Taiwan, Mysticism, Monopoly Capitalism, etc.

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Fri, 13 Oct 1995 17:28:18 +0900

Shawgi Tell writes,

>>John, I think there is merit to your theory re mysticism
and economic well-being in Taiwan. But how about the
theory that along with conditions of MONOPOLY
capitalism (which is definitely not identical to pre-monopoly
capitalist formations) come ideological requirements such
as intensified mysticism, a greater focus on the unknowable
and ineffable. It seems to me that monopoly capitalism, the
massive socialization of production, necessitates more
vicious forms of subjective idealism, that is, a more forceful
denial of the existence of objective reality. Since monoploy
capitalism dispossesses millions, ways to justify this
dispossession are spawned, e.g., mysticism. And, yes,
empiricism alone does not make good science. In fact
ideology, understood as collective delusion (or false
consciousness), results from failing to transcend the
empirical level. Any thoughts?<<

Thoughts? Several.

My first trip to Taiwan was in 1969, my second in 1976. In
1969, the landscape was already filled with temples and the
year with festivals and pilgrimages. I wasn't surprised.
What I was seeing had been described a century earlier in
Amoy by De Groot, who had used classical sources to trace
the origins of all this back several thousand additional
years. Modernization theory suggested that as the economy
modernized, rationalization would lead to a decline in
religious activity, a trend toward secularization. Returning
in 1976, I found religion flourishing, and "flourishing" is too
weak a word. New temples were springing up like
mushrooms; old ones were being rebuilt and refurbished.
Festivals had taken on Mardi-Gras proportions and
pilgrimages were a massively organized form of tourism,
with tens of thousands of pilgrims moving around the
island in bus convoys hitting the high spots. What, then,
was going on?

First, the pent-up demand theory. Temples, festivals,
pilgrimages--all are time-honored ways to turn financial
into social capital in traditional Chinese society. A rising
economy meant more people with more money to invest in
these ways.

Why weren't they becoming more secularized and turning
away from these things. Throughout most of the Japanese
colonial period and continuing into the '60s and '70s,
education for most Taiwanese was limited to elementary
school at best. Few of those with more money to spend had
been exposed to the kind of critical thinking that inspires

Then, too, there was politics. As Robert Weller, for
example, has suggested, Investing in temples, etc., was
among other things a form of resistance for Taiwanese
asserting their difference from the Mainlanders who had
followed Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan. The Mainlander-
dominated government called spending on these activities
irrational waste. The Taiwanese saw them as expressions
of local culture and pride.

As I considered these alternatives, the thought I put in my
previous post crossed my mind. The simplest kind of
behaviorist learning experiments show that intermittent
reinforcement produces the strongest learning effect. And
given the way the economy was growing, that is precisely
what a growing number of participants in traditional ritual
activities were getting--the answers to their prayers for
greater wealth and well-being.

If asked what all this has to do with mysticism and
monopoly capitalism, I have more questions that answers.
What I was observing in Taiwan seemed to have a great
deal more to do with magic, in a classic Malinowskian
since, than mysticism. And whether or not Taiwan is a good
example of monopoly capitalism is a very moot point
indeed. Compared, say, to Japan or Korea, Taiwan is
famous as a breeding ground for small entrepreneurial
companies, a place where businessmen say " better a
rooster in my own barnyard than a buffalo in someone
elses." Neither side of the question seems apropo to what I

I would, however, like to hear more about the theory.
Please elaborate.

John McCreery