Shanghai Extravagance, Silicon Valley Stoics, and US-China Agony

9 min read

Shanghai has just replaced Hong Kong as the ‘most expensive city’, according to Swiss private bank JuliusBär Group’s Global Wealth and Lifestyle Report 2021 ( 2021 Apr 8).

By comparing Shanghai on the socialist mainland and HK as a champion of capitalism for decades, the high-net-worth-individuals in Shanghai seem to be much more willing and able to pay for certain luxury goods such as cars, jewelry, suits, high tech consumables and watches.  

A common feature of these goods is that these items can be more easily showed off or dazzled in the public.

[Note 1]

In Silicon Valley, a type of Stoic lifestyle is said to be gaining popularity.  One of the better known celebrities is Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (1976 –  ).   Mainstream media coverage ranged from the left-wing New York Times to the right-wing American Conservative.

An article on culture says that the “technocrats are awash in Stoicism.   The elites of Silicon Valley endure silent meditations for weeks, starve themselves for days, and brag about cold showers …… an ancient Greco-Roman philosophy that teaches self-restraint would become popular in an American age defined by hedonistic self-gratification and digital over-saturation might seem strange, though perhaps its ascendance is predictable, and even of a piece with our ‘decadent age’ ……”

It concludes that “Stoicism is more than a life-hack to help realize our professional or athletic ambitions.   It is a system of thought and practice oriented towards model citizenship, as our founding generation well understood …”  (The American Conservative 2021 May 19).  

[Note 2]

These cultural phenomena can illuminate a path to find out one of the sources for the US-China tension, incompatibility and antagony.

Zeno of Citium (334-262 BC) laid down the foundation of Stoicism in ancient Athens, and in terms of time the followers are commonly known as Greek Stoics, Roman Stoics, Neo-Stoics during the Renaissance, and Modern Stoics.

The ancient Stoics’ emphases were ethics and rationality grounded on their version of cosmology.

Stoicism, despite its ancient focus on personal virtues, played a significant role in ending the Middle Ages in Europe politically and militarily.    Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) combined Christianity with Stoicism to justify the bloody Dutch Revolt which resulted in the formation of the Dutch Republic (1588-1795).   

In England, after the coup on 6 Dec 1648 (known as Pride’s Purge), John Milton (1608-74) endorsed the army’s action with his Stoic interpretations.   The army won the Second Civil War and thereafter the king Charles I was executed on 30 Jan 1649.

Since the 1940s, an increasing number of historians have been proving that Stoic rhetoric and influence can be found in the writings of Grotius, Hobbes, Hume, Rousseau … thus cumulating the intellectual forces to transform Christian humanism into Republicanism and Liberal Universalism (van  Gelderen 1992, Shifflett 1998, Brooke 2012).

[Note 3]

Jewish German philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945, moved out of Germany in 1933, to Oxford, Yale, finally Columbia University) argued that, in the wake of the rise of science and fade out of faith, the Stoic notion in respect of the fundamental equality of all human beings provided another mode of well-justified moral ground for new thoughts without the need to resort to the divine authority.   Cassirer claimed that the United States’ Declaration of Independence, when inked by Jefferson, carried the message of Stoic philosophy (Brooke pp. xi-xii).

Based on the Stoic thoughts that the moral law of nature and the virtues of humanitas override the authorities of kings and priests, the early Renaissance thinkers justified violent resistances to immoral monarchs.    The Neo-Stoic tradition, in Milton’s arguments, became “a tradition in which constancy could imply conflict, peace could imply war …” (Shifflett p.7).   

In the Dutch revolt against the Habsburg King Phillip II of Spain’s control, “… Lipsius’ Stoic argument is structured on the analogy of campaign strategy and battle tactics …” (Shifflett p.28).  Lipsius offered the soldiers a vision of “… strong, virtuous princely (republican) rule (led by William the Silent 1533-84) as the superior way to attain the vita civilis (civil) …” (van Gelderen p.265).   

