Solidarity Beyond Culture: What Three Weeks in Beijing Taught me About Democracy

Three Weeks in Beijing

When I last left our intrepid readers, I wrote about the terribly difficult task that all bourgeois subjects face: how do you find meaning in a life marked by the tyranny of market, marriage, and bureaucratic routine, a life that begins in the school and ends in the hospital. We are given the gifts of language and memory, but what do we mark down and remember other than the inevitable loss of those precious resources, as we all hurdle towards the same dark end. This is, no doubt, the source of all art worthy of the name.

In the two months since I wrote that article I attended an impressively organized exchange program in China, in which 36 “young sinologists” from countries all over the world were flown, at the Chinese government’s expense, to the Mainland to participate in three weeks of lectures, workshops, and panel discussions on all aspects of Chinese society. The program offered the chance to meet a whole host of ambitious young people from all over the world: Egypt, Iran, India, Nigeria, Malaysia, Cameroon, Turkey, among many others.

Thrown together for three weeks in Beijing, with Mandarin Chinese as the only langua franca shared between us, the program offered an opportunity for all of us to consider a number of important questions: are there points of commonality that unite young people around the world? Despite differences in language, history, and social structure, are there universals that we all share, common concepts through which we can build a politics for the 21st century that need not be limited to one nation or people?

Amongst these young people were lawyers, professors, doctors, civil servants, activists, translators, and archivists, and all of us held professional relationships of some sort with Chinese society. Yet beyond our connection to China, were there any specific ethical principles that bound us together?

The Universality of Particularity. Or, Why the Rest of the World Will Never look like America.

After three weeks of intense discussions with my counterparts, I can honestly say that the dream of shared principles and common values is simply that…a dream. For these 36 young sinologists possessed a whole gamut of ideological positions, some of them irreconcilable with one another. Indeed, part of the brilliance of the program was the way it allowed one the time and opportunity to slowly understand how differently all of us saw the world around us. Some of my counterparts respected China’s flexible authoritarian system and wanted to better understand how to adapt it to their own country’s politics. Others were true believers in free market principles, eagerly trumpeting the successes that market development had brought the Chinese people (despite the vertiginous inequality produced in its wake). Some held profoundly devout views regarding God, marriage, and spiritual commitment, while for others marriage was an outdated institution and God simply did not exist.

The diversity of perspective amongst these thirty six young people was in and of itself breathtaking to see. All of us were motivated by a humble desire to better understand China’s complex history and entangled present. But this common cause did not mean that our own particular ways of making sense of the world were obliterated. Indeed, these differences were thrown into ever more productive relief as our conversations veered from China to the world and back again.

One of the most important things that my discussions with these global counterparts reinforced was that we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion of a “common” or “shared” humanity. Unlike what the endless drone of American news outlets and Hollywood films tell us, the global community does not operate on one single cultural logic. It is not a mosaic of suffering people waiting for Western democratic systems and free-market capitalist development to come rescue them.

The world does not present similarity to us but profound, irreconcilable difference. As my colleague Sean Callaghan has often pointed out on this blog, our use of the category “human” presumes a commonality with the rest of the global community that doesn’t actually exist. Human beings all around the world have hearts that pump blood and lungs that inhale oxygen. They have eyes that gaze upon the world, ears that listen to its rhythms, hands that feel its textures, and minds that cut up experience into decipherable reference points. Aside from these basic biological commonalities, one should presume no solidarities of any kind.

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Vast stretches of the world have not, like Euro-America, undergone a thoroughgoing process of secularization. Some regions find important meaning in social structures that are vastly different than our own. For a considerable amount of people throughout the world, the idea of a powerful, internally-regulating developmental government has far more appeal than one cut up by the cyclical instabilities of democratic process. From some, loyalty to nation, party, family, or God may outweigh loyalty to the self and its individual rights.

It is time indeed to put to rest the fantasy that “globalization” miraculously creates shared democratic or liberal values across the world. Globalization is a process of economic integration through capitalist investment, trade, and development. It creates mutual economic interdependence, mediated by the powerful interests of transnational corporations and their state allies. It has produced sweatshops and trade imbalances, sovereign debt accumulation and cheap goods for the world’s wealthiest people. What it has not done is undermine the centrality of the nation-state, a political form which is ever more powerful in its surveillance reach, military force, and identitarian loyalties.

While globalization has ensured that every region of the world shares in the cyclical barrages of capitalist development- we all now wait for the next global financial crisis around the corner- this shared time of boom and bust has not created trans-cultural values that redound from Asia to the Middle East to Russia and back again. It is the old national realities that dominate, despite the globally shared anxieties.

