Calendric Dominion (Part 6)


At the beginning of the 21st century, global cultural hegemony is on the move. For roughly 500 years, Western — and later more specifically Anglophone — societies and agencies have predominantly guided the development of the current world system. As their economic pre-eminence wanes, their cultural and political influence can be expected to undergo a comparable decline. In the early stages of the coming transition, however, the terminal form of active Western cultural hegemony – multicultural political correctness (MPC) – is well-positioned to manage the terms of the retreat. By reconfiguring basic Western religious and political themes as a systematic sensitization to unwarranted privilege, MPC is able to distance itself from its own heritage and to live on, in the resentment of ‘the other’, as if it were the neutral adjudicator of disputes it had no part in.

When MPC turns its attention to the Gregorian (or Western Christian) Calendar it is, of course, appalled. But it is also stuck. What could be more insensitive to cultural diversity than an ecumenical date-counting system, rooted in the ethnic peculiarities of Greek-phase Abrahamic religion, which unapologetically celebrates its triumph in the uncompromising words Anno Domini? Yet global convergence demands a standard, no alternative calendar has superior claims to neutrality, and, in any case, the inertial juggernaut of large-scale complex systems – ‘lock-in’ or ‘path-dependency’ – pose barriers to switching that seem effectively insuperable. The solution proposed by MPC to this conundrum is so feeble that it amounts to the completion of Gregorian Calendric Dominion, which is to be simultaneously rephrased (politely) and acknowledged in its irresistible universality as the articulation of a ‘Common Era’.

MPC supplants problems of cultural power with obfuscatory etiquette, and in absolute terms, its smug dishonesty is difficult to like. As a relative phenomenon, however, its appeal is more obvious, since radical ‘solutions’ to Gregorian Calendric Dominion, re-beginning at Year Zero, have generally reverted to mass murder. Lacking persuasive claims to a new, fundamental, and universally acknowledged historical break, they have substituted terror for true global singularity, as if fate could be blotted out in blood.

Since resentment gets nowhere, whether in its mild (MPC) or harsh (killing fields) variants, it is worth entertaining alternative possibilities. These begin with attention to real cultural differences, rather than mere ‘cultural diversity’ as it presents itself to the vacuously MPC-processed mind. Soon after Shanghai had been selected as host city for World Expo 2010 (in December 2002), countdowns started. For Westerners, these probably had space-age associations, triggering memories of the countdowns to ‘blast off’ that were popularized by the Apollo Program, and subsequent science fiction media. It is far from impossible that Chinese shared in these evocations, although they were also able to access a far deeper – which is to say civilizationally fundamental – reservoir of reference. That is because Chinese time typically counts down, modeled, as it is, on the workings of water clocks. The Chinese language systematically describes previous as ‘above’ (shang) and next as ‘beneath’ (xia), conforming to an intuition of time as descent. Time is counted down as it runs out, from an elevated hydraulic body into the sunken future that receives it.

Duration not only flows, it drips. Perhaps, then, an ‘orientalization’ of calendric perception and organization is something that significantly exceeds a simple (or even exceedingly difficult) renegotiation of beginnings. Re-beginning might be considered largely irrelevant to the problem, at least when compared to the re-orientation from an original to a terminal Year Zero. Whilst not exactly a transition in the direction of time, such a change would involve a transition in the direction of time intuition, simultaneously surpassing the wildest ambitions of calendrical re-origination and subtly organizing itself ‘within the pores’ of the established order of time. As modeled by the 2010 Expo, and previously by Y2K, the switch to countdown time does not frontally challenge, or seek to straightforwardly replace, the calendric order in being. Rather than counting in the same way, from a different place, it counts in a different way, within the framework of time already in place. It is a revolution with ‘Chinese characteristics’, which is to say: a surreptitious insurgency, changing what something already was, rather than replacing it with something else.

Both the 2010 Expo and Y2K also reveal the extreme difficulty of any such transition, since a futural Year Zero, or countdown calendar, must navigate the arrow of time and its cognitive asymmetry (between knowledge of the past and of the future), presupposing exact, confident, and consensual prediction.

That is why it approximates so closely to conservative acceptance. If the countdown is to be sure of arriving at the scheduled terminus, the destination ‘event’ must already be a date (rather than an empirical ‘happening’). Nothing will suffice except a strictly arithmetical, rigorously certain inevitability, as inescapably pre-destined as the year 2000, or 2010, which cannot but come. From the perspective of the countdown calendar, that is what (Gregorian) Calendric Dominion will have been for. It is an opportunity to program an inevitable arrival.

But when? The sheer passage (fall) of time has assured that the opportunity for calendric revolution presented by the Y2K ‘millennium bug’ has been irretrievably missed (so that AD 1900 ≠ 0). The same is true of World Expo 2010, an event without pretense to be anything beyond a miniature ‘practice’ model of global-temporal singularity. As for the real (techno-commercial) Singularity – that is an imprecise historical prediction, at once controversial and incapable of supporting exact prediction.

