18 May, 2020

The World That China Wants (II): The Communist Case In Brief

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One month ago I announced a series that would investigate "the world that China wants," using Dan Tobin's recent congressional testimony and Nadege Rolland's recent research brief as the foundation of this discussion. My original plan was to dissect each of these documents at length. However, I put that aspect of the project to the side when Tablet Magazine requested I write for them a ~2500 summary of my entire case. Today that summary was published under the title "China’s Plans to Win Control of the Global Order." While it is not the most elegant piece I've writtent, it does a good job of putting all the important pieces of contemporary Chinese Communism in one place.

One of the highlights comes at the beginning, where I present a metaphor for thinking about Chinese "socialism:"
Listening to Chinese communists champion their socialist bona fides in one of China’s money-hungry metropoles summons a special sort of cognitive dissonance; distant electric billboards gleam through industrial smog while your conversation partner parrots Marxist cant. But this dissonance cannot be too different from, say, what an outsider might have felt listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt address a Jefferson-Jackson dinner in 1936. If Jefferson’s writings are your scripture, Roosevelt’s titanic interventions in American life are heresy. Yet Roosevelt thought of himself as the heir to Jefferson and Jackson. He earnestly believed that his program was an adaptation of Jeffersonian ideals and principles to a 20th-century political economy. Roosevelt’s politics were a natural—albeit historically contingent—evolution of America’s liberal tradition, so the politics of the Chinese communists are an outgrowth of their Leninist identity.[1]
There is an entire PhD thesis to be written on what aspects of Marxist and Leninist thought are still relevant in 21st century China. To me the obvious answer is quite a lot. But in this essay I focus in on a narrower part of the whole:
One of the most salient continuities between classical Leninism and the current version of communist politics endorsed by Beijing, which the Chinese uncreatively have labeled “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” is the conviction that true modernization must be led by a “vanguard” party that is able to act in the interests of the “overwhelming majority” of people. According to this Leninist line, free markets and free elections lead to the rule of selfish elites, and China’s rejuvenation depends on being protected from both. Despite the concessions made to market-price mechanisms that have helped drive China’s recent economic boom, Chinese communists believe that they lead an ideological-political system distinct from and in opposition to those of the capitalist world. Circumstance forces temporary cooperation with the self-interested capitalists, but these two systems cannot be permanently reconciled.[2]
Another interesting hold over is their sense of the relevant history:
But there are dangers to “opening up” to the outer world. This is the lesson Chinese communists draw from extensive study of the Soviet failure. The party’s official explanation for the collapse of the Soviet Union—which has been communicated to party cadres through speeches, party school education, and even a full-length documentary—is that its demise had nothing to do with the weaknesses of its planned economy or the tensions inherent in a multinational empire masquerading as a people’s republic. In the telling of the Chinese Communist Party, the Soviet Union began to die the day Nikita Khrushchev denounced the cult of personality surrounding Joseph Stalin. Though the reformist policies of destalinization were only intended to strengthen the communist system by eliminating its errant and excessive aspects, it ended up eroding the foundation of the value system that made the USSR cohere. Once it became possible to question the party leadership, the Soviets lost the ability to shore up the “ideological security” of their regime. In these circumstances, Chinese communists studying the USSR’s dissolution now conclude, Gorbachev’s decision to “open” the system and expose formerly culturally quarantined Soviet peoples to the enticements of the Western order was a suicide pact.

Xi Jinping endorsed this explanation for the Soviet collapse in a 2013 address to party cadres. “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate?” he asked his audience. “An important reason is that in the ideological domain, competition is fierce!” The party leadership is determined to avoid the Soviet mistake. A leaked internal party directive from 2013 describes “the very real threat of Western anti-China forces and their attempt at carrying out westernization” within China. The directive describes the party as being in the midst of an “intense, ideological struggle” for survival. According to the directive, the ideas that threaten China with “major disorder” include concepts such as “separation of powers,” “independent judiciaries,” “universal human rights,” “Western freedom,” “civil society,” “economic liberalism,” “total privatization,” “freedom of the press,” and “free flow of information on the internet.” To allow the Chinese people to contemplate these concepts would “dismantle [our] party’s social foundation” and jeopardize the party’s aim to build a modern, socialist future.[3]
That is the Communist's problem. The nature of this problem is misunderstood in the West:
Westerners asked to think about competition with China tend to see it through a geopolitical or military lens. But Chinese communists believe that the greatest threat to the security of their party, the stability of their country, and China’s return to its rightful place at the center of human civilization, is ideological. They are not fond of the military machines United States Pacific Command has arrayed against them, but what spooks them more than American weapons and soldiers are ideas—hostile ideas they believe America has embedded in the discourse and institutions of the existing global order. “International hostile forces [seek to] westernize and divide China” warned former CPC General Secretary Jiang Zemin more than a decade ago, and that means that, as Jiang argued in a second speech, the “old international political and economic order” created by these forces “has to be changed fundamentally” to safeguard China’s rejuvenation. Xi Jinping has endorsed this view, arguing that “since the end of the Cold War countries affected by Western values have been torn apart by war or afflicted with chaos. If we tailor our practices to Western values ... The consequences will be devastating.” [4]
One way around this is censorship, intimidation, and bribery. This is how the Chinese communists direct ideology inside their own borders, and increasingly outside it as well. But this solution is insufficient:
For the party, censorship of hostile ideas and intimidation of those who voice them is only a stopgap solution. To secure their victory, liberal values do not just need to be silenced. They must be discredited.

The Chinese communists’ plans to discredit and dismantle the liberal values baked into the existing global architecture are incredibly ambitious. They imagine a future reality where even the notion that China could be more successful, wealthy, or powerful if it were free would sound too ridiculous to take seriously. Xi Jinping has given a name to this future world. He calls this vision “a community of common destiny for mankind.” This future community of nations would give Chinese communism the moral recognition it is now denied. The party-state would be lauded, in Xi’s words, as a new “contribution to political civilization” and a new chapter in “the history of the development of human society.” Power blocs and existing military alliances would soon melt away as the various nations of the Earth are drawn into China’s economic orbit. No country would be compelled to shift their regime to the Chinese model in this scenario, but most would recognize that the Chinese social and political system has “demonstrated socialism’s superiority.” Many would gladly adopt the tools Beijing has perfected to manage economic and political problems to shape their own societies. Democratization, free markets, and universal human rights would no longer be enshrined as the bedrock of the world’s most important international institutions or be seen as the default standards of good governance. They would instead be reduced to a parochial tradition peculiar to a smattering of outcast Western nations....
Xi does not expect this contest over the future world order to be resolved quickly. In 2013 he warned cadres that “for a fairly long time yet, socialism in its primary stage will exist alongside a more productive and developed capitalist system ... [And there will be a] long period of cooperation and of conflict between these two social systems” before China has “the dominant position.” The PRC’s plan to build up the economic sinews of a less hostile order will take several decades to come to fruition. To make that future a reality requires convincing the world that, in the words of Yang Jiechi, “Western governance concepts, systems, and models [no longer] grasp the new international situation or keep up with the times.” Only when the world is persuaded that Yang is correct—that liberal ideals like pluralism, individual rights, and constitutional government are anachronisms of a past age incapable of solving 21st-century problems—will Chinese communists no longer fear that their bid to restore China to greatness will be derailed by the ideological plots of their enemies. [5]
It is to this end both the grand project of the "Belt and Road" and the narrower task of creating anti-American propaganda shorts are devoted.

