The Reactionary Left in Taiwan and the Psychology of Whiteness
I have been thinking about whiteness lately. It has been on my mind since getting into a disagreement with the editor of an online news site, and been kept there by the nauseating public discourse about national elections happening in Taiwan in January. The editor disagreed with my characterization of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as an increasingly right-wing political party for using national security as cover to expand the military budget and railroad McCarthyist anti-foreign intervention bills through the legislature while imposing austerity measures more generally. Although the Kuomintang (KMT) ruled under martial law for four decades, the DPP has taken over as the leading edge of capital and war.
But this is not entirely true. I have been thinking about whiteness since recognizing it as a social disease. It has been at the front of my mind lately because it is at the heart of a divide separating a revolutionary from a reactionary politics of the Left in Taiwan. This divide splits so-called “tankies” opposed to the unrelenting demonization of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from groups who instead rail against Chinese authoritarianism. The question is ultimately one of bordering – whether our responsibility is collective and far-reaching, or shortsighted and tribal. For reactionary Leftists, China is an equivalent, if not greater, threat to democracy than Western imperialism. For revolutionary Leftists, the most pressing global challenges facing humanity – poverty, militarism, and racism – are inseparable from Western imperialism.
It is important to back up first though. Whiteness refers not, primarily, to a skin color, or even to a group of people whose ancestors are European, although it is interrelated with both. Whiteness refers more precisely to a particular and universalizing way of seeing the world, being in connection with others, and making a life. It is a fundamentally relational and historical process.
People who have internalized whiteness have an unparalleled capacity to lie to themselves. It is no coincidence that the poet and philosopher Aimé Césaire grounded his defense of societies destroyed by colonialism in the stunning hypocrisy of Western civilization. In doing so, Césaire rejected Orientalist narratives that would romanticize colonized societies as idyllic utopias. He recognized that colonized societies too were infused with unequal power hierarchies. These societies, however, made no pretense of being the pinnacle of modernity and progress; they were, rather, content to be.
Western civilization, on the other hand, screams of being the most democratic, honorable, wise, and freedom-loving people the world has, and will ever, know. This is, of course, an attempt to reconcile one’s conscience with and justify the atrocities perpetrated against the dark world. Whether the rhetoric is of the “white man’s burden” or “manifest destiny,” the aim is to absolve white settler colonialism of enslaving and murdering millions for land and treasure. By negating historical responsibility, the colonized and oppressed are blamed for their impoverishment and immiseration at the hands of colonial powers. The West’s moral authority to act as a police state is further legitimized by severely criminalizing petty theft, undocumented migration, and underground economies – acts of desperation by the dispossessed.
As a distorted way of seeing and thinking about global power relations, then, the psychology of whiteness is integral to legitimizing imperialism and capitalism. Understanding how social forces reproduce a psychology of whiteness helps to explain the sway of red scare and yellow peril ideologies in Taiwan.
The reactionary Left in Taiwan has more in common with run-of-the-mill bourgeoisie liberalism – a hallmark of whiteness – than with Marxism. This group fetishizes liberal democratic institutions and supports militarism to defend a way of life celebrating individualism and excess. The primary demand is to safeguard national sovereignty against Chinese aggression. There is little otherwise that unites the reactionary Left. Assata Shakur points out that bourgeoisie liberals are capable of holding an infinitum of contradictory opinions. It is therefore difficult to pin down either moral conviction or a coherent political framework among this group.
At best, members of this camp support a “more benign” capitalism through reformist social democratic policies. At worst, they believe in perpetuating ruthless class hierarchy through the meritocracy of the free market. Some within this group advocate a “third way” rejecting both the US and China. Instead of denouncing Taiwan’s relationships with the US foreign policy wing, however, they simply advocate diversifying state-to-state relationships by strengthening relations with Southeast Asian countries. These voices are perfectly fine with continuing to purchase arms from weapons dealers, engage in joint military exercises, and collaborate with intelligence organizations from the West. In practice, then, this third way-ism offers only token criticisms of Amerikan imperialism while focusing on the primary task of fear mongering against China.
What unifies this group is ultimately a virulent anti-communism and the worshiping of Western civilization premised upon Westphalian statehood. Although they might talk of socialism with the contradictions of capitalism and empire increasingly visible, they are incapable of envisioning a path towards it as a consequence of their myopic nationalism. A revolutionary Left, by contrast, recognizes that the struggle for socialism must be internationalist in form and anti-imperialist in content.
