Neocons in Beijing
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.