I encourage folks to go read the full thing over at Tablet. I have finally put together a condensed statement of my thinking about the Party's intellectual trajectory and current priorities. While I came to a similar conclusion as Rolland and Tobin independent of their research, what I have written here would not have been written without the hard work they have done tracking down sources and compiling them into coherent reports.

I think both of them would argue that the full story is a shade more complex and nuanced than I've presented in this five-page Tablet piece, and in future episodes of this series I will return to their reports and explain some of the caveats and unknowns attached to the project. Yet this works for now, and should serve as a useful primer that "normal people" not waist-deep in the weeds can use and understand. My hope is that it will be shared widely.
If you are interested in other things I have written about China's Communists, you might also find the first post in this series,"The World That China Wants (I)" useful.  Similar themes are pursued in "A Note on Historical Nihilism," "Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability," "Case Studies in Communist Insecurity," "Review: Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping," "Where is the Communism in the Chinese Communist Party," and "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Tanner Greer, "China’s Plans to Win Control of the Global Order," Tablet Magazine (18 May 2020).
[2] ibid
[3] ibid
[4] ibid
[5] ibid

10 May, 2020

Against Patrick Deneen (I)

Don Trioani, Stand Your Ground, (1976).
Captain Levi Preston of Danvers, Massachusetts, interviewed about his participation in the first battle of the American Revolution many years later, at the age of 91, around 1843:
"Captain Preston, what made you go to the Concord Fight? [Was it because you] were you oppressed by the Stamp Act?"

"I never saw any stamps, and I always understood that none were ever sold."

"Well, what about the tea tax?"

"Tea tax, I never drank a drop of the stuff, the boys threw it all overboard."

"But I suppose you have been reading Harrington, Sidney, and Locke about the eternal principle of liberty?"

"I never heard of these men. The only books we had were the Bible, the Catechism, Watts' psalms and hymns and the almanacs."

"Well, then, what was the matter?"

"Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn't mean we should."
—Adapted slightly from David Hacket Fisher, Paul Revere's Ride (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 163-164.

To read other bits of my jousting for the future of the American right, you might find the posts of my older posts on the problem: "Conservatism's Generational Civil War," "Questing for Transcendence," and "On the American Football Game" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

06 May, 2020

Japan's Achilles Heel?

Infographic from the International Gas Union.

Two months ago I wrote a post with the title "Losing Taiwan Means Losing Japan." It described how the loss of Taiwan to the PRC would put Japan in a geopolitically untenable position, as the PLA Navy would then be capable of choking Japan into submission if conflict ever arose between the two powers.

I thought back to that post as I read a report from the Financial Times on the difficulties Japan will face if its liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities are shut down because of the SARS-2 coronavirus:
Because LNG is poorly suited for long-term storage, Japan only has a two-week stockpile. Yet the country depends on the fuel for 40 per cent of its electric power generation, and all of the LNG it uses is imported from the Middle East and south-east Asia.....

Unlike oil, LNG is hard to stockpile. After the Arab oil shocks of the early 1970s, Japan passed a law to require stockpiling oil, and about 200 days of domestic consumption is stored together with the private sector. Even if there were a hindrance to the transportation of oil, “we can hold up until the infection subsides”, said an employee at a private energy company.

LNG, meanwhile, cannot be held in large volume because of its composition. To ship over long distances, the gas is chilled to minus 162C, at which point it becomes liquid. But it evaporates as it is being transported. That is why Japan has only two weeks’ worth of LNG at any given time.

It takes about a month to ship the LNG from the Middle East to Japan. With shipments arriving constantly, a few missed shipments would not immediately signal a crisis. But an extended cut-off would spell trouble for the country. [1]
The connection to that previous post should be obvious. However, as I am not especially familiar with LNG infrastructure, I am left pondering a few questions. I encourage readers more knowledgeable than myself to take them up in the comments.

The Financial Times describes a nation that can easily be paralyzed by losing just a few key nodes in its LNG offloading infrastructure. If damaged in war, how quickly could such infrastructure be rebuilt? How possible is it to harden these targets from ballistic missile attack? In the event of war, what is more economical: attacking the LNG port infrastructure or attacking the LNG ships bound for Japan? What percentage of the LNG carrier fleet that embarks in Japan is Japan-flagged? One suspects Mitsui O.S.K. Lines would have no choice but to continue supplying Japan in the face of commerce raiders, but would the fleets of Shell, Nakilat, et. al dare risk it?

If you found this analysis of Taiwanese and Japanese military affairs of  interest, you might also like the posts "Losing Taiwan Means Losing Japan," "Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism Above Military Power," "Taiwan Will Be Defended by the Bullet or Not At All," and "At What Point is Defending Japan No Longer Worth It." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Suguru Kurimoto, "Hidden threat: Japan has only 2-week stockpile of LNG," Financial Times (5 May 2020).

