On July 24, an essay entitled “Our Current Fears and Expectations” (我们当下的恐惧与期待) was posted on the official website of Tsinghua University. The essay was authored by Xu Zhangrun, Professor of Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law at Tsinghua, and translated into English by Geremie R. Barmé. All links to the original essay, as well as to Geremie Barmé’s excellent translation are posted on Law at the End of the Day, so I am not reposting them here.
Western observers interpreted Xu Zhangrun’s essay from the perspectives of economic policy and foreign policy. We are witnessing a trade war between the United States and China, with all of its inevitable geopolitical aftershocks. Therefore, these interpretations are the most natural and immediate ones. But beyond what in an insightful commentary, Larry Catà Backer calls the “optics” of the essay, Xu Zhangrun has offered a valuable perspective on Chinese constitutional theory, and on the operation of Western constitutional systems. Both perspectives are elaborated upon in Backer’s comments on Xu Zhangrun’s essay, so I will not return to them here.
Backer has qualified Xu Zhangrun’s essay as a “cri de coeur” evidencing the “evolving characteristics of a Chinese Constitutional Leninism with Marxist democratic characteristics.” There is no doubt that Chinese Constitutional Leninism is a living, evolving system. However, this is not the only angle from which Xu Zhangrun’s essay may be looked at. Beyond Xu’s observations on trade, and beyond his theoretical perspective on Chinese constitutionalism, the essay contains the seeds of a useful perspective on the role of intellectual elites within governance systems. This perspective has been teased out by some parts of Xu Zhangrun’s essay, and some parts of Backer’s comment. A “detached and self-reflexive intelligentsia”, Backer suggests, makes itself vulnerable to charges of ossification. Yet the feelings of “uncertainty” and “mounting anxiety” Xu writes about are not unique to the Chinese people.
Uncertainty about the future and a mounting sense of anxiety about one’s position and role in society are perhaps felt globally, also by members of the global intelligentsia. In my reading of Xu Zhangrun, I may be committing the mistake of looking at a mirror reflecting the self-image of European intellectuals in what may be an essay on Chinese constitutionalism, yet, I think Xu Zhangrun’s essay presents much food for thought to those interested in interrogating the changing role of global intellectual elites.
All governance systems consist of multiple centers: political, administrative, economic, social and intellectual. All forms of social contract involve a dynamic equilibrium among different centers of governance. A dynamic equilibrium among multiple centers of governance poses the possibility of a change in the legitimacy, prestige, or even role of any center of governance.
“A class is a class is a class”, Backer observes, leaving for another day the contextually contingent argument of how the notion of intellectual leadership can convincingly be argued for by “cultivating the individual in the exercize of knowledge production”.
While this argument may be left for another not too far day, it is worth noting a much-quoted lamentation by Italian philosopher Umberto Eco. Having spent his entire life putting his knowledge to the service of society, in 2015 Eco commented upon the slow and progressive erosion of the very legitimacy and prerogatives of the global intelligentsia:
Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak, when they once spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots. (read the original quote here)
Eco’s lamentation was prophetic. Or, at least, he was aware of a trend the majority of the members of his class were failing to see. In a few years’ time, the opinions and advice of the intelligentsia would have lost the weight they once had. What is worse, this phenomenon would have had a global impact, going well beyond the narrow borders of any country.
The loss of legitimacy of the intelligentsia is visible in several episodes occuring in Europe and in the United States. The mass revocation of tenure at Vermont Law School and the recent spates of physical attacks to teachers in certain European countries are only two of the most recent examples of this trend. The de-professionalization of the academy, has prompted several authors to publish outside of conventional academic journals, create their own publishing houses, share the latest scholarship on blogs, crowd-source translations and research projects.
Where once global administrative and political elites sought the advice of intellectual elites, now the “legions of imbeciles” seem to quickly have won the ear of our domestic rulers. Popular opinion as expressed through the vehicle of social media is systematically studied and analyzed not by intellectual elites versed in the theories and methods of the mathematical and social sciences, but by private enterprises using methods born in the fields of marketing and advertising. Information and data are no longer generated by members of intellectual elites through knowledge production, but harvested by those skilled in the practical, labor intensive application of knowledge. At the heart of even the most fanciful of algorithms there often lies a principle discovered long ago, by men whose knowledge embraced different subject areas. But, the time when abstract reasoning was put to the service of knowledge no longer is.
Once recent advertisement, targeted to those aspiring to become skilled in the practical uses of knowledge, marketed its services as involving “no academics” and just yielding “results”. “Results” expressed through the crude language of descriptive statistics are slowly replacing elaborated theoretical analyses. On the European continent and beyond, the rise of certain political parties has been aided not by the grey eminences of old, but by armies of experts in viral marketing and political branding. The art of politics is no longer learned in the academias and training centers most European political parties once maintained. Experiences on the ground, and the time invested in talking to those whom Eco called the “legions of idiots” are seen as more valuable than the ability to independently understand the complexity of local and global political, economic, and military scenarios.
The political, ideological and governance systems we live in were crafted through the efforts of generations of intellectuals. The legitimacy of those systems of governance is no longer gauged by the extent to which they fit the ideals and principles conceived by earlier generations of thinkers. Far more important is compliance with private, globalized standards of trustworthiness, created and controlled by administrators of systems.
In 2007/8, German train drivers’ contributions to the community they lived in was acknowledged in nation-wide debates on their labour conditions. Intellectual elites’ loss of legitimacy and their strikes are going largely unnoticed by the public. What emerges, at least on the Continent, is a growing popular skepticism about the intelligentsia’s ability to bring any meaningful contribution to the community they live in. This skepticism in turn affects the intelligentsia‘s perception of itself and its most appropriate role in society. But, as Backer writes, the biggest risk for the global intelligentsia is worrying more about “protecting its view” and perhaps perception “of itself” than continuing to fulfil its role in a changing society.