A Daoist Take On The World Gone Sideways

Ancient wisdom understood the principle of reverse movement in history.

Ibrahim Rayintakath for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

In these turbulent times when we strain to make sense out of the bewildering crosscurrents sweeping the world, looking beyond our modern mindset to the ancient wisdom it eclipsed offers some forgotten insights worth revisiting. The lamp of experience sheds light on the paths that may lay ahead and how to traverse them.

Writing in Noema, the Chinese scholar Dingxin Zhao recounts the Daoist perspective that history does not progress toward some teleological terminus that can “lay claim to universal or eternal truths … because the significance and function of any causal forces invariably change with different contexts.” The elusive Way unfolding across contingent time “not only rejects the imposition of a direction onto history but also negates the existence of any specific, law-like forces underpinning the apparent cyclic patterns of historical events.”

As Laozi wrote in the Tao Te Ching “the Dao that can be stated cannot be the universal (or eternal) Dao” because the concrete circumstances of existence are always in flux.

This understanding of the indeterminate direction of history not only departs from the modern paradigm of historical progression rooted in Judeo-Christian eschatology, but embraces its opposite in the “principle of reverse movement.” History can go forward, backward or sideways.

Just as every phenomenon contains its opposite, so too, by this principle, every achievement of power carries the seeds of its own undoing within.

“In the Daoist principle of reverse movement, as one actor in military or economic competition progressively secures the upper hand, opposing actors would also gather momentum,” Zhao writes. “For instance, the dominant actor becomes increasingly susceptible to various errors — over-expansion, underestimating adversaries, disregarding internal vulnerabilities and potential crises. Meanwhile, weaker actors respond to their more formidable opponent by intensifying their desire to change, including learning from their opponent and striving for ‘self-strengthening’.”

The unpardonable atrocities committed by the weak against the strong notwithstanding, the most poignant example of this at the moment is how the deployment of preponderant Israeli military might to cruelly pound the civilian population of Gaza is surely fostering new legions of terrorists across the entire Middle East determined to challenge the Jewish state. Another case is how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine was driven by what he perceived as the “victory complex” of the West after the Cold War. President Xi Jinping’s project of the great rejuvenation of Chinese civilization is conceived in the context of an American-led world order.

When it comes to the practice of governance, the principle of reverse movement “imparts a sense of humility upon influential social actors as their power ascends, encouraging them to gain insight into potential pitfalls and shifts that might undermine their status and avoid the fallacy of justifying their power supremacy by some teleological and thus moral rationale.” As Zhao sees it, such humility is “a rare trait” that “becomes even scarcer within cultures dominated by a teleological comprehension of history.”

The principle of reverse movement also “cautions us against the hubris of making linear predictions about upward-trending social tides and urges us to embrace the intricacies of complexity and acknowledge the multifaceted interplay of diverse forces. By doing so, we are compelled to appreciate the heterogeneous nature of historical change.”

God And Computers

One can see the principle of reverse movement at work as well in the frame of larger historical currents.

Zhao notes in broad terms that “scholars once thought secularization is an irreversible trend in the age of modernity, but what the world faces today is not just a revival of religions, but the revival of various forms of conservative fundamentalist religions. Similarly, while scholars are still celebrating the worldwide rise of post-industrial values and postmodern culture, opposite trends are already gaining momentum in many parts of the world,” from the reawakening of nationalist and nativist passions to the swelling culture wars that pit same-sex marriage or gender affirmation against traditional family values.

The populist surge, religious revival and reversion to tradition come at what is arguably the most promising time in human history. Prodigious leaps in technology, science and productive capacity herald a future that humanity only dreamt of in the past. Yet these ongoing transformations seem to have triggered in their wake a great reaction among the multitude they have bypassed or threatened to uproot.

As the principle of reverse movement suggests, one is a condition of the other. The fearful and fearsome reaction against growing inequality, social dislocation and loss of identity in the midst of vast wealth creation, ubiquitous connectivity and unprecedented mobility is essentially a mutiny by the recently dispossessed against the audacious and accelerating advances of the newly empowered. Moving fast and breaking things, including people’s lives and communities, entails their reassembly into forces of resistance.

The lesson here is that political and cultural logic, rooted in emotion, identity and ways of life cultivated among one’s own kind, operate in a wholly different dimension than the rationalizing and universalizing logic of economics and technology. Far from moving forward in lock step, when they meet, they clash.

The triumph in recent centuries of the Enlightenment worldview behind modernity has not meant the eradication of deep culture or religious and tribal impulses, but rather their displacement. As the French philosopher Régis Debray has understood in a way similar to the Daoist perspective, “the anachronistic and the archaic all have their place in modern politics because ‘modern’ does not designate a location in time but a position in the terracing of influences, or determinations: not the outmoded but the substratum; not the antiquated but the profound; not the outdated but the repressed.”

It was this clear-minded grasp of human nature that prompted Debray to predict as far back as 1986 — long before the Islamic State, evangelical populism, big tech and generative artificial intelligence — that the 21st century would feature “God and computers.” He also foresaw that globalization would end in “an epidemic of walls.”

A Summons To Wise Governance

Governance is how communities invent and shape their destiny amid the inconstancy of events. Not unlike the homeostasis of all organisms, it is the regulator, arbiter and navigator of human affairs that processes emotion through reason as the means by which societies not only survive but thrive by adapting to an ever-shifting environment. The Daoist insights presented by Zhao are a call for wise governance that adopts an ethos of humility and guards against hubris.

Governance with humility does not regret the future. Neither does it imagine a utopia at some endpoint in history. Rather, it perpetually strives for a state of equilibrium between order and change in the knowledge that unrestrained dominance breeds the forces that will disrupt it.