A more appropriate prospect is suggested by the science fiction writer Greg Bear, in his novel Queen of Angels, set in anticipation of the mid-21st century ‘binary millennium’ (2048 = 2¹¹). This is a formally suitable, purely calendric ‘event’, deriving its significance from arithmetic rather than ideology or uncertain prophecy. He even envisages it as a moment of insurgent revolution, when artificial intelligence arises surreptitiously, and unnoticed. Yet arbitrariness impairs this date (why the 11th power of 2?), and no serious attempt is made to explain its rise to exceptional cultural prominence.

If an adjusted global culture is to converge upon a countdown date, it must be obvious, intrinsically compelling, and ideologically uncontroversial, in other words, spontaneously plausible. The target that World Expo 2010 suggests (anagrammatically) is AD 2100, a date that performs the final stages of a countdown (2, 1, 0 …). Reinforcing this indication, the Y2K ‘millennium bug’ threatened to re-set the date of AD 2000 to AD 1900, which would have tacitly reiterated itself at the exact end of the 21st century. If it continues to chatter about the calendar, perhaps this is how.

The impending Mayan Apocalypse, scheduled for 21 / 12 / 2012, offers a preliminary chance to indulge in a festival of countdown numbers – like 2010, it looks a lot like another digital singularity simulation. If the morning of December 22nd, 2012, leaves the world with nothing worse than a hangover, it could gradually settle into a new sense of the Years Remaining (to the end of all the time that counts, or the 21st century).

AD 2100 = 0 YR

AD 2099 = 1 YR

AD 2098 = 2 YR

AD 2096 = 4 YR

AD 2092 = 8 YR

AD 2084 = 16 YR

AD 2068 = 32 YR

AD 2036 = 64 YR

AD 1972 = 128 YR

AD 1844 = 256 YR

AD 1588 = 512 YR

AD 1076 = 1024 YR

AD 52 = 2048 YR

It’s difficult to anticipate what it looks like from the other side.

[No actual tomb, but retrieved from this]

Reign of the Tripod

China’s rise and the future of threedom

According to Arvind Subramanian, even conservative projections of comparative growth trends place China in a global position, by 2030, that is strikingly similar to that of Britain and of America at their respective moments of economic predominance, accounting for a share of the world economy roughly 150% the size of its closest rival. If this were to come to pass, such leadership would invoke ‘hegemony’ as a matter of sheer quantitative fact – quite irrespective of explicit intentions. The ‘Chinese model’ would promote itself, even in the complete absence of political and diplomatic reinforcement, and the magnetic power of Chinese culture would continue to strengthen in approximate proportion to its commercial influence. China would become the object of irresistible attraction – counterbalanced, no doubt, by resentments – and its example would burn incandescent, even in the offended eyes of its detractors. So what is this ‘example’?

In exploring this question, one place to begin is the history of economic hegemony, and in particular that instantiated by the Anglo-American powers over their two ‘long centuries’ of global supremacy. This is a topic pursued with exceptional insight by Walter Russell Mead, most remarkably in his work God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.

Mead locates the key to ‘Anglosphere’ hegemony in the ‘Golden Meme’ of the invisible hand, originating in the religious idea of providence, and modernized in Newtonian celestial mechanics, Smithian political economy, and Darwinian evolutionary biology. At its most abstract, this idea is both an affirmation and a renunciation, with its potency and suppleness stemming from both. To acknowledge the invisible hand is to foster a special kind of positive fatalism, trusting in the spontaneous trend of history, which is embraced as a covenant, and an overt or implicit election (in the theological sense). Such themes are undisguisedly religious, and Mead does nothing to obscure their roots in the Abrahamic tradition, or meta-tradition, which lays out a providential vision of history as finite, progressive, and inevitable, tending inexorably to eschatological completion, structured by superhuman law, and (through its divine predestination) facilitating the function of prophecy.

The deep culture of the Anglosphere is not only generically Abrahamic, however, it is also specifically pluralistic. The invisible hand takes center stage because the center is otherwise vacated, or distributed. Esoteric providence supplants exoteric sovereignty because an inability to reach agreement is eventually institutionalized – or at least informally stabilized — in a triangular balance of power.

What the British ultimately did was to rely on what Burke called “convention.” Scripture, tradition, and reason – each had its place and each had its devotees. But all of them went wrong if you pressed them too far. You should respect the scriptures and defer to them but not interpret the scriptures in a way that led you into some weird millenarian sect or into absurd social behavior. You honored tradition but did not press it so far that it led you into the arms of royal absolutism or papal power. You can and should employ the critique of reason against the excesses of both scripture and tradition, but not press reason to the point where you ranted against all existing institutions., ate roots and bark for your health, or, worse, undermined the rights of property and the established church. One can picture John Bull scratching his head and slowly concluding that one must accept that in society there will be bible nuts, tradition nuts, and reason nuts – fundamentalists, papists, and radicals. This is not necessarily the end of the world. To some degree they cancel each other out – the fundamentalist zealots will keep the papists down and vice versa, and the religious will keep the radicals in their place – but the competition among sects will also prevent the established church from pressing its advantage too far and from forming too exalted an idea about the proper stature, prestige, and emoluments of the clergy. [p223]

Cultural hegemony follows from a semi-deliberate fatalization, as the sovereign center is displaced by a substantially automated social process, which no social agent is able to master or entirely impede. Each major faction steps back into its position in the triangle, from which it can strategically engage the others, but never fully dominate or eradicate them. The triangle as a whole constitutes a social and historical motor, without adequate representation at any identifiable point.