This begs the question of whether simply spending equal time and energy denouncing the US and China would constitute a principled anti-imperialist stance. According to this perspective, China is “just as bad” as the US and should therefore be equally condemned. Such a perspective is woefully ignorant. It creates a false equivalence on par with the narrative that Israel and Palestine are “two sides” engaged in a conflict. “Two sides” discourse erases the fact that Israel is a settler-colonial state engaged in a slow-motion genocide of the Palestinian peoples. This is not a question of competing perspectives but a matter of peace, justice, and human dignity.
A “just as bad” perspective similarly erases centuries of Western crimes against humanity brilliantly detailed by W.E.B. Du Bois. The wealth of the West was stolen through genocide, slavery, and colonial domination. These are not artifacts of history but ongoing relations. The banks, churches, railroads, power plants, town halls, employers’ associations, media empires, labor unions, gentlemen’s lodges, and institutions of education in the West did not emerge as a consequence of white pioneers lifting themselves up by the bootstraps, but as a consequence of the most vile and inhumane systems of violence and exploitation the world has ever seen.
A “just as bad” perspective ignores the fact that the US maintains 800 foreign military bases and keeps 25% of the world’s prison population locked in cages while constituting 5% of the total population. Proponents of this framework frequently point out that China is among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases while conveniently ignoring that the US is by far the largest emitter per capita,and that much of China’s emissions are driven by US consumer demand. The effect of a “just as bad” perspective, ultimately, is to position progressives firmly on the side of the oppressor against the oppressed. The upshot is that a reactionary Left in Taiwan speaks of progressive values while supporting policies that expand and deepen the island’s links with empire.
Reactionary Leftists rely on a vacuous form of identity politics as a guide for political activity in the absence of a philosophy of history that recognizes the material and ideological forces of capitalism and imperialism. It is this tendency toward identity politics in general, and the psychology of whiteness in particular, that explains how self-identified radicals in Taiwan can support fascism in the name of freedom and democracy.
That Taiwan is an embattled bastion of civilization threatened by the dark forces of Chinese authoritarianism is a staple of what Gramsci conceptualized as common sense - a hegemonic ideology facilitating domination and exploitation. The reactionary Left fully subscribes to this colonizing form of thinking. These groups turn a blind eye to, defend, or ardently support unbridled militarism and securitization in the interests of protecting a Westernized society from barbarians. Although these groups are more accurately described as liberals as mentioned above, they lay claim to a revolutionary politics under the cloak of anti-colonialism and anti-authoritarianism.
According to this narrative, Taiwan is a thriving democracy because it holds free and fair elections and honors diversity and inclusion. But history shows that the bourgeoisie democracies of the West are compatible with the most savage injustices and violence known to humankind. The societies of Europe and the US were built through mass murder, enslavement, and the plunder of the resources of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. The predatory class in the US – held up as the shining example of democracy – further benefited from the brutal exploitation of the labor of successive waves of immigrants arriving from Europe, Asia, and Central and South America.
This history should, at the very least, give us pause about using bourgeoisie liberal democracy to judge the moral standards of a society. Scratch just beneath the surface of Taiwan’s lauded democracy, and one finds deeply disturbing social tendencies and patterns. These include increasing rates of depression, loneliness, substance abuse, addiction, and nihilism. Taiwanese spend more of their lives working than people in any other country. Many young Taiwanese are hounded by a prevailing sense of purposelessness and meaninglessness of life. There have been alarming cases of sadistic violence against women, in particular, in recent years. Although some people ascribe these feelings of hopelessness to a sense of impending national doom, the fact that these trends are common across other societies indicates that the cause cannot be isolated to Taiwan.
Like Césaire, James Baldwin situates the psychology of whiteness in the hypocrisy of Western civilization. For Baldwin, it is both amazing and completely unsurprising that the most fanatic deniers of Western imperialism are those who most desperately want to believe that their shit doesn’t stink. It is this buying into whiteness – that Taiwan is a beacon of democracy against barbarism – by the reactionary Left and Taiwanese society more generally that accounts for the mirroring of social diseases in Taiwan with the cruelty and violence of US society, and which should therefore be challenged.