I am about two-thirds of the way through Why the West Rules-for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, and I have to agree with Tyler Cowen’s assessment so far. The author is an archaeologist, and though a little less shy in regards to general theory than most in his profession, he still seems to exhibit the tendency to focus on thick-detail without any elegant theoretical scaffolding. In some ways it is an inversion of Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, which manifests an economist’s preference for stylized system-building at the expense of the messy residual. Why the West Rules has added almost no broad-brush theoretical returns beyond what you could find in Guns, Germs and Steel and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Though the author has a lot of scrupulously footnoted detail which probably makes Why the West Rules a worthy read.
And yet the trend lines are converging between East Asian and developed white Western nations. We are now moving beyond the time when we can talk about ‘the West vs. the Rest.’ There are ~1.3 billion Chinese in China itself, which is approximately the total number of people of white European descent in the world.** In much of Africa China is a rising economic and social presence. There are likely more expatriate Chinese in Africa than there are expatriate whites. Enter “China + any region of the world” into Google, and you’ll come back with plenty of interesting results.
But from what I can tell Westerners, of all colors, are totally intellectually unprepared for the radical shift in geopolitics which is occurring as we speak. Kvetching about China’s trade surplus does not intellectual preparedness make. Most white liberals have an anti-colonialist outlook, and favor the liberation of peoples of color in the face of white supremacy. But this normative framework only makes sense in light of a model whereby white domination and agency are the preeminent considerations in the lives of the people of color. In much of the world that is not necessarily the case anymore. In Australia you have an inversion of the old narrative, insofar as an commodity boom driven by Chinese demand has arguably kept that nation’s economy relatively buoyant!
The white supremacy model (WSM) isn’t only found among white people. It’s very dominant among colored people who reflect on these issues. Indians are haunted by British colonialism. Latin Americans by Yankee imperialism. Middle Eastern Muslims by the Jewish-Western condominium. The Chinese still remember the de facto colonialism which their nation was subjected to after the Opium Wars.
In graphic terms what you have as a model is like so:
In the late 19th century the whole world became Greater Europe’s playground. Non-European thinkers had to respond to the European challenge. There was no other game in town. To some extent that response continued and elaborated after the collapse of European political hegemony in the 1950s and 1960s; ergo, postcolonialism.
This is probably more accurate today than the old model, and will certainly be more accurate within the next generation:
Because of its population and economic dynamism China will naturally come to rival Greater Europe in its influence and impact on the rest of the world. No other nations besides East Asian ones have shown an ability to match Greater Europe in HDI. The map to the left of literacy rates is I believe a good predictor of potential median HDI and per capita economic productivity ceilings for the next generation or two. South Asia is the world leader in absolute concentrated human misery, both in illiteracy and malnutrition. I think India will be influential and powerful because of raw numbers, but there is no worry that it will be a per capita power. Africa is prospering thanks to the Chinese fueled commodity boom, but it too is low on the human and institutional capital totem pole to leverage its demographic dynamism. Australia is too small in population to be influential. If the trends in its economy remain, that it becomes in large part a commodity source for China, then I think it will be prey to being muscled by the East Asian superpower just as Latin American nations traditionally were by the United States, even without military intervention, because of the asymmetry in economic dependency. Latin American nations like Brazil are populous and on the ‘ascension graph’, but they have problems with wide variance in human capital, just like India.
In civilizational terms we are not going from a unipolar world to a multipolar world. We’re going from a unipolar world to a bipolar world. This means that there must be a revision to our intellectual toolkit. Critics of the West, whether they’re white or colored, still have a superficial understanding of the Dead White Men and their history. Islamic revisionists who make a case for the centrality and superiority of their tradition do so with the West as an explicit or implicit counterpoint. The indigenous traditions of India, Africa, or China, were not relevant to these arguments. Europe was the sun, around with other civilizational planets circled.
Not so any longer. Consider these headlines: China workers killed in Pakistan and Algeria: Xenophobia against Chinese on the rise in Africa. Or Brazil’s huge new port highlights China’s drive into South America. China eyes rail link to Chittagong. A pushcart war in the streets of Milan’s Chinatown. ‘Too Asian’? – Worries that efforts in the U.S. to limit enrollment of Asian students in top universities may migrate to Canada.
This is a different dynamic than the rise of the one-dimensional Arab and Soviet petro-states of the 1970s in a qualitative sense. China and its Diaspora are a full-throated economic counterweight to the two century international geopolitical and cultural dominance of Greater Europe. It is also a different dynamic than the migration of various colored peoples into Western nations after World War II, where these groups are slotted into the lower social and economic rungs, and draw hostility and contempt from some whites and patronizing sympathy and self-interested bureaucratic-managerial concern from others. Japan and the “Asian Tigers” were limited by their demographic modesty when set next to Greater European nations like the United States.
