Jiwei Ci identifies two ways by which human beings acquire agency and constitute their own subjectivity, “agency-through-freedom” and “agency-through-identification.”1 Throughout his book, Moral China in the Age of Reform, Ci pays more attention to “agency-through-identification” because he sees this method as characterizing Chinese society. However, an analysis of Ci’s claims concerning “agency-through-freedom”, which he presents as an ideal type of modern liberal societies, provides some useful insights into the nature of liberal democratic rule. In addition to illuminating some surprising characteristics of this type of governance, Ci’s discussion of freedom in liberal societies reinforces the pessimistic outlook that characterizes the whole of his work.
Ci argues that political contestation over the socialization process of an individual can result in the production of concrete “socially delineated freedoms” that are evidence of “relations of domination”, therefore, “the fact that freedoms can be framed by relations of domination, along with the fact that people can be ideologically induced to turn a blind eye to such framing, is the Achilles heel of a society marked by agency-through-freedom.”2 It is therefore the appearance of choice, not the actual existence of which, that creates a society where citizens are said to enjoy freedom. This claim relates to an earlier one made by Ci, that freedom as a mode of subjection is the “secret of liberal society” because it “simultaneously helps give a specific expression to the human need for agency and bring[s] agents into line with the particular kind of order that prevails in their society.”3 Citizens are empowered as agents who are supposedly “free”, but in reality their activities are influenced by the nature of the prevailing form and content of order in their society. This creates the impression that liberal societies are characterized by the least repressive form of governance, despite the fact that each citizen must formulate their ideas and actions according to a set of options which are constructed as socially acceptable by the powers that be.
There is another important stipulation, which is that the construction of societal values must be done in an indirect way which avoids alerting its citizens to the existence of this process: “under modern conditions, the struggle for domination can be won only when the hand that imposes values is able to render itself invisible.”4 In order for a set of values to be successfully adhered to in a society, they must be imposed in a way which reinforces the concept that citizens are free – both in content and in manner of implementation. This vision of liberal society as essentially a fallacy, is incredibly disheartening, especially considering that Ci positions liberal democratic societies as much more beneficial to the everyday citizen than the kind of authoritarian government found in China. This leaves the reader with the impression that Chinese society is in a crisis which cannot easily be escaped, and even if it is, the result will be a freedom that is far from perfect.
Ci, Jiwei, Moral China in the Age of Reform (New York, 2014).