Tuesday, September 1, 2015

September 1: The importance of fiction.

Damn. I spent hours on a long blog - and lost  it all. So this will deal with the same themes, but be much shorter.

Norbert Cunningham's column today deserves a careful read and some serious thinking. It's about what he calls national 'fictions'. We live in a world of reality - hills, trees, sun. But we also, as societies, depend on things which depend on fiction. A piece of paper money, even of a thousand dollars - has no value in reality.  It's just a piece of paper. But we make it into something important to us. National boundaries have no reality. They hadn't existed for millions of years until they were created in our minds Religion is not a reality (unless it's yours). It's a construct that we have all reconstructed many times. The royal family is royal only because we say it is.

These 'fictions' and many more, including patriotism,  are made up by us. And they're important because they are part of a large package called national culture that tells us how we should live and behave.

Norbert goes off to some very false conclusions in his final paragraph in which he repeats silly ideas he has been pushing for years. But his main point is a valid one, and worth thinking about.  No society can survive or be stable without its fictions.

And that takes us to China's recession.

China is a nation thousands of years in the making. In those years, 'fictions' of religion and governance and changing boundaries, 'fictions' of behaviour and social roles created a Chinese nation of peoples who, millenia ago, had little resemblance to each other.

With the development of reliable sea transport in the western world of 500 years ago, it became possible for western countries to reach almost every part of the world and, with superior weapons, to defeat them.

That's what happened to our native peoples. The attraction of the Americas was land and gold. The attraction of China was, at first, tea. Europeans, led by the British, couldn't get enough of it. And the huge population of China suggested even greater possibilities in trade

That's when British capitalists used their control of the British government to send soldiers (cheap at pennies a day, but fired by talk of patriotism and glory) to conquer India and to give large areas of fertile land to British capitalists who then used dirt cheap Indian labour to grow and process opium.

The big market, obviously, would be China. The Chinese government, though, made opium illegal. So, the capitalists went back to the British government which then sent ships and soldiers to fight the "opium wars" with China. Again - lots of waving flags, cheers for the British heroes, glory, God bless the king...  With their superior weaponry, the British beat the Chinese, and forced them to sign what, to this day, is remembered as 'The Great Humiliation'. China was forced to accept the importation and sale of opium. Worse. The British set a minimum, yearly quota for payment. It's hard to make a comparison with today, but in today's money, it would probably be billions. China had to pay whether all the opium was sold or not sold.

Thus began over a century of decay, of the collapse of governments, the impoverishing of the people, of civil wars, of starvation, collapse of traditional religion. All those fictions that sustained a Chinese society collapsed.

(I might add that the bulk of the British people got nothing out of this "job creation". Most lived in vile conditions. Only the capitalists got richer.)

Wei Yuan, a Chinese scholar, was the first to understand what was happening. He had realized, even before 1840, that the fictions of Chinese society were being destroyed and, with them, the nation of China, itself. He was the first to realize that China had to redevelop itself by adopting some of the ways of the west while not becoming simply an extension of the west.  That's why he started with a revision of Confucianism so that the fiction of Confucionism and, with it, China, could survive. Otherwise, China would cease to exist. (It was a brilliant insight. You should read about him Norbert. He was brilliant. He set the stage for the transformation of the biggest nation on earth. And he wasn't a businessman. He was - get this, Norbert - a civil servant.)

There followed years of struggle, of civil war, of even more intrusion by British, Portuguese, Americans, all of whom increased the damage. It got much worse in the 1920s with the rise of Chiang Ki Sheck, a henchman of the biggest drug dealer in the world, a dependent on U.S. capitalism and, of course, a convert to Christianity.

But it was Mao Zedong who emerged as the winner. He was certainly brutal (as the leaders of most major powers, espcially the Christian ones, always have been); and he was dealing with towering economic and social problems after the years of chaos. But he did bring order back to China, and saved it for the selective choices China has made since to be able to defend itself (as it proved as early as the Korean War), to adapt to western economics. In short, without Mao, for all his brutality and murder, there probably would not be a Chinese nation today, just a sinkhole of poverty and misery created by western capitalists over the last, several centuries.

