David Brooks is one of the conservative pundits I read regularly. On Friday night as the Olympic opening ceremony was unfolding there was a lot of idle chatter on this blog about the ceremony–using code words like Leni Reifenstal, I suppose to signal a fascist message being conveyed. But Brooks has another view, and I think I agree with him.
We in the West have a narrative that involves the development of individual reason and conscience during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and then the subsequent flourishing of capitalism. According to this narrative, societies get more individualistic as they develop.
But what happens if collectivist societies snap out of their economic stagnation? What happens if collectivist societies, especially those in Asia, rise economically and come to rival the West? A new sort of global conversation develops.
The opening ceremony in Beijing was a statement in that conversation. It was part of China’s assertion that development doesn’t come only through Western, liberal means, but also through Eastern and collective ones.
The ceremony drew from China’s long history, but surely the most striking features were the images of thousands of Chinese moving as one — drumming as one, dancing as one, sprinting on precise formations without ever stumbling or colliding. We’ve seen displays of mass conformity before, but this was collectivism of the present — a high-tech vision of the harmonious society performed in the context of China’s miraculous growth.
My sense is that the Chinese were trying to send a message to the world–we are strong, we are many, we cooperate well, we want our children to have a better life than their parents, we play well with people from all over the world. The Chinese see the future of a global trading society, where they can compete not just on cheap labor, but on home grown technology (the 300 foot long LCD!). Like the rest of the BRIC’s they have huge asset pools and not a lot of debt. A large well educated populace, natural resources and fairly low military expenditures/GDP.
Brooks is worried, because the whole basis of the economic philosophy he has worshiped since he first read Milton Friedman is being questioned by the success of these societies.
If Asia’s success reopens the debate between individualism and collectivism (which seemed closed after the cold war), then it’s unlikely that the forces of individualism will sweep the field or even gain an edge.
For one thing, there are relatively few individualistic societies on earth. For another, the essence of a lot of the latest scientific research is that the Western idea of individual choice is an illusion and the Chinese are right to put first emphasis on social contexts…Relationships are the key to happiness. People who live in the densest social networks tend to flourish, while people who live with few social bonds are much more prone to depression and suicide.
Brooks ends by saying this is all good for autocrats, but I don’t think the matter is so black and white. I have been arguing for a while that in a New Federalism paradigm, notions of cooperation and freedom are not in opposition. The new Web 2.0 technologies are allowing us to coordinate at a distance and at very low transaction cost. Can freedom and cooperation live together?