SOC: Confucian Capitalism and the Tao of Extropy
Sun, 30 Nov 1997 10:47:50 -0500 (EST)

[WARNING: The following contains Gross Generalizations.]

The global warming conference starting Monday in Kyoto has focused a lot of
attention on environmental degradation caused by industrialization in Asia.
This has lead me to think about a phrase I think I coined and that has been
germinating in my head for a year or so now: "Confucian Capitalism". That
phrase evokes mixed emotions for me. On the one hand, I'm glad that Asia,
including China, has by and large rejected its dalliance with Marxism. On
the other hand, though, I am deeply troubled by the offspring of capitalism
and Confucianism.

Some elements of the Confucian tradition are fundamentally compatible with
the core values of capitalism; especially industry, thrift and secularism.
These values have provided a rich cultural seed bed for the development of
capitalist, industrial societies. Others Confucian values, though, present
very deep conflicts with capitalist values. At its bedrock level, the
Confucian world view encourages a reverence for static social structures of
authority that is thoroughly inconsistent with the concept of vital
individualism, a multiplicitous polity and a "loyal opposition".

The Confucian concept of civil society is strictly hierarchical and does not
encourage individual creative variation from the ideal norm. In the
Confucian world, industry consists of a vigorous climb up the pre-determined
steps of an established hierarchy. The sort of "paradigm shifting" lauded in
the creative geniuses of bourgeois culture from Galileo to Gates has no place
in the fixed, linear value system of the Asian orthodoxy. This is such a
well-established element of Sinitic culture that students of Asian history
come to reflexively associate the word "orthodoxy" with the word "Confucian".

I believe we can see the effects of the marriage of Sinitic Confucianism and
"western" capitalism in comparisons of the economic and social development of
various Asian countries. Japan stands out as the most successful of these
unions and its success is premised to some degree on the extent to which its
culture was NOT thoroughly "Confucianized".

Japan engaged in a wholesale importation of Chinese cultural structures in
the 8th through the 10th centuries. However, the Japanese have always had a
flair for maintaining certain indigenous cultural structures, even while
mimicking major elements of foreign social systems. The Japanese notions of
a feudal blood nobility and the samurai values of bushido ("the way of the
warrior") provided living reservoirs of alternative cultural values that
significantly offset the simple linear hierarchism of classical Confucianism.
Furthermore, and perhaps just as importantly, Japan's exposure to China
happened to coincide with the flowering of the T'ang dynasty's influence by
Hinayana (and, significantly, NOT Mahayana) Buddhism. Thus, Japan's history
subsequent to its sinification consisted in large measure of a "multi-axis"
dynamic tension between the individualism of these other cultural matrices
and the social orthodoxy of classical Confucianism. Upon Japan's exposure to
and subsequent importation of western capitalism, these alternative cultural
paradigms provided a ready source of values that could easily and naturally
be adapted to the individualism inherent in a social system grounded in the
bourgeois values of individual activity and responsibility. This is not to
say that Japanese society isn't troubled by on-going "cultural dissonance"
between the elements of its Confucian past and its capitalist present; but I
think it explains why in Asia Japan has made the greatest success of adapting
to bourgeois modernism.

The other "Asian Tigers", geographically and/or culturally closer to the
Confucian core, have so far not produced societies as able to accommodate
the individualism of capitalism. Consider the on-going conflict in Korea
between the established power center of state capitalism and the apparently
inexhaustible seed of youthful rebellion in that country's universities. It
seems that each generation of students in Korean universities engages in
sometimes bloody acts of rebellion, only to be co-opted into established
hierarchy of "Confucian corporate culture". In Singapore one looks in vain
for even the level of opposition to the status quo one can find in Korea.
Taiwan, while producing several generations of successful entrepreneurs, has
yet to begin a significant development of polycentric civil society: The
Kuomintang continues to represent the sole vital source of political
legitimacy in that country's public life, despite it thorough corruption by
western standards.