01 May, 2020

Book Review: The Great State

Over at the Washington Examiner I have a book review out of Timothy Brook's The Great State: China and the World. Brook is a well regarded historian whose past work has focused on both the Ming Dynasty and on early 20th century China. This book is a popular history that narrates episodes from the Yuan Dynasty to the current moment. As I explain in the review:
 In Great State: China and the World, Brook tells 13 stories from the last 700 years of China's past, each of them peeking into the Chinese people's relations with the outside world. As a convincing argument that China’s diplomacy has been guided by a consistent framework over the centuries, Great State leaves much wanting. But as a narrative introduction to key episodes in China’s foreign relations that is accessible and even riveting, this book is a smashing success. 
Each chapter of Great State follows a similar framing. Placed at the front of each is a plate image (a reproduction of a painting, a map, or a photograph) that is connected in some way to an episode in the history of China's relations with the outer world. Brook proceeds to describe the intricacies of these images in lavish detail, showing what they reveal about the minds and perceptions of their creators. Having set the scene and transported his readers to the past, he then shifts his focus from images to individuals. Most chapters of Great State focus on two people, one Chinese and one a foreigner, connected to one another by a strange flow of historical events. Sometimes, these will be high-born individuals at the center of great affairs of state (e.g., a dalai lama and the Qing prince sent to negotiate with him); other times, the relationship Brook describes will be more mundane and private (e.g., a Catholic missionary in Nanjing and his convert). 
Unlike many academic historians, Brook is a terrific storyteller. But he does more than just stitch his sources together into a compelling story — he also uses his narrative skills to show how historians sift through conflicting and confusing sources to craft a coherent understanding of the past. Many of Brook's chapters are presented as mystery tales whose full details must be uncovered and pieced together by the historian and his readers. Some of them, such as Brook's investigation into whether the 13th-century Black Death ever came to China, are compulsively readable. Great State is one of those rare books that will both resonate with a general readership and whose chapters may be usefully assigned to undergraduates to teach them the "historian’s craft." [1]
Although I enjoyed the Black Death chapter of the Great State, the chapters on various Ming dynasty era episodes were the clear stand outs. Each of these chapters is a stand alone narrative that can be read without reference to the others; on the strength of the writing alone, I can safely recommend this book without reservations to just about any American.

Which is not to say I fully agree with Brook's interpretations. I describe some of my disagreement with Brook in my review, but I want to make a few additional points here that I did not have space for in that column.

The Great State does not really have a thesis so much as it has themes. One of the themes is found in the book's title, this notion of the "Great State." I will let Brook explain what he means when he uses the term:
Before the 1270s China was a dynastic state in which one family monopolized power at the center because, so the theory went, Heaven had given that family an exclusive mandate to rule. What changed with the coming of the Mongols was the deeper conviction that this mandate entailed the right to extend the authority of that one family out across the world, incorporating all existing polities and rulers into a system in which military power was paramount. This was the Great State, and this is what China became. 
...The sovereign of the Great State was endowed with an authority that potentially universal: those within must submit to his authority, those without must defer to it. The concept matters because it was a basic fact for those who owed the Great State allegiance as well as for those entering from zones beyond its reach. It supplied the symbolic architecture of the spaces in which Chinese and non-Chinese interacted. It colored the terms within which they imagined they were. It perfumed the moral air they breathed. Part of knowing you were Chinese was knowing you stood under the canopy of the Great State.[2]
Brook's big idea then is that the Mongol empire inaugurated a new, more universalistic understanding of political authority in East Asia. The rulers of China who came after the Mongols adopted this understanding as their own and claimed a mandate of the Mongol sort ever after.

I am not sure this is actually true. It is quite obviously true for Zhu Yuanzhang (founder of the Ming) and the Ming rulers who immediately followed him. But as my review points out, claims of universal authority—much less actions intended to enforce it—are less common as the dynasty wears on, and the stories Brook himself chooses to tell reinforce, not subvert, the traditional story that the Ming dynasty spent most of its existence looking inward.

But my larger problem with this idea is that I am not sure how Mongol it really is.  Brook asserts that this political philosophy had no precedent in the pre-Mongol era, but as none of the episodes he narrates come those earlier eras, the distinction he wishes to draw between late and early Chinese history remains fuzzy. The appellation "great" was being used to describe dynasties before the Yuan; more importantly, claims that Chinese rulers had "the right to extend the authority of [their] family out across the world" are not that hard to find earlier in Chinese history. A millennia before the Mongols conquered China we find a Confucian making the following argument for war with the Xiongnu confederation on China's borders, who at that time had a fairly equal (as opposed to ritually subservient) relationship with the Han:
"the situation of the empire [is currently like] a person hanging upside down... To command the barbarians is a power vested in the Emperor at the top, and to present tribute to the Son of Heaven is a ritual to be performed by vassals at the bottom. Now the feet are at the top and the head at the bottom." [3]
When the Han actually did begin their conquest of Xiongnu territories a few decades later, Wudi, the emperor who led this terrific expansion of Han power, justified it in the following terms:
I have heard that in ancient times under [mythical emperors Yao and Shun] marks were drawn on clothing [to signify the punishment of criminals] and the people did not disobey; nowhere was there anyone who did go about his business...Their virtue spread even to the birds and the beasts; their example was known beyond the four seas. Beyond the sea, the Sushen, the Qusao of the North, and the Diqiang came to surrender... How can I be compared to Yao and Shun, how can I equal these kings?" [4]
Thus all the way back in the 130s BC Chinese dynasts were expressing their political ideals and mandates in the terms of all people everywhere and the surrender of barbarians from all corners of the earth. Han Wudi did not inherit the Mongol "great state" but it is hard to look at what happened during his reign and conclude that his state did not operate on a similar model.

If you are interested in other things I have written about Chinese history, you might also find the posts  "Making Sense of Chinese History: A Reading List," "The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program ," "Geography and Chinese History," "The Radical Sunzi," "Why Do We Know So Little of China's WWII?" "Reviewing Shanghai and Nanjing 1937," and my brief series on the Han-Xiongnu wars worth your time. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Tanner Greer, "The View From Beijing," review of The Great State, Washington Examiner (30 April 2020).

[2] Timothy Brook, Great State: China and the World (New York: Harpers, 2020), 7-8; 9.

[3] The Confucian in question was Jia Yi, the quotation is taken from Yu Ying-shih, Trade and Expansion in Han China (Berkley: University of California Press, 1969) p. 11.

[4] Han Shu 6:4b, translation provided by Sophia Karin Psarras, "Han and Xiongnu: A Rexamination of Cultural and Political Relations (I)," Monumenta Serica 51 (2003): 145, note 207.  

29 April, 2020

It Is Time For a Libertarian Case Against China

The folks over at Reason magazine have published an essay by Daniel Drezner titled "There is No China Crisis." The essay is a long and meandering piece of apologia for the old DC model for dealing with China. I've written about this model and its failures before (especially see the posts "Give No Heed to the Walking Dead" and "China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order;"  I suppose these two book reviews I wrote for Foreign Policy are also relevant).[1] Given how much I have written about it in the past, I am not really interested in revisiting that discussion now. I'll simply note that it is silly for Drezner to imply that the flaws in the old model were not apparent until we got to the point where a million Uyghurs had been thrown in concentration camps and the NBA was held hostage for not parroting Communist line. The truth is that the interests, ideology, and goals of the Communist Party of China of 2019 were not so different from those of the Party of 2009, and it was around 2009, not 2017 or 2018, that the Party began a clear, decisive shift against the growing liberalism in their own country and the "threats" posed by liberal ideas and orders abroad.[2] What was happening was undeniable by the time of the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012; that America's political class only started taking the problem seriously in the last three years is evidence of just how difficult it can be to dislodge settled minds from their errors.

