America Against America
A review of America Against America, a book by Wang Huning
This week I listened to a chaotic but interesting discussion about China in which one of the guests, Logo Daedalus, mentioned a book by the Chinese political theorist Wang Huning. I’ve since been reading an amateur translation, available here, and wanted to share an outline.
Published in 1991 and based on a visit a few years previous, this is a collection of sometimes brutal, sometimes amusingly honest observations about American society from a Chinese perspective. Although it was drawn from a relatively optimistic, prosperous and peaceful time, he already perceives the “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” produced by the contradictions of the “American spirit” - a modern future oriented individualism producing admirable material prosperity but also ultimately nihilism. The book is written for a policy-oriented Chinese audience and reads like an objective fact finding mission, not something propagandistic or designed to either insult or flatter but to accurately describe the functioning of institutions. “My idea is to oppose the imaginary America with the factual America” he writes.
What he sees is a society with a great deal to admire and respect, a society that has produced the functions of material greatness but also wracked with growing contradictions that have no apparent method of resolving themselves. The crisis is primarily one of nihilism produced by pure individualism. It is characterized by radical material inequality, an individualistic destruction of family, friendship and other social bonds, a possibly ‘fatal’ inability to improve the conditions of black America or Native America but simultaneously, he ends up agreeing with Allan Bloom, a rejection and disrespect toward any Western heritage, canon or culture.
Right away, he sees a society of contradictions. “The economic success and technological progress achieved by the United States in this century are there for all to see, and no country in the world today has yet surpassed it.” But he goes on,
I heard from my friend that once you arrive in New York, you will feel a sense of terror and the crime rate here is extremely high… Although the streets in the big cities are full of homeless people wandering around… Many houses, with seven or eight rooms, are actually occupied by only one or two people.
Everything has a dual nature, and the glamour of high commodification abounds. Human flesh, sex, knowledge, politics, power, and law can all become the target of commodification… commodification can reduce the burden of the political and administrative system… Commodification, in many ways, corrupts society and leads to a number of serious social problems. These problems, in turn, can increase the pressure on the political and administrative system.
He meets with American farmers, whose work ethic, creativity and productivity he’s particularly impressed by. He also sees a primarily forward looking urban society who work on the weekends. America is a nation with a "broad vision” that makes it “easy to accept large-scale plans and grand undertakings.”
In the 20th century America introduced Keynesianism and the welfare state which can’t be undone without political instability, but in many cases it exists to solve what are really social problems. He also notes, “In the United States, the masses are passively cosmopolitan; social, economic, and cosmopolitan interactions have forced Americans to be cosmopolitan.”
Amid all the descriptions of the nuts and bolts of institutions, from think tanks to local politics to factories, there are startling passages like these:
Americans have almost no belief in ghosts. Americans invent and conceive of many ghosts, probably more than any other country in the world, but do not believe in ghosts. Children have no concept of ghosts, and during Halloween, children dress up as all kinds of ghosts and move around the neighborhood.
American society is the least mysterious society. People grow up in this society with little mystery about any matter. This is an inseparable part of the American culture. Many peoples have a strong sense of mystery, such as some peoples of Africa, some peoples of Latin America, including some components of Western European culture. It is worth exploring what role mystery plays in the development of a society, or at least it can be a wall around many traditional ideas and traditional institutions. The same is true for nature. The progress of science and technology lies in the continuous conquest and victory over nature, and if one is full of mystery about nature or some aspects of nature, one cannot take a big step into the temple of nature to see what it is all about, but will linger outside and pray for divine blessing. Americans have few taboos in this regard.
Americans also have the least amount of mystery about man himself. Religious people know that the Bible says God made man. But society continues to break down the mystery surrounding man. It is common for doctors to open chest cavities and skulls and move around hearts and brains, and the difficulty is purely technical, with no conceptual element. Americans are most interested in transplanting artificial hearts. Americans have one of the highest number of IVFs in the world. Demystification, pushing to move Americans toward artificial people. Sex education in adolescence is also a product of non-mystification. The issue of sex is shrouded in mystery in many societies. In American society, sex became as common knowledge as oil and vinegar.
Here we see the signs of today’s more apparent transhumanism and sexual identity politics.
