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Crises of Elite Competition in the East and West

Whatever one thinks of today’s culture wars, it is hard to deny that the various barbarians currently rattling the gates were, in some sense, created by the failure of the prior generation to live up to its promises. Old center-left bromides about growing the economy by endlessly expanding higher education now ring hollow. Retreads of the Reagan program today serve as a stale punchline rather than a serious attempt at politics. The pathologies displayed by both the modern center‑left and center-right—trying to solve the crisis of education through more education, or adding more free-market Reaganism to combat the fallout from free-market Reaganism—clearly point to an exhaustion of imagination. Yet if the center is intellectually depleted, the radicals are hardly any better, as they increasingly promise not imaginative social change but promote ever more brazen schemes to secure dwindling resources for their own clients, as seen by the Left’s focus on student loan forgiveness, a program directed squarely at the urban postcollegiate class. The retreat by much of the Right into localism or an exclusive focus on personal virtue is a tacit admission that individuals simply have to look out for themselves, an equally empty response.

Our mode of politics has reached an impasse where, to borrow from Jacques Barzun, we might not lack for moral energy or concern—indeed, we probably have too much in some ways—but we increasingly find ourselves stuck with no clear way forward. At present, this cultural stasis is particularly pronounced in two areas: the highly visible but often aimless and increasingly unmoored debates over what might (imprecisely but usefully) be called wokeness, on one hand; and, on the other, the less discussed but undeniable crisis of social—and even biological—reproduction, as demonstrated by collapsing birth rates and weakening family formation.

“Wokeness,” for the purposes of this essay, refers in broad strokes to a cultural, social, and ideological movement in the West that challenges previously accepted cultural narratives (the very narratives that prior eras of relatively stable political consensus relied on), and increasingly determines outcomes in primarily elite institutions. Surviving the acade­my, getting a job in journalism or a major tech company, filling out a grant form: these are just some of the activities that increasingly require one to be adept at navigating (and by necessity, parroting) the cultural mores of a new social faith.

Wokeness is an attractive target for dissidents and polemicists who speak in terms of generalized decadence or a “suicide of the West,” mainly because it is self-consciously insurrectionary, at least in matters of culture. It openly positions itself as a bellicose outsider—rather than as a cultural inheritor—with respect to the precepts of the old society. The woke typically regard this older society with open contempt, as an ancien régime that needs to be destroyed. Once a society is home to a critical mass of people with this sort of attitude toward their own civilization, social cohesion isn’t so much in danger as it has already been lost.

Alongside critiques of wokeness, the ongoing fertility crisis features in conservative polemics as a leading indicator of Western decay (com­bined with the fact that it is sometimes celebrated on the left for environmental and moral reasons). What better indication is there that a society no longer has the will to live than its failure to take the basic step of reproducing itself over time?

As rhetorically appealing as explanations centered on such forms of decadence are, however, there is always a danger that they end up becoming more of an intellectual crutch than an honest attempt at grappling with the truth. The more primitive versions of these arguments are often patently circular: “Why is the West decadent? Because we no longer have children. Why do we no longer have children? Because we’ve become decadent!” Such tautologies fail to explain the material and causal factors that led us to this point. Moreover, these issues, often considered indicative of some specifically Western cultural or spiritual deficiency, are hardly limited to the West. In point of fact, fertility rates in many non-Western countries have crashed even lower. Explanatory models referencing some pathology native to Western ideology or a dismal “Faustian spirit” cannot explain what is happening in East Asia today. Understanding the increasingly acute problems facing young people there, at first glance so different from our own concerns, can ultimately offer a clearer view of what has gone wrong in the West.

Test Cultures in Asia

There is a saying among South Korean students: he who sleeps five hours a night does not get into a top school. In other words, the student who is not spending all his time cramming for tests and padding his academic portfolio is left behind. Ridiculing five hours of sleep per night as a sign of indolence may sound extreme to a Western audience. Fur­thermore, the literature on neurology makes clear that sleep is critical for memory formation; this is one reason why cramming does not work. So a society that ascribes cultural value to routine sleep deprivation is not likely to be a healthy one. Yet this is what South Korea does.

