Redefining Politics – Zhao’s Concept of a New World Order
There comes a time
When we heed a certain call
When the world must come together as one
We Are The World, USA for Africa
A talent for following the ways of yesterday is not sufficient to improve the world of today.
King Wu-ling, 307 BC
Does politics need a redefinition? Well, we cannot ask it. It has no ears. It does what it does – and has been doing since it differentiated out and became an autonomous social area (‘system’) among others: economy, the law, science, religion, art etc. They all add up to the once new world order sociologists call ‘functionally differentiated society’. There is a scientific consensus that this ‘is’ actually the world order – the only truth available within this order, a kind of provisional agreement between ‘society scientists’ i.e. sociologists. There is also a consensus that this world order is about to end, that we are approaching a new one – the “next society”, as Peter F. Drucker has once called it. The term ‘postmodern’ seems to point at this transit we are in right now: no longer modern – but not yet something else. As the future is uncertain, we have no idea where we are heading to. Although sociologists of course have made a few proposals, proving once more that there is no future, only futures. Yes, says Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang, the future is uncertain – but we nevertheless have to design it. We have to think about a universal and positive world order. Which is why politics needs a redefinition. It is this redefinition that he introduces in his opus magnum “Alles unter einem Himmel” (Everything Under the Sky), which is now for the first time available in German translation. It allows for another reevaluation of what has been a hot topic of discussion since Zhao first introduced his idea in 2005.
One could disagree. We don’t have to do what Zhao thinks needs to be done. Maybe scientists should forget about creating world orders altogether, watch them emerge, and attempt to describe reality as accurately as possible – instead of saying what it should look like. Because that is easy. “We all must lend a helping hand” etc. Reality is always on the losing side when we compare it to how things could be. “I have seen so much misled sacrifice, so many dead ends induced by ideology, and such horrors provoked by artificial paradises of dogmatic politics that I want to convey a salutary reaction against trying to frame political practice in accordance with social theory, or, for that matter, with ideology”, says even a Marxist like Manuel Castells. “The most fundamental political liberation is for people to free themselves from uncritical adherence to theoretical or ideological schemes, to construct their practice on the basis of their experience, while using whatever information or analysis is available to them, from a variety of sources. In the twentieth century, philosophers tried to change the world. In the twentyfirst century, it is time for them to interpret it differently.”
For Zhao, an interpretation of the world is not enough. He nevertheless starts with one: The world we live in is a failed world (as we will see, this paraphrase of a well-known expression of American foreign politics is neither a coincidence nor sheer sarcasm). The reason for this failure is the imperialistic world-view of the nation-states that only see it as an object of exploitation, and a ‘Western’ concept of thinking that thrives on antagonisms like friend/foe and puts what Zhao calls “individual rationality” first. Which is why a new world order is needed. The foundation of this new, positive order is a redefined form of politics that centers around the concept of ‘tianxia’.
Zhao does not provide a consistent definition of tianxia; it may thus not be a concept (a precise word in the sense of ‘Begriff’). For him, defining it would be counterproductive, as the redefinition of politics is obviously only possible on the grounds of not defining tianxia. Instead, he uses it as an infinite resource of meaning, as it is – in his words – “inexhaustible”. He nevertheless distinguishes between a spiritual and a political dimension of the concept. The spiritual dimension though is not meant to be part of his new global design. Only in terms of a rational circumscription or reduction. (One could already observe the spirituality in the very idea of tianxia’s inexhaustibility. To paraphrase the “Tao Te Ching”: Tianxia is like a well: used but never used up. It is like the eternal void: filled with infinite possibilities. To embrace its abundance, we should not confine ourselves to what we think it is, but be open like the eternal void, so that it can fill us with infinite possibilities etc.)
We face the same terminological problem when it comes to how Zhao uses the word ‘world’. The interpretation that makes most sense to me is to identify what Zhao calls ‘world’ as world society. In contrast to the world, which knows no outside, society does. Its borders consist of meaning. On the outside? “The irrational kingdom of nature” (as Kant put it). Otherwise the trees and clouds and dogs of this world would be equally responsible for the failure Zhao describes in his book – the failure of a society that has not been able to live up to its new global reality. Luckily, he has the medicine for cure: tianxia. He finds it in a long-gone, glorious ‘Eastern’ past. But it now has to carry the burden of being applied to the modern world, i.e. world society, to turn a failure into a success.
