History is about Power

January 16, 2016

[Two young men sit at a table outdoors. The table is small, square, and red. There are crumbs scattered about the table, and there are two small, empty baskets. Three people prepare food in the background behind a counter.]

J: Have you seen the news this morning?

B: Yeah, looks like Cai Ing-wen is poised to dominate the Presidential election.

J: Oh yes, that is true. But I mean the other news.  About the pop singer.

B: No, what happened?

J: Well apparently, this Korean pop group, which is comprised of members from various Asian countries, was performing a televised concert in Korea.

B: Alright, sounds pretty standard so far.

J: Yes, we’ll what happened is one member, a sixteen year-old Taiwanese girl, had the audacity to wave her country’s flag during the performance.

B: Hmm, sounds remarkably scandalous to me. She must be jailed at once! Forced to make a public apology and hang her head in shame!

J: Well, in fact…

B: Huh? Why?

J: Pressure from the mainland.

B: So Korea..?

J: As I understand it, yes. China has the power to pressure them.

B: But it’s Taiwan’s official flag! Can that really be considered so rebellious by Beijing?

J: Oh yes, Taiwan’s status as a state is treated very seriously by China, which has stated matter-of-factly that were the Republic ever to declare independence, there would be immediate retaliatory loss of life.

B: Seriously? But why? Taiwan has its own government, it’s own land, it’s own trade agreements, it’s own military, and by all accounts it’s own conception of itself.

J: Indeed, I remember that right before the Scottish referendum, the Taipei Times reported that a member of parliament suggested that Taiwan formally declare its independence as well. The consensus of course was that the island was already pretty much independent already, so there was no need.

B: Well, Scotland has had so many centuries of fighting English oppression, and yet most of that feels pretty antiquated.

J: But they’re genetically and linguistically distinct as well. They share more with the Irish than their southern neighbors.

B: I guess there’s that. “We’re stronger together,” isn’t that what Cameron said?

J: That was the claim, yes. Though one wonders how. Or who ‘we’ are. Part of the excuse for instituting the European Union was of course that a more integrated super state would prevent another massive war.

B: Well, it’s largely done that, hasn’t it? No World Wars in Europe as far as I can tell.

J: And none in contemporary China. But China nonetheless functions like an empire. The people of Hong Kong don’t really want to be a part of it; they’ve got their own autonomous government anyhow. As does Macau. And lots of Ethnic Han Chinese live in lots of places without being subject to Beijing. Not to mention Tibet and XinJiang, which have largely separate cultures entirely.

B: So it would appear that Beijing is instigating or perhaps perpetuating these conflicts. If they simply let go, these other groups could govern themselves. Of course that’s wish thinking, I know I know.

J: Indeed, who would just give away power?

B: The UK almost did, apparently. Even though they urged everyone to vote “Yes.”

J: Yes, and so inlies the problem with democracy, so called. You can hardly actually give people the chance to vote directly in referendums and then go through with it.

B: Indeed, that would be bedlam! Chaos! The great unwashed ruling themselves! Anarchy!

J: Indeed, the very definition of anarchy is ‘self rule.’ Not something I’m particularly opposed to, for myself anyway.No,

B: I know, and I was kidding.

J: I figured. But you say it yourself; democracy is problematic.

B: For oligarchs at least. But what about the rest of us? I don’t suppose you favor the 1% calling the shots for the rest of us lowly 99%ers?

J: No, and here is the problem that unravels over the history of the United States: how does a nation cultivate a sense of civic duty that defends a people’s freedom both from government and from big business?

B: That’s the eternal struggle. What you have to do at minimum is educate people to be able to question what they’re taught. They ought to have the capacity to determine the truth for themselves, as much as possible. You can’t fool all the people all the time, according to Mister Lincoln.

J: Well yes, but there’s nothing to say that those capable of questioning the system in the first place won’t be co-opted by it. If you spend your youth being told to value the secondary motivators involved in educating you, pretty soon the adult you end up with values knowledge less than the mutually agreed-upon markers of success. Once that happens, chances of radical change drop to almost nothing. If you’ve got the good life, why fight against it?

B: But that should be the most important part of the education; raising generations to value something beyond their wealth, possessions, standard of living. Moderation should be a marker of an educated person.

J: Should being the operative word. But yes I agree. We might say more broadly that material aims have significance only in their relationship to immaterial ones. Thus for an educated man so defined, to be coerced with riches would be absurd, since the riches would only matter insofar as they lead to freedom. Those who cannot do this will always be ruled by someone who can; that’s the law of nature.

