Are Declassed Professionals in the United States like Surplus Song Dynasty Civil Servants?

by Benjamin Studebaker

I’ve been reading Youngmin Kim’s A History of Chinese Political Thought. In one of his chapters, he argues that during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), a peculiar kind of “metaphysical republicanism” took root. As the Chinese population increased, the Song state struggled to create enough jobs in the state bureaucracy to accommodate larger and larger numbers of educated young men. Unable to pursue political power through the conventional pathways, these young men invented a new kind of political theory to make sense of their positions (or lack thereof). Kim’s description of this theory is eerily reminiscent of the kind of thinking that has become increasingly popular among what I like to call the “fallen” professionals–people with university degrees who have been unable to secure stable, prestigious positions within the power structure.

Location of Jin dynasty (blue), c. 1141

These elites adopted “Dao Learning”. As Kim presents it, Dao Learning asserted that human beings were united on a metaphysical level, even though they occupied different social strata in practice. This metaphysical unity consisted in their shared moral nature, which they could realize through the practice of personal morality. This practice was, in their view, open to everyone, irrespective of their social position. Indeed, in the years to come, the Ming-era Wang Yangmin would argue that even literacy is not required for sagehood.

This view allowed the surplus Song elite a conceit–even if they could not achieve positions within the temporal hierarchy of the Song, they could still observe a personal morality through which they might attain sagehood. If sagehood is the aim of life and anyone can attain sagehood, then the failure to achieve high office within the Song state becomes irrelevant to the ultimate value of the lives of these elites.

By supposing that everyone is equal in this metaphysical realm, the surplus Song elites could reconcile themselves with their lack of temporal status. What’s more, the large scale of the Song state left them still able to establish themselves in local areas as sages of high moral standing, worthy of respect. Indeed, Kim describes this as “acting locally and thinking globally or even cosmically”.

This view therefore combines an extremely ambitious moral project–becoming a sage, and therefore aligning oneself with the metaphysical unity of the cosmos–with rather unambitious temporal projects. The triumph in the moral realm protects the would-be sage from feeling politically futile.

Does this not sound more or less like the politics of the fallen Millennial professional in the United States? Unable to change the world or to live up to one’s temporal expectations for oneself, these professionals find solace in setting themselves up as moral paragons within small, local spaces. These include not just local municipalities, but all of the spaces in which these professionals participate–the family, the workplace, the church, the political club. There is a stronger and stronger focus on the things which these professionals can still control. The fallen professionals may not be able to change the distribution of wealth and power within these institutions, but they can demand that these spaces conform to various moral aesthetics, that particular kinds of words and symbols be used or avoided, that particular products be bought or boycotted, that they have opportunities to express themselves even when those expressions don’t lead anywhere.

The fallen professionals think that by regulating their language they are becoming morally better, and they think that by helping other people to regulate language they will help those people along in their own quests for moral betterment. But this entire practice is motivated by the need to accommodate the fallen professionals’ inability to enact real, meaningful change. It is a way of coping with powerlessness rather than a way of wielding power. In the Southern Song and the dynasties that followed, these would-be sages never challenged for the hegemony. They were content to possess moral equality in the metaphysical space. They had a metaphysical republic, and therefore had no need of a real one. Kim describes it as a “preference for the local turn over the messiness of a radical voice”, arguing that “China had a considerable capacity to divert what might otherwise have been a revolutionary force or discontent with a local option.”

This obsession with the local is evident in liberal consumer ethics, in which the individual pursues moral righteousness by buying and boycotting the right products and services. It is also evident in the turn toward deliberative democracy, in which theorists try to make citizens feel empowered by devolving power to local units, citizens’ juries, and the like. It is evident in the language wars which animate woke politics, and it is evident in the conservative retreat into the family. In all of these cases, the disempowered person deals with physical defeat by establishing a local realm of metaphysical triumph. While these people present these local realms as forms of radical, anti-establishment politics, they are really just ways of coping with–and therefore perpetuating–a status quo in which the consequential large-scale political decisions and institutions remain firmly out of reach. The more one believes in the meaningfulness of these metaphysical approaches, the more one is content to ignore actual existing concentrations of power. In this way, these approaches discipline their practitioners instead of liberating them. For all their radical or reactionary pomp, they are quietist doctrines.