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The Sweating of Business Conservative Off-site: Vision Statement

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India, China, and the Disciplinary Society

by Christopher Chantrill
December 04, 2008 at 11:20 am


JUDGING from reports it seems that the Indian authorities in Mumbai last week were more concerned with stamping out the terrorists than protecting innocent human life.

In the US and Europe, surely, authorities would have established a perimeter around the terrorists, stabilized the situation, and started to negotiate.

But in Mumbai the government just sent in their “crack commandos,” as many as it took to get the job done. Chances are that a lot more people got killed than if more “western” tactics were used.

In our American notion, propagated by the elite media, Asian cultures like meditating Hindus and tranquil Buddhists are more peaceable than the US and its “gun culture.” But of course that is rubbish. India, we learned last week, has not one but at least three major terrorist threats. There are the Muslim terrorists, the Hindu terrorists loosely connected with the Hindu nationalist parties, and then there are the Marxist guerrillas, the “Naxalites.” We have nothing like that in the US.

Then there’s China. News reports tell us that China experiences thousands of major civil disturbances every year. And with tens of thousands of businesses closing in the global economic slowdown, workers are protesting and rioting in response.

Here is where I am going with this. Let us stop worrying about the rich-kid Islamic terrorists and their headline-grabbing rich-kid attacks on New York and Mumbai. Let us talk about real problems.

The world is entering a serious recession. Most likely in the developed world the hardships will be anesthetized by unemployment and welfare benefits. But not in India and China.

India and China are in the middle of the industrialization process that Europe and the US went through in the nineteenth century. But the word “industrialization” doesn’t tell the story. It refers to a massive human migration from the country to the city, the biggest human migration ever known. In China, they say, 15 million people move to the city every year. The Chinese government believes that the economy needs to create 25 million jobs each year to absorb that migration.

What happens if the Chinese economy fails to generate 25 million jobs for a couple of years? Will the Chinese workers burn down the economy? They very well might. When people get desperate they do desperate things. Herders raid the neighboring herds, peasants revolt against their lords. Miners occupy the mines. But not in the modern west.

Before the west entered into the industrial age it first created the Disciplinary Society. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Charles Taylor writes in A Secular Age, European elites began a conscious effort to reduce the level of violence in society.

[W]e can say that late medieval elites...clerical... [and] lay... were developing/recovering the ideal of civility, with its demands for a more ordered, less violent social existence.

This development, according to Taylor, included increased regulation of the poor, suppression of rowdy popular culture, ordinances of “economic, educational, spiritual” and material improvement, disciplinary government structures, and the proliferation of training programs. And it worked!

The sixteenth century sees the taming of the unruly military aristocracy... The eighteenth century begins to see the taming of the general population. Riots, peasant rebellions, and social disorders begin to become rarer in Northwest Europe.

In Discipline and Punish the inventor of the disciplinary idea, Michel Foucault, sneers at this emerging disciplinary culture. For the edgy gay philosopher, transgression is the thing, not discipline. For Charles Taylor it is surprising that anyone thought such a transformation possible, let alone that it succeeded.

But what about India and China? Have they developed enough of a disciplinary society so that their people will endure the hardships of a serious economic downturn without bursting the bounds of social peace?

For that matter what about the US and Europe? Ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century our intellectual elite has celebrated not discipline but impulse and “creativity”—in the Romantic movement, revolutionary politics, class warfare, and “liberation.” They have not proposed this for everyone, of course. The typical center-left coalition—the educated elite allied with government functionaries and the underclass—has advanced a culture of uber-liberation for itself and demanded a culture of uber-discipline from everyone else. This is a reversal of the cultural tide of previous centuries, in which the excesses of elite and underclass were tamed, not condoned. It takes a disciplined culture to endure the agony of recession and hardship.

India and China are not going to be intimidated by is rich-kid Islamists. But their governments might soon find themselves battling revolutionary mass movements of the kind described by Eric Hoffer in The True Believer. Mass movements are not started by the abject poor, people that cannot imagine changing their lives, but by the “discontented yet not destitute” attracted to “some potent doctrine, infallible leader or some new technique” that offers a recovery of lost power.

There will be plenty of the discontented in India and China in the next few years.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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