In light of these ideas, I am not optimistic about the short term for China's
and the rest of Asia's (with the exception of Japan's) ability to come to
grips with the pollution caused by industrialization with current-generation
technology. More generally, I doubt the conventional wisdom that with
capitalism comes the other virtues of bourgeois society, i.e. individualism
and tolerance for personal diversity. So long as the established power
structures place a low value on environmental quality and individual liberty,
we can expect no significant SUCCESFUL indigenous protest, but rather what
will be to the West an infuriating willingness to accept a steady rise in
pollution and limits on individual freedom. Furthermore, the traditional
Confucian disdain for "foreign opinion" will serve to insulate the native
power structures from influence from abroad. Prescriptions calling for an
internal "free press" will have some impact, but not nearly what would be
expected in Western countries. The output of such a "free press" will run
into the fatalistic acceptance of the status quo inherent in the Confucian
world view.

There is perhaps, though, a ray of hope. Confucian orthodoxy always
coexisted with another tradition; Taoism. Taoist naturalism was always an
intensely individualistic cultural matrix that was essentially skew to the
mainstream of Confucian culture. A more or less easy peace existed between
the two cultural traditions because the Taoist ideal of the lone eccentric in
the wilderness had little impact on the settled urban and agrarian society
ruled over by the Confucian imperial government. In fact, I have always
believed that Taoist eccentricism provided a necessary "escape valve" for
individualism in the Confucian world. By bleeding off the energies of the
occasional individualist unable to conform to Confucian orthodoxy, Taoism
ironically served as an important element of the stability of the Sinitic
world. Taoism's stress on a passive internalization of the "Way" ("Tao") of
nature ensured that those unable to conform to the Confucian ideal of a
static social and political hierarchy would not engage in any significant
rebellion against that hierarchy, but rather would simply absent themselves
from it.

Taoism may provide a cultural avenue for opening up a consciousness of
environmental degradation in Asia and, perhaps, a memetic pathway for
adoption of extropian values. With its stress on the value of nature, it's
traditions may become the springboard for a wider awareness of the impact of
low-tech industrialization. Furthermore, the "magical" aspects of
traditional Taoism might well also serve Asia well. There was a strain of
alchemy in Taoism that could resonate with the development of next-generation
molecular technology. Perhaps even more promising, the Taoist mages
cultivated magical formulae for life extension, consisting of caloric
restriction and yogic exercises (probably well-grounded in reality) as well
as probably ill-fated programs of experimental poisoning. Chinese Taoist
lore is replete with legendary figures who achieved extremely long lifetimes
through these practices. At least in theory, Taoists sought their alchemical
and life-extension goals through careful observation of nature's "way", a
cultural antecedent for scientific empiricism. Finally, the general Chinese
romance with textual symbolism (almost certainly a function of the
ideographic nature of their written language), provides ample historical
context for active participation in computer science in general and
cryptography in particular.

All that is needed is an infusion of activism into the Taoist tradition.
While the notion of "Taoist activism" seems at first like an oxymoron, one
need only look to the Japanese tradition of the warrior-monk to see that such
a cultural construct was at least possible in a closely related milieu.
While less well developed in the Chinese cultural matrix, the discipline of
"Kung Fu" points at least in part to the individual as the locus of action as
part of a natural process. At a deeper, philosophical level, extropian ideas
might find a comfortable and fertile marriage with the Taoist tradition in
the natural sciences. Our stress on values and knowledge arising from an
objective inquiry into the natural world provides a bridge into basic Taoist
thinking. What is required though, is a means to transmit the insight that
nature itself has given rise to the values of individualism and action in the

We should be on the lookout for personal bridges into the Chinese cultural
world. A few billion humans are both a great resource for and a great threat
to our future.

Greg Burch <>----<>
Attorney ::: Director, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
"Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must
be driven into practice with courageous impatience."
-- Admiral Hyman G. Rickover