To still use a distinction like ‘West’ and ‘East’ in the world society of today doesn’t make much sense to me; it was created by the ‘West’ i.e. the Europeans: When they looked eastwards, they saw China. It is a semantic survival, just like the left-right or the conservative-progressive distinctions, which are only of little help when it comes to analysing today’s political positions, but prove still useful to identify the opposing side. This is how Zhao uses it, too – it allows him to stage a conflict.
The distinction can, however, help us understand value systems better, which will in turn help us understand Zhao better. Value systems have their origins in religious traditions; the West in Christianity, the East in the functional equivalent of Christian faith, the ‘secular religion’ of Confucianism. While the West i.e. Europe and the US – has successfully universalized its value system, the East i.e. China was not so successful here. But it also wasn’t really interested in such a world conversion so far. Post-Confucianism nevertheless still forms the basis of Chinese society – and, as Zhao’s book demonstrates, of ‘Chinese political thought’. And although it was officially replaced in China by Marxist ideology, it has remained an integral part of Chinese cultural identity – what Thomas Metzger calls China’s ‘cultural psyche’. Of course there is a big intersection between communism or Marxism and Confucianism already, as Karl-Heinz Pohl has pointed out; both are morally rigorous, both demand that one’s own actions should be altruistic. Communism in the Chinese translation roughly means ‘the doctrine of common property’; Confucius sentence that everything under the sky is common property, tianxia wei gong, the world belongs to us all, points at the parallels – similarities that greatly facilitated the adoption of communism in China. But it seems that the China of today is more in need of the values embodied in Confucianism. Daniel Bell talks about “a dramatic reevaluation of tradition” (not only in China, but also in other countries with a Confucian heritage). The restoration of Confucianism’s visibility is an important part of it. Xi Jinping himself has published a book that instructs the republic’s people How to Read Confucius. If one wants to mobilize state actors and non-state actors alike to act with ‘responsibility’; if one wants to provide a society that is “reeling from fast-paced change over the last three decades” (Brown) with a set of civic values; if one wants the party to be perceived as a unifying cultural and ethical entity: asking the citizens to read Confucius is not a bad idea at all. The fact that Confucianism approves of hierarchical relations between rulers and subordinates is an additional advantage. And although for a Confucian thinker the people always come first and the sovereign second, the Chinese intellectual as Confucian officer i.e. official was always to be found on the side of the government; after all, he was supposed to be a good administrator oriented towards the ideals of humanity or – with Zhao – towards the ideals of worldliness. Yes, if necessary also an admonisher in case of incorrect use of power – but always a loyal one. We can assume this loyalty from Zhao, the revivalist of Confucian political thought, too.
How to read his text? With this important aspect in mind. It helps to understand why human rights are less important to its author than other universals: unselfishness, accountability, altruism. But we need to be careful here. Do Europeans and Americans live up to the Christian ideals of charity, justice, and fraternity? Zhao is quite right – we don’t. Does China live up to the ideal of unselfishness? Of course not. We talk about ideals, and the difference between ideal and reality is another key distinction of Zhao’s book, as is the question how a global implementation or realiziation of the tianxia ideal may be accomplished. From his perspective, his version of ‘the best of all worlds’, the worldly world, is a realistic one and can be achieved.
But while Zhao talks about the end of all antinomies under one – the global – sky, and accuses the West of thinking in friend/foe antagonisms, he himself seems to need this very West and its wrongdoings as a contrast against which he can develop the tianxia alternative – another very modern, Western idea by the way.
Kant was convinced that we are witnessing a regular course of improvement in the West “der wahrscheinlicher Weise allen anderen dereinst Gesetze geben wird”, which will probably give laws to all the others one day; Hegel followed up on it by assuming an overall ‘world spirit’ (Weltgeist); Fukuyama later applied this idea to modern society to characterize it as the ‘fulfillment’ (end) of history. And while Zhao disagrees with how this fulfillment may come about, he too thinks that we are not yet living in the best of all worlds, that we can achieve perfection.
The idea that the post-confucian community spirit may be more appropriate than Western individualism for the challenges this global era holds for us is far from being new. It was for instance already expressed in 1980 by Roderick Macfarquhar. Zhao updates him by rejecting the idea that there was anything good about this individualism in the first place. This house of cards called progress had to collapse, as it was built on the wrong values (read: there are right ones).