China has reinvented its 'fictions'. It still has a way to go. But there is a Chinese nation, and there are a Chinese people again.

Understanding this is fundamental to understanding what is happening in the world today. Western capitalism, unregulated capitalism, is still breaking down the 'fictions' of societies all over the world. And the loss of those fictions has meant chaos death, starvation, refugees, horror, espcially in the Middle East and Africa.

Its not because of Islam. It's not even because of extremist Islamics. They are not the cause. They are the result of what capitalism has done in destroying the fictions and cultures of societies.

Capitalism has only one reason for existence - to make profit for its owners. It has no moral code, no concern for people, no sense of what a society is. It does not even exist to create jobs. It creates jobs unwillingly, and at the cheapest possible price. That's why children are working (sometimes for Canadian companies) as early as age 5 for pennies a day in places like Central America, Congo, Haiti...

That's why the greatest challenge facing our world is to bring capitalism under control. I'm afraid, though, the U.S. is a lost cause. Capitalism has, since 1775, stifled American thought with its own fiction of a history that never really happened, and a society that never has been one society. That's what has taken us to Donald Trump and Sarah Pailin.

Having a fiction is necessary for any society. But having a fiction with no reality at all  almost certainly leads to a breakdown - as we may be watching even now in the U.S.

I thought of China today, because it's in a recession. Since it is now a major trade partner, that's bad news for us. And it could be dangerous news for China. Is its fiction now strong enough  to carry it through a recession? Or is it in for more breakdown and disorder?

Before you cheer for the latter, consider that China has a huge nuclear arsenal.
The lesson of all this is also why I choose the party I vote for in Canada. Unregulated capitalism is and always has been a destructive force in society. That's because it doesn't give a damn for society. It lives only for its own profit. It keeps Central America in poverty, hunger and misery while stealing its resources. (The Cuban revolution didn't happen just because Castro was an evil, cigar-smoking man.)

I look for the party whose first priority is the needs of a society. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives are in that category. Nor has either of them shown any interest in regulating capitalism in the last 60 years.
The Irving press didn't have much in it today. Almost all the stories were trivial and of no importance.

B1 leads with the story that premier Gallant is all excited at the need for a natural gas pipeline through New Brunswick. That's an odd thing to get excited about when we're already experiencing climate change, and experiencing it so obviously that even billionaires don't lie about it any more. Got any thrills of excitement to share on that, Mr. Gallant?

B4 has a story about a grenade exploded by protesters outside the Ukraine parliament in Kyev. It has all you need to know except the identities of the protesters. No, they weren't russo rebels from the east. They seem to have been mostly from western Ukraine, and from a sizable group in that land of freedom. They're called Naziis. The real thing.

The editorial is trivial and brainless. The City View commentary claims to be about taking the bus to work. In fact, it's all useless chatter about AC/DC coming to Moncton. I can get more interesting reading in a tabloid that has headlines like "Darling Prince George does first piddle in toily-woily."

The guest column is, again, from a propaganda house financed by billionaires. (Simon Fraser Institute). Simon would have been so embarassed!

And I have just one  quibble with Alec Bruce. The New Brunswick law that bans the importation of beer from Quebec is not really the result of prohibition. It became a law because of prohibition. But it was kept a law for reason that had nothing to do with prohibition, and everything to do with liquor profits. Prohibition is much misunderstood. I'm a bit sensitive about that because long ago, I did an article on  it for a book called, I think, "Oliver Mowat's Ontario."

I also have seen a story that I cannot confirm. It is that Russia is sending troops and aircraft to defend Syria against ISIS. If so, the U.S. (and Harper) will be wildly indignant. But Russia has as much right to be there as we do - more, actually. It has a longstanding treaty with Assad's Syria, and Syria is important to the Russian economy.

However, if the story is true, this could be very dangerous.

The official policy of the U.S., stated by Obama and others, is American Exceptionalism which means the U.S. has the right to do whatever it wants anywhere in the world, regardless of the law. In short, it means the U.S. rules the world. And Putin, for all his faults, is not a man to be bluffed. And the U.S. is in election mode.

I'll try to check this story out.

And so to bed.