Which brings me back to Reason. More interesting than Drezner's piece itself is Reason's decision to publish it. Reason is the flagship magazine of the American libertarian movement. I like libertarians and libertarianism. I can't bring myself to identify as one, but someone recently described me as  "libertarian adjacent," and I will not dispute the label. I am on board the "limited government" train, have a fellowship at the Mercatus Institute (to write a book on a topic unrelated to China), and room together with half the Cato Institute. I could be nudged fairly easily into something like what Tyler Cowen has been calling "state capacity libertarianism." If someone can take Cowen's general line of thinking, strip it of its technocratic gloss, and marry it to a Christopher Lasch-style take on republican self government as a good in and of itself, I will be on board. Such a program wouldn't address what I see as the central social and cultural problems of our era, but I am unconvinced that the federal government is the tool one should use to solve those problems in the first place.

With that bit of throat clearing out of the way: from a libertarian perspective, the priorities of Reason's editors do not make sense. I am reminded of a bar-side chat I had with Cato analyst Alex Nowrasteh in 2017 shortly after the "Muslim ban." Libertarians had been so primed by the Obama years, Nowrasteh argued, to focus their fire on things like the college speech codes and Title IX that they had trouble seeing that the ground beneath them had shifted. They couldn't see that in 2017 the Trump administration's policies on immigration, homeland security, etc. were now the biggest threat to libertarian ideals on the docket. So many busied themselves tweeting about campus culture fights when a much larger game was afoot.

I suspect something similar has happened here with Reason and this piece on China. America's foreign policy overreach and the collectivizing press of the European Union has been the driving force behind international statism for so long that libertarians now have trouble readjusting to the new world we live in. If you are actually interested in the extension of liberty across the globe— if you are fighting for the freedom of the human race—then it is important to assess what that world actually looks like.

Start here: one in every five humans on this earth is a subject of the Communist Party of China. This Party believes that it is in an "intense, ideological struggle" for survival, and the ideological threats it faces explicitly includes ideas like "separation of powers," "independent judiciaries," "human rights," "Western freedom,"free flow of information on the internet,""civil society," "total marketization," "economic liberalism," and "freedom of the press."[3] The Party believes that by allowing free markets, free thoughts, and free association into China they would be destroying the source of their power, and with it their ability to lead China into the future. The future they imagine is great: Xi Jinping has described it as "the eventual demise of capitalism and the ultimate victory of socialism." The central task of the Communist Party of China, he urges, is "building a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position." Ever ambitious, the Communists even have a date by which they hope to have secured this bid for "the initiative:" 2049. [4]

It is worth pausing here to reflect upon some of the implications of all this. Important things to note: the Communist Party of China believes that is is in an economic, political, and ideological contest for the future of the their country and the world; while military competition is not ignored by the Party, the central frame through which they view this contest is not geopolitics or military power. It is ideas that bother them. To win their contest for the future, the idea that their society could be more successful, wealthy, and powerful if it were free must be discredited or silenced. The Communists want a future where even the notion of a free, liberal China would sound ridiculous to anyone who hears it—that is, if anyone is brave enough to air it in the first place.

Within China the Party-state has built a vast apparatus of censorship and surveillance to control the traffic of ideas among the Chinese people. (An aside: the possibility that these technologies and innovations might be exported or copied by other countries should by itself be raising libertarian alarms, but I'll leave the development of that thought for a later piece). But in an interconnected world this is not enough. So insecure is the Party in this fight over thought, that it now applies techniques it perfected to defeat ideas within China to the world outside it. The NBA-fiasco is the most prominent example of this. That gambit was made by prominent through its failure. The Party's successes have gotten less air-time. The biggest of these successes have happened in Chinese diaspora communities, where a cocktail of surveillance, blackmail, intimidation, and bribery have silenced critics and brought one foreign Chinese-language publication to toe the Party line after another. Yet the targets are not always ethnically Chinese: the same coercive techniques have been applied to individual researchers, politicians, or media personalities, NGOs, corporations, whole industries and even entire countries. When the Party has enough leverage to win the contest of ideas by silencing them at their source, they do so.[5]

So much for the silencing of ideas. The Communists' vision for discrediting liberalism and free society is a more ambitious project. The current world order, maintains the Party leadership, is built to hold "socialism with Chinese characteristics" down. Xi Jinping has argued that the Party must "transform the global governance system" to something more amenable to authoritarianism.[6]  The Party calls their desired world order a "community of common destiny for mankind," a future where (in the words of analyst Liza Tobin),
A global network of partnerships centered on China would replace the U.S. system of treaty alliances, the international community would regard Beijing’s authoritarian governance model as a superior alternative to Western electoral democracy, and the world would credit the Communist Party of China for developing a new path to peace, prosperity, and modernity that other countries can follow." [7]
What Tobin describes as "a new path to peace, prosperity, and modernity" the Xi has variously described as "Chinese wisdom and a Chinese answer to solving the problems of the mankind," "a new [achievement].... in the history of the development of human society," a "new and greater contribution to mankind," and "new advance in political civilization."[8] Notice the scope of what the Party hopes to reshape. They hope not to remake China, nor even Asia, but "human society," "civilization," and "mankind." As Politburo member Yang Jiechi exhorted in 2018, the time has come for the Party to "energetically control the new direction of the common progress of China and the world." [9]

The Belt and Road Initiative is one attempt to kick start this process. I am fairly bearish on its progress thus far, but the Communists have made clear their intention to play this game on the long term. They hope that by increasing trade with and directly investing in the infrastructure of the developing world they can position themselves as the center of a new world order. Economic heft will be transformed to intellectual heft. A large number of these nations will adopt "Chinese solutions" to their own economic and political problems, be it managing recessions or managing political speech. These solutions will tie them closer to the People's Republic, just as the political and economic transformations of the post-war world drew most of the globe into its intellectual and cultural orbit. The exact shape of the global-ideology to be is still being debated in China, but the consensus is that it must be an ideology that rejects free markets, universal rights, and political liberalism.[9]

Military power and glory is a secondary adjunct to this story. Military supremacy is a means to an end, and that end is the glory of a China as a superpower, raised to the heights of international prestige by its ruling Communist vanguard. Military strength and national unification are thus part of this same gambit to build a new ideological world order (and secure the Party's place at China's head). As Chairman Xi put it, "the pattern of global governance depends upon the balance of power, and the transformation of global governance systems originates from changes in the balance of power."[10] Military bases abroad and fancy weapon shows at home are means of confirming the message China wishes to embed into the international order to their own people: our lack of freedom is what makes us strong. With the Communist Party in charge, no one will ever be able to threaten our stability or our honor ever again.