Students in South Korea consider sixteen-hour academic workdays to be normal, with little or no time for holidays or even birthday celebrations during the more intense periods of high school and the race to prepare for college entrance exams. For Korean students, supplementary private schooling is the rule rather than the exception. Although private education was temporarily banned by President Chun Doo-hwan in the early 1980s, with the view that a private education rat race would put undue burdens on poor Koreans, these restrictions have since been slowly loosened. Today, private tutoring extends even to the very earliest years of a child’s life. A 2017 survey commissioned by the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education found that 36 percent of two-year‑olds received private education in some form, while the number for five-year-olds was a whopping 83 percent. According to parenting ex­perts, this regimen actually presents serious problems for the children and parents involved, with “excessive” education for the very young potentially leading to issues such as depression, lack of socialization, aggressive behaviors, and the like.

Indeed, by a variety of measures, this seems to be a correct assessment. Problems of stress, depression, overwork, and alienation are widespread among South Korean youth. Suicide is the leading cause of death for South Koreans between ten and thirty-nine years of age, and among the leading causes of death in Korea in general. (Elderly Koreans are also prone to ending their own lives, a result of a poorly funded social safety net, the collapse of traditional norms around filial piety, the disappearance of multigenerational households, and rampant age dis­crimination in the labor market.)

The year leading up to the Suneung, also known as the College Scholastic Aptitude Test, is when the intense pressures of the South Korean education system reach their zenith. The day the test is held, air traffic is put on hold (to ensure no interruptions for the test-taking students), the stock market opens one hour late, and police are on standby to escort students to their school to ensure that no one arrives late. Students’ performance on the test can not only make or break their chances at getting into a high-ranking university, and thus determine their career prospects, but their performance is also of critical importance to their families and their own sense of well-being.

The problem facing South Korean students, however, is not one of educational attainment, but of zero-sum competition. Almost 70 percent of Korean students attain some form of postsecondary diploma, and a mere 2 percent fail to graduate high school. Korea also ranks at or near the top in international test scores. This has rightly earned South Korea praise for its high level of educational achievement, even as the benefits of all this education never really seem to filter down to the students themselves. The lack of enough suitable jobs and increasing competition over the prestige goods (especially housing) that demarcate elite mem­bership—not to mention inadequate social provision for the young and the elderly—means that educational attainment on its own no longer carries a student very far. Though the official unemployment rate in South Korea is below 4 percent, an enviable number in any advanced economy, rosy figures such as these mask a growing structural and social malaise in the country. The rate of “self-employment” in South Korea was estimated to be over 25 percent before the pandemic, compared to 10 percent in the United States. This phenomenon of self-employment, much like the oft-hyped switch to “the gig economy” in America, has little to do with individual freedom and entrepreneurship and more to do with underemployment, a lack of job retraining, and worsening prospects especially for older members of the workforce. On top of this, the South Korean middle classes find themselves not only threatened by a potential shrinking of opportunity, but face constantly growing costs as well, including education and housing prices, especially in Seoul, where median apartment prices have nearly doubled since 2016.

It is now not enough to simply be educated, or to know things. Indeed, a system that values rote memorization and forces students into intense, desperate cramming while remaining indifferent to the effects of routine sleep deprivation is not one conducive to educating students in the classical sense of the word. Instead, the point is to be ahead of the rest of the pack, at any cost.

The same educational practices seen in South Korea are, to varying degrees, widespread in East and Southeast Asia. Japanese university exams are so difficult that they are called shiken jigoku, “examination hell.” If a student does not get the score needed to make it into a prestigious university, he or she can always go “ronin” and spend a year at cram schools prepping to take the test again. At top universities, around 40 percent of accepted students were ronin the previous year. Nervous breakdowns and even suicides are not unheard of during examination time. This system predates the American occupation and, harsh though it may seem, has actually become more accommodating in recent decades, partly due to reforms but also due to a declining population and an expanded number of universities compared to the prewar era.

