The Death of an Intellectual Giant

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Leslie D. Helm
First published on on November 21, 2010
Johnson passed away yesterday after a long career that influenced generations of scholars
A great man died yesterday. Chalmers Johnson was the kind of intellectual the world no longer seems capable of producing. I had the good fortune of studying Japanese political economy under him at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1970s. He later taught at the University of California, San Diego and launched the Japan Policy Research Institute, an independent think tank. Always a bit of a maverick, he was alternately embraced by the right and the left. At one time in his career he advised the CIA.

A former student of Johnson’s wrote a great piece here. But since Johnson influenced me so deeply, I wanted to say a few words as well.

It has become a cliché to talk of paradigm shifts. But Johnson is the one man I know capable of singlehandedly creating a paradigm shift–a new framework for looking at the world. And he did it again and again, each time influencing whole new generations of scholars.

At UC Berkeley, while still a student, Johnson wrote a book that transformed our understanding of China. His book, Peasant Nationalism, argued, persuasively, that the Chinese revolution should not be seen as the outcome of some kind of Marxist ideology, but rather as a powerful nationalist movement that gained power, in large part, as a popular uprising against the Japanese invasion.

Johnson, who had spent his early career studying Chinese politics, turned his attention to Japan, he once told me, because the Chinese government had made it impossible for serious scholars to study the country.

As a student of Japan, Johnson changed the way the world understood the Japanese economic miracle–creating another paradigm shift. Johnson showed that America’s effort to fashion a democracy on the ruins of postwar Japan should not be seen as a successful case of democratization, as it had widely been viewed. He showed that this democracy was little more than a veneer over the strong bureaucratic institutions that remained in place in Japan from the pre-war days. It was these bureaucratic institutions that had played a key role in the industrial development of Japan both before and after the war. Johnson described the anatomy of this developmental state, a form of state-led economic development that would become the model for Korea, Singapore, Thailand and China. When I met recently with a Minister of Technology Development from Brazil, he said that nation was learning from the Japanese model.

These economies do not operate according to some theoretical view of free markets. They have a strong sense of what economic policies to pursue in their own national interest. The United States should be aware of those policies and the thinking behind them so it can respond intelligently. That framework for looking at the world influenced my reporting on Japan first for Business Week and later for the Los Angeles Times.

Toward the end of his life, Johnson wrote about the dangers of America’s overextended empire. His book, “Blowback” predicted the nation would suffer from its efforts to play such a major role in so many regions of the world. The book foresaw the conditions that would make us ripe for attack. It foresaw our descent into a downward spiral as we were forced to spend huge sums to support multiple wars as well as bases across the globe. What made Johnson’s analysis so powerful was his deep understanding of economics, of such powerful institutions as the Department of Defense and of other levers of power.

Johnson was also a strong advocate for the importance of area studies. Political theory, he would often say, can offer little perspective on a country unless it is accompanied by a deep understanding of that country’s language, its culture and its institutions. The lack of this kind of understanding, as our universities have drifted away from area studies, has contributed to our mishandling of the two current wars we are in.

Once again, our country needs a new paradigm, a new way of looking at the world, that will help extricate us from the mess we are in. We need a new way of looking at economics that will help us tackle the high unemployment rate we are suffering. I wonder who we can turn to now to provide that guidance.


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