Pluralism, even at the cost of rational consistency, is necessary in a world of change. Countervailing forces and values must contend. Reason, scripture, tradition: they all have their uses, but any one of them, unchecked, will go too far. Moreover, without constant disputes, constant controversy, constant competition between rival ideas about how society should look and what is should do, the pace of innovation and change is likely to slow as forces of conservative inertia grow smug and unchallenged. [p231-2]

This blog has previously touched upon the Singlosphere, where aspects of Anglophone and Chinese culture converge in Manchester Liberal / Daoist acceptance of spontaneous order, or laissez-faire. Does this convergence extend to triadic pluralism, and apply to the Sinosphere core of the Chinese mainland? Mead’s analysis is highly suggestive in both respects.

In the first place, it encourages considerable equanimity in regards to the prospective global transition, even when attention is focused upon the political and ideological heartland of contemporary China. It might seem, superficially, that the passage from a leading world culture dominated by tacit Christian attitudes to one in which unfamiliar Sino-Marxist ideas rise to unprecedented international prominence must be characterized by an immense – even near-absolute – discontinuity. Can such a leap take place without succumbing to catastrophic culture-shock and unmanageable friction? When examined from a broader perspective, however, such alarmism is far less than fully warranted.

For better or for worse, the over-arching cultural continuity of the coming shift is ensured by the profound kinship tying Marxism into the broad family of Abrahamic belief systems. Theologically rooted in the dialectical engagement with Judeo-Christian spirituality, initiated by Hegel and Feuerbach, the basic framework of Marxist thinking only trivially perturbs the structure of prophetic, eschatological, redemptive, and providential history. Its millenarian expectations are no more terrifying than those of Jewish and Christian apocalypticism before it, its prophetic certainties no more irrational, its submission to the iron laws of history no more constraining, and its moral enthusiasm no more zealous or impractical.

The specter of a totalitarian Marxist resurgence in China is as realistic as the fear of a theocratic putsch in the United States of America, which is to say, it has no reality at all. In both cases, maturity, pluralism, and established traditions protect against the domination of society by any particular intolerant faction. It is unnecessary to be either Christian or Marxist to recognize the continuing world-historical momentum of a broad Abrahamic meta-narrative, or to accept the consistency of such large-scale social storytelling with the perpetual regeneration of practical impetus, or to see a settled, spontaneously improvised social solution – and incarnation of dynamic conservatism – in the enduring triangular stand-off between Marxist scriptures, Communist Party institutional traditions, and market radicalism in today’s China. As with Mead’s Anglospherean pluralism, the reciprocal limitations that each of these factions imposes on the others will inevitably disappoint many, but there is no reason for them to horrify anybody.

Insofar as Mead is correct in identifying Anglosphere hegemony with the reign of the tripod, or the socio-cultural realization of pluralism (as triangular dynamic stability), the disruptive potential of emerging Chinese leadership should be considered as massively discounted, because the tripod is a Chinese native. Every temple in the country is equipped with a three-footed incense burner, every museum bronze collection is dominated by three-legged cauldrons, and each of these tripods has definite, explicitly conceptual cultural meaning. This is not only based upon the obvious practical and intuitive truth that the simplest model of stability comes from the tripod, but also from a recognition that triangular stand-off exemplifies sustainable dynamism in its elementary form, disintegrating the universe into strategic possibility.

For literary elaboration of this theme, one need only turn to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, perhaps the most widely read of China’s four great classical novels. Its most conspicuous instantiation as popular entertainment is seen in the game of paper, scissors, stone, which dates back (at least) to the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220), when it was known as shoushiling.

The ultimate expression of triangular dynamic stability, not only in China, but worldwide, is undoubtedly presented by the Classic of Change, the Yi Jing, or Zhouyi. It is upon this work of singular, inhuman genius, in which sheer arithmetic speaks more purely than it has ever done before or since, that all of China’s ceremonial bronzes, literary flights, and childhood games converge.

In the numerical system of the Yi Jing, the tripod finds a source more basic than the Abrahamic meta-tradition can provide, regardless of how Trinitarian this latter has become. That is because, in this Chinese cultural ur-stratum, unity does not figure as an original unity, subsequently disintegrated into a theological, dialectical, or sociopolitical triangle but is, on the contrary, derived. As the Confucian commentary explains: “The number 3 was assigned to heaven, 2 to earth, and from these came the (other) numbers.” In the beginning were numbers – primordial dispersion.