The Iraq War and the rise of ISIS has taught the American public a lesson they should have learned from Vietnam: societies around the world are different, complex, and self-understanding, with a land and a language and a history all their own. They cannot be remade in America’s image, even if the greatest military and financial might the world has ever seen is brought to bare upon them.

If we look at the world from a purely Euro-American perspective, it presents to us endless paradoxes. For example, strident young Chinese nationalists defend their authoritarian system, even as such a system limits their freedom of speech and revokes their right to transparent legal process. This contradiction cannot be understood outside of China’s own specific developmental history.  The young nationalists would tell you very clearly: at this point in China’s development path we need a powerful central state and are willing to live with the constraints it places on us in exchange for economic growth and social development.

So I cannot report back to our readers that three weeks with 36 international scholars has left me with some stirring vision of a common humanity for the 21st century, an International Republic of Ideas that can unite all people into one shared community. Linguistic, religious, and cultural particularisms are alive and well, ensuring that the way people read and construct the “reality” around them is a specific, socially rooted process. “Reality” itself does not exist outside of language, history, family, and the ecologically-rooted body, all things which have socially specific grounding-points. None of them exist in the abstract air of universal subjecthood or common global life.

So I say to you, dear reader: no universals. We cannot afford the rosy-colored fantasy that economic integration and shared cultural consumption is making the same human subject out of the rest of the world. No matter how many Hollywood super hero movies are broadcast in theaters around the world, no matter how many young people relate to the myriad comedic foibles of American sitcoms, no matter how many of us have danced around the globe to Gangnam style, national, linguistic, and local particularisms continue to exist, through and within these shared acts of cultural consumption.

Culture flows across borders, no doubt, but even the most powerful transnational television program or pop song is limited in its ability to alter the deeper terrains of language, localist geography, familial structure, economic constraint, and the dreamwork of national ideology….the very terrains upon which cultural difference is carved, reified, and passed on to future generations.

After the Death of Universals, What of Human Solidarity?

But if we accept this lack of universality, than a profound challenge emerges in front of us.

For if we are truly to say that there is no reality that is not culturally encoded, no common idea, value, or hope that unites us above and beyond cultural identification, then where will solidarity be found? Put differently, we can ask the question: if under the guise of “multiculturalism” we are asked to respect all forms of cultural difference, including reactionary forms of patriarchy and misogyny, than how are we to remain loyal to the values that we hold dear? Certainly a line in the sand must be drawn at some point.

Equally as problematic are authoritarian political structures that ground themselves in arguments regarding cultural exceptionalism. These arguments all follow a familiar pattern: we cannot give our people rights of free association, free speech, and democratic representation because it is not in our “cultural tradition” to do so.

In China this kind of thinking is absolutely rampant, seen everywhere from broadcast media to the discourse of high-ranking intellectuals to the speeches of political leaders. Soft authoritarianism is presented as being grounded in China’s indigenous “Confucian tradition,” with Western-style democracy coded as linguistically and conceptually Other, an extraneous system unable to meet the social needs of the Chinese present. This argument asserts time and again that a critique of Chinese political systems must be made on Chinese conceptual grounds, as if “Western” and “Chinese” realities were truly worlds apart with no common ground between them. This is the message encoded in the omni-present mantra regarding “Chinese characteristics” and their various manifestations, seen so prominently on the banners that occupy the street corners and public squares of China’s largest and most cosmopolitan cities.

Thus an argument about cultural difference becomes a means of refusing legitimacy to, indeed of completely obliterating, any position that purports to question one-party authoritarianism in China. For to question such a system is, we are told, to fundamentally misunderstand Chinese culture, and only those within such a culture have the right to speak on its behalf. Authoritarianism is presented not only as the most practicable solution to China’s current developmental problems, but as one rooted in the imminently legitimate grounds of China’s historical customs. All pretense to universal human rights beyond culture (that is, natural rights endowed within human subjects regardless of cultural or national identity) are eliminated in one fell swoop.

Indeed, within the framework of “Chinese characteristics,” there are no universal political rights, only cultural-encoded values and expectations. And “Western-style” democracy is seen as the Euro-American intellectual’s fantasy for the rest of the world, a Euro-centric position that talks down to the Chinese Other even as it fundamentally misunderstands it.

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Thus the claim that there is no universal humanism-that is, no universally shared set of values and rights grounded in human existence regardless of cultural context- can become the very ground upon which authoritarianism rests for its legitimacy. To claim that there is nothing beyond culture- and that one culture has no right to critique another- is to rob progressive politics of any potential for transnational, and indeed cross-cultural, solidarity.

