Despite the meme of the World entering a New Cold War is becoming every day more widespread, the question of who is who is just becoming intelligible. Communists and Capitalists of the last century enjoyed the clarity of formal alliances: NATO, on one side; and the Warsaw Pact on the other. And, to top it off, the starkness of the Berlin Wall: a concrete symbol (pun absolutely intended) the liquidity of our current state of affairs does not provide.
Russian adventurism in its near abroad during Putin’s stay in power has distracted the American Empire for two decades now. Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria… Western mandarins have failed to provide a coherent narrative for this activity: Nostalgic Revanchism? Duginistic Eurasian Manifest Destiny? The rapacious policy of a failing Mafia-State? There might (or might not) be a grain of truth in all of those, but none of these memetic frameworks has the potential to truly mobilize anybody.
And besides, Westerners of the “patriotic” kind won’t be easily persuaded to go die again in places like Afghanistan. If anything, flyover country, red-blooded Americans find it difficult to dislike Mr. Putin’s 007-esque antics. People who admire the likes of Chesty Puller or George S. Patton rarely care much for the values the US Armed Forces are trying to adopt lately.
For today’s news consumer, there’s a more marketable dichotomy between USA and China. The myth of two huge empires always on the brink of apocalyptic destruction resonates deeply in a generation longing for a transcendent conflict. Thucydidean narratives of falling and rising powers make for a clean, easy-to-understand story endlessly (and often mindlessly) repeated by pundits and politicos. It sounds original the first time you hear it and, as with Russia, there might be a grain of truth in it after all.
We love the stories of Athens and Sparta in this blog, too. And, although the movie 300 tried to claim Spartanity for America, it just could not work. Washington DC is just the Constantinople to London’s Rome, and England was always a nation of shopkeepers.
As the Soviet world before it, China has a marginally better claim to the Spartan myth: austere, disciplined, rigid, and proud. The men who fought in China’s 22-year-long civil war and endured Mao’s Long March probably fitted, at least somewhat, the soldier-peasant archetype that made Laconian warriors famous. Is this true for the modern Chinese citizen? Difficult to tell.
What remains true is that Sparta has always fascinated political thinkers, and that political tides have often tried to tap onto its memetic potential – modern China included. There’s something attractive about Sparta’s supposedly competent, trusty, and rigorous nature. And often, this attraction is not only felt by the warrior castes, but also by Brahmins. Love affairs between the intelligentsia and authoritarian regimes are an old tradition, Socrates’ support of Sparta itself being the trope codifier.
There’s something about the cleanliness of discipline, seriousness, and proficiency that appeals to the intellectual. Chinese reputation for meritocracy and for the qualities outlined above has made Sinophilia something of a high-status opinion. Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, as controversial as it appeared, reflected the longings of the American ruling class for a call to excellence.
American-style liberal democracy, with its values of individuality and self-expression, is seen by some as vulgar and complacent at best. At worst, it is perceived as leading to a tyranny of the masses, and a lowest-common-denominator mentality. That the offspring of accomplished, millionaire technolords study mandarin has already become a cliché. Faced with prevalent dysfunctionality, many capable people are ready to welcome their new Chinese Overlords.
Others still see value in the American dream of independence and self-reliance. They believe China’s sclerotic bureaucracy will eventually crumble under its own weight, and think it can’t keep growing without losing its tight grip on its population. In contrast, rugged individualism makes the American system chaotic and inefficient, but ultimately more resilient. Of course, there’s some truth in that, too.
But perhaps, everything is just more of the same. Maybe, just maybe, there’s no Athens and no Sparta anymore, and we are ruled by the same System: a dark accelerating force, pulling from the Future to usher the Age of the Bugman. After all, the Western CEO does not own the company he works in any more than the Chinese party bureaucrat owns his chair. Both survive by managing a small part of a mechanism much larger than themselves, only while certain conditions are met, and usually under an important surrender of personal freedom.
Are forced vaccinations and Facebook thought-police really that different from the Chinese Social Credit System? The joke goes that the Communist Party of China spies and brainwashes on its citizens, but at least they realize it. There was a time one could pretend the West was any different.
There is, as we can see, a kind of convergence between China and the West. We could even say this convergence is more pronounced in Western elites. Is it contempt or envy, what they feel for the Middle Kingdom? Its credentialist system of competent bureaucrats sounds like a New York Times wet dream. Its productive capacity marvels the world. And guess what, despite tariffs and covid, trade is booming.
The real nightmare is to realize we’re not in late Capitalism, but in its early stages. Zooming out, it is possible that we’re in fact seeing the early stages of a global system. The two apparent rivals are in fact two appàratuses of the same organism. A conflagration does not happen because of their mutual dependency, a phenomenon that is well described by everybody, but never explained. Here, we suggest it’s because they are two legs (fins?) of the same Leviathan in the room.
You better believe in Revelations because Salvation is not coming from either side of the Pacific.