Privilege and Social Involution: Is Our Society Forcing Us to Involuntarily?

Various forms of competition and pressures in societal existence encompass a plethora of domains. They remain imperceptible and intangible, yet their influence persists ceaselessly.

Divergent individuals also harbor distinct perspectives and interpretations: Marxists may perceive them as contradictory forces, entailing unity while achieving mutual advancement amid conflict and opposition.

Sociologists, epitomized by Pierre Bourdieu, perceive these dynamics as a realm where competitive and active tendencies mutually constrain one another, each possessing its own inclinations.

Anthropologists, represented by Clifford Geertz, employ the notion of “involution” to elucidate a cultural phenomenon wherein mutual competition reaches near saturation but remains untransformed.

With the progression of society, particularly the mounting pressure of competition, this “involution” phenomenon has pervaded nearly every realm. Particularly following the three-year ordeal of the COVID-19 epidemic, numerous fields have succumbed to the cadence of recovery endeavors. Consequently, those involved find themselves embroiled in fierce competition, leading many to describe this existence as suffocating.

Therefore, what accounts for this intense competition? Is it the surplus of participants? An imbalance in the means of competition? Or do other factors come into play? Some contend that the phenomenon of “privilege” may serve as the true impetus behind societal involution.

Privilege and its impact on social life
At the onset of 2023, an online user utilizing the moniker “Arctic Catfish” posted on a social media platform, flaunting their opulence with statements such as “Our family possesses a nine-figure fortune, all derived from astute investments.” Additionally, their derogatory remarks subtly hinted at the influential figures within their family who had facilitated a life of affluence.

The revelation of this incident promptly ignited the ire of numerous internet users. Many reported the matter under their real names, leading relevant authorities to express their intent to investigate. It wasn’t until October 2023 that this saga reached its culmination:

The grandfather of this online user, Zhong, was a former cadre in the Shenzhen Transportation Bureau. He was expelled from the party on allegations of “illicit acquisition of funds” and being “disloyal and deceitful to the party,” resulting in the confiscation of some of his assets.

As netizens rejoiced, they also found themselves deeply contemplative: a mere director of a subsidiary branch could leverage their influence to secure such extensive benefits for themselves and their family members. These privileges encompassed resolving employment issues for their children, amassing considerable wealth for the family, and even facilitating the overseas education of their grandchildren. Had “Arctic Catfish” not been so brazen, it is highly likely that these matters would have remained concealed indefinitely.

From a conceptual standpoint, involution refers to a field attaining a certain level of development beyond which it cannot progress or transform its form, leaving it to undergo a state of “stagnant development” at that level.

Within our society, the prevalence of intricate cultural phenomena such as “face,” “favors,” and “guanxi” has rendered power a complex entity. This cultural backdrop is distinct from other cultural milieus, rooted in social classes and group interactions.

When society reaches a stage where transformation through conventional channels becomes unattainable, the existence of “privilege” assumes the role of an “external force,” reshaping the established framework and compelling specific sectors of society to undergo transformation, if not complete restructuring.

The case of “Arctic Catfish” serves as a vivid testament: without the comfortable environment bestowed upon them by their elders, they would undoubtedly be unable to establish themselves in society based solely on their abilities and merits.

Striving for personal involvement or entrusting matters to others?
The aforementioned cases and the preceding analysis constantly remind us of a fundamental truth: in today’s fiercely competitive society, those who fail to exert themselves will inevitably fail to distinguish themselves amidst numerous contenders.

However, perhaps there exists an alternative approach. Given the opportunity to secure assistance through “establishing connections” or “relying on acquaintances” to attain desired resources, would one opt for such a method?

This phenomenon within Chinese society remains inextricably linked to the power structure and social survival logic ingrained within Chinese culture for millennia. As far back as the feudal dynasty, the hierarchical society of the time permeated virtually every aspect of China.

The extensive imperial examination system, which endured for centuries, aimed to elevate qualified individuals from the common populace into positions of power, transcending social classes. The contemporary examination systems bear a semblance to their imperial predecessors to some extent.

However, what distinguishes the present era is that even if one fails to enter their desired system through conventional examinations and selection methods, they still possess a considerable likelihood of achieving their goals with the aid of favors and relationships.

And should one abstain from employing such means, it is highly probable that competitors will outpace them by utilizing these very methods.

Hence, from this perspective, the assertion that “a privileged society compels individuals involuntarily”makes logical sense. Our intention is not to advocate for the utilization of “privileges” but rather to foster an understanding of this underlying logic, enabling individuals to navigate related matters without falling into predicaments.

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