Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: November, 2014

The Abstract Society

How do you find your way in a society in which, all the time, you are dealing with people you don’t know personally? For example, you don’t know me. Yet I’m talking to you. Well, to be more precise, I’m writing to you. And the whole idea about writing is that it is usually read in the absence of the writer.

Writing makes it possible for two people to communicate with each other without actually being face to face. When the writing becomes reproducible on an industrial scale, as in the case of printed books and newspapers, the one who writes can have a relationship with a public, the members of which he will likely never get to know personally.

The American historian Benedict Anderson used this idea to define modern nations as “imagined communities”, which means groups of people who think of themselves as a community, but who never actually meet each other personally, because there are too many of them, scattered over too wide an area.

It has long since got to the stage where people are complaining about “mass society” and its anonymity, and hankering back to real groups like the neighbourhood and the extended family.

The philosopher Karl Popper wrote about modern society as being “The Open Society” and thought that this was a good thing. He did realize that such a society could not be organic in the sense of a tight-knit community. He even went so far as to say that modern society might become an “Abstract Society”. This would be a society in which people would interact, do business with each other and so on, but would never actually see each other in person. This, he reflected, was starting to happen, when organizations were large and widespread enough. However, he thought, people have social needs, and so there could never be a completely abstract society.

Popper was writing around 1950. He didn’t know about computers or the Internet. Today the Abstract Society is an all-pervasive reality. If one is a freelance, like a writer or translator, as I am, one deals with all kinds of people – editors, contributors, customers – that one never sees. Communication is by e-mail and attached files. I for one have had productive relations for years with people I have never met, and may never meet. And nobody seems to be worried.

People in Asia don’t seem to like the Abstract Society so much. According to the Swiss journalist Urs Schöttli, they solve the problem of Asia’s anonymous teeming populations by keeping business in the family. So you choose to work with your cousin – there may be better people out there, but at least you know him well!

No roots at the top

I have just been rereading The Revolt of the Elites by the late American writer Christopher Lasch. The book was written in the 1990s, but it is still relevant, as indeed are all Lasch’s books.

His point is that the modern democratic state is not so much endangered by mass movements, as it was in the 20th century, but by elites, who are now so far removed from the mass of society that they have in fact seceded. They live in their own suburbs and gentrified neighbourhoods, work in the information economy, and are internationally mobile. They are the exact opposite to the ordinary Joe who is rooted in his own location and country. Yet the elites, Lasch says, are now running the USA, and they are running it in their own interests, letting the rest of society go to pot.

This was written in the 1990s, but since then I for one can see only an expansion of the knowledge elites. Lasch was talking about his own country, America. Could this not be true of the rest of the world too? If you look at the elites (government, business, academia, the professions) in many countries, it is not hard to see this gulf between them and the rest of their societies. It seems to happen in countries where there was a lot of “power distance” – acceptance of marked distinctions of wealth and status – in the culture to begin with.

You see it in Britain, where since the Thatcher years, London as the financial centre has detached itself, becoming something like a city-state, while the rest of the country goes to pot. The recent Scottish independence vote has been interpreted by many observers as a protest of the periphery against London.

In France they talk about the “bobos”, the new class of well-paid bourgeois bohemians, urbanised contributors to the information economy, who ignore “la France profonde”.

In the European Union, Lasch already saw “a deep and widening gap between the political classes and the more humble members of society”, and a likelihood that Europe, “governed from Brussels”, would “be dominated by bureaucrats and technicians devoid of any feelings of national identity and allegiance” and would “be less and less amenable to popular control. The international language of money will speak more loudly than local dialects.” Could not the very same words be used today?

Enough of Europe. I feel tempted to ask how Asia will deal with this problem. In huge countries like China and India, there is always a danger that elites, even visionary and dynamic elites, may pursue opportunities without bringing their huge masses of population with them. Such opportunities will not be – to use a fashionable word – sustainable in the long run. National greatness requires whole nations, not just cosmopolitan elites.

Francophone summit

The summit meeting of the Francophonie, the association of French-speaking countries, will be held shortly in Dakar. The organisation has just released its report on the state of the French-speaking world, which makes interesting reading. It seems that the number of French speakers across the world grew by 25 percent since 2010, from 220 million in 2010 to 274 million in 2014. French is the fifth most widely spoken language in the world. It is, significantly, the second most learned language in the world. (English is the first, as is not hard to guess.)

This marked increase in the number of speakers in the world is apparently due to population growth in black Africa. It means that soon the language may have most of its speakers in Africa. One wonders what this is going to mean for the language. The French language is clearly France’s most successful export, and the country’s government would like to profit from it economically. Yet France has always defined itself as a nation. The adjective “nationalistic” could be applied to France much more than Britain. This is so first of all because Britain is not just England, but also because Britain, as part of its empire-building, went about exporting large sections of its population and establishing replicas of itself elsewhere. So the English language inevitably became decentralized. If the British were now to say that the English language belongs to them, the Americans would soon remind them that they have no monopoly on the language at all.

Having your language become a world language is a mixed blessing. It is very nice that all these other people are speaking your language, so you can talk to them in it. On the other hand, it no longer belongs to you. You have lost the monopoly. Other people can do what they like with the language, and you can’t complain or call them to order.

English speakers, especially British speakers of English from the heartlands of English, have had to accept this in return for world status, though they can’t help feeling uneasy about it if they think about it at all. French speakers from the French heartlands, who believe that the language uniquely expresses French values, are likely to find it even harder to accept that French is becoming an African language and is going to express the ideas and aspirations of people who share little with France except a colonial past.



Inscrutable Occidentals

When asked to describe people from the Far East, Westerners are sure to use the word inscrutable. This means that the Orientals do not betray emotion in their facial expression. So the idea is you never know what they are really thinking. And it is not far from there to the stereotype that they are devious and not to be trusted.

When someone from China or Japan masks their emotions, the Westerner finds himself wondering whether the East Asian has any emotions at all, whether he is really “human”. Yet I would have to add that this is not just an East-West problem.

Europeans are also baffled by the lack of emotional expression from North Americans. This is not really part of the usual stereotype Europeans have about North Americans (namely that they are loud and brash and boyish and overly self-confident), but it may be the thing that secretly bothers them the most when they have to live on the other side of the Atlantic. As a European living in North America for twenty years, I grasped the immensity of this problem only very slowly.

To a European, North Americans have a curious lifelessness about them. Their voices are monotonous, lacking in intonation, they don’t make gestures or cultivate facial expressions, and when they talk, they never get excited about anything. They don’t talk about how they feel or about the emotions associated with experiences. They talk about matters of fact, things, objective realities. Suitable topics of conversation are often the price of things, like houses and cars.

North Americans believe in being “cool”, and they expect other people to be cool too. They do not pick up on emotional cues or appeals, or just let them die, or make a dry rejoinder. If a European tries to perform his emotions in the usual way, instead of getting an appreciative audience he will see his North American conversation partners eyeing him warily. To them, displaying emotion is just bad form.

The moral of the story is that all things are relative. Westerners are confused and out of their depth when dealing with East Asians, but we Europeans feel a similar lack when dealing with North Americans. To us they are the inscrutable Occidentals.