What should this mean for libertarians? Should it matter to libertarians that one in five human beings live in the grip of a Communist fist? That this Party grows more vicious and authoritarian in its dealings with its own people and more innovative in its search for new technologies and techniques of surveillance? That these same Communists have openly stated their intent to attack and absorb millions who now live free (e.g., in Taiwan)? That their leaders believe they are locked in global competition over the ideology of the future—and that their self described rivals are "liberals" and "capitalists?" That they will not feel secure in their victory until they can control ideas and association in the heart of liberal, capitalist nations? That they now extend their system of surveillance beyond their boarders? That they already use state control of the Chinese economy to coerce corporations, individuals, and entire countries into accepting their will? That their ultimate, self-declared goal is to build a world where capitalism is an anachronism? That to do this they are building a set of statist "Chinese solutions" for the direction of entire economies and societies—solutions they hope will be adopted in other countries? That the tyrants who believe these things and have these goals are on track to directly control the world's largest economy and strongest military within two decades time?

Should that matter to libertarians?

I believe it should. I won't pretend I know the full "libertarian" answer to this problem. But it is far past the time for libertarians—and Reason magazine—to take the problem with the seriousness it deserves. 

If you are interested in other things I have written about China's Communists, you might also find the posts "A Note on Historical Nihilism," "Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy," "The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road," "Review: Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping" and "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Tanner Greer, "Give No Heed to the Walking Dead," Scholar's Stage (1 July 2019); "China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order," Scholar's Stage (4 June 2016); "Can American Values Survive in a Chinese World?", Foreign Policy (12 October 2019); "Xi Jinping Knows Who His Enemies Are," Foreign Policy (21 November 2019).

[2] Rush Doshi, "Hu’s to blame for China’s foreign assertiveness?," Brookings Institute (22 January 2019) covers some of this ground, though parallel developments were happening in the realm of internet censorship and media control, attempts to bolster "ideological security" and "cultural security," coercion of dissidents and Chinese diaspora communities abroad, reassertion of state prerogatives in the economic sphere, construction of the Chinese surveillance state, and a general broadening of the Party's presence in every day life.

[3] All quotes taken from the "Document 9" memo. See "Document 9: A ChinaFile Translation," China File (13 November 2013). For an investigation into the origins of these ideas and many other examples of their use, see Samantha Hoffman, "Programming China: the Communist Party’s autonomic approach to managing state security," PhD diss, University of Nottingham (2017). and Matthew Johnson, "Securitizing Culture in Post-Deng China: An Evolving National Strategic Paradigm, 1994–2014," Propaganda in the World and Local Conflicts, 2017, 4(1).

[4] These quotes are pulled from Tanner Greer, "Xi Jinping in Translation: China’s Guiding Ideology," Palladium (31 May 2019). For a collection of similar quotes to the same effect, with analysis, see Dan Tobin, How Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions,” testimony delivered to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (13 March 2020).

[5] For a fairly comprehensive summary, see Matt Schrader, "Friends and Enemies: A Framework for Understanding Chinese Political Interference in Democratic Countries," Global Marshall Fund (22 April 2020).

[6] Xi Jinping, "Improve Our Ability to Participate in Global Governance," Governance of China, vol II (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2016), p. 488.

[7] Quote taken from Liza Tobin, "Xi’s Vision for Transforming Global Governance: A Strategic Challenge for Washington and Its Allies," Texas National Security Review, vol 2, iss 1 (Nov 2018).

[8] Xi Jinping, "The People's Wish For a Good Life is Our Goal," Governance of China, vol I, p. 4; "A Bright Future for Socialism With Chinese Characteristics," Governance of China, vol II, p. 13; Report for the 19th CPC National Conference, "Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era"  (18 October 2017).

[9]  杨洁篪,“近平外交思想为指导 深入推进新时代对外工作,” 求实 (1 August 2018). For those who read Chinese, this entire essay is actually a revealing statement of how all of the pieces of socialist ideology and China's diplomatic strategy fit together. The full section I am drawing from here reads as:

[10]  Nadege Rolland, China's Vision of a New World Order, National Bureau of Asian Research report No. 22 (January 2020).

[11]  Xi, "Improve Our Ability," Governance, vol II, 489.

23 April, 2020

Talking Very Online Conservatism with Titus Techera

Two weeks ago I appeared on Titus Techera's podcast Post-Modern Conservative to talk with him about my article for the National Review,  "Learning the Wrong Lessons From Reform Conservatism" and the blog-post that went with it, "Conservatism's Generational Civil War." Our discussion was fruitful and wide ranging: over its course we discussed various intellectual currents in 21st century conservative thought, my assessment of the "reformicons" and their failure as a political movement (including a few that did not make it into the original article), how conservatives never really fought a culture war, but a political war over culture, unsettling parallels I see between frog-twitter conservatives of today and the right-wing intellectuals of Weimar Germany, the need for a "manly" defense of (small-l) liberal principles, and my opinion of Adrian Vermeule's article in The Atlantic on "common good constitutionalism."

On that last point, I would like to clarify something I said on the podcast. Twice I called Vermeule's ideas "intentionally stupid." The word "stupid" was a mistake; rather, I think his ideas are intentionally absurd. No one with two wits about them actually believes that America willany time in the next fifty years at leastbe a republic whose constitution is interpreted by the dictates of 19th century Catholic theology. Move an inch towards this "common good" framing and you will be left not with Catholic social teaching, but the "common good" as The New York Times editorial page defines it. Vermeule knows this. We all know it. His proposals are prima facie absurditiesand that is the entire point!

What is going on here is a sort of signalling. By writing up an article for the nation's largest magazine that is simultaneously an outrage to any normie who reads them yet the logical extension of Vermeule's beliefs, Vermeule is signalling something important: my commitment to these principles is so strong, and their underlying logic so compelling, that I am willing to make myself an object of national spite and ridicule to defend them. This approach is not intended to persuade the unconvinced so much as it is to inspire the uncommitted. No leftist or libertarian will be won over to "common good" thinking by these displays. But a confused and frustrated young conservative desperately searching for a moral framework to latch onto?  Proto-integralists who have lost faith in America's founding principles but have been too shy or too intimidated to voice their loss? These are the people who will be impressed by Vermeule's stand, and it is with them in mind he wrote his piece.

Hear the rest of my thoughts on that question and many others over at the Post Modern Conservative podcast.

