Saturday, November 20, 2010

Was the worst liberal ever Chinese?

In the late 1800s China was faced with the problem of modernisation. One of the "reforming" Chinese intellectuals was a man named Kang Youwei.

Unfortunately, he caught the Western liberal bug very badly. He combined two of the worst aspects of the Western intellectual tradition, namely a liberal emphasis on "equal autonomy" as well as a scientistic effort to find principles of society as clear and distinct as mathematical or geometric formulas.

From one source we learn that:

Kang sought to delineate absolute moral truths based on a scientific or mathematical approach that supported his universalism ... Using the Confucian value of benevolence, he proclaimed the equality of humanity as well as a notion of individual autonomy. [1]

And where did this lead him? If we continue on with the same source, we begin to get some idea of where this approach was to take him:

He was perhaps the most influential politico-philosophical writer of the 1890s in China ... Although Kang had not yet formulated the principles of his utopian vision by the 1880s, many of his radical notions were already developed.

Marriages should be freely contracted and subject to change; children should be raised in public nurseries with no filial obligations (nor would parents have obligations toward their children); and sages and teachers would have no special authority.

Kang's vision of the king was that of a mediator, chosen by the people for their own protection as two individuals choose a mediator in a dispute. [2]

You can see where this is heading. Kang was enough of an intellectual to take the principle of individual autonomy seriously. He believed that we would be more autonomous if the state raised our children for us and if we had no obligations to our children as parents.

Another source on Kang's ideas tells us that:

In form and organization, as Zhu Weizheng points out, Kang's short and early utopian work ... was "in complete imitation of Euclid's Elements of Geometry,"...

Indeed, Kang Youwei appealed to the authority of science to lend legitimacy and persuasion to his social and political theory, and he claimed, for example, that basic principles such as "human beings have the right of autonomy' and that all societies should be organized on the basis of "human equality" were all "geometric axioms". [3]

This second source draws out further the political programme Kang derived from his scientistic liberalism:

he argued for the eventual abolition of state boundaries and the unification of all nations on earth...racial differences would gradually disappear when "all races will merge into one, and there will be no distinction of the intelligent and the ignorant"...the abolition of families to cultivate world citizenship, the elimination of private ownership...

he would have marriage abolished and replaced with an agreement or contract...sex, he argued "will be a matter of each individual's gratification of desires, with no formal denomination or capacity, no limits or boundaries"...

As you would expect of a liberal, Kang wanted to make sex distinctions not matter. In his own words,

"in the world of Great Unity, men and women will be equal and everyone will be independent and free. They will be dressed in similar attire and hold similar jobs, and there will be no difference between male and female. As for sex, there will be no difference whether it is between a man and a woman, or between a man and another man."

In Kang's ideal society,

there will be no individual or group differences, there will be no separate nations...all will be equal and free [4]
The gist of Kangism? People have to be made the same so that everyone has the same measure of individual autonomy. Distinctions of nationality, of race, of sex, of sexuality, of wealth and of intelligence all have to be collapsed. A global state is to replace the family as a better, more uniform mechanism of regulating equal individual wills.

This is what is then sold to us as a vision of independence, freedom, equality and unity, all "scientifically" based.

It is a radical vision as it is liberalism given to us all at once.

In the West we have taken it more slowly. But a hundred years after such a vision of freedom and equality was penned, we have already been "half-kanged". We are at least half way to the dystopia envisaged for the world by a Chinese liberal of the 1890s.

The problem is that our political class has still not let go of the principles borrowed by Kang over a hundred years ago. And there's little use complaining about the outcomes we are being herded towards, if we aren't willing to challenge these principles.



[1] Peter Zarrow, "The Reform Movement, the Monarchy and Political Modernity" in Rebecca Karl & Peter Zarrow (eds), Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period (Harvard 2002) 24.
[2] Ibid., 25.
[3] Zhang Longxi, Allegories: Reading Canonical Literature East and West (Cornell University 2005) 196.
[4] Ibid.,198-200.

16 comments:

  1. It would be a huge comfort if he truly were the worst liberal ever, we could blame it on the Chinese !

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  2. "half-kanged" has a ring to it. That it rhymes with "dang" makes it all the more fitting.

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  3. I don't know, he sounds like a typical 19th century utopian. None of what he said is much different from what you find in Fourier or Saint-Simon and their sort.

    The idea that children should be raised by the state instead of by their parents goes back to Plato.

    The idea of writing a philosphical work "in complete imitation of Euclid's Elements" sounds like Spinoza.

    Spinoza in fact is a very good candidate for being the first modern liberal.

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  4. Anonymous said,

    "Spinoza in fact is a very good candidate for being the first modern liberal."

    That sounds about right.

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  5. Sadly the insane have always been with us. And one of the symptoms is nearly always an obsession with total human equality.

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  6. Did Spinoza ever say this, though:

    "...in the world of Great Unity, men and women will be equal and everyone will be independent and free. They will be dressed in similar attire and hold similar jobs, and there will be no difference between male and female. As for sex, there will be no difference whether it is between a man and a woman, or between a man and another man."

    I mean, how many liberals have actually thought through that? Is there any evidence that Spinoza did? Kang's right: Liberalism requires sex not to matter, ever, not even in the bedroom. But I don't know that many liberals or even liberal intellectuals have necessarily understood that. I don't think they understand that one day it's going to be as unacceptable to discriminate by sex when dating as it already is to discriminate by race, ethnicity, religion, etc. when dating.

    That Kang did understand that, and then embraced liberalism anyway makes his a uniquely farsighted and uniquely distorted mind.

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  7. Yes, it must be close to the ultimate in non-discrimination.

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  8. Bartholomew, the excerpt you quote in your comment made me shudder. God forbid that it should ever come to that...

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  9. Mr. Richardson wrote,

    "Yes, it must be close to the ultimate in non-discrimination."

    Yeah, I agree. Then again, bestiality wouldn't follow too far behind what the anti-speciesists want,. What could be more degrading than bestiality?

    It's hard to believe that many liberals would actually go for all of this. But read on Wikipedia how seriously professors of Philosophy take the claims of the "anti-speciesists". They all claim to be "speciesists", but look at how the Wikipedia article frames the whole discussion, as if the professors' admission of "speciesism" were something less than ideal/honorable. It reminds me of the academics' defenses of "racism" in the 1800's, defenses which they ultimately had to abandon.

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  10. By the way, I do not mean to say that racial differences are equivalent to sex differences which are equivalent to species differences. Not at all.

    I mean to point out that, to an increasing number of liberals, these differences are all equally illegitimate.

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  11. "Yeah, I agree. Then again, bestiality wouldn't follow too far behind what the anti-speciesists want,. What could be more degrading than bestiality?"

    Technically bestiality would violate the liberal principle of autonomy, since dumb animals can't give their consent to er, "imtimate relations" with humans, but I'm sure there are some warped individuals trying to think their way around this problem.

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  12. Ok this is going to be my last comment on bestiality in this thread, but I couldn't resist mentioning that according to Wikipedia, Kinsey claimed that 40-50 percent of people living on or near farms engage in bestiality at some stage in their lives.

    How anyone can take this over- imagination perv seriously I have no idea.

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  13. As gender discriminating in dating activities will soon be forbidden on pain of social death, i.e. ostracism, in any liberal society, can the liberal soon envision an order (or lack thereof) in which discriminating on the basis of humanity or animality would be banned? That would be absolute equality! Makes perfect sense.

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