Neocons in Beijing

By Mark Lilla
The New Republic, December 8, 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

In China, the neo-conservative thinker Leo Strauss and and the anti-liberal writer Carl Schmitt are at the center of intellectual debate. The interest has little to do with nationalism. It is a response to a widely shared belief that the millennia-long continuity of Chinese history has been broken and that everything, politically and intellectually, is now up for grabs.

Faced with the crisis of the West he saw in the weak response to Nazism and Communism, Strauss set out to recover and reformulate the original questions at the heart of the Western political tradition. He did this by leading his students on a long march back in time, from Nietzsche to Hobbes, then to medieval Jewish and Islamic political philosophy (he avoided Christianity), and finally to Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes, and Thucydides. Chinese students, who are watching Communism morph into a form of state capitalism, are responding by learning Greek, Latin, and German.

The era of intellectual liberalism is over. It has been done in by political Islamism and Western responses to it, and by the forces of globalization that have given us a neoliberalism that people everywhere associate with unregulated markets, labor exploitation, environmental degradation, and official corruption. Chinese intellectuals after Mao were involved in intense debates over competing paths of modernization and took human rights seriously, and the period culminated in the Tiananmen movements of 1989. But once the party's slogan became "to get rich is glorious," intellectuals turned against the liberal political tradition.

Liberal thought doesn't help understand the dynamics of Chinese life today or offer a model for the future. Everyone across the political spectrum agrees that China needs a stronger state, a state that follows the rule of law, is less capricious, can control local corruption, and can perform and carry out long-term planning. Their disagreements are about how a strong state should exercise its power over the economy and in international affairs.

Carl Schmitt was by far the most intellectually challenging anti-liberal statist of the twentieth century. His objections to liberalism were anthropological. Classical liberalism treats conflict as a function of faulty arrangements. Schmitt assumed the priority of conflict. Classical liberalism sees society as having multiple spheres. Schmitt asserted the priority of the social whole, as in the medieval Catholic Church. Classical liberalism treats sovereignty as a coin that individuals cash in to build political institutions. Schmitt saw sovereignty as the result of an arbitrary self-founding act. Classical liberalism had little to say about war and international affairs. For Schmitt, if you have nothing to say about war, you have nothing to say about politics.

Given the widespread dissatisfaction with the pace and character of China's economic modernization, these ideas of Schmitt seem prophetic. Without appeal to Marxism, he explains why the distinction between economy and politics is false and pernicious. His idea of sovereignty, that it is established by fiat and is supported by a hidden ideology, offers hope that the Chinese state might be built on foundations that are neither Confucian, Maoist, nor capitalist.

Students of a more conservative bent agree with much of the left's critique of state capitalism and the social dislocations it has caused. Their reading of history convinces them that China's enduring challenges have always been to maintain territorial unity, keep social peace, and defend national interests. These students are particularly interested in Schmitt's prescient postwar writings about how globalization would intensify rather than diminish international conflict and how terrorism would spread in response. Schmitt's conclusion that we would all be better off with spheres of influence dominated by great powers sits well with them.

Schmitt's political doctrine is brutal modern statism, which poses some problems in China. The Chinese tradition of political thought that begins with Confucius aims to build a just social hierarchy where every person has a station and is bound to others by clear obligations. Central to the functioning of such a state are gentlemen of character and conscience who are trained to serve the ruler. The Chinese students want a good society, not just a strong one.

Leo Strauss distinguished between philosophers and practical men who embody civic virtue and are devoted to the public good. Knowing what constitutes the good society requires philosophy, but creating and maintaining it requires gentlemen. Aristocracies recognize this need, democracies don't. Young Straussians who became part of the Republican foreign policy apparat saw themselves as members of an enlightened class guiding America through the crisis of the West.

For many Chinese students, the distinction between sages and statesmen and the idea of an elite class educated to serve the public good make perfect sense. Strauss makes this ideal philosophically respectable without reference to Confucius or religion or Chinese history. Students speak about the need for a new gentry class to strengthen the state by making it wiser and more just. They are not in a hurry. Rome wasn't built in a day.

AR  I like this analysis. I must optimize my Globorg manifesto for consumption by Chinese thinkers.