The ‘language’ of the tripod finds its most convenient expression in the trigram, whose three lines constitute an elementary unit. To grasp the Yi Jing as a complete arithmetical model of the dynamic triad, however, it is necessary to proceed immediately to the structure of the hexagram.

Grasped in operation, the Yi Jing is not only a binary arithmetical system (as Leibniz interpreted it), but a bino-decimal conjunction. This is demonstrated by the fact that it systematically rewards the application of decimal digital reduction, and reveals its dynamic pattern only under these conditions. (This might, quite reasonably, be considered a highly surprising suggestion, since digital reduction – as it arose within the history of Western Qabbalism – seems to have been generated, automatically, from the interference of the decimal Hindu numerals with older alphabetical number systems, or ‘gematrias’, that attached cardinal values to specific letters, without use of place value. It is immediately obvious that this historical account cannot be translated into a Chinese context, where alphabets have no traditional root.)

Digital reduction is an extremely simple numerical technique, involving nothing besides single-digit additions and neglect of decimal magnitude. A multi-digit number is treated as a string of single digit additions, and the process is reiterated in the case of a multi-digit result.

Expressing the series of binary powers in decimal notation yields the familiar sequence 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192 … When this series is compressed to a string of single digits by reduction, it proceeds: 1, 2, 4, 8, (1 + 6 =) 7, (3 + 2 =) 5, (6 + 4 =) 1, (1 + 2 + 8 = 11 = 1 + 1 =) 2, (2 + 5 + 6 = 13 = 1 + 3 =) 4, (5 + 1 + 2 =) 8, (1 + 0 + 2 + 4 =) 7, (2 + 0 + 4 + 8 = 14 = 1 + 4 =) 5, and repeatedly, through the 6-step cycle 1, 2, 4, 8, 7, 5. This process exposes the arithmetical necessity of the Yi Jing hexagram, as an archetypal exhaustion of the phases of time.

To excavate the triadic or tripodic, it is helpful to turn to the classical (and now integral) Confucian commentary, the ‘Ten Wings’ (Shi Yi), which explore the structure of the trigrams and hexagrams in various ways. These include an explicit formula for folding the six lines of the hexagram back into a triad, by coupling the lines: first and fourth; second and fifth; third and sixth. These dyads have a consistent arithmetical order, when calculated in accordance with the reduced bino-decimal values generated above: 1 + 8 = 9; 2 + 7 = 9; 4 + 5 = 9. “What these six lines show is simply this, the way of the three Powers.”

Summation to nine regularly serves as a confirmation within the Shi Yi. For instance, in the section translated by Legge as ‘The Great Appendix’:

52. The numbers (required) for Khien (or the undivided line) amount to 216; those for Khwan (or the divided line), to 144. Together they are 360, corresponding to the days of the year.
53. The number produced by the lines in the two parts (of the Yî) amount to 11,520, corresponding to the number of all things.
54. Therefore by means of the four operations is the Yî completed. It takes 18 changes to form a hexagram.

144 = 1 + 4 + 4 = 9

216 = 2 + 1 + 6 = 9

360 = 3 + 6 + 0 = 9

11,520 = 1 + 1 + 5 + 2 + 0 = 9

18 = 1 + 8 = 9

There is much more to say on the importance of the number nine in traditional Chinese culture, and beyond, but this is not the time. For now, it suffices to note that nine, or ‘Old Yang’, represents the extreme point of maturity or positive accumulation in the Yi Jing, and thus incipient transition. It thus echoes the function of the same numeral within a zero-based decimal place-value system, strongly reinforcing the impression that the Yi Jing assumes cultural familiarity with such numeracy, and thus indicating its extreme antiquity within China.

The six-phase cycle collapses into a triadic dynamic, whose stages are the dyads 1&8, 2&7, 4&5. It is thus exactly isomorphic with the paper, scissors, stone circuit, or rather, this latter can be seen as a simplification of the Yi Jing dynamic tripod, treating each stage as simple, rather than twinned. Where the bagua, or set of trigrams, merely enumerates the set of 3-bit variants in static fashion, the system of hexagrams rigorously constructs a triangular dynamic, which is presented as a model of time.

If this is the ‘Chinese example’ at its most quintessential, then it is exactly the Anglosphere example, as determined by Mead, except carried to a far more exalted level of abstraction, or proto-conceptual purity. Dynamic pluralism is under no threat from a Chinese future, insofar as deep-cultural evidence counts for anything. The reign of the tripod has scarcely begun.


“Chiang Kai-shek of the Machine to Seek”

Politics in the Age of Artificial Idiocy

Not even the hardest proponent of ‘hard singularity’ expects a transition to machine intelligence that arrives in a simple step. Since the incremental baby steps are already well underway, it would be obviously ridiculous to do so, on straightforward factual grounds.