He sees the Marxist left as entirely unserious and only mentions them amusingly here:
Passing through the city center, there was a girl who had a book stall in a busy place. Not many people patronized it. I happened to be walking by and took a look at the books she was selling and was intrigued. The books on the stall included The Communist Manifesto, a collection of Castro's speeches, and a collection of Trotsky's speeches. It was easy to see that she belonged to a leftist radical organization. It is said that there are hundreds of such small organizations or micro-organizations in the United States. They are active, but have little political influence, and most of the population does not care about them… The girl who sold newspapers once said that Cuba was the only socialist country left in the world, I'm afraid.
Most importantly I think, he sees a society that only looks at social or spiritual or civilizational problems in terms of an evasive technological fix:
In the face of some intricate social and cultural problems, Americans tend to think of it as a scientific and technological problem. Or it is a matter of money (which is a result of the spirit of commercialism), rather than a matter of people, of subjectivity. This is also true in the political sphere. The approach to the growth of Soviet power was to desperately develop equipment superior to Soviet weapons systems, including the eventual proposed Star Wars program. The way to deal with terrorism is to strike the other side with advanced attack forces. The way to deal with threats in international waters is a powerful and well-equipped fleet. The way to deal with regimes you don't like is to provide the opposition with a lot of advanced weaponry.
He wonders why sexual liberation happened after the war and if it is a feature of having resolved Freud’s tension of civilization through material abundance. He ponders American loneliness and thinks “the American economic system has created human loneliness… the dominant value of America - individualism - leads to the isolation of the individual.” The American “protection of the private domain also protects loneliness” he thinks and that even and especially in the realm of family and love, “each person does not like or want others to invade his or her own domain of life.” This isolation will ultimately become a burden on the political system as the slack for the destruction of the daily fabric of life has to be picked up by administrative systems. He notes that friendships are fast but not deep - people are friendly in the sense of being open to making new temporary friends as they move around but not lifelong ones. Although the concept of "foreigner" is foreign to Americans, he says, they often cannot tell who is a "foreigner" and who is a "native".
Money is the chief motivator of the strong work ethic for urban professionals, not the collective good. Professors teach, for example, “mostly without the inner impulse of worrying about the country and the people” but of career advancement and money. It’s notable that the author, one of the most important political theorists alive in China, is interested entirely in the improvement of Chinese society, so much so that it hardly needs to be said. He looks at every problem as a puzzle to be solved, as a way of learning lessons that might benefit the people and society of China.
He sees the development of national economic chains and monopolies as creating a functional national unity and protecting the system from civil war:
Economically speaking, the United States is a highly unified market, a complete whole, hamburgers, IBM companies, car gas stations, KFC, "Greyhound" coach, etc. are national organizations, but also non- governmental organizations. Car rental companies are a good example, customers in San Francisco to rent a car, after driving to New York can be returned to the company's branches, the country has such a service. Hilton and other large systems of hotels are all over the country. The unification of information and transportation together gives the integration of this society of states a durable substructure. The high level of economic development performs the important function of maintaining national unity. Under such circumstances, the political system, in turn, does not need to make much effort, and a situation like the Civil War could hardly be reproduced.
He sees a society with religion but in a form without mystery:
The fact that religion is so developed in the United States seems at odds with the highly developed science and technology of American society. This is a mystery of human rationality. In fact, Americans are very rational about religion, just as they are about science and technology.
He looks at the extraordinary money pumped into higher education and sees the practice of inviting the elites of the world to be educated in America as soft power. MIT is socializing America into “the American spirit” but also transmitting it to the world. Education is the decisive factor that separates the rich from the poor and thus "getting an education becomes a social belief.” He is impressed by the public science museums and of how they open up the process of science and modernization to the people and to the collective spirit, as a kind of “transmission” that “creates the future”.
He places a major emphasis on how individualism breaks up social units like the family, perhaps more than any other feature of potential American crisis.
It is important to have a union of a man and a woman to form a family. For most American men and women, this union does not interfere with the privacy of each of them. Many couples treat each other with respect and do not interfere with each other's privacy… The development of American conjugal life to this point is the result of a society that has long pursued individualism… I personally believe that this is a problem for the future of American society. Marriage does not break the fortress that is built in everyone's heart, especially young couples.
The average family must let their children become independent early and cannot afford to provide for them, so they are unable to love. In turn, children love their parents, but parents cannot depend on their children for their old age, and children cannot afford it, so children cannot love either. This relationship has far-reaching consequences for society. Parents have to rely on the social security or welfare system in their old age, but not on their children. The elderly must build a life of their own.