How should people readjust to this world? Obviously following economic statistics and political events are essential to recalibrating with judicious perspective and caution. The world’s intellectual classes, Western and non-Western, have been conditioned to white supremacy for so long that no one remembers a time when it was any different.*** One of the ironies of WSM is that non-whites rarely know the history or culture of other non-whites to the same extent that they know that of whites. In other words, South Asians know their history and that of whites, Africans know their history and that of whites, East Asians know their history and that of whites, etc. (the main exception may be Korea, which was colonized by the Japanese). It’s ironic because the implicit inference of WSM is that non-whites have common interests against the white master race. Though this is admittedly rational because the concerns, values, and motivations of the masters are more relevant than those of other helots. The term ‘master race’ has positive connotations while a ‘the cancer of human history’ has negative ones, but no matter, both indicate that the object of concern is worthy and of note. But the blind-spot in this mode of thinking is that colored people who supposedly have solidarity are totally ignorant of each other’s respective substance.
This was all of purely academic interest until the resurgence of East Asia, and China in particular. It is for example well known that Chinese have a strong racial consciousness. During the Maoist period this was dampened by ideology. China’s objective lack of development for most of the 20th century almost certainly suppressed some of the racial disdain which is an element of Han chauvinism. But the Chinese, like East Asians in general, have a degree of race consciousness which expresses on the surface to an extent that would be surprising and alarming to most whites, excepting perhaps Afrikaners, some white American Southerners, and partisans of nationalist parties in Europe. This predates the modern era insofar as the Chinese have a long history of dehumanizing ‘barbarians’ and looking down on dark-skinned peoples (e.g., see the reports of the legation sent to the Khmer kingdom of Funan, which lingered upon their nakedness and darkness of complexion). But the real genesis of contemporary attitudes may be rooted in the synthesis of Chinese folk attitudes and early 20th century racial anthropology, already evident in the writings of principals in the May Fourth Movement.
Contrary to the Chung Kuo science fiction future history I have no expectation that Han racism will lead to a genocidal war of extermination against the black and brown peoples of the world. Rather, the attitudes in common circulation in China and other East Asian nations must be understood by any politician, diplomat or businessman, who wants to operate in that region. Any dark-skinned South Asian who expects “Asian” fellow-feeling in China may be in for a surprise. Chinese opinions of people of African descent are even more checkered. During the days of Japan Inc. cultural fluency was already seen to be critical, but because China is one order of magnitude more populous than Japan in 30-40 years it will be much more of an international social and economic presence. Interestingly 20% of individuals on the internet are already Chinese nationals, vs. 5% of Japanese (though the difference in penetration rates is 30% vs. 80%).
Where does this leave us? By the end of our lives those of us in early adulthood will live in a bipolar world. China and the West will together be drivers of consumption. When it comes to development aid or investment in poorer nations the West will have a substantive rival. These two will hold up the sky together. With this will come more prominence of Chinese culture, and a necessity for an understanding of that civilization’s history, its values. Though I’m making a pragmatic and utilitarian case for understanding and knowledge here, I do want to enter into the record than an appreciation of the history of the Chinese is an understanding of the history of a substantial proportion of humanity. It is part of our common history, just as Greece and Rome are.
With that, at the end of this post are a list of books which I’ve found useful, and obviously memorable, in trying to understand the shape of the Chinese past, and how the present came to be. Personal preference and bias is obviously operative. The fact that a standalone work on Xun Zi is listed below, and Mencius is not, says a lot about my personal evaluation of the two in relation to each other.
* I use “white” as a compound of both genetic and cultural qualities. So, Turks are not classified as white in this sense, while Ashkenazi Jews are, even though both groups are equivalently white when compared to “reference” populations which no one would deny are white, such as the English, in a genetic sense. So a person of Turkish ethnic origin who converts to Christianity, such as Boris Johnson’s ancestor (originally Bey), can generally be accepted as white because of their appearance. In contrast, someone who has noticeable non-white appearance, a South Asian for example, remains non-white despite their Christianity.
** You can do the back-of-the-envelope pretty easily. Europe, + 0.70 X USA + Canada + Australia + New Zealand + 1/3 Latin America is a good approximation. Of course a substantial proportion of the other 2/3 of Latin Americans have some white European ancestry, but whiteness a privilege which generally comes only through purity of blood, so they can be ignored.
*** I would peg the closing of the previous multipolar world to the second half of the 18th century, though the fact of European dominance did not ripen until the Opium Wars, which illustrated that even the greatest of non-Euroepan powers was ineffectual against European military mobilization.