If this post on controversies in American conservatism was worth your time, you might consider some of my older posts on the problem: "Conservatism's Generational Civil War," "Porn Restriction For Realists," "Questing for Transcendence," and "On the American Football Game." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

15 April, 2020

The World That China Wants (Part I): Why Intentions Matter

There is a school of international relations theory that advocates judging the relations of states absent speculation on the intentions and plans of its statesmen. As leaders have an incentive to lie and their intentions can never really be proved one way or another, it is best for the analyst to refrain from mind-reading altogether. The analyst should focus instead on more concrete and objective measures, like military platforms or GDP per capita. This is what will actually predict how statesmen will perceive other countries and these sort of measures are the actual ones that will influence state behavior, not nebulous, unprovable assessments of intentions or ideology. This should especially hold true when analyzing authoritarian states, whose inner workings and political debates are opaque to the outside world.

I have always found this insufficient—especially when dealing with China. I thought about this earlier this week after a friend sent me the following picture, a page from Zheng Yongnian's Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China: Modernization, Identity, and International Relations. Zheng describes five "myths about China" described my American analyst Michael Swaine in 1999:

As my friend pointed out to me when he sent me this image, Swaine's list is quite remarkable. Every single one of the things Swaine described as a "myth" in 1999 is now indisputably true! This should give you pause when you read Swaine's 2019 proclamations that China poses no threat. But I bring this up to make broader point:  only looking at the current capabilities of the People's Republic of China and the Party that directs it can be deceiving. If in 1999 an observer were to look solely at the PLA's existing ability to "alter the basic balance of power across Asia" or "challenge U.S. capabilities across Asia,"  she would have had to agree with Swaine. The PLA did not have anything close to that kind of power. But if instead of looking at material capabilities the analyst of 1999 had pored over CPC speeches and planning documents, a different picture would have emerged. The purpose and nature of the PLA's build-up — a build up that has reshaped geopolitical realities across Asia dramatically since Swaine wrote his defense of the Chinese Party-state  — was telegraphed in these sources long before the PLA had the technology or expertise to realize them.

I see similar problems in all sorts of debates about the nature of various PRC projects. When Samantha Hoffman, for example, warns about the potential terrors of the Chinese social credit system she is sometimes met with objections from people who have experienced this system on the ground. It isn't actually one "system" but an ugly, mismatched patch-work comprising a dozen different systems that cannot communicate or coordinate with each other. The social credit system of 2020 is to Black Mirror what a super-soaker is to an AR15. But Hoffman has spent her career immersed in parsing out the meaning of Party security documents. Her focus is not on the current capabilities of the social credit system but the ultimate intentions and ambitions of security services who have been happily pushing social credit along.

Now you can take this line of thought too far: America had lots of grand intentions in Afghanistan, but never had the capacity to realize them. Honest assessments of intentions must be met with accurate assessments of actual capability. However in foreign policy circles it often seems that more effort and energy is put into the latter. When it comes to China, this strikes me as an extraordinary mistake. For the Communist Party of China is not an inscrutable black box. The Party's leadership is stunningly transparent about their ambitions. In order to guide the behavior of their cadres, Party leaders lay out their long-term goals, visions, and plans quite openly. The speeches, resolutions, reports, and instructions where these visions are found are easy to access. Many, perhaps even most, have been translated into English. The tricky thing is that you must have the necessary grounding in Partyspeak and Party history to fully understand them.

I have struggled over the last three years or so as I have become increasingly aware of what these documents say. I am not the only one who has had these frustrations. What people assume the Party is trying to do and what it is actually trying to do are not the same. But there is no one single document that reveals it all. Demonstrating the Party leadership's hopes and intentions means combing through literally hundreds of official documents to find all of the pieces of the puzzle.

But some people have done it. Over the last month and a half two of these people have openly published their attempt to put all of the pieces together. The first of these attempts is laid out in a congressional testimony presented by Daniel Tobin to the China Economic and Security Review Commission last month (and published last week). It is titled “How Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions.” Tobin's actual written testimony is only 14 pages; the remaining 21 are a meticulous set of footnotes laying out the sources for everything said in the main body of the text. The second document is Nadege Rolland's 64 page report for the National Bureau of Asian Research, China's Vision for a New World Order. Together these two reports present a compelling image of what the Communist Party leadership wants the rest of the 21st century to look like. If someone asks me, "What does China want?" these will now be the first things I direct them to in answer.

In the ideal world all China hands would read both documents in their entirety, and all people whose job tangentially relates to security or foreign policy, international trade, American electioneering, or Washington punditry would read the first 14 pages of Tobin's report. We don't live in that world, so in the coming weeks I will do my best to summarize the contents of each. This post is the first in a series. The second, "Taking Chinese Communism Seriously" will cover Tobin's testimony; the third, "Nailing Down a New World Order" will cover Rolland's report. I will conclude the series with an "implications for the current crisis" post, which will attempt to place some of the PRC's recent moves (such as stoking a conspiracy that SARS-2 came was an American bioweapon) in the context of the Party's broader aims.

If you are interested in other things I have written about China's Communists, you might also find the posts "A Note on Historical Nihilism," "Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy," "The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road," "Review: Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping" and "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

31 March, 2020

Bullet Reviews: A Bunch of Books on Epidemic and Disaster Response

As February turned to March I realized I needed a better understanding of epidemics and disaster response. It was clear to me then that the coronavirus was going to blow up in my own country, that I was going to be voicing opinions about it, and that in consequence I had a responsibility to inform myself as well as I could within the constraints of my budget and schedule. I wanted a stronger grounding in the history and past examples of American disaster response and the basics of epidemiology. Towards that end I bought about ten books, seven of which I have now finished. I do not have time to review them at all length, but I can provide some capsule-reviews for people who are interested in reading more on these topics themselves.

Christian McMillen's Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction and Marta Wayne  and Benjamin Bolker's Infectious Disease: A Very Short Introduction are both excellent little primers. I am an unabashed fan of the Very Short Introduction series. Their basic idea is to find a noted expert in topic X and have them write an accessible-yet-intelligent 100-150 page introduction of their topic of expertise. Many journalists and commentators who spend several hours trawling Wikipedia whenever a new topic hits the news cycle would be far better served by picking up a $6 kindle edition of the relevant VSI volume instead. These two books are oddly complimentary: McMillen is a historian, and his Very Short Introduction is focused on the social history of past pandemics. Wayne and Bolker are an ecologist and geneticist, respectively, and their focus is on modeling the dynamics of disease growth. McMillen devotes chapters to the bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, influenza, and AIDS; Wayne and Bolker also provide 20-page summaries of various diseases, their case studies being influenza, HIV, cholera, malaria, and Bd (the fungal disease wiping out many of the world's amphibious populations).  Together the two books provide a solid introduction to how various types of diseases work and the history of human attempts to treat or contain them.