The city-states (or in one case, the former city-state) of Singapore and Hong Kong also have famously rigorous university exams. In Hong Kong, as of 2009, 34 percent of the student population was in a cram school, generating an estimated $3.6 billion in profit for the industry. About 70 percent of high schoolers had private tutors, meaning that almost every student was either in a cram school or had hired a tutor (or both). The equivalent tuition system in Singapore is valued at $1.4 billion, with almost universal enrollment in extracurricular cram schools. Singaporean students also spend an average of 9.4 hours a week on homework, the third-highest rate in the world.

Testing culture has also become entrenched in Mainland China. And although cheating will occur in any system in which the stakes are high—it is certainly not unknown in Korea or Japan—the pervasiveness of the practice in China has reached astonishing levels. This is a source of growing friction with American universities, which are increasingly dependent on tuition from foreign, mostly Chinese, students. Your favorite search engine can turn up a large number of articles that attempt to reconcile this financial dependence with the abnormally high levels of academic cheating among fuerdai (China’s second-generation rich). Anyone who has taught at a U.S. institution can attest to this as a real issue.

Yet while cheating causes friction with foreign universities, it is an even more serious problem within China. Cheating rings on the national university entrance examination, the gaokao, are repeatedly uncovered, a practice which persists despite extremely harsh penalties (up to seven years in prison) if caught. The extensive cheating in China is likely a result of the test’s importance combined with the sprawling nature of a vast and unevenly industrializing nation, where consistent policing is more difficult.

China has recently taken steps to curb the growth of test culture by banning for-profit tutoring businesses and cram schools and prohibiting tutoring on the weekends, part of a larger effort to reform the education system. Though these measures represent a laudable attempt to halt the spiraling educational arms race, it remains to be seen how effective they will be, especially given the nation’s problems in curbing cheating and the extreme importance of the gaokao. The growth of the tutoring industry and extensive studying among Chinese students are driven by deeper structural incentives which might not be so easily altered. As is the case throughout the region, Chinese students inevitably spend much of their time cramming for the test on which all their future prospects rest.

Although this educational paradigm is often seen in the West as an outgrowth of the “Confucian model” of education, this is in some ways the opposite of the truth. There are, broadly speaking, two types of education, defined in terms of their method and purpose. In the first model, which can be called the “Confucian,” “classical,” or “humanist” model, the point of education is to create a more refined or virtuous human being, not to teach particular technical skills. The reasoning behind this approach is that a scholar who is steeped in the works of the classical world and the wisdom of the ancients will be equipped with the sound judgment and faculties of reasoning required to learn essentially any job, on the job. In ancient China, would-be public administrators studied the philosophy of Confucius in order to become wise, not to become engineers. It was believed that a wise person would have the necessary capacity to learn to be a great engineer, but a trained engineer would not necessarily have a path to attaining wisdom. If both wisdom and technical knowledge are considered important, then the Confucian or humanist view of education argues that the attainment of the former takes precedence over the latter, and so instilling wisdom is therefore the logical place to start.

Against the Confucian model stands a very different view of educa­tional attainment, a view that might be called the “Prussian” approach to education. Put simply, the Prussian approach focuses on instructing students in specific, measurable skills: technical knowledge, mathematical proficiency, mastery of official state propaganda, and so on. Learning to be a great engineer is the entire point, and proficiency in engineering can also be objectively measured, unlike nebulous concepts such as “wisdom” or “virtue.” The Prussian view has little use for scholarly ideals, and encourages rote memorization or similar practices to make knowledge of the subject matter stick.

As such, when Westerners marvel at Asian “Confucianism,” they are in fact talking about a very aggressive application of the Prussian model of education. South Korean students are not expected to live up to the Confucian ideal of the scholar-bureaucrat, nor could they even if they wanted to. The Korean system simply does not accommodate the culti­vation of “wisdom” or “virtue” in the classical sense, nor can wisdom be pursued during a student’s free time, because Korean students do not have free time. What initially appears to us as a radically foreign approach to education is in fact a hypertrophied reflection of a Western model. A further complication, however, is that while Asian educational systems have moved away from the Confucian model and toward standardized technical knowledge, elite overproduction in the West has resulted in our own educational system increasingly turning towards a form of “woke” neo-Confucianism.