If silicon-substrate minds shift in stages, from dumb tools to super-intelligences, they can be confidently expected to pass through a period of synthetic cretinism. Is anybody preparing for that?

Machine translation might be the liveliest sand-pit for half-witted weirdness today. This is an area of obvious intelligent challenge, far subtler – or vaguer — than chess. By adopting heuristic principles that substitute pragmatic, statistical methods for sound conceptual understanding, progress has advanced at a surprisingly rapid pace, already arriving at an idiot prototype of Star Trek technology. Google Translate can usually generate something that is roughly intelligible. John Searle’s Chinese Room is up and running, or at least stumbling forwards, fast.

As machine translation smoothes out, its practical and theoretical impact is sure to be huge. Human linguistic competences are steadily side-lined, and with them the role of lingua francas. This trend has obvious significance for the global status and function of English.

It also has special relevance to the Chinese language. Since the origins of modernity, the techno-commercial imperative to digitization has presented special challenges to a non-alphabetic language, whose inconveniently numerous and elaborate pictographic units resist reduction to tidy typographic sets. This is the ‘Chinese Typewriter’ problem that Thomas S. Mullaney has doggedly explored. Machine translation changes its terms incalculably.

In the interim, however, a phase of babbling incompetence, semantic derangement, and communications chaos is upon us. Planetary chatter is bound to get a whole lot stranger.

Whilst engaged in online research on the topic of Marxism in China today, Urban Future ran into this cryptically-excited remark – in ‘English’. It is attributed to Jiang Jushi, but it has evidently been quite thoroughly machine-mashed. We aren’t remotely sure what it is telling us about the current state of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, but it’s rather illuminating on the contribution of digital intelligence to inter-cultural comprehension:

Nowadays, many party members, cadres, “the morning the car turn around, turn the plate around noon, the afternoon shuttle turn around, turn the evening around the skirt.” For example, A Who “Sando,” not only corruption, bribery, and one night, thought it outrageous that night, under the cover name of overtime in the office, the office lights on, but actually go out and touches his mistress secretly rendezvous. Such a person, all day thinking about is how to get lost, how to play a woman, how to get a woman. They are reading, not outside, such as ”Mai-phase method,“ ”Liuzhuang phase method,“ ”physiognomy Danian Ye full,“ ” meat futon,“ ”Motome Heart Sutra,“ ”Golden Lotus,“ ”the official after,” “thick black school”, “Zeng technique employing people know,” “Chiang Kai-shek of the machine to seek,” “Confucius, Crown Way,” ”Official Pitch culture and unspoken rules,“ ”teach you how to climb clever work,“ ”Book of Changes,“ ”yin and yang, Feng Shui,“ “character and the official transport,“ ”Office Feng Shui,“ ”gossip financial officer transported through the solution,” “the official transport peach,” “China ancient monarch and his Machiavellian Danian Ye Guan,” “Yu-person operation emperors” and other pollution seventy-eight bad book. Reading this book, can not worship bankruptcy? Character can not go wrong? Unexpectedly, depression can blog? Integrity can not decay?


Time in Transition

There has to be a hexagram for this

Isaac Newton’s Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica abstracted time from events, establishing its tractability to scientific calculation. Conceived as pure, absolute duration, without qualities, it conforms perfectly to its mathematical idealization (as the real number line). Since time is already pure, its reality indistinguishable from its formalization, a pure mathematics of change – the calculus – can be applied to physical reality without obstruction. The calculus can exactly describe things as they occur in themselves, without straying, even infinitesimally, from the rigorous dictates of formal intelligence. In this way natural philosophy becomes modern science.

(It is perhaps ironic that the Newtonian formulation of non-qualitative time coincides with a revolutionary break – or qualitative transition – that is perhaps unmatched in history. That, however, is a matter for another time.)

Modern science did not end with Newton. Time has since been relativized to velocity (Einstein) and punctured with catastrophes (Thom). Yet the qualities of time, once evacuated, cannot readily be restored.

Clock technology suffices to tell this story, on its own. Time ‘keeping’ devices produce a measure of duration, according to general principles of standardized mechanical production, so that a clock-marked minute is stripped of qualitative distinctness automatically. Chronometrically, any difference between one minute and another is a mechanical discrepancy, strictly analogous to a production line malfunction.

Time modernization culminates in an inversion of definition, eventually standardizing from a precisely reproducible building block (the atomic second), rather than accommodating itself to a large-scale natural cycle – qualified by variations of luminosity – which generates sub-units through division. Once the second has becomes entirely synthetic, all reference to a qualitative ‘when’ has been effaced. All that remains is quantitative comparison, timing, and synchronization, as if the time-piece was modeled upon the stop-watch. Calendars have become an anachronism.