B: But shouldn’t we have a society where the strong advocate on the behalf of the weak? Where freedom is the default state of existence? Freedom not just to go where you want and buy what you want, but to actually define your own relationship to the world.

J: You need strength to do that. Most people will simply revert to atavistic tendencies when they aren’t told what to believe in. ‘Freedom’ as a goal in itself exacerbates this phenomenon. Feel desire, satiate that desire, and repeat until death.

B: Maybe, but again I’ll say that education ought to change that. Education that gives people the agency to expand their minds and choose freely.

J: Setting aside the question of whether most people have the capacity to benefit from  a liberal education, were most of us to free our minds in such a way, we would still require institutions to protect us. A state of some kind toward which we would feel allegiance.

B: But then we get to another problem; states want to concentrate their power over their territory. And in the case of China, over its neighbors and its so-called “renegade province”. People are stuck where they are, and meanwhile the super rich can move capital wherever suits them. Money goes where it benefits the rich, and the poor suffer.

J: Indeed, and thus it is national interests which need to stand like mountains against the wind. If we can safely assume that the modern economy isn’t turning backwards any time soon, then we need politics that can stand up to Goliath.

B: And China is that Goliath?

J: In some sense, yes. Or take any other major power. But really it’s the world economy that needs continuous subjugation to the wills of real tribes. Which could be another way of saying: man’s lower natures.

B: Well, we all need to eat. And drink. And use hot water. And refrigerators. And drive cars. And ride airplanes. And watch movies. And ride jet skis. And shoot fireworks. And maintain functioning  hospitals. And…so many things.

J: Yes we do. All those and more. You didn’t even mention exploring the galaxy.

B: Yes, that too. That’s up there on the list I suppose. So what kind of nation could stand up to the super rich I wonder?

J: Well bear in mind, I think there will always be rich and poor as long as there is money. Hierarchies form in all groups with no exceptions. Classes are a feature of society. But I think we are so globalized now that the rich and poor are pitted against one another. Imagine a scenario in which the rich and poor had a common national goal? In which the workers were worth something outside of their capacity to maximize profits?

B: That sounds too idealistic even for me amigo. Not all the Ebenezer Scrooges are suddenly share their wealth overnight.

J: But they’re not all Scrooges, they’re people like you and me, with consciousness. They have to look in the mirror and go to bed at night.

B: You’re forgetting that some ridiculous number of CEO’s are sociopaths. The amount of rationalizing I imagine it takes to look down on the rest of humanity probably changes a person irreversibly.

J: Again, you’re only thinking in terms of resources. Sure, many billionaires probably think highly of themselves for no good reason. But there is such a thing as a good reason for hierarchy. It’s those at the bottom of the caste that require leadership, not the other way around.

B: Yes, to lead them out of disaster sure. Organizations need leaders, I agree there. But I’d rather air on the side of organizations that seek fairness rather than the other way around.

J: But think this through; what if every hierarchically-run group of people’s raison d’être was to end hierarchy? It would require “bad” institutions to attack, just as assuredly as God needs the Devil, and Yin needs Yang. Power inspires.

B: The opposition within politics! Now you’ve explained yourself why a democracy is the best form of government. It’s the God and the Devil all in one, and we all get to play both parts.

J: Sure, until it eats itself totally. History isn’t over. Something will be next, after this era. In Taiwan they count the years since 1911, so it’s only 105 now. The cycle of dynasties is supposedly broken. But where is the mandate of Heaven? Where is the king? And where is God’s representative on Earth? I believe he’s only hiding. Waiting for the right moment to turn the world right side up again.

B: And here I can only disagree again. I still believe the rich and powerful have always subjugated the have-nots. Likewise, lots of men have justified their power on the basis that what they overthrew represented everything bad. Look around you; is this the dark age? Are we really in a dark cave waiting for a candle? We’re the freest and best educated people in all of history.

J: Yes, we’re safe, we’re comfortable, we’re blessed with material advantages our ancestors couldn’t imagine.

B: Then surely you agree we need to safeguard democracy, and all the good things, from those who would take it away!

J: The good things? Is this the good life? Convenience and comfort at the touch of a button? Or is the good life constant struggle? The climb to become the sort of man who does not fear death because he is already living. History’s still going, and when you seeing a structure rotting from within, if it is already falling, if I may quote our mustachioed German friend, it should be pushed.

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