to that in Western Europe after the Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westphalia. (There are intellectual figures in China who are trying to push back against this configuration: notably Jiang Qing, whose plans for constitutional reform favour a more balanced approach to relations between the state and religion.)


An Iranian masjid

The Iranian perspective has grown organically out of the disparate, multi-tendency political theory of disparate political activists such as Dr ‘Alî Shari‘ati, Dr Mehdi Bâzargân, and Sayyid Rûhollâh Khomeini out of response to foreign domination and to indirect imperialism by the US under the last Šâh. The Islâmic Revolutionary ideology in Iran contains distinctly liberal elements, but in its general orientation it is not a priori liberal. As such, we can see both a parliamentarian ‘form’ in the Iranian government, as well as distinct legal safeguards (including guaranteed representation in Parliament) for freedom of religious expression by Iran’s Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews. However, the governing authorities derive their legitimacy from a Qajar-era doctrine in Twelver Shî‘a Islâmic jurisprudence: ‘Wilâyat al-Faqîh’ ولاية الفقيه, or ‘government-by-jurist’. This concept is by its very nature fluid and pragmatic, being considered a less-than-ideal state of affairs, though there are both absolutist and realist versions of the doctrine. However, it places the final responsibility for the government in the hands of the Islâmic legal scholars. In terms of ritual propriety in the Ru sense: Iran represents a principle of theocracy. The faqîh, the Iranian equivalent of the Chinese shi, is the source and final authority of the state.


HH Pat Kirill of Moscow celebrating Divine Liturgy

Then we come to the Russian version of ritual propriety. From the start Russia has been torn between a state-led ideology, that of samoderzhavie or autocracy (in which the Church was just one bureau of the government), and a more balanced, mediæval ideal of harmony or symphony between Church and state. The state of Russian relations between Church and state has very rarely met this balance even in principle. In 1721, the Russian government abolished its own (relatively new) Patriarchate and replaced it with the Most Holy Synod; it was only with the Russian Revolution that the Patriarchate was restored under Saint Tikhon and granted a degree of autonomy from the state – which quickly weathered away under the constant pressures of Soviet atheism.

It’s historically necessary to point out that the modern Russian Orthodox Church currently enjoys a far greater degree of formal autonomy from the state than it has had at any point previously in the past three hundred years. The Church is largely still figuring out what to do with that autonomy. But among the beneficial things it has done, is that it has produced an invaluable social vision and mission for itself, in which it fully articulates its desire to be a cooperative partner for the state in public life, rather than a competitor or a slave or a master. Ironically, this expression of church-state harmony seems to come closest to the traditional Ru ideal of how the literati and the state should relate to each other.

I do not speak from an unbiased perspective, here. I am an Orthodox Christian who has spent a great deal of time in China, and a not insignificant amount of time studying Chinese philosophy – including classical historiography. It follows from the above that I certainly have a preference in terms of how I would like to see ritual propriety structured. On these questions I tend to align more strongly with Russia – and Syria, with its government’s commitment to cooperative sæcularism – than I do with the more theocratic elements of the muqâwamah, or the suspicious and atheistic elements of Chinese Marxism. But I do not dispute that the substantive principle of justice, among and above states, is on the side of those who resist the Triad.

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