Modern time intuitions would find plenty of support, even in the absence of mechanical chronometry. Every quantifiable trend, from a stock movement or an unemployment problem to a demographic pattern or an ecological disaster, can be communicated through charts that assume a popular facility at graphic intuition, and thus, implicitly, at algebraic geometry and even calculus. Time is so widely and easily identified with the x-axis of such charts that the principle of representation can be left unexplained, however strange this might have seemed to pre-moderns. Clearly, if time can be read-off from an axis – quickly and intuitively — it is being conceived, generally, as if it were a number line (‘Newtonian’).

Qualitative time, by now, is a scarcely-accessible exoticism. Nowhere is this more obvious that in the case of China’s ancient Classic of Change, the Yijing, a work that is today no less hermetic to Chinese than it is to foreigners.

The Yijing is a book of numbers as much as a book on time, but its numbers are combinatorial rather than metric, exhausting a space of possibilities, and constructing a typology of times. The Yijing speaks often of quantities, but it does not measure them. Instead, it typologizes them, as processes of increase or decrease, rise and fall, lassitude and acceleration, typical of qualitative phases of recurrent cycles, with identifiable character and reliable practical implication.

The point of all this (just in case you were wondering)?

The current time is a period of transition, with a distinctive quality, characterizing the end of an epoch. Something – some age – is coming quite rapidly to an end.

This is not a situation that the modern mentality is well-adapted to, since it violates certain essential structures of our time-consciousness. It eludes our intuitions and our clocks. Our charts register it only as a break-down, as they terminate the x-axis at a point of senseless infinity (hyperinflation, bubble stock p/e ratios, global derivatives exposure, urban intensity, technological intelligence explosion) or in a collapse to zero (marginal productivity of debt, fiat currency credibility, unit costs of self-replicating capital goods). The can clatters off the end of the road. Things cannot go on as they have, and they won’t.

Given the heated political climate surrounding the impending transition of the global economic system, a non-controversial diagnosis is almost certainly unobtainable. Niall Ferguson describes an Age of Global Indignation, or Global Temper Tantrum, in which the objectively unsustainable nature of the established order, whilst widely if vaguely perceived, still eludes sober recognition. Riots, Molotov cocktails, and fabulous conspiracy theorizing are the result.

“What all the Indignant have in common is the refusal to address squarely the problem that nearly all Western countries face. That problem is that the welfare systems that evolved in the mid-20th century are unaffordable under the demographic and economic circumstances of the 21st century. The financial crisis has merely exacerbated what was already a severe structural crisis of public finance, boosting deficits while slowing growth.”

In all probability, Ferguson’s blunt analysis will provoke further paroxysms of indignation. Yet, as the world’s most pampered societies slide ever further into insolvency, such undiplomatic assessments will become ever more common, and the rage they inspire will become ever more unhinged.

John B Taylor emphasizes the senescence and death of Keynesian macroeconomics (drawing on the earlier work of Robert E Lucas and Thomas J Sargent). His research concludes that “the Keynsian multiplier for transfer payments or temporary tax rebates was not significantly different from zero for the kind of stimulus programs enacted in the 2000s.” In other words, stimulus is ceasing to stimulate, and gargantuan public debts have been accumulated for no rational purpose. This is the ‘debt saturation’ that Joe Weisenthal describes as “a phase transition with our debt relationship” graphically portrayed in “the scariest [chart] of all time.”

Between financial stimulus and chemical stimulus, there is no distinction of practical significance. Keynesianism and cocaine are both initially invigorating, before stabilizing into expensive habits that steadily lose effectiveness as addiction deepens. By the time bankruptcy and mortality beckons, getting off the stimulus seems to be near-impossible. Better to crash and burn – or hope that something ‘turns up’ — than to suffer the agonies of withdrawal, which will feel like hell, and promises nothing more seductive than bare normality at the end of a dark road. Character decays into chronic deceit, intermittent rage, and maudlin self-pity. Nobody likes a junky, still less a junky civilization.

Keynesianism was born in deception – the deliberate exploitation of ‘money illusion’ for the purposes of economic management. Its effect on a political culture is deeply corrosive. Illusionism spreads throughout the social body, until the very ideas of hard currency (honest money) or balanced budgets (honest spending) are marginalized to a ‘crankish’ fringe and being ‘politically realistic’ has become synonymous with a more-or-less total denial of reality. To expect a Keynesian economic establishment to honestly confront its own failings is to laughably misunderstand the syndrome under discussion. A reign of lies is structurally incapable of ‘coming clean’ before it goes over the cliff (someone needs to do another Downfall-parody, on macroeconomics in the Fuehrer Bunker).

The long Keynesian coke-binge was what the West did with its side of globalization, and as it all comes apart — amidst political procrastination and furious street protests – a planetary reset of some kind is inevitable. The ‘Chimerican’ engine of post-colonial globalization requires a fundamental overhaul, if not a complete replacement. The immense dynamism of the Chimerican Age, as well as its enduring achievements, have depended on systematic imbalances that have become patently unsustainable, and it is highly unlikely that all the negative consequences will have been confined to just one side of the world ledger.