Nancy Bristow's American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic is written in a dry academic style: it is a history written by a historian for other historians. The book goes all-in on the social justice/critical theory framing common to 21st century historians; this will bother some readers, but the underlying material is interesting enough that they should probably soldier through it. My take on this sort of framing is that it is not too different from the outrageous things 19th century historians would scaffold their historical research with, and in neither case should the silliness of the scaffolding  detract from the quality of the research underneath. Bristow's book is not a chronological narrative account of the pandemic. Rather, she keys in on select groups and tries to reconstruct what they thought and felt about infectious disease before, during, and after the Spanish Flu blew through. Thus she has one chapter focusing on the way public health authorities understood the disease and their role in treating it, another on the different reactions that nurses and doctors had to the epidemic, and so forth. I do not recommend this one to all readers; I think I will do a longer "passages I highlighted" post for it in a week or two that will present the parts most relevant to the current crisis.

David Randall's Black Death at the Golden Gate is a fantastically readable book  that describes the bubonic plague breakout that swept San Fransisco from 1900 to 1907. Randall tells this story from the perspective of the two Public Health Service officers assigned with containing it. Everything about this book is spectacularly well done. Randall is able to capture what the San Fransisco of 1900 felt like, provide a fascinating picture of the Public Health Service and bacteriology in the early 1900s, and narrate the course of the plague and its containment in an almost noveslistic fashion. There has been a lot of hubub over whether today's pandemic was the product of autocracy; this book is an anecdote to that view, narrating in great detail how California's democratically elected politicians did their utmost to hide the plague in their largest city and derail all attempts to face the problem head on. It is also a useful case study in the art of getting things done that I will be reflecting on for some time. I strongly recommend it to all readers.

Lee Clarke's Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination is by far the most disappointing book on this list. Disaster sociology is a thriving subfield, and Lee Clarke is one of its brighter lights. Unfortunately he is a scattered writer and his book is a poorly organized mess. Every chapter is an attempt to summarize an important idea in disaster sociology or risk planning. Even when I agreed with Clarke's takewhich was most of the timeI was appalled at how poorly worded and loosely argued it was. You are much better off reading his academic papers, which cover most of the same ground in better prose and with tighter arguments.

Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster is another book I strongly recommend, but with caveats. Solnit's central argument is that in the wake of disaster common people do not "panic," nor do they turn into selfish beasts of the Hobbesian sort. Panic, looting, chaos, and violence are rare in almost all disasters; whether the disaster be a pandemic or a plane crash, collective suffering usually turns survivors into a community of the selfless. This is not a thesis unique to Solnit. It is actually the central claim of some 70 years of disaster sociology research. But Solnit wants to use these truths towards very specific political ends. Solnit is a left anarchist, and she sees in disaster communities something like her ideal utopia. Her animus towards central authorities who do dumb and dangerous things to reinstate "order" and control "panic" in the wake of disaster is justified; her unrelenting hatred of capitalist markets is bonkers and detracts from her argument. (e.g., you won't be hearing much in the 80 pages she devotes to Hurricane Katrina to Walmart's response to that Hurricane, even though it was arguably the most effective actor both before and after the Hurricane made land fall).

 As the book was written in the Bush years, Solnit also does not miss a single opportunity to snipe at that administration. This sniping is wonderfully well crafted. Solnit is a writer that writers love to read. For Solnit the essay is an art form; she is as committed to this art as she is to her political beliefs. For some people this will diminish the book's argument. Solnit is allergic to statistics and refuses to reduce events to quantified metrics, even though the sociology research she is building off of is chock full of them. This is probably a stylistic tic (numbers are ugly) but they may be an ideological element to it as well (like capitalist markets, numbers are depersonalizing). If you are familiar with the underlying research, Solnit's numberless approach will not bother you. But if you are a data head who expects a rigorous argument instead of beautiful one, you may be frustrated with Solnit's style.

Amanda Ripley's The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes is the least immediately relevant of these books to the pandemic at hand. Ripley focuses on disasters with short time scales where quick action saves lives: terrorist attacks, plane crashes, school shootings, earthquakes, avalanches, and so forth. It is a useful compliment to Solnit's book however, as it reinforces how rare "panic" and other dastardly behavior is at the scene of disaster. Far more common than panic is paralysis. Ripley's question: who keeps moving and who does not? She finds her answer through interviews with hundreds of disaster survivors. This book is not rigorous in the strict scientific sense, but I think the stories Ripley has collected are useful nonetheless. Ripley's book is also quite readable, though this has more to do with the inherently fascinating material she presents, not the literary technique she employs.

If you this post on books is your sort of thing, you might also like the posts"Pining for Democracy: A Few Readings," and "Making Sense of Chinese History: A Reading List."  To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

17 March, 2020

Conservatism's Generational Civil War

Image Source

I have a new essay out in the National Review which extends some of yesterday's thoughts on the limits and attractions of the "common good" conservatism to a new topic: the generational divide that currently divides thinkers on the American right. The Sanders/Biden primary has drawn attention to the parallel phenomena on the left, and much (probably too much) has been written about the origins of the left-wing generation gap. Far less has been written about same fracture on the right—even though this generation gap is central to the larger story of American conservatism's current intellectual civil war.

My piece is a formal response to Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru's recent National Review print piece, "The Next Coalition of the Right:" As I explain,
Their essay is a postmortem of sorts: It sets forth an explanation for why the reformocon attempts to redefine the conservative agenda failed, and seeks to draw lessons from this failure for the future. The trouble: Levin and Ponnuru have learned the wrong lessons from the fall of their movement. At the zenith of the reformocon moment, reformocons were fiercely critical of the Republican establishment for mistaking the problems of the present with the problems of the past. Now the mandala has turned: Today it is the reformocons themselves who are trapped in the lens of a generation out of date.[1]
The reformocons—a portmanteau for "reform conservatives" that has been in use for several years now—were the subject of two dozen glossy magazine profiles between 2012 and 2016. Their ideology revolved around four planks:
  1. The need to reorient conservatism around working class interests 
  2.  An argument for decentralizing American politics, ending culture war controversies and economic wrangles by removing these issues from the purview of the federal government
  3. Policy reforms that unapologetically had an increase in family formation and child-rearing as their goal
  4. A commitment to gradualist, pragmatic, and wonkish policy solutions to the problems of the day.
In the piece I describe these planks and the ideology that holds them together at some length. I encourage you to read the full account there, but for the purposes of this post it is enough to note that the reformocon movement arrived dead on arrival. How extraordinary! In this moment when conservatives are engaged in the most serious war of ideas they have had since the '60s, the reform conservative movement disappears! And this has happened despite the fact many of its central concerns (say, working class Americans) are at the center of current conservative debate, and their diagnosis of what will happen to American society if their policies were not been adopted has been absolutely vindicated by actual events! What happened?