  1. This line of thinking hits an interesting area when you consider human rights since they are supposed to be intrinsic and permanent. But if everything outside of the material world is 'fiction' such a stance is impossible and human rights become less set in stone. Indeed it becomes impossible to. Even saying that societies refine their fictions doesn't eliminate the problem since there is nothing to say human rights need exist at all. A world of 'fiction' eliminates any conception of inherent good since it is not materialistic.

    "He was certainly brutal (as the leaders of most major powers, especially the Christian ones, always have been)"

    I have never come across the peer-reviewed study that determined Christian nations to be especially brutal. You care to link it?

    "China is a nation thousands of years in the making. In those years, 'fictions' of religion and governance and changing boundaries, 'fictions' of behaviour and social roles created a Chinese nation of peoples who, millenia ago, had little resemblance to each other."

    You might include a fair amount of war in there as well. But onto a more interesting point: If you were to make a bet 500 years ago whether Europe or China would be leading powers the good money would be on China. Chinese technology actually outpaced the West for most of its existence. Why the sudden change? Well, it wasn't sudden. It was a series of fictions that set China on a course to being humiliated by European powers. 1. China as the world ruler (all other countries being mere tributaries). 2. A disdain for the merchant class and exploration. 3. An inward focus on the superiority of Chinese culture (the Chinese Emperor was given a working steam engine as a gift early on. He kept it as a curiosity, a toy). 4. Confucianism and the civil service exam (which produced one of the most reactionary administrations the world has ever known).

    "China has reinvented its 'fictions'. It still has a way to go. But there is a Chinese nation, and there are a Chinese people again."

    It can start by working on the fact a fair number of its citizens don't want to be Chinese.

  2. You need a link to know that Christian nations have been brutal? You've never heard of the holocaust? You didn't know that Germany is Christian - or that Hitler openly declared himself a Catholic? You never heard of the slaughter of native peoples in north and south America? You never heard of slavery in the western world? of the crusaders who murdered not only Jews and Muslims whenever they encountered them, but also the Christians of Byzantium? Never heard of the British, Spanish, Portuguese, French empires? Never heard of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Cambodia? Laos? Vietnam? Iraq? Afghanistan? Libya? Guatemala? Never heard of the U.S. torture network? Has it occured to you that Russia is a Christian nation? And to the list, you might add that Christian gentleman, Chiang Kai-shek.

    I don't know the total dead in all this. And, in fact, nobody does. As
    to a fair bit of war in China in building the nation, I did mention it. That's why an ancient Chinese text, The Art of War, is still standard reading for aspiring officers.Just about all nations have been built on a fair bit of war. What do you think Canada and the U.S. were built on?

    Your explanation for the weakness of China in the 19th century is more than a little simplistic. The failures of China to see the killing uses of the gunpowder it invented scarcely serves as justification of Europe's brutal attacks on it. As for a sense of racist superiority, just about all nations in history have had that in spades. And Canada was not and is not an exception. Oh, and the emperor didn't see the practical use of the steam tractor? Wow! what a christian reason to spread death and starvation and addiction all over China. As for China not showing enough respect for merchants - that's hardly a reason to destroy the Chinese people. We pay too much respect for merchants - and it's costinig us.

    As for a fair number of its people wanting not to be Chinese, every country in history has had its share of that sort of sentiment. For the sake of simiplicity, we.can start with our ancestors who migrated to North America. There are a lot of Scots who would prefer not to be British. Ireland had the same problem - and you can find it in Belgium, Spain, Wales - just about every country I ever heard of. Why do you think Pakistan is separate from Italy. Why do you think Quebec voted on separation?

    As for the civil service being reactionary - what would you call Harper? (Oh, I know, he's a brillant innovator ahead of this time.) In fact, the Chinese civil service produced some brilliant thinkers.

    Your opening paragraph about civil rights is more than a little simplistic. Human rights are NOT carved in stone. They exist, like the royal family, only if we say they do. You want evidence of that?

    The US president has the power to issue murder lists all over the world, and does so every week for his drone bombers and hit squads. Secret police now intrude on our private lives. We no longer h ave the human right of privacy. The US president can - and does - put people in prison with no charge or trial. He also oversees massive use of torture.