For instance, China’s soaring investment rate, estimated to have reached 70% of GDP, seems to have disconnected from any prospect of reasonable economic returns. Pivot Capital Management concludes: “credit growth in China has reached critical levels and its effectiveness at boosting growth is falling.” For the PRC’s fifth-generation leadership, scheduled to adopt responsibility for China’s political management from 2012, inertia will not be an option. By then, a half-decade of global stimulus saturation, cascading macroeconomic malfunction and serial ‘black swans’ (the new millennium ‘clusterflock’) will have reshaped the world’s financial architecture, trade patterns, and policy debates. Whatever comes next has to be something new, accompanied – at least momentarily – by genuine apprehension of economic reality.

For post-Expo Shanghai, a city stunningly rebuilt in the age of Chimerica, the time of transition is a matter of especially acute concern. This is a metropolis that waxes and wanes to the pulse of the world, rigidly tide-locked to the great surges and recessions of globalization. Will the next phase of world history treat it as well as the last?



A new world order hits the buffers

“For nearly 30 years we have had two Global Strategies working in a symbiotic fashion that has created a virtuous economic growth spiral. Unfortunately, the economic underpinnings were flawed and as a consequence, the virtuous cycle has ended. It is now in the process of reversing and becoming a vicious downward economic spiral,” writes Gordon T. Long, in a guest post at Zero Hedge. “One of the strategies is the Asian Mercantile Strategy. The other is the US Dollar Reserve Currency Strategy.”

The system that Long sees unraveling has been dubbed ‘Chimerica’ by Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick, in reference to the mythical hybrid beast of antiquity. Chimerica emerged through the dynamic coupling of the US and Chinese economies, dominating the wave of globalization in the post-command economy world. It has served as a powerful engine of development, spreading prosperity beyond the narrow enclave of the (Euro-American) ‘First World’ and facilitating the global roll-out of digital network technologies, from personal computing and mobile telephony to the Internet. In recent years, however, its unsustainable features have become prominently visible.

Stripped to its fundamentals, Chimerica amounted to something akin to an informal geopolitical ‘deal’ that simultaneously promoted the international status of the US Dollar and domestic Chinese industrialization. The principal financial mechanism was the recycling of Chinese trade surpluses into US Treasury Bonds, in a process that accentuated Chinese competitiveness (by restraining the rise of the Yuan) and suppressed US inflation (preserving the credibility of the USD). This enabled Chinese industrial expansion to proceed at a far greater speed than its domestic market could have supported, whilst providing US governments with the latitude to run a chronically loose monetary policy immunized against the prospect of currency collapse. The Chinese manufacturing and US banking sectors were the most obvious beneficiaries. Both prospered conspicuously.

As Niall Ferguson wrote in November 2008, in the early days of the world financial crisis:

“At the heart of this crisis is the huge imbalance between the United States, with its current account deficit in excess of 1 percent of world gross domestic product, and the surplus countries that finance it: the oil exporters, Japan and emerging Asia. Of these, the relationship between China and America has become the crucial one. More than anything else, it has been China’s strategy of dollar reserve accumulation that has financed America’s debt habit. Chinese savings were a key reason U.S. long-term interest rates stayed low and the borrowing binge kept going. Now that the age of leverage is over, ‘Chimerica’ — the partnership between the big saver and the big spender — is key.”

Having reached a state of crisis, Chimerica seems certain to unwind. This might occur either through a measured rebalancing that increases Chinese domestic consumption whilst reducing US deficit spending, or as a messy disintegration — involving sudden demand contraction, currency wars, and escalating mutual recrimination. Whatever the eventual outcome, a refashioned world order is an inevitable – which is to say, definitional – result.

Whilst Ferguson hedges his bets, Gordon Long spells out a specific and ominous forecast, in which the virtuous cycle of Chimerican globalization reverses into a vicious ‘death spiral’. As ‘debt saturation’ closes down the option of policy continuity, the actions of the US Federal Reserve become manifestly ineffective, self-contradictory, and ultimately paralyzed. The long-postponed process of currency destruction then begins in earnest. Long offers a useful checklist of milestones on the road to ruin (proceeding from financial, through economic, to political calamity):

1. A deteriorating US dollar

2. Rising US interest rates

3. Sustained and chronic US unemployment

4. Asian inflation, especially in food where 60% of Asian disposable income is spent

5. Pressures on Asian currency pegs

6. Collapsing values of US Reserve holdings

By the end of this process, the world will have been violently catapulted out of a financial architecture dating back 70 years, and a dominant monetary philosophy that has prevailed over the course of centuries.

“The eventuality of a fiat currency crisis is ordained and has been since the early warnings in 2007 of the Financial Crisis,” Long insists. “The roadmap has been clear to all that actually wanted to look.”



