Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Saturday, October 31, 2020

China, the West, and the Pandemic

 The New York Times reports this morning that life in China has returned almost to normal and economic growth has resumed.  The worldometers web site that I rely on for COVID data reports that the US has now suffered 709 deaths per million and the major European countries between 600 and 800 (except for Germany, which is much lower 1t 125), while China has suffered 3 deaths per million, Japan 14, and South Korea 9.  China, with 1.44 billion people, reports 4,000 deaths, while the US, with 331 million or so, reports well over 200,000.  These astonishing figures, in my opinion, show where these various nations stand in the development of modern civilization.

Beginning in the 18th century, the ideas of the Enlightenment provided not only a concept of individual rights, but a framework for disciplining a population.   Laws were now passed, and had to be obeyed, for the common good, and taxes paid for public goods.  During the nineteenth century these trends dominated both the relatively authoritarian states of continental Europe and the emerging elected governments of the United States, Britain, and eventually France.  After Japan encountered the modern west in the 1850s, new Japanese leadership eventually decided that it had to adapt some western institutions to remain an independent nation.  The ideas of the Enlightenment eventually reached both Russia and China via one of their extreme offshoots, Communism, and transformed their societies as well.   

The influence and impact of these ideas peaked in the first half of the twentieth century.  In two extraordinarily destructive world wars, they enabled modern states to mobilize men and resources on an unprecedented scale.  During the 1930s, when dictatorships took over so much of the world, many questioned whether democracies could effectively compete with them, but the Second World War proved that they could. Both Great Britain and the US combined free economies and political institutions with very high taxes, conscription, and unprecedented economic mobilization, and emerged as two of the victors in the struggle.  They fought explicitly for ideals of freedom and democracy, and those ideals spread over more of the world in the aftermath of the war--even within the British Empire.  Within the west, highly disciplined societies--economically and culturally--survived for another twenty years after the war, until the mid-1960s.  Then, the American state embarked upon a catastrophic adventure in Southeast Asia, just as a major cultural rebellion began.

I have often cited a famous speech by Mario Savio, then 22, at Berkeley in the late fall of 1964 as emblematic of that revolt.  Savio, who had joined the Mississippi Summer voting registration project a few years earlier, found an equivalence between the plight of Mississippi's black citizens on the one hand, and Berkeley undergraduates--who were enjoying a world-class education free of charge--on the other. Both, he said, were fighting the same oppressive machine, and that idea apparently found a lot of resonance in the audience, however absurd it seems now.  It signaled, in any case, the beginnings of a world-historical shift, a revolt against nearly all of the restraints that society had imposed upon the citizenry, in return for providing unprecedented benefits.  In the next few years and decades, it shredded all sorts of behavioral codes, involving dress, hair style, the use of language, sexual behavior, and the public expression of emotion.  Some of these codes were oppressive; some had been recognized for centuries as the price of civilization.  The rebellion also became race-based, gender-based, and sexuality-based, as more and more groups rebelled against simply being treated like everyone else and claimed various kinds of authority based upon their demographic.  The attack on authority extended to intellectual authority, and we can see now, when political leaders freely challenge scientific authority on matters of life and death, where that was ultimately going to lead.  Meanwhile, in a parallel development, private economic interests mounted a long, determined, well-organized fight against mid-century economic restraints, cutting top tax rates by almost 2/3 and eventually freeing the financial sector and giving it a license to create new wealth for itself. 

It is fitting that a public health crisis has laid bare our system's inability to cope with a national problem, since public health measures such as quarantines were among the first major initiatives of modern states.  When infectious diseases ranked among leading causes of death, the citizenry had to accept draconian measures to stop them.  That era ended with antibiotics.  It is also significant that we have failed to develop desperately new antibiotics, both because the public no longer takes the threat of infections seriously enough, and because the corporations who control our medical care can't make enough money developing them for it to be worthwhile.  Whether they can develop a really effective COVID vaccine remains to be seen.  Meanwhile, the Chinese, the Japanese, the South Koreans and others have proven that they have the will to use the old methods to fight a fatal infectious disease, and that the old methods still work.  A mixture of testing, isolation (which we aren't practicing formally at all), and contact tracing has worked well enough to allow their economies to resume to normal, while we are still desperately struggling and moving into a new wave of infections and deaths.

The Asian success seems to owe as much to cultural as to political factors, since both Communist China and non-Communist South Korea and Japan have shared in it.  Those nations may also be drawing on a Confucian, bureaucratic tradition of discipline that goes back many centuries.  This shows that these nations can impose a discipline on their people which we cannot.  They have also shown in many ways (as have some of the western European nations) that they can still mobilize impressive resources for infrastructure projects, which Britain and the US have had much more trouble doing.  It fascinates me, by the way, that the three victorious nations in the Second World War--Russia, Great Britain, and the US--have all seen spectacular declines in civic virtue and political effectiveness as their postwar generations have taken power.  Perhaps they were too spoiled by victory to appreciate the qualities that had been necessary to achieve it.  Like so many generations in so many nations, they took their parents' achievements for granted, and let many of them slip away.

Faced with a worldwide crisis, these Asian nations have proven that they have authority effective enough, and citizens obedient enough, to cope with it.  Some of the leading western nations have not.  No matter who wins the election on Tuesday, the related problems of authority, discipline, sacrifice, and the common good will remain very serious in the United States.  We will have to solve at least some of them, I think, to function effectively in the decades ahead.  It is interesting that the nation seems prepared to turn to Joe Biden, an exact contemporary of Mario Savio, but one who grew to young adulthood and launched his family life and career without ever being seriously touched by the great revolt around him.   We will not return to world of the 1950s, but we need to take some steps in that direction to remain a leading nation--or even, perhaps, a functioning one.