    Human rights are fictions because they exist only because (or if) we say they do. If we stoppiing saying so ( as we are now doing), then human rights cease to exist.

    I can see why you call yourself a tory. Lots of people like you call themselves tories. But you aren't. Reactionary and self-righteous are not qualities of toryism.

    What you seem to be is really called a mid-nineteenth century liberal. And the cobwebs show.

  3. "You need a link to know that Christian nations have been brutal?"

    No, I was looking for your insight on how they were ESPECIALLY brutal.

    "As to a fair bit of war in China in building the nation, I did mention it."

    Re-reading the article I still didn't see 'war' mentioned. Unless you are referring to your comment on "'fictions' of religion and governance and changing boundaries". Because China didn't conquer anyone, it merely changed its 'fictions' about where its borders were. Of course.

    "scarcely serves as justification of Europe's brutal attacks on it."

    Re-reading my comments I don't believe I said it was...

    "Wow! what a christian reason to spread death and starvation and addiction all over China."

    Again, who said it was?

    "that's hardly a reason to destroy the Chinese people."

    Ditto above.

    "Your explanation for the weakness of China in the 19th century is more than a little simplistic."

    Perhaps, but it was never meant to be an in-depth examination (or I would have used links). I only wanted to continue on your point that the 'fictions' a nation chooses to embrace can have a profound impact on its development.

    "As for a fair number of its people wanting not to be Chinese, every country in history has had its share of that sort of sentiment."

    And in time each nation has had to address these issues. As per your comment about China still needing to refine its 'fictions' China will one day have to address this one. The failure to address this 'fiction' about a country being 'whole' when its not has never ended well. Which brings us to your observation about whether or not China's 'fictions' are prepared for the recession.

    "what would you call Harper?"

    An idiot among other unpleasant terms.

    "In fact, the Chinese civil service produced some brilliant thinkers."

    Which doesn't mean it wasn't reactionary. Your example of Wei Yuan is of a man who saw trouble coming and wrote about it. But how much of his warnings were listened to? How common were men like him?

    "Human rights are fictions because they exist only because (or if) we say they do. If we stoppiing saying so ( as we are now doing), then human rights cease to exist."

    We'll have to agree to disagree since I believe in there being natural laws. Failure to abide by them doesn't mean they don't exist.

    "Reactionary and self-righteous are not qualities of toryism."

    Oh please. The only area of policy I am completely reactionary is intellectual property law (it can go back in the mercantile box it came in). As for being self-righteous... Where do I claim the superiority of anything?

  4. I have great difficulty following the logic of t his.
    I didn't go into much of what you mention because it's just a teeny blog. I didn't have time or space for the several thousand years before 1840.
    Men like Wei Yuan were not common. Nor was Einstein. Nor was Benjamin Franklin. Nor was Shakespeare. That doesn't make them irrelevant.

    Were other people influenced by his thnking? Yes. To this day. Just as military officers still study the much more ancient Lao Tze on the art of war.

    Your suggestion that each nation has the problem of people wanting to leave is quite right. But what does that have to do with my point?

    Was Yuan reactionary? in some respects that could be said. One could say it of everyone who ever lived. That's such a misunderstood word that I don't really even know what it means.

    I sensed you might be a lawyer when I read the nit-picking sentence about human rights being fiction. Are they natural laws? Well, there are behaviours essential to our survival that one could call natural laws. I have no quarrel with that. Calling them fictitious when they are not enacted or not enforced is simply to say they have no tangible existence. Similarly we create fictions when we enact laws simply is a way of saying they have no real existence until we enact them.

    Where do you claim superiority? In the tone of your writing.

    You called yourself a Tory. That word has such a wide range of meanings and misunderstandings, I have no idea what you mean by it. Are you a traditionalist? If so, what does traditionalist mean? Going back to royal absolutism? Or just being Anglican? In popular imagery, it envisions a stout man with a seventeenth century wig.
    There's nothing traditional about any political party in Canada - except, possibly, a lingering sense of the Christian roots of the NDP.

    Words like reactionary and tory really have no meaning until one knows the proclaimer well enough to sense what he is talking about. That's the trouble with words. They come to have meanings that are largely emotional and instinctive rather than meaningful.