A Neo-Confucian Education in America

Entrance exams as a method for selecting elites have been under concerted attack in the United States for decades, resulting in a slow decline in the importance of the SAT and the ACT and a concomitant increase in the importance of extra-academic activities and the college entrance essay, a shift which began in the 1990s during an expansion in college admissions. Decades later, and with this process much more advanced, Princeton’s class of 2025 was admitted without any test scores at all, according to official explanations because of the pandemic.

In the absence of objective measures like test scores, other metrics must be used to determine admission. Recently, wokeness has begun to fill the evaluative void created by this subjective shift. This is not the first or only example of nonacademic competition for university posi­tions, however. Sports figured prominently in one of America’s most success­ful elite cheating rings, uncovered by Operation Varsity Blues. With so much riding on getting into the right institution, a few bribes to coaches, along with faked test scores and transcripts, are a small price to pay for elite credentials.

But as the terrain of competition shifts to wokeness, cheating will take on more of an ethnic tinge. Particularly forward-looking individuals have already blazed the trail into this new realm of academic dishonesty. Jessica Krug, a (former) tenured professor of history at George Washington University, maintained a fictitious identity as a black woman until 2020 when, presumably, the guilt became too much for her and she confessed. Another professor at the same university, H. G. Carrillo, this time a black man, pretended to be Cuban for career benefits, a falsehood which was only uncovered after his death. When the stakes are high enough, cheating on the field of elite competition becomes irresistible.

Competition necessarily means that particular contestants must prove they are worthy of a spot, and competition by identity class means that these classes are an official basis for decisions. Any claim that there are too few members of one demographic in an institution necessarily means that there are too many members of another. The moral rhetoric of the new Confucian system says that it is targeting (cis) white men in the name of increasing representation, but the numbers suggest it is more accurately aimed at Asian Americans and even Jews, who are significantly overrepresented within many elite educational institutions. It would be too incongruent with the stated morality of wokeness to say this directly, and so new innovations within the field of advanced intersectionality have enabled scholars to avoid even looking at this problem, lawsuits against Harvard notwithstanding.

Instead of facing this embarrassing demographic reality, wokeness scholars have begun to cast the entire concept of grading knowledge as problematic and “white.” Even math is tainted with the sin of whiteness, a category which is rapidly becoming transracial under any conventional reading. A transracial or even nonracial “whiteness” should not be surprising. Whatever its original purpose may have been, wokeness is being leveraged within elite institutions as a means of competing for and securing top positions. An esoteric language game highly detached from any basic, commonsense meaning—a game where Asians can be steeped in or tainted by whiteness, and where an affluent white person may be the best candidate to dismantle whiteness—is not a flaw, but a feature.

To return to the Princeton class of 2025, admitted without test scores, 68 percent of students self-identified as people of color. The classes of 2020 and 2015, by comparison, were 42 percent and 32 percent nonwhite, respectively. It is significant that Princeton’s demographic shift occurred in the same year it did away with standardized test scores. The discarding of basic evaluation metrics does not mean that competition for slots in universities like Princeton has slowed down or that standards have relaxed. On the contrary, elite competition has entered an even more cutthroat phase. The shift in the self-identification of incoming Princeton freshmen as nonwhite—a perfect inversion of the demographic profile of ten years ago—is a powerful demonstration that as the importance of test scores has declined, ethnic identification itself has become an important realm of elite competition.

Princeton and other elite universities have not suddenly stopped admitting students from the ranks of the American elite in favor of the downtrodden. Rather, the patina of wokeness serves as a convenient ideology to finalize a transition from objective college entrance measures to subjective ones. In the end, this will mean that universities have greater leeway to admit those whom they want to admit, likely increas­ing rather than decreasing the advantage held by highly networked elites.

Moreover, it would be a mistake to discuss the shift in American higher education while neglecting precollegiate education. The importance of tests at the level of elite universities has declined at the same time that testing has increased in primary and secondary education, from No Child Left Behind to the Common Core. This is not a contradiction, but the creation of two separate systems of education: a Confucian system for elites, which does away with objective academic measures, and a semi-Prussian system for the commoners, which uses strict but ever-changing evaluations.