Bozon said...

I am still digesting the post here.
I thought this was interesting:


All the best

Energyflow said...

The greeks found a cyclical pattern from democracy to oligarchy to monarchy and back again I think oligarchy controls the country with a democratic veneer at the moment. The Asian countries are homogenous and therefore habvenit much easier than the West. Likewise the European societies are incredibly diverse, 50 coountries, due to geography, allowing for new ideas, technology to come about. I know China invented paper but for example large coal burning forges were made, abandoned as a threat to central power and it seems they discovered America 70 years before Columbus but withdrew into isolation. Western diversity, chaos even, is exactly its strength. The Asian model of copying foreign successes only lasts till it burns out steam. Japan imploded in 1990 and now China is quite close to the end of its growth cycle due to natural demographics. Represion of opinion resulted in such disasters as the three gorges dam and massive flooding. I have long been in a mode of defending the Russian- Chinese aliance against a new Western Cold War, neo- imperialistic, based on dogmas of superiority of enlightenment ideals, but largely seemingly arrogant like in the 30s against German and Japanese up and coming challengers. The anglo Saxon island nations have expanded their sphere of influence and still seek control over Eurasia. Meanwhile they implode from within due to systemic contradictions. Equality, immigration and diversity leads to disunion, civil war even. Germans are traditionally more disciplined among Europeans. Brits, French are mmore an admixture(celto-roman) and as Atlantic people had a couple hundred years advance in progress on the interior landlocked countries like Germany or Russia. This means that progress and decadence or weakness go hand in hand. Coming late to the game of civilization, later centralization and industrialization is an advantage for Germany and now Russia and China as they learn from Western mistakes. I know from experience here that Germans adapt late trends like long shopping hours or smoking bans adapted elsewhere since I arrived. Germany is the linchpin of Europe. Russia can manage the Eurasian bloc by diplomacy, military technology, experience. America is made up of many feuding factions. Germany, Japan, Asian NICs and recently China and Russia have adopted American ideas, institutions, technologies. China is largest economy. Will the West, or perhaps the American oligarchy of billionaires and deep state, relinquish it control on the globe in favor of a multipolar system? It seems a slow evolutionary path. Biden or Trump, old men but perhaps critical at an important historical juncture. Covid will be finished soon enough. Whether I prefer nonquestioning obedience to individual questioning ,open press and the confusion and rancor that it produces is a good question. As to the 50s. I noticed some videos describing changes in urban to suburban living which show a shifting from the sharp divisions. It looks more European, walkable, community based. How we live could change our prejudices against each other and our self perceptions. Long term positive cultural adaptations in America away from idndustrial non nutrtitious diet and automobility towards a sustainable human culture based less on quick fix new technology in housing, food, work,etc could make us less antagonistic to the Old World, less arrogant as we become more adapted to our natural environment as new technology, resources and new lands run out.

CrocodileChuck said...

One of the reasons the fatality rates of the US & the UK are so atrocious is their profoundly unhealthy populations.

2/3 of their populations are overweight; in the US 45% of the population is obese.

Last, a significant % of the populations of each are deficient in Vitamin D, & onset of the Northern Winter exacerbates this.

Covid-19 meets Public Health Catastrophes: a Perfect Storm.

Gloucon X said...

Thank you for your fine essays. Here's my take:

The forces of anti-enlightenment had not gone away in the mid-20th century. The New Deal era had only made them dormant. Fundamentalist Christianity and market fundamentalist economics were still popular, even dominant in large regions of the country. They would awaken from their dormancy the moment troubles occurred, which they inevitably did. Those anti-enlightenment attitudes and ideologies took the initiative away from the New Deal liberal ideas in the wake of what you call the great revolt.

The civil rights struggle led to an aggrieved white South. The Vietnam War riled the youth and divided the nation. The brief era of relative unity, sanity, and pride in government was gone. I see the great revolt as a restoration of the essential semi-anarchic individualism of the American people and as a restoration of anti-enlightenment ideologies, which have deep historical roots here.

The ethics of the New Deal are social-democratic, which includes the notion of the common good. Those ethics proved to be alien to many of the people and most of the country's business elite. Without an ethic of the common good, there can be no pride in national measures of civilization, and the people will focus instead on individual comparisons. The self-centered, wealth seeking individual will become the ideal, and so we have a President Trump.

A couple of sources for some of these ideas:
Stayin Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class by Jefferson Cowie
The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics by Jefferson Cowie

Bozon said...

China, the West, and the pandemic,

This seems to be rolling out as a conflict especially between Anglophone Asia and the Chinese, not just America and elsewhere in the West.

The Chinese have played the overtly race card against Australia, a game they have been more reluctant to drop here, and there is an active trade war there too.

The Japanese had not hesitated to drop the race card against the US efforts to ward off their attacker state industrial hollowing out initiatives.

China has bought out much of Australia's raw materials, and probably also done substantial financing, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

They really do not want to confront the West militarily when they can slowly and cleverly take it over, and absorb its industrial know how and knowledge base without ever firing a gun.
The only way they can take over the West's geography without great losses, their ultimate goal, without ultimately getting into a shooting war, is by germ warfare, I am afraid.

All the best

Bozon said...

This is a useful reference for your discussion, and Croc's comment.
The Asians have not done what Dr Mina has been suggesting either, so they are not a model against which to compare an admittedly pathetic American response and what had to be forced down the American health administration's throat with both birth control and HIV testing in the past.
I saw Mina's interview also several months ago.
Fauci has actually come out for this approach, shown on this video, but no one carries the ball here. Not Trump, not Biden.


All the best