Aristotle said more than 2,000 years ago that the family is the cell of society. In the years since the war, the cell, the family, has disintegrated in the United States. On the surface, the family is still the cell of society, but in reality, the real cell of society in the United States is the individual.
The next problem he looks at is drugs, which he sees as “an insurmountable problem in American society” having the same origin in individualism.
Americans believe in the right of each individual to determine his or her own destiny, a right to personal freedom that cannot be taken away. This right evolved gradually, after World War II, from the right to vote, the right to racial equality, and the right to equality between men and women in the political sphere, to the later right to sexual freedom, the right to pursue one's own lifestyle (e.g., hippies, etc.), etc. All of this was accepted by Americans. Now comes the right to take drugs, and Americans cannot accept it. Because accepting it would mean the downfall of the nation or a significant part of the nation. Whether there is a solid philosophical foundation in the American system to support this anti-drug initiative, it is too early to say. The opposite philosophical foundation is there.
He says that black inequality and the inability of society to solve social problems in black America “will eventually become a fatal problem” and sees also the inability of European settlers to bring native Americans fully into the society as a collective “psychological” problem for the whole society and its self-conception.
Referencing Allan Bloom, he notes the decline of the Western literary canon and of respect for European cultural heritage and values:
It is a fact that the American spirit is facing serious challenges, and it is also a fact that the younger generation is ignorant of traditional Western values. And to what extent will this change in the spiritual sphere affect the development and management of society? The existence and functioning of any social system can never be validated by the letter of the law alone; it is first and foremost a matter of people believing in these fundamental values and being guided by them in the way they behave. If the value system collapses, how can the social system be sustained? …On the one hand, social progress requires a new value system, breaking the shackles of the old one; on the other hand, social harmony and institutional stability require maintaining the core part of a society's value system, otherwise a society's value system will come to an end, and it is inevitable that the whole society will fall into chaos and moral crisis.
While America admirably surpassed many of the problems of the Soviet Union, like creating enough abundance to avoid a crisis, especially in its capacity to produce food, it is the spiritual consequences of material progress via individualism that constitutes the unstoppable undercurrent of crisis detrimental to a harmonious society. He wants China to resolve and surpass both of these at once.
Nihilism has become the American way, which is a fatal shock to cultural development and the American spirit.
The American system, which is generally based on individualism, hedonism and democracy, is clearly losing out to a system of collectivism, self-forgetfulness and authoritarianism. In the next century, more nations are bound to challenge the United States as well. It is then that Americans will truly reflect on their politics, economy and culture.
The reflection he refers to has begun in recent years to some degree. Many of his observations can be found in some form in the American post-liberal thinkers. There is also the strong possibility that instead of trying to resolve these through this deeper painful self-searching and perhaps through learning from the wisdom of other societies, America will resort, as he noted it often does, only to technological military resolutions to being challenged by other rising powers.
Amazing foresight for a 30-year-old work. I am struck by how much the present moment gives off "vibes" of the Bush I era; the command consciousness of the USA requires an enemy, be it Native Americans, Mexico, or Russia, to give it social purpose. I always thought the tendentious rebelliousness of 1990s US pop culture was simultaneously absurd and touching -- the international political paradigm of competitive fear and incipient doom was broken; what was there to rebel against except existence in an affluent society itself?
Tenor of the times (although an English band); Jesus Jones's "Right Here Right Now": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MznHdJReoeo
After 10 years the Global War on Terror served as a band-aid to prop up the USA vs. The World binary system, but even that seems to be crumbling.
"Marriage does not break the fortress that is built in everyone's heart, especially young couples."
Imagine a young couple in bed together, looking at their phones and/or laptops instead of being with each other. One does not have to imagine too strenuously.
"Human flesh, sex, knowledge, politics, power, and law can all become the target of commodification… commodification can reduce the burden of the political and administrative system… Commodification, in many ways, corrupts society and leads to a number of serious social problems."
I think this, coupled with the way individualism is playing out across economics, social life, etc. has led to the phenomenon of self-commodification- which you see in the emergence of sickening terms like "personal branding," influencer culture and the gig economy. I wrote about this a couple days ago: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/the-perils-of-the-personal-brand
Some reflection on and tempering of individualism would definitely be a welcome development in the US, though we'll never get rid of it entirely (and I wouldn't want to). All societies have their contradictions, benefits, risks and drawbacks, and at a certain point it's a matter of "pick your poison."