Lower and aspiring elites may have to send their child through the Prussian system until he is eighteen, but the family must then spend an inordinate amount of time and resources creating a different portfolio of skills so he can transition from the common education system to the elite one. If a family is wealthy enough, however, they can go straight to a top private school, which from early on supplies their child with the knowledge (like critical race theory) and credentials needed to enter the elite neo-Confucian university milieu. Increasingly, woke dogmas are beginning to trickle down into the public and charter school systems, but the woke neo-Confucian education is not for everyone. It is for elites, by design.

Competition among Overproduced Elites

The United States and East Asia have each experienced intensifying elite competition. And whether the model is a Prussian, test-based system or a Confucian, subjective system, both societies have developed unforgiving sorting regimes that require significant investment from families to secure credentials. What is driving this elite competition and these increasingly onerous credentialing systems?

Though South Korea is not typically thought of as a deindustrializing nation, it has still experienced a sharp increase in the size of its service economy, from 46 percent of the workforce in 1990 to 74 percent in 2013. Until 1989, employment in agriculture fell while employment in manufacturing and services rose; since then, employment in agriculture has continued to decline sharply while manufacturing has begun to decline as well, both shedding workers to the service sector. This shift is slow compared to many other industrialized nations, and it has not greatly affected GDP per sector. But with the relative employment per sector changing, this necessarily means there are more people competing for the same economic re­sources.

This big picture trend is a story familiar in all maturing economies. But social practices which might have been benign or helpful when workers were moving from an economic sector that was losing GDP share (agriculture) to one that was gaining (manufacturing and services) can suddenly turn destructive when more people are pushed into an economically static sector. The powerful cultural machine which func­tions to turn farmers into elite workers doesn’t simply shut down when economic growth in those sectors slows. Instead, this system can happily go on producing even greater gains according to whichever metric it was set up to achieve (for instance, better test scores), even if this does not help individuals in society.

America has experienced a similar shift, although the details differ substantially. The story sold to the American public in the 1990s was that the country would become a nation of managers and information workers, with all the industrial laborers living in China or Mexico. But it has turned out that other countries do not want to serve solely as mindless automatons for their foreign bosses, and China above all is working to nationalize its managerial sector. So while an ever-larger segment of American society has been pushed into competition for elite positions, the number of open elite positions has not risen nearly as much as was expected and the struggle to obtain them has become increasingly resource-intensive and cutthroat.

Whether parents have to ensure their child is spending eighteen hours a day studying, as in Korea, or perfecting the new language of intersectional wokeness and padding his extracurricular portfolio, children demand far more time and money from parents than they did in the past, when a child’s future did not hinge on being able to make it into a rapidly shrinking class.

The alert reader may ask, “What about China?” This is a country with a large manufacturing base, relatively strong growth, and which does not seem to be facing a shift to a postindustrial economy anytime soon. But the stability of the large Chinese manufacturing class is not so assured. Multinational corporations are already beginning to look for cheaper labor in other countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, so it is possible that global demand for Chinese goods will decline over the medium term. But more importantly, the Chinese manufacturing class does not enjoy the kind of job security or state- and union-supported high wages that its mid-century American equivalent did. Within the Chinese technology sector, this has led to the “996” schedule. This refers to working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. With a seventy-two-hour work week, it’s no surprise that young Chinese people have chosen not to have children. The 996 work week was recently ruled to be illegal, but the effects of this ruling have yet to be seen.

This grueling work schedule did not arise on its own, however. With little by way of a public safety net and decades of the one-child policy, each worker has to support not only himself but also one or two generations above him. There is therefore enormous economic pressure to rise above the low-paid manufacturing sector and enter into elite job positions. With a large workforce that has no formal collective bargaining rights (this is officially handled by the Communist Party), companies are able to set extreme expectations for workers, secure in the knowledge that enough will acquiesce. This ends up generating many of the same cultural pathologies in China as those seen in South Korea, Japan, and Singapore.

