China and England: Book Interview with Prof Martin Powers

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In this interview we sat down with LRCCS Faculty (and soon-to-be Emeritus) Professor Martin Powers to talk about his new book, China and England: The Preindustrial Struggle for Justice in Word and Image. In the interview, Professor Powers explains some of the book’s most important arguments, and how he hopes they can contribute to undermining hyper-nationalism.

LRCCS: You told us a little bit about this book in an interview we did about two years ago when you had just finished your manuscript. What was your motivation for writing it? How did it get started?

Prof Powers: Well, when I was an undergrad I majored in the Great Books, and we read essays by Weber, Marx, Rousseau, etc. After I began reading Chinese classics, I discovered that some writers in China had developed similar arguments on similar topics. So this has been on my mind since the beginning of my career. The core idea was summarized wonderfully in Prof Tim Brook’s comments, namely, that liberty is not a uniquely Western project.

LRCCS: In the introduction to the book, you mention China’s forgotten role in the history of social justice. What are some of China’s most important contributions in that regard?

Prof Powers: If you look at the evidence, many of the core enlightenment values are more readily described as global rather than the unique expression of “Western genius.” For example, in his Letter on Toleration Locke reveals that the “Turks” (Muslims) already were practicing toleration. A few decades later, Samuel Johnson, after reading Chinese policy documents, argued that merit should be the standard for distributing political authority rather than birth, because in fact this had been the institutional norm in China.

LRCCS: Would you say that China influenced the rise of ideas like equality in the West?

Prof Powers: I never use the word influence to describe this relationship. “Influence” tends to imply that all agency for historical change lies on one side, while the other side passively gets influenced. I don’t think it’s that simple. I do not doubt that radical thinkers in England made use of ideas, policies, or institutions they found in translations of Chinese documents, but they did so because they faced many of the same injustices that those policies had been designed to resist.

Arguably there are three levels to the shared human condition. The first level is structural constraints – to borrow Charles Tilly’s notion, authority is either distributed according to individual expertise or according to group membership. The former is based on merit and facts, the latter is based on privilege and fantasy. The privileged elite in all times and places need to create fictional narratives to legitimize their rule because the facts would not support their claims. Both Mozi and Thomas More recognized as much.

The second level is shared aspirations. Privilege permits the destructive exploitation of unprivileged groups. Sooner or later this leads some to resist those institutions that support privilege. This dynamic can be found both in China and in England in preindustrial times.

The last level is shared logic. Jefferson had never read Zhuangzi, and yet the two men came to similar conclusions, namely the idea that, once we take God out of politics, no one has such a right to property as to deprive another person of the right to survive. The human capacity for logic is shared across cultures, as can be seen from Chapter 12, which examines multiple arguments arrived at independently within both traditions.

LRCCS: What’s important about the arguments you’re making in this book?

Prof Powers: The core point is that liberty and equality are not unique, Western projects. This seriously undermines white nationalist claims, or even certain common views within the academy. The book also makes it easier to defend liberal values currently under attack. For instance, some have suggested that equality and privacy are flukes of Enlightenment thought, fleeting oddities unique to the West, and now we’re simply heading back toward a more normal society where a few get to dominate the many. Well, what if equality is not just an Enlightenment fluke, but a perennial aspiration which has been debated on and off in and outside of Europe for thousands of years? In that case, the whole game changes. In short, it would be difficult to read this book and still walk away thinking, “You see! We white folks did everything.” The world is bigger and better than that.

In all historical periods, East and West, you had but two choices: fact-based systems focused on individuals, or fantasy-based systems focused on groups. We know from history what results from these two options – overall, life is better for more people in reality-based societies.

LRCCS: I’ve heard many people refer to China and the East as a ‘collectivist’ society and the West as an ‘individualistic’ society. What are your thoughts on those labels?

Prof Powers: Well, that way of thinking of course is group-based thinking, and supports group-based policies. But if you look at history, that idea becomes difficult to sustain. In multiple times and places, when group membership ceases to be the basis for distributing authority, then individuals automatically emerge because the laws more and more take individuals as their object, rather than ranked, lineage-based groups. This process took place in late imperial China, in England, and in the U.S., imperfectly yet unmistakably in each case.

LRCCS: So would you say that the notion of Western individualism is a part of colonialism?

Prof Powers: I would say it’s a function of those fantasies necessarily generated by group-based ideologies such as nationalism or racism. Montesquieu appropriated Chinese ideas yet insisted that they were his own. At the same time he took the French institution of absolute monarchy and projected it onto China. This stratagem, moreover, has been repeated over and over up until the present. I am hardly the first to have noticed it.

Note, however, I’m not trying to replace the Hegelian legacy of hyper-nationalism with the idea that “China did all the cool stuff first.” That would still be a group-based argument, which is the real problem. You don’t solve that problem by substituting one group for another. The object of the historian’s gaze is always humanity’s shared condition; not the ranking of races.

Interview conducted by Eric Couillard