In the United States we used to talk about the ‘culture wars’, as though the ‘culture’ was the battlefield, the undifferentiated contested space on which the wars were fought. Indeed, many of us still seem to think and speak this way. Our political and pundit classes will still often talk about a ‘war on Christmas’ or a ‘war on women’ in the public sphere. It used to be the case – and again, for many people, it still is – that such cultural battles were considered zero-sum existential battles between an almighty evil and the few brave, virtuous and true who were willing to stand up to it. The fights are, in their view, about the right to shape the public space in ways which reflect their deep-seated values, values which they believe ought to be universal. There is a certain tempting logic in this thinking, a certain comforting naivety taking its refuge in the trappings of myth, a certain idea that if only a few specific kinds of thinking could be purged from our national consciousness then the culture would be renewed.
I do not speak as a neutral voice here, if such a thing could possibly exist. I speak, firstly, as an American – and as one of the millennial children born to late baby boomer parents. I speak, secondly, as a ‘left-wing conservative’ – one whose respect for traditional lifeways was fostered by a succession of experiences in Indian Country, in a history class taught by an Anglo-Irish Tory, in a Beijing that was busily being bulldozed for the sake of Olympic showmanship, in Kazakhstan, in the thought of the Slavophils and in the embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church. (I would much sooner call myself a Miyazaki-ist than a Marxist.) As such, I am not entirely unsympathetic to the idea of culture as contested space, and I would love nothing better than to see traditional societies and communities make efforts to reclaim their own cultural spaces on their own terms.
But the issues pointed out by American ‘culture warriors’ both liberal and fundamentalist, are not even close to the entire reality that we face. They certainly don’t approach the hard realities we face now in the United States. Or even in and around the other centres of globalist culture.
What we have begun to see is that the boundaries of acceptable cultural output have begun to narrow and accentuate themselves in very strange and distressing ways – the landscape itself shifts under our feet; the battlefield becomes a bottleneck. It has sadly become the case that it is no longer ‘extreme’ to exhibit one’s body in public – for example, in a ‘pride’ parade – in ways which self-respecting protesters (even counter-cultural ones!) would have thought shameful and entirely beneath them, only twenty or thirty years ago. The infantile antics and language of the so-called ‘Tea Party’, though less explicit than the average ‘pride’ parade, likewise cater to the vulgar Caesarism of their political constituency.
And yet, it becomes not only ‘extreme’, but so beyond the pale as to be worthy of outright dismissal and ridicule, to question the priorities of the American foreign policy establishment, whether from the left or from the right. Speaking of the ramifications of our current foreign policy stance for America’s budget, security and public good is practically a taboo; let alone for the people of Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Mali, Syria and the Ukraine.
What we have begun to see is that a genuine civil discourse over public values and political priorities has been progressively displaced in favour of vulgarity, transgression and titillation – in ways which cannot simply be mere accidents of the times. The enemy is at his strongest when he convinces us he is not there. But there are, of course, beneficiaries to an impoverished public discourse which pushes further into the margins genuine considerations of culture or economy; namely, those who control the culture and the economy. Vulgarity, transgression and titillation all make good copy. They all sell. The very last thing they are is genuinely threatening to the grasp of the elites over public space. And they are readily exported.
This phenomenon of a radically-atomistic, depoliticised politics, of a public sphere characterised by commercialism, vulgarism, voyeurism and self-display, is one which has been quietly cultivated by the globalist elite over the past two decades throughout the world. Witness, for example, the rise in the troubled Ukraine of both radical feminist and neo-Nazi ideology, each displaying vulgar and exhibitionist, even violent, public sphere tactics parallel with the American gay ‘pride’ and anti-tax movements.
In China, there are certainly voices outside the reigning narrative of government authoritarianism versus liberal capitalism put forward by the Anglophone media. Wang Hui, though a thoroughgoing democrat, commits himself to two propositions which fundamentally offend the neoliberal globalist project. First, he argues forcefully in defence of the public rights of traditional communities (such as the Tibetans), in a way which relativises or suspends the formalism of an individual conception of rights. Second, he undercuts this very concept of ‘depoliticised politics’. He critiques, albeit from the left, a political sphere which edges out genuine political discourse whilst providing distractions in the forms of commercialism and spectacle. And he self-consciously adopts an idiosyncratic Daoist philosophical perspective which exposes the fundamental likeness and identity of popularly-perceived opposites, particularly with regard to Anglophone Western perspectives on Chinese history.
Perhaps not accidentally, the two countries which receive the most vilification in the Western press for their political ‘repression’ – China and Russia – are the two countries where a wider variety of political perspectives running counter to the dictates of the global hegemon are most actively striving to make a certain degree of headway. In China, both the thought of the New Left (represented by Wang Hui, Cui Zhiyuan and Wang Shaoguang) and the thought of the traditionalist-conservative, institutionalist branch of the New Confucians (represented by Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang) both attempt to offer authentic and thoroughgoing alternatives to formalism, to legalism, to atomistic individualism and to faceless neoliberal globalism. And in Russia, the older strains of authentic counter-hegemonic thought dating back to Khomyakov and Herzen – Slavophilia, populism, back-to-the-land – are all very much alive and relevant. Modern public figures as different in perspective and methods as Alexander Prokhanov and Archimandrite Tikhon are attempting to forge a path forward for Russia that doesn’t fall into the anti-cultural abyss that threatens the Anglophone West.
In a recent article in the Guardian, Indian novelist Pankaj Mishra, quoting sociologist Clifford Geertz, remarks on the ‘pervasive raggedness’ and the ‘shattering of larger coherences’ in the wake of the age of ideology. He speaks on how the ‘long-term losers’ of history are attempting to bow out of a game that they are beginning to realise has always been rigged against them. Parts of his analysis are somewhat overly-hopeful about the prospects of the non-West in the near future. On the whole, though, he is doing us Westerners a great service, by pointing to a healthy instinct in the non-West to seek solutions of self-rule after the example of Gandhi rather than after the example of Nehru.
One thing in particular is something that is difficult for us Americans to imagine, but equally important for us to realise. Our battles are not the world’s battles. ‘Culture war’ means something very different here in China, to the point where speaking about the American ‘culture war’ seems like a quaint exercise in parochial anachronism. Here the war is against an invading anti-culture, one which still fancies itself the best of all possible worlds, in whatever world it happens to find itself. The strength of these non-Western thinkers lies in their recognition that culture – specifically their culture – is not merely a neutral battlefield.
Matthew Cooper graduated University of Pittsburgh (International Development and Asian studies). He currently teaches English in China and serves as a contributing editor at Solidarity Hall thinkerspace.