Though the increasing importance of winning elite competition has had similar effects in many OECD nations, South Korea has experienced by far the worst societal repercussions. South Korea currently holds the lowest birth rate in the world, at 0.98 children per woman. The birth rate is even lower inside Seoul, a center for elite jobs and thus elite competition, where it drops to 0.64 children per woman. In the United States, following a temporary rise from the mid-1990s to 2010, births have continued the steady decline which began in the 1960s, now resting at about 1.7 children per woman. Like South Korea, this falls further in the cities, with births in San Francisco, one of America’s centers of elite competition, at 3.7 percent per year, compared to 5.2 percent in the nation as a whole, a decline roughly comparable to the difference between Seoul and the rest of South Korea.

As elite competition increases, child-rearing becomes commensurately more difficult. Family formation is postponed for increasing lengths of time as educational attainment requirements increase. Moreover, postcollegiate competition for prestige positions naturally leads to those jobs having a workplace culture in which long, grueling hours for junior employees are not only encouraged but required for advancement. This is just one part of the problem, however, as parents of would-be elite children are expected to constantly guide their offspring along the slippery path toward elite membership. Private tutoring is expensive, and many of the extracurricular activities admission boards look for are time-consuming for both children and parents.

The most important lesson to be learned from the Asian example is that plummeting birth rates should not be understood solely, or even primarily, as a product of culture. South Koreans venerate the dutiful student who sleeps three hours a night and spends the rest of his time cramming for an entrance exam not so much as a choice but as a reaction. They are merely casting necessity (the impossibility of competing with­out such extreme measures) as a virtue. Americans, including aspiring members of the elite, by and large have fewer children than they would like to. It is tempting for conservatives to chastise the proudly childless, or the political extremist arguing for population reduction, but these outliers do not drive trends, nor do they reflect the attitudes and desires of the majority. These problems arise not from an antisocial ideology espoused by a loud political fringe, or from progressive “indoctrination” at schools or workplaces, but from the constraining social and economic conditions under which the nation labors.

Societies with crashing fertility rates—those societies in which succeeding amid fierce elite competition is often the only clear way to secure a reasonably decent life—must find some alternative means of reproducing themselves. In the West, this has primarily meant immigration. America has a growing population despite a below-replacement birth rate only because of immigration from societies which do not share the problem of elite hypercompetition. This same dependence on immi­gration is replicated across most of Europe, including in Sweden, France, and Germany.

These societies outsource their most basic element of biological reproduction to foreigners whom they then recruit. But in order to maintain a steady supply of immigrants to the dominant economies, the societies from which new immigrants originate must avoid falling into the dysfunctions that are causing birth rates to collapse in the West and developed East. Likewise, Western states must maintain their ability to assimilate a never-ending stream of immigrants into the local culture. There is a conceptual incoherence to the hope expressed by some that immigrants will boost the national birth rate in the long run. In reality, once immigrants are truly assimilated, the socioeconomic conditions which are generating native demographic collapse will affect them as well, typically in the second or third generation. The only case in which immigrants do maintain an increased birth rate is when they fail to integrate into the political economy of their host nation. This generates another set of very serious problems—problems already present in countries like France and Sweden, nations that are much worse at integrating new immigrants than America. Requiring immigration just to maintain a replacement population is a recipe for periodic crises, if only because it introduces many points of failure into the basic machinery of social reproduction.

Addressing the Root Problem

Declining birth rates and the rapid expansion of wokeness across American institutions are both reactions to intensifying socioeconomic competition. Thus, if American policymakers were to address wokeness or critical race theory alone, this competition would simply move to a new arena. And replacing competition based on wokeness with a Korean‑style hellscape of endless studying would not exactly represent a great improvement.

While the winners in the current arena of elite competition, most of them on what passes for the left, praise the moral hygiene of the new system, would-be revolutionaries, mostly to their right, fight culture wars which do not alter the dynamic of hypercompetition over elite positions—and which would not alter it even if these dissidents were to win. No amount of snappy YouTube videos decrying the “degeneracy” of current elite trends, no amount of influencers selling the “trad lifestyle” to Instagram followers, no amount of pithy arguments aimed at defeating some imagined foe with “facts and logic” will affect these issues in any meaningful way. And many or even most of the legacy features of conservative political thought actually promise to do more harm than good, especially if they further precaritize non-elite life and push more people into competing for a shrinking number of positions. The righteous dissidents condemning woke culture might, at best, succeed in turning the American system into the South Korean one.

