Mark Lilla writes a little gem in the New Republic. It describes how the Chinese have discovered Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt. They are having a debate over what they want their China to look like, and, find these philosophers, or thinkers, to be instructive to them. There is much to be hopeful about in the account as much as there is to be horrified about in the direction of the Chinese. Some snips:
Chinese intellectuals who came of age in the decade and a half after Mao’s death 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, a few years later, once the party’s slogan became “to get rich is glorious,” and the Chinese began to pursue this glory, intellectuals turned against the liberal political tradition.
Liberal thought, the young ones now feel, just doesn’t help them understand the dynamics of Chinese life today or offer a model for the future. For example, everyone I spoke with, across the political spectrum, agrees that China needs a stronger state, not a weaker one—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 all seem to be about how a strong state should exercise its power over the economy and how its newfound power should be exercised in international affairs. Similarly, there was complete consensus about China’s right to defend its national interests, just differences over what those interests are. When my turn to talk about American politics came, and I tried to explain the Tea Party movement’s goal of “getting government off our backs,” I was met with blank stares and ironic smiles.
The intellectuals are having this debate because it is all up for grabs in China–there is a hope for the future and a realization the country is on the cusp of being the lone superpower. This is my gloss, not Lilla’s in regard to the reason for the debate. It will be important which side they choose. More immediately, the changing face of the Chinese regime has prompted this discussion. These situations encourage people to discover the wisdom of the ancients–not because they are ancients merely, but because there is a wise body of work located there. Hence, these rediscoveries are always accompanied by the revival of Greek and Latin.
Enter Carl Schmitt. For four decades now, the short, elusive books by this once Nazi collaborator have attracted Western radicals too soft-minded for Marxian empiricism and charmed by the notion that tout commence en mystique et tout finit en politique. (Not that they’ve read Charles Péguy.) In China, though, the interest in Schmitt’s ideas seems more serious and even understandable.
Schmitt was by far the most intellectually challenging anti-liberal statist of the twentieth century. His deepest objections to liberalism were anthropological. Classical liberalism assumes the autonomy of self-sufficient individuals and treats conflict as a function of faulty social and institutional arrangements; rearrange those arrangements, and peace, prosperity, learning, and refinement will follow. Schmitt assumed the priority of conflict: Man is a political creature, in the sense that his most defining characteristic is the ability to distinguish friend and adversary. Classical liberalism sees society as having multiple, semi-autonomous spheres; Schmitt asserted the priority of the social whole (his ideal was the medieval Catholic Church) and considered the autonomy of the economy, say, or culture or religion, as a dangerous fiction. (“The political is the total, and as a result we know that any decision about whether something is unpolitical is always a political decision.”) Classical liberalism treats sovereignty as a kind of coin that individuals are given by nature and which they cash in as they build legitimate political institutions for themselves; Schmitt saw sovereignty as the result of an arbitrary self-founding act by a leader, a party, a class, or a nation that simply declares “thus it shall be.” Classical liberalism had little to say about war and international affairs, leaving the impression that, if only human rights were respected and markets kept free, a morally universal and pacified world order would result. For Schmitt, this was liberalism’s greatest and most revealing intellectual abdication: If you have nothing to say about war, you have nothing to say about politics. There is, he wrote, “absolutely no liberal politics, only a liberal critique of politics.”
Scmitt is the anti-liberal. I read his Concept of the Political in graduate school. His was a powerful critique on liberalism. He wanted to remove appeals to abstract principles from political discourse–for he believed them to be a sham. Schmitt wanted to re-politicize the state–and nearly everything in it. His was a friend/enemy politics, and a politics of war. I could have this incorrect, but, war was the utmost political expression to Schmitt. Schmitt loathed these peacemakers–he would certainly laugh and mock someone like Lennon who wanted to give peace a chance. Schmitt wanted war and conflict to have a chance. He was a brilliant writer and saw things noone else did–like that Machiavelli was resurrected in the works of Hegel and Fichte. At any rate, this is why he believes liberalism is a sham: it tries to depoliticize the state. Liberalism is unpolitical (and unnatural!) because it is anti-moral, or non-moral. Morality has a specific definition for Schmitt that is anti-liberal.
The most controversial aspect of Strauss’s thought in the United States over the past decade, given the role some of his devotees played in concocting the latest Iraq war, is what he had to say about the “gentleman.” Taking a cue from Aristotle, Strauss distinguished between philosophers, on the one hand, and practical men who embody civic virtue and are devoted to the public good, on the other: While knowing what constitutes the good society requires philosophy, he taught, bringing it about and maintaining it requires gentlemen. Aristocracies recognize this need, democracies don’t—which is why the education of gentlemen is difficult in democratic societies and may need to take place in secret. Much was made of this gentlemanly idea in Straussian circles after his death, and as young Straussians became part of the Republican foreign policy apparat, beginning in the Reagan administration, many began seeing themselves as members of an enlightened class guiding America through the “crisis of the West.” (This episode still awaits its satirist.) In this sense there was indeed a connection between Straussianism and the Iraq war.
But for the young Chinese I met, the distinction between sages and statesmen and the idea of an elite class educated to serve the public good make perfect sense because they are already rooted in the Chinese political tradition. What makes Strauss additionally appealing to them, apart from the grand tapestry of Western political theory he lays before them, is that he makes this ideal philosophically respectable without reference to Confucius or religion or Chinese history. He provides a bridge between their ancient tradition and our own. No one I met talked about a post-Communist China, for obvious reasons. But students did speak openly about the need for a new gentry class to direct China’s affairs, to strengthen the state by making it wiser and more just. None of them seemed particularly eager to join the Party, which they said co-opted even the most independent thinkers. For the moment, they seem content to study ancient languages, get their Ph.D.s, and take teaching jobs where they evidently hope to produce philosophers and gentlemen. They are not in a hurry. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
There is no opposite to those like Schmitt more thoughtful than Strauss. What can we say about the gentleman? This person is knowledgeable of philosophical things, but also ambitious and political is the normal sense of the word. However, this person wants to govern well–to be a good ruler as well as a good man. The discussions that take place, and are taking place, are the most serious humans can engage. It is one that even those who live comfortably on top of the world power scale should never cease to engage, lest we lose a kind of vitality and our way.