Although the core of Neo-Stoics’ personal perfection is a quiet and simple life in line with the law of nature, their ethics justify combats against any disturbance to their way of moral life because the disturbance, if any, is by definition immoral.   In other words, whenever necessary, just do it: make a war for achieving justice and peace.  “… To ‘reconcile’ war and peace in the (Neo-)Stoic manner is not to beat swords into ploughshares but to commit oneself to a life in which war and peace are political and psychological equivalents …” (Shifflett p.33)  

If Machiavellian princes’ virtù (for preservation of principality) is armed with weaponry, the Neo-Stoics believed why they could be so forceful and successful was because they were superiorly armed with virtues.   

It is this Neo-Stoic pride that results in “… always placing their paramount concern with their own virtue above what others take to be the needs of the commonwealth for orderly, stable government … the Stoic was held to be a dangerous political animal … (Brooke p.69).

It “… is this concern with pride that provides the reason why Hobbes (1588-1679) chose to call his book Leviathan, as he explains at the end of chapter 28: … where God having set forth the great power of Leviathan, calleth him King of the Proud.  There is nothing, saith he, on earth, to be compared with him.  He is made so as not to be afraid.  He seeth every high thing below him; and is King of all the children of Pride …” (Brooke p.74)

And it is the Neo-Stoic pride which explains that “… Grotius’ doctrines originally stem from an attempt to legally defend imperial expansion …” (Brooke p.56), and also delivers his ‘Just War Doctrine’.

[Note 4]

Ultimately, it is this Neo-Stoic pride that serves as the engine for the liberals and neoliberals to proactively universalize their versions of virtues — equality, liberty, democracy, human rights, and the like — or generalized these concepts as the so-called “Universal Values”.    A state, if said to be not in compliance with their values, will be penalized by condemnations, sanctions of various kinds, military intervention, or regime change, without mercy.

The psychological therapy advocated by the Modern Stoics, though emphasizing personal meditation and life against consumerism, is basically a more down-to-earth and individualized format of the popularization of the Neo-Stoic pride.

Both the Shanghai extravagance and Silicon Valley Stoicism are displays of pride but there is a fundamental difference.   The former is a show off of materialistic superiority which is metaphysically hollow.  The latter, however, is a show off of moral superiority which is metaphysically aggressive.

The envy for luxury in no doubt causes corruption, induces vices … but can be contained effectively.   The five daily social morals ‘moderate, benign, courteous, thrift, temperate’ which are stipulated in The Analects of Confucius  (《論語:學而10》溫、良、恭、儉、讓) have been the prevailing virtues in China for centuries.   Even though they are far from socially coercive, these virtues are indisputable and authoritative.  

The most disastrous materialistic pride in China perhaps took place during the 60 years reign (1735-96) of Emperor Qianlong (乾隆帝) of the Qing Dynasty.   He was so proud of his ten great (and very costly) military campaigns to conquer vast territories that he wrote a book on his achievements, and named himself as an ‘Old Man with Ten Perfections’ (十全老人). 

Emperor Qianlong, being proud of the national wealth, also spoiled his favorable subordinates whom were widely known for accepting bribes.   After Qianlong’s death, his son Emperor Jiaqing was determined to curb the dirty practices and prosecuted Heshen, the most favourite official of his late father.   From this corrupt official’s home, 70 million taels of silver (1 tael = 50 grams or 1.75 oz), equivalent to half the annual income of the government treasury, was discovered.

Furthermore, the beyond-imagination disaster to China was this proud Emperor Qianlong’s closed-door policy as he thought that his regime was more abundant than self-sufficiency, and did not need to make further improvement by any international trade.   His royal court’s demand for kneeling or ‘kowtow’ by the British trade ambassador Macartney (sent to China by King George III in 1793) had been remarked as the beginning of the Sino-British agony.