It is this lack of global solidarity that we confront today, in a world cut up by national rivalries and ethnic essentialisms, reactionary forces we had hoped had been left behind in the twentieth century.

Democracy as Tool for the Dignified Body

I, of course, do not believe for a second that we should ever give up advocating for the needs of the majority against the interests of the political and economic ruling classes, whether they be found in the form of American financial elites, Chinese bureaucratic capitalists, theological clerics, or military juntas who wield power through the barrel of a gun.

Yet nor should we cling to a fantasy of pan-human solidarity: linguistic formation, social networks, historically specific institutions, geographical constraints, the air we breathe and the varied hues of the sky we look up to…all of these work to create real ontological difference in different parts of the world. One should never fantasize that the world believes in the same ideas as you, whether it be on women’s rights or democratic representation or the existence of God. Difference is real and we must begin from that one and only reality.

Yet this admission of difference need not be the death-knell of solidarity. One should not advocate for democratic systems out of some misplaced desire to turn the world into the West. Rather, one should advocate for democratic rights because they are tools for securing the human dignity of the vast majority of people in any given society. Only through the freedom to organize, publish, protest, and vote can we check the authoritarian tendencies of both state and capital. These tendencies are hardwired into every society throughout the globe, as each one seeks to negotiate the developmental pressures inherent to the global capitalist system.

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Democracy is not a culturally-specific set of values, any more than it is a magic formula to solve all that ills complex societies. In fully democratic societies, which have not yet existed anywhere in the world in human history, there will still be corruption, criminality, and injustice. But the democratic rights operable in such societies are weapons one can utilize to combat such violence. Democracy is thus best thought of as a tool box, a set of juridical instruments, ones that can be used to protect the weak, the impoverished, and the precariously employed, enabling them to organize themselves to achieve a more dignified life.

The authoritarian nationalists would like to nothing more than to marry democracy to a culturally specific region of the world. Indeed, the confounding situation we now find ourselves in is that it is the omnipresent sign “culture” that is used to shut down, malign, and delegitimize “democracy,” these two signs being staged as irreconcilable.

Certainly, we cannot deny “cultural difference” as a lived reality. If culture is ultimately nothing more than a fantasy of historical inheritance and organic belonging, it is still a fantasy that millions upon millions of people invest in within given national spaces. The fantasy, precisely because it is an ideological investment, becomes reality. When one speaks only one’s local language, when one participates in historically inherited social rites, when ones own skin is coded as ethnically distinct, one cannot so easily deracinate oneself from cultural belonging.

So we cannot just stand on our deconstructive soapbox and refute the existence of cultural difference all-together, no matter how much we’d like to (and how much good philosophical reasoning we have behind us). But to use “cultural difference” as an argument to justify political violence, or to deny basic human rights in any social context, is also utterly unacceptable.

Overcoming the Impasse: Embracing the Material-Universal

We thus find ourselves at an impasse. Between celebrating culture as difference or blindly pretending such difference does not exist, we must find a ground for productive social activism.

The only way forward, I believe, is to emphasize democracy as a tool for majoritarian interests, even in the face of the dogma of cultural nationalists who claim democracy will “simply not work” on certain cultural terrains. Democracy understood as a deep, rich, and complex set of social tools can speak to the most basic, the most local, the most particular of all issues: those surrounding labor, bodily care, land and water rights, spatial access, communicative freedom, the very right to speak aloud the words that come from ones mouth in the language of one’s choice. These are issues that are material, embodied, affecting how we breathe and speak, the food that we put into our bodies, the spaces in which we dwell, and the air that enters our lungs.

This is the material universal, and it too has its own reality, its own pan-national and pan-cultural existence.

Democracy is a tool that addresses the material-universal, and in that sense remains ever more relevant, in even the most culturally particular, linguistically dense, historically complex of societies. For no truly local issue- be it surrounding land use, water quality, or employment wages- can be justly solved without democracy as a tool for the expression and protection of public interest.

I thus propose to severe the word democracy from the word culture, at least provisionally. Instead, we should insist on linking democracy to other words…. such as air, water, land, dwelling, shelter, voice, print, networks, domains, language, the body, and labor. When we do that, the conceptual space opens up once again for a productive universal advocacy, one that is attuned to social specificity but refuses to give up the goal of transcultural solidarity all together.


No two people on this earth are each other’s cultural Others. If you want to find solidarity between them, start from their bodies, move on to the land they stand on, the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the human care they both needed as children in order to become the grown human subjects they are today.

When you get to the points of true difference- of language, religion, family, God, class, and gender- the sliver of commonality will already be there, encased in the bodies they both shared between them from the start.

This sliver is all we need. It is a start, more than a start.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.

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