Moreover, although modern China lacks an equivalent to Western “wokeness,” that does not prevent it from suffering many of the morbid symptoms of contemporary Western society. Indeed, under the leader­ship of Xi Jinping, the Chinese state has started to devote much more of its time and energy to what we might call culture war issues, ranging from restricting the amount of time children can play online video games to curtailing celebrity worship, regulating the portrayal of men in pop culture, and finally clamping down on the private education industry. These policies closely follow the template called for by defeated American conservatives: make the culture more traditional and (forgive the slang) “based” by outlawing decadent behavior, all the while leaving the underlying market conditions that gave rise to the current crisis untouched. (Though, unlike American conservatives, China has also begun a regulatory crackdown on internet monopolies and financial services, while encouraging more investment into “hard tech.”) We suspect that Xi will find about as much success in his new suite of cultural policies as South Korea has found by heavily restricting access to pornography. These policy bandages, whether they are in China, South Korea, or the United States, are not likely to have much effect so long as the economic logic that drives these societies remains unchanged.

One of Karl Marx’s seminal insights was that the logic of capitalism and the market is fundamentally opposed to traditional social mores, cultural norms, and social cohesion. In Marx’s own time, the bourgeoisie was busy drowning, as he put it, the ecstasies of religious fervor, chivalrous enthusiasm, and philistine sentimentalism in the icy waters of egotistical calculation. Feudal society was still very much in existence in Marx’s lifetime, but the speed of its destruction during the latter part of the nineteenth century—not necessarily at the hands of political opponents so much as cold economic reality—was plain for pretty much everyone to see, whatever their political leanings.

If anything, Marx can probably be accused of underestimating just how icy the waters of capitalist rationalization could get. With the exception of Japan after the Meiji restoration, the process of modernizing East Asia really only began in earnest after the Second World War. Within living memory, South Korea and China were still overwhelmingly agrarian economies where most people engaged in subsistence agriculture, with traditional social norms and mores to match. Marx, living in nineteenth-century Europe, could only witness part of a multigenerational transition from the old society to the new. Had he lived on the other side of the planet a mere hundred or so years later, he could have personally seen the entire process play out within the span of a single human lifetime.

In the struggle between tradition and economic reality, tradition simply ends up being destroyed, excepting the few parts that can be adapted to serve completely new ends. Xi Jinping thus finds himself staring down the same fundamental paradox that the now broken and defeated Western conservative coalition faced and failed to resolve. To again borrow the language of Marx: how does one go about dunking the nation in those icy waters of the market, while at the same time avoid catching a cold? The conservative Right in the West never managed to find a solution, nor does it seem likely that Xi Jinping will do much better. It is more probable that a solution simply does not exist.

If politics is indeed downstream of culture, then it must be added that culture finds itself perched snugly downstream from the realm of production. Only by actually addressing problems at the point of production—for example, by ensuring decent jobs that allow workers to support a family—can one honestly hope to address these problems in a permanent way. Everything else is a form of symptomatic treatment. And while treating the symptoms is not necessarily a bad thing, in this case it cannot cure the underlying sickness, nor even keep those same symptoms from growing more severe over time. For China as well as for the West, the fight against social stagnation is like the proverbial drunk man searching for his keys under a lamppost where it is bright, rather than in the unlit alley where he knows he actually dropped them.

The situations of Asian countries and the United States differ sub­stantially in the details, but both face the same core problem: how to offer as many people as possible a decent job with a family wage. So long as the material reality that has driven the expansion of “996” pre­vails, Xi is unlikely to win his battle against emerging Chinese decadence. Likewise, South Korea may fight for married, child-producing citizens, but without addressing the economics of elite hypercompetition in that society, this struggle is doomed. Policymakers and engaged citizens in the United States (and in the West more broadly) should consider these realities when looking to their own problems. The proximate enemy may be wokeness, or critical race theory, but these problems are superficial, second-order effects of a deeper rot. Unless the productive forces driving spiraling competition for diminishing social and economic resources are resolved, social atomization, cultural con­flict, and their many effects will continue, in one guise or another.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume V, Number 4 (Winter 2021): 156–70.

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