I ask this question in my essay; here I will ask an even darker version of it. Why is it that all of the young conservatives I have met in the past three months have read Bronze Age Mindset, but none have read either of Yuval Levin's two books? Why is BAP selling more volumes than the lot of the reformicon wonks combined? Why will the American Mind's round-up of response essays be read more, and prompt more serious conversation, than all of the responses written to Levin and Ponnuru's essay (mine included) will ever hope to? The question is not just "why did the reformocons lose the battle of ideas?" but "why are they losing the battle of ideas to undisguised fascism?"

This should disquiet. If you are an American conservative who believes in statements like "all men are created equal" or "all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" you should be disquieted. These ideas are losing, and their loss is only tenuously related to the election of Donald Trump.

This is Levin and Ponnuru's first problem: they believe that the election of Donald Trump was the event that ended their movement. From the perspective of a millennial or zoomer on the right, a different story can be told:
From the perspective of the young conservative, the defining event of the last decade was not the election of Donald Trump but the revolution in morals and manners now dubbed the “Great Awokening.” This secular revival has blessed its adherents with a scheme of ethics, aesthetics, eschatology, and soteriology all their own. Essayist Wesley Yang’s thumbnail sketch describes the new dogmas well: The awokened “metastasize a complex and rebarbative set of critiques of power into an active parapolitical program seeking to transform the world along a sweepingly utopian line” that overthrows all orders, hierarchies, laws, and norms that stand between the privileged and the justice the awokened believe they deserve. The zeal of the converted has carried these notions far; the system of ritualized language and punitive surveillance pioneered by young leftists has carried it even further. Its reach now extends well past the realm of the fervent faithful. Few in young America are untouched. Even those who have never formally studied the doctrines of the Great Awokening echo its view of truth, virtue, and evil. It is the default ethos of America’s future — and for the young, America’s present.

It is worth emphasizing that the stunning advance of the woke had very little to do with the federal government. Barack Obama was not the author of the Great Awokening; the former president was a liberal of the old sort, a man who believed himself the living incarnation of the American creed. He was left frustrated and mystified by a generation of young progressives who had left behind their — and his — ancestral faith. No government forced them to leave. The agents of the Awokening made their case the old-fashioned way: In lectures, essays, and op-eds, they convinced; in newspaper headlines, music videos, and YouTube montages, they suggested; in campus protests and corporate HR codes, they coerced. But only rarely was this a matter of state coercion. Social pressure, not federal tyranny, keeps the young woke.
Older conservatives are well placed to understand why this has happened. For decades they have been predicting that a people unmoored from tradition and community will throw themselves at the first totalizing ideology to come along that promises to give their lives a shred of purpose and meaning. For decades they have warned that the gradual secularization of American society, slow collapse in American social capital, and incessant attacks on America’s heritage would produce such a people. As they foresaw, so it has been. What these older conservatives struggle to understand is that the future they imagined does not just describe the world the young conservative has inherited — it describes the young conservatives themselves. The young conservative knows enough to reject the woke vision of the common good. But for what? The young conservative has no answer to this question. Indeed, he is not really a “conservative” at all, if by that we mean someone intent on conserving inherited values, traditions, or culture. None of those things are part of his inheritance. He feels their loss. He too is desperate for something that promises to imbue his life with a shred of purpose or meaning.
What could the reformocon platform ever offer such a person?
In the face of Barack Obama’s political program, conservative debates revolved around an urgent, yet very specific, question: “What must be done to keep the federal government from interfering with our way of life?” The reformocon platform was a laudable attempt to answer this question. It provided tools to keep the federal government at bay in a form that a wide swath of Americans — including those who did not consider themselves conservatives — could endorse. But the problem posed by the Great Awokening to the American Right is more urgent and more fundamental. The central question that absorbs the young conservative is not “How do I stop the government from interfering with my way of life?” but “What should my way of life be in the first place?” [2]
 Bronze Age Mindset has an answer to that question. So do the Catholic integralists. So do the Benedict Optioners, the Intellectual Dark Web types, the rationalists, and the the Thiel-esque techno futurists.  They
are oriented toward resisting not leftist politics but leftist culture. The story of next-generation conservatism, in other words, will be the story of a counterculture. Debates over what shape that counterculture should take cannot be resolved by a more “disciplined” policy environment.
Little wonder then that the reformocon vision of the future struggled to take hold! Reformocons argued for the centrality of community without endorsing any concrete vision of communal life. They described the need to build new institutions without committing themselves to any specific institutions. They authored wonkish proposals to strengthen family formation but painted no picture of families worth forming. The visions of the reformocons were colorless and empty. This was by design: Like a coloring book, every community and family could fill out the pre-printed designs with whatever color palette they treasured most. That worked when conservatives had an organic set of treasured traditions, values, and relationships to fill the blanks in with. Now they do not, and the reformocon platform is found wanting.[3]
 Some reformocon types were a bit better about this than others. In the essay I highlight Michael Lotus and James Bennett's America 3.0 as one of the best books written in the reformocon tradition even though neither author ever identified as a reformocon (I reviewed it here, with high praise). Lotus and Bennett open their book by imagining what a community of Americans in 2040 would look like if their vision was implemented. But that took thirty pages to describe. It is very hard to boil those thirty pages down to a slogan, a chant, or a meme. But of course this is exactly what a successful political movement requires.

The movements I described earlier—those popular with millennial and zoomer intellectual types—have done more than this. They have created an entire aesthetic language to paint their vision of the good. This is why trad accounts spend so much time retweeting images of old french villages and classical architecture; they understand that ideals are felt, not argued for. They do not promote ideas. They promote an ethos.  If defenders of America's heritage cannot develop a vision of the good, an ethos, as compelling as those on offer elsewhere, and find concrete ways to show others this vision at the emotional level, then they too will dwindle into obscurity.

If this post on American conservatism and the millennial crisis in meaning was worth reading, you might consider some of my older posts on the problem:"Questing for Transcendence," "On the American Football Game,"  and "Tradition is Smarter Than You Are." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Tanner Greer, "Learning the Wrong Lessons From Reform Conservatism," National Review (17 March 2020).

[2] ibid

[3] ibid