Turn inwards, at our own peril

April 28, 2022 10:21
Photo: www.news.cn

The term ‘involution’ is coined to correspond to the phenomena of individuals in mainland China (and beyond) engaging in precipitously cumbersome, draining, and yet performatively and ritualistically necessary activities – as a means of justifying and establishing their own self-worth. Individuals ‘involute’ as they eschew introspection for external performance, quality of work for quantity of work, and quality of life for a lifestyle of incessant, assiduous labour. In short, involution captures perfectly the malaise of late-stage capitalism, in non-capitalist economies and countries, too.

Yet there’s also a hidden dimension undergirding this all – and that is, ‘involution’ also constitutes a state-of-mind: more precisely, it reflects the inward-looking, self-fixated, isolationist, and ultimately, solitary attitudes that have long haunted some of the most epic falls from grace in history: the rise and fall of Venice, the turmoil and toil that rocked the late Qing dynasty, and the centuries of isolationism prior to the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Citizens, peoples, countries turn to involution – not because it’s necessary, nor because it’s advisable, but because they impetuously believe that to involute, is the most risk-averse option to take.

Hence the anti-foreign, xenophobic, jingoistic sentiments that we have witnessed throughout the world – in countries and regions where involution has taken by storm, we’re seeing unprecedented levels of nationalistic rhetoric, directed towards promulgating the (clearly misinformed) view that their state and people are superior to all others, and that any and all foreigners are anathema to national solidarity. Scholarship and exchange programmes closed down, as sycophants jostle for the prize of seizing upon and presiding over the dwindling turf of educational and creative freedom. Political debate is constricted, filtered, then purified into the puerile cesspit that few would wish to see, and all would loathe, but no one would ever dare speak up against – for it is the monolithic, unthinking blob of mediocrity that is the subject of worship and celebration, as opposed to empowered, emphatic free thinking.

I find this trend of ‘turning inwards’, of ‘neijuan’, deeply disconcerting. First, it hampers the prospects and abilities of individual citizens to see and engage with the world out there – to become truly globally minded, as opposed to myopic nationalists whose worlds are confined to the four sides of their country’s flag. Then follows the decanting of foreign expatriates and immigrants, the asphyxiation of civil society discourse and thought, and – ultimately – the snuffing-out of innovation and room for organic growth. Closed borders, closed minds, closed cities insulated from the winds of change and rivers of progress, choked to death by the miserly protectionism that guides the mindsets of those curating and preparing minds for the future. I fear that our world is edging increasingly close to such a state of fragmented and balkanised isolationism. I would add, here, that as much as these processes might have been initiated with the best of intentions – it’s not the intentions that ultimately matter, it is the fact that these processes could easily descend into uncontrollable, self-perpetrating spirals, propped up by the rent-seekers and factionalist interests that derive their political wherewithal and legitimacy from continually reifying these narratives.

Second, ‘turning inwards’ also hamstrings the country’s government in terms of its foreign policy calculus. We’ve seen this through the precipitously vitriolic, bellicose, and hyper-defensive rhetoric we see from diplomats and bureaucrats of certain states, who must play up their tonal inflexions and aggressive repertoire in order to court favours and muster support amongst their riled-up citizens. The audience that consumes the rhetoric is distinct from the audience that signs off the cheque-books – and that, I’d posit, is the problem. When the default mode of engagement is one of self-closure, of de-globalisation, of pushing back against and all forms of mutual understanding, how could we see to, if at all, a more peaceful world? A more inward-looking set of countries, is a group that is equally less likely to find common ground, clarify misunderstandings, and air misgivings in a way that constructively yields to at least a partially tenable modus vivendi. This may be what populists and charlatans want – but certainly not what the people at large deserve or need.

Finally, the era of globalisation has brought with it vast benefits and potential. Yes, there are defects; yes, there are limits and flaws to globalisation and its excesses. Yet if we genuinely believe so, the answer rests with fixing global interconnectivity as we know it – as opposed to dismantling the infrastructure and systems enabling it altogether. The latter, I submit, would be a gross and fatal mistake that few could afford to make. Turning inwards, would be a path that we take at our own peril.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review