East-plus-West at the frontier of freedom

In accordance with the widely-held belief that digital communication technologies ‘destroy distance’, James C. Bennett coined the term ‘Anglosphere’ to describe the arena of comparatively frictionless cultural proximity binding spatially-dispersed Anglophone populations. His contention was that the gathering trends exemplified by the development of the Internet would continue to promote cultural ties, whilst eroding the importance of spatial neighborhoods. In the age of the World Wide Web, cultural solidarity trumps geographical solidarity.

Whilst alternative culture-spheres – expressly including the Sinosphere – were mentioned in passing, they were not the focus of Bennett’s account. His attention was directed to English-speaking peoples, scattered geographically, yet bound together by threads of common understanding that derived from a shared language, English common law and limited-government traditions, highly-developed civil societies, individualism, and an unusual tolerance for disruptive social change. He predicted both that these commonalities would become increasingly consequential in the years to come, and that their general tenor would prove highly adaptive as the rate of social change accelerated worldwide.

Bennett’s concern with large-scale cultural systems can be seen as part of an intellectual trend, comparable in significant respects to Samuel Huntington’s influential ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis. In a world that is undergoing tectonic shifts in the distribution of wealth, power, and hegemony, such preoccupations are understandable. In these circumstances, it would be surprising if the partisans of Anglospheric and Sinospheric cultural traditions were not aroused to ardent advocacy of their relative merits and demerits, and — if Bennett is taken seriously — such discussions will take place in zones of cultural communion that are, at least relatively, increasingly introverted. The rapid emergence of a highly-autonomous ‘Chinese Internet’ in recent years adds weight to such expectations.

In March, the Z/Yen Group released the ninth in its series of Global Financial Centres Index rankings, in which Shanghai leapt to shared fifth place with Tokyo (on GFCI ratings of 694). London (775), New York (769), Hong Kong (759), and Singapore (722) led the pack. (The top 75 can be seen here).

Both Anglosphereans and Sinosphereans can find ready satisfaction in these ratings. The persistent supremacy of London and New York attests to a 250-year history of world economic dominance, whilst the ascent of Chinese-ethnicity commercial cities to the remaining top-slots clearly indicates the shift of economic gravity to the western Pacific region. Yet the most interesting pattern lies in-between. Neither Hong Kong nor Singapore belong unambiguously to a Sinosphere (still less to a broad Anglosphere). Instead, they are characterized by distinctive forms of Chinese-Anglophone hybridity – an immensely successful cultural synthesis. It would be difficult to maintain that Shanghai was entirely untouched by a comparable phenomenon, inherited in that case from the synthetic mentality of its concession-era International Settlement, and reflected in its singular Haipai or ‘ocean culture’.

The existence of an identifiable Sino-Anglosphere – or Singlosphere – is further suggested by the Heritage Foundation’s 2011 Index of Economic Freedom (rated on a scale of 0-100). On that list, the top two places are taken by Hong Kong (89.7) and Singapore (87.2), followed by Australia (82.5) and New Zealand (82.3). The Anglospherean and Sinospherean territorial cores fare less impressively, with none meeting the Heritage criteria for free economies — the United States comes ninth (77.8), the United Kingdom 16th (74.5), and mainland China 135th (52.0). It seems that the Singlosphere has learnt something about economic freedom that exceeds the presently-manifested wisdom of both cultural root-stocks – setting a model for the Sinosphere, and leaving the Anglosphere trailing in its wake.

As the deep secular trend of Chinese ascent and (relative if not absolute) American decline leads to ever more ominous rumblings and threats of geostrategic tension, it is especially important to note a quite different, non-confrontational pattern – based upon cultural merging and reciprocal liberation. Within the Singlosphere, an emergent, synthetic ethnicity exhibits a dynamically adaptive, cosmopolitan competence without peer, as distinct traditions of spontaneous order fuse and reinforce each other. Adam Smith meets Laozi, and the profound amalgamation of the two results in an unfolding innovated culture that increasingly dominates world rankings of economic capability.

A remarkable study by Christian Gerlach excavates the Daoist roots of European laissez-faire (or wu wei) ideas, and anarcho-capitalist maverick Murray Rothbard was attracted to the same ‘Ancient Chinese Libertarian Tradition’. Ken McCormick calls it The Tao of Laissez-Faire. (Those disturbed by this identification might be more comfortable with Silja Graupe’s leftist critique of ‘Market Daoism’.)

McCormick concludes his essay:

The recent ascendance of free-market ideas around the world probably owes more to the practical historical success of those ideas than to the persuasiveness of any theory or philosophy. Yet one might speculate that the startling success of economic liberalization in the People’s Republic of China might in part be explained by the fact that the idea of free markets is embedded in the culture. In fact, the Confucianism that long dominated China was actually a synthesis of competing schools of thought, including Taoism … Hence, while laissez-faire has frequently been absent from Chinese practice, it is not at all alien to Chinese culture. The recent free-market reforms in China might therefore be interpreted not so much as an importation of a foreign ideology but as a reawakening of a home-grown concept.

The Singlosphere sets both East and West on the right track. The more that Shanghai recalls and learns from it — and the deeper its participation — the faster its ascent will be.