Predictable Patterning versus Historical Consciousness

Few would deny the importance of temporality to social phenomena, but different social scientists see such temporality in very different ways. For some, temporality means history and in turn, the importance of historical context in situating events. For others, temporality means long-term equilibrium, and in turn, the importance of general mechanics in explaining events. I sometimes wonder to what extent time-scale matters in determining which kinds of explanations people find more compelling and/or relevant. There is a quote famously attributed to John Maynard Keynes that “in the long run we are all dead,” which contains a lesson that the concious scale of human affairs may be less than the scale of whatever ultimate mechanics might be claimed to have relevance. This is not to diminish the inherent wonder of the ultimate, but to insist on the inescapability of the proximate. This is what I take from James Ferguson’s comment that the “particular…is always the world that we live in” [1]. Looking at political change over time from this perspective, I’ve always been struck by the technical pragmatism of political scientists. When one takes the stance that political change is (theoretically speaking) predictable, the narrative drama of historical contigency is challenged. What is the relationship between the former and the latter?

The first issue for me is democratization. In the 1960s, Samuel Huntington (in)famously wrote on “political order in changing societies” [2]. Arguing that the rapid social and economic change unfolding in decolonizing societies unleashed “demand overload” on nascent political institutions, he provided a social scientific rationale for American Cold War support of authoritarian governments. The ritualization of ‘order’ in these new nations would provide longer term stability than support for democratic change. Indeed, they might even support the eventual realization of parliamentary liberal democracy. It was an argument that bolstered supporters of authoritarian development states in East Asia (among other places) through the Cold War. It is an argument that has been ironically been inherited by the Chinese state on the other side of the Cold War divide.
It is easy enough to identify the politically interested intersections between theory and power, but more interesting to me at this point are the assumptions about temporality theories like this demand. If one were to accept Huntington’s argument that suppression of political freedoms in the short-term equal a better future in the long-term; the political victims and activists filling the space between the present and the future would be either ‘well-meaning but wrong’ at best, or ‘collatoral damage’ at worst. The space between the present and the long-term, however, is nothing else than the space of history itself, and it is in that space that memory and identity are formed. In the context of states that passed from dictatorship to democracy, asserting the agency of the process risks negating the agency of people who would take themselves to be the producers of that history. Accounts of Taiwan’s democratic transition is one area where divergences in narrative/analytic style along these lines become obvious.

Another issue for me is the treatment of Chinese-African relationships. Setting aside accounts which see the present as the prelude to some imagined “Chinese Empire,” the more sober empiricist accounts themselves have a particular way of treating the passage of time. For example, Deborah
Bräutigam’s The Dragon’s Gift (2009), embraces an attitude of what might be called “policy optimism”; that is, a faith that the actors involved can learn from their mistakes and improve their engagements. This leaves treatment of any more unpleasant features of Chinese investment as just part of ‘the learning curve.’ Her conclusion is that there are problematic ways outside countries have engaged Africa that require collective efforts at improvement. Western countries, rather than singling out China, should show more humility in recognizing their own failures to live up to international standards, as well as being open to the lessons from what China is doing well in Africa.  It is hard to argue with this, but if one were to take the perspective of Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” looking back at history as not one of continued improvement, but of wreckage piled upon wreckage, a lot of history, and a lot of adverse social and political effects can occur along a “learning curve.” This is of course the history of “development,” which as James Ferguson argues, always maintains a present-ist stance seemingly oblivious of the historical litany of development projects that precede. The position one takes on temporarility leads to very different forms of historical consciousness.

My main reason for thinking about this today, however, is the results of the 2014 9-in-1 elections in Taiwan. Although the KMT was expected to loose; no one quite expected the KMT to loose on the scale that it did. The DPP victory has been widely described as a “landslide,” and as is usually the case after such victories, various commentaries have emerged speculating on seemingly permanent changes to the political landscape. However, the 2014 election is actually quite “normal” if one considers voting patterns in democracies with 8-year presidential cycles. The 2014 victory of the Republican Party in the United States is as “normal” as the 2006 victory of the Democratic Party. Both occurred six years into the presidency of the opposing party. Seen in comparison, Taiwan’s election cycles might be taken to be un-extraordinary. The DPP suffered in the polls late in Chen administration, lost the presidency in 2008 and now in 2014, with a surge in voter support, looks well-poised to take back the presidency in 2016. What does it mean to take this cycle as “normal.” Is electoral democracy of this kind an institutional regularity whose mechanics are knowable through positivist epistemology, or is electoral democracy an historically contingent phenomena that is not worth generalizing because the conditions of its possibility are themselves historical (Is there even an ontological difference between these two positions, or is it a difference of language and emphasis?). This matters to me because an entire paper I planned to write on the political subjectivities of independence activists in Taiwan hinged on the historical temporality they inhabited in the summer of 2012. Conducting my Masters fieldwork only months after Tsai Ying-Wen lost to Ma Ying-Jeou, in an apparent mandate to further his policies of cross-strait economic liberalization, the activists I met were overwhelmingly pessimistic about the future of Taiwan. The 2012 election was not simply an electoral loss to them, but taken to be a symptom of structural flaws in Taiwan’s politics. The KMT, which maintained political hegemony through authoritarian rule from the late 1940s to the 1990s, was seen to have remained hegemonic at the structural level. The 2000 to 2008 rule of the DPP was dismissed as an aberration. The 2008 victory of the KMT was not to be taken as the institutionalization of “normal” democracy (as defined as two peaceful transitions of political power), but rather the restoration of the underlying system. One man told me that an election of a DPP candidate to the presidency “would never happen again.”

Two years later, following the Sunflower movement (which overturned my older informants’ earlier claims that younger Taiwanese remained ‘brainwashed’) and the 9-in-1 elections; I have to question how stable the political cosmology I found in 2012 ever really was. On the one hand, the transformation might be taken “historically,” in which particular events like the occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March can be placed in narrative sequence. On the other hand, the transformation might be taken as “normal,” in which case the specificity of Taiwan is replaced by generalized statements about the development of democracy in and of itself. The latter stance is complicated because the argument that Taiwan is a “normal” democracy is inseparable from the fact that such a positivist claim is embedded in a politically consequential argument.  Once the institution is “normalized,” it would take something dramatic to suspend that. Unlike “normal” democracies elsewhere, Taiwan’s electoral cycles are distinctive due to the fact they operate under the limits of a vaguely perceived “expiration date.” Of course, if we consider ecological limits, all the smooth Weberian institutions political scientists and sociologists put on the horizon  have expiration dates, but in the case of Taiwan, the assumption that Chinese unification is inevitable (either by slow integration or an eventual military tipping point) casts a shadow over any claim that Taiwan’s democracy is “normal,” and yet normality is what has emerged.
Cross-Strait political claims are generally caught in odd temporalities. Despite the fact a de facto form of political-economic interaction has emerged since 1987, everyone sees themselves within a transitional state towards some inevitable future. The People’s Republic of China’s definition of socialism was based on the claim that it was a transitional state towards future Communism. The transitional period has become increasingly stretched. The “liberation” and “reunification” of Taiwan has become more a process rather than a discernible moment. The constitution which underlies the political system in Taiwan derives from the principal that the Republic of China has been “temporarily” limited in its jurisdiction. The independence movement is based on the idea that a Republic of Taiwan is an inevitable/potential outcome of a de facto independent state. Everyone is moving towards their respective future while living in the same transitional state.
Given the fact that an oscillation pattern seems to have emerged in Taiwan (political trends towards localization followed by cross-strait integration and back again); do these transitional states matter? What does normalization mean in this kind of context?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s