[Note 5]

Swinging to another extreme, China as a socialist regime had gone through a radical experiment of rooting out luxury in the 1960-70s.   The hard learnt lesson therefrom is not to go against certain ‘not-good’ human instincts.   Craving for luxury is one of them.   However, such a materialistic pride, be it the Qianlong scale or Shanghai mode, can be politically contained within minimum or affordable harm if the regime has a strong will and determined efforts to do so.  

The Chinese anti-corruption campaign from 1990s to 2010s have gradually produced fruitful results, especially under the hard-fisted leadership of Wang Qishan (王岐山, 1948-  , the current VP of China).   Corruptions in both the public and private sectors have become relatively rare and been scaled down drastically.

Two recent incidents are proofs of a healthy trend in China.  Jack Ma (馬雲), the richest and most influential business leader on mainland, was disgraced after his prideful speech in late 2020 (during the IPO of his Ant Group).   Another case is that, in May 2021, six public officials were called over the phone to immediately walk out of the birthday banquet of the dishonored tycoon Zhou Zhengyi (周正毅), and they were subsequently disciplined for “seriously lack of political consciousness”.

[Note 6]

With reference to Nietzsche’ insights in respect of the genealogy of morals, China has never had a ‘slave revolt of morality’ which was experienced by the civilizations in the West.  Initially, the ‘master morality’, according to Nietzsche, differentiated good and bad in the way that “ … the rightness and wrongness of actions was judged solely in terms of the authority of tradition and the power of established custom…”  (Ansell-Pearson 1994, p.128).

[Note 7]

The Han Chinese morals (周禮) which originated from the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC) were cultivated in a mode similar to what Nietzsche described, and were then qualitatively organized and conceptually sublimed by Confucius (551-479 BC) and his peers.   The traditions and customs have stayed intact till now.

But in Europe, the story is quite the opposite.   “ … The slave morality, typified by Christianity (based on original sin), can only define itself as good by first negating others — masters, nobles, other religions and races — as evil.   In other words, the slave morality is not a morality of self-affirmation, but is parasitic on what it must negate …” (Ansell-Pearson p.130). 

The Neo-Stoic pride inherited the Christian slave morality’s key feature of negating the ‘Others’.    They claimed and by now still claim that their virtues, and only theirs, are universally right, whereas all others are wrong.   It is therefore not a surprise that the Twitter Stoic, believing he is supremely right, dares to ban the account of President Trump who was once elected by the majority of the United States electorates in 2016, and still scored as many as 74 million votes in 2020.   In his view, Trump and his supporters do not possess the necessary virtues that deserve a Twitter account.

“The ancient Greeks … did not separate the soul from the body in the way Christianity does.  What drives the self are often dark, unconscious forces over which the individual has no control …” (Ansell-Pearson, p.132) .   It is why Nietzsche highly appreciates the Greet tragedy in that it is the real life.   Similar to the ancient Greeks, the present meritocratic Chinese state without the slave morality is willing to co-exist with the dark forces and chooses to contain the impacts of the corruptive wrong-doings in accordance with the traditional morals. 

A very important cultural benefit of practicing this is that it enables both individuals and the whole nation to overcome nihilism (Ansell-Pearson, p.132).    What the Silicon Valley Stoics also want to get rid of is probably their nihilistic feeling in a society filled with fake news and an economy enriched by easy money printing.  But holding a belief that oneself is morally superior can never overcome nihilism because it could only be succeeded by accepting their coexistence and then crossing beyond good and evil.

Politically and militarily speaking, when China was weak, who cared?    But when China is strong enough to become a real threat, the United States for its pride and on its morality cannot stop itself from suppressing China which embraces a totally different type of morals.

There can only be two possible outcomes.   Either the meritocratic China led by the CCP is destroyed militarily, or the United States defeats itself, such as dis-integration or civil war, due to irreversible domestic cultural decay.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of China News.




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