This is not the place to point out some of the improvements that the Western view of the world, inspired by the ideal of progress, has brought about. Of course it depends on the perspective of the observer whether one regards the replacement of several authoritarian regimes by liberal ones as such an improvement; or the global cooperation between states, for which the European Union is a good example; or the equality of sexual minorities. This is the Western or Kantian perspective, of course, that observes a regular course of improvement. But this beautiful story of an ideal of liberal democracy realizing itself on a global level spelled out by Fukuyama may not only have been conceptually questionable – it also ignored the fact that “violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and economic oppression have never affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity” (Derrida’s critique of Fukuyama). If history would have ended in the 1990s, it would therefore not have been a reason to sing the praises of liberal democracy. As we all know, not history, but the optimism and the illusions of the 1990s – only distorted by Huntington’s dark prophecy, a direct answer to the one by Fukuyama – have ended instead. Which is why Zhao’s book comes at the right time; it fits the current Western mood of disillusionment, a feeling of failure.
As Nietzsche once said: Philosophers not only have to create concepts – they also have to persuade people to accept them. And because it comes at the right time, many people from the ‘West’ are willing to listen to Zhao’s message of a ‘World First’. But what exactly is he trying to persuade them of, apart from that they’ve got it all wrong? To accept tianxia as the new political concept. If he was an American politician, he would be talking about the ‘tianxia doctrine’. Part of this is an understanding of politics as the dominant area of society – more important than all the others. This is the tianxia magic: It transforms the world ‘as a whole’ into a political one. Under the tianxia sky, society becomes a subject of politics, a political entity. Which of course goes well along with China’s reality. This political integration, says Zhao, is able to heal the world.
What are motives? Explanations that are socially acceptable. Most Western people would not find it socially acceptable if Zhao told them that he tries to create a ‘Planet China’ philosophy; that tianxia is supposed to serve as a transcendental (Apriori) backdrop for China’s role as the new leader of the world; that Zhao reacts to Xi’s wish to ‘tell the China story better’ by transforming it into a world story (which would fit perfectly with its global ambitions). On the other hand, it’s this very West that told China: “It’s about time you came up with a model you wish other countries to follow, with the proposition of a world order that is based on the values you seems to espouse – those of harmony, multipolarity, non-interference and balance!” (I am paraphrasing the words of Kerry Brown here.) The tianxia philosophy could work as such a model, one that allows China to act, again with Brown: “as a power that recruits, engages and involves others, as the US did in its heyday”. And unlike the disruptive US politics, it would guarantee China’s rise on the back of consensus and harmony. Many reviewers and critics point at such ‘hidden’ motives, but instead of talking about non-interference and balance, they observe a rationalization of human rights violations and authoritarian rule, and identify the tianxia philosophy as a sophisticated form of propaganda. By doing that, they demonstrate that it will not be easy to implement such a new world order in a world that is characterized by a multiplicity of perspectives, one in which every ‘yes’ provokes a ‘no’.
For Zhao, the fact that he is presenting his theory at a time when China is becoming a major world power is nothing but an unfortunate coincidence. As we have no way of finding out what his true motives are, I think it more fruitful to focus on what he actually says instead. He never argues that China should play any special role in bringing tianxia about. He says nation-states are characterized by their imperialistic world-view; and as China is a nation-state, it is per definition part of the destructive circle he describes. Just like all the others, China too needs to overcome the national view and take the concept of tianxia seriously before we can all ‘come together as one’. (This is where he meets with Kant: As long as states devote all their energies to their vain and violent intentions of enlargement instead of striving for the internal formation of the way of thinking of their citizens, the human race will remain in the present, chaotic condition of its state relations. In German: “So lange aber Staaten alle ihre Kräfte auf ihre eiteln und gewaltsamen Erweiterungsabsichten verwenden, anstatt sich um die innere Bildung der Denkungsart ihrer Bürger zu bemühen, wird das menschliche Geschlecht in dem gegenwärtigen, chaotischen Zustande seiner Staatsverhältnisse verbleiben.”) It would therefore be quite interesting to read Zhao’s book as a critique of China’s hegemonic ambition; unfortunately, most reviews have missed out on this opportunity. Only one of them seems to have read the book to the end, where – as Bernhard Zand of Der Spiegel points out – Zhao warns of a new kind of dictatorship against which nobody can defend oneself, a dystopia in which “the technical systems collect and monitor the information of every human being”. Is he talking about the United States here? Or about China? My guess is: Yes.
According to Helmuth Plessner, rejecting modern society for the sake of the ideal of community will necessarily result in the rise of an authoritarian politics based on violence and fanaticism. He was right in anticipating the rise of German fascism. The ideal of a world community Zhao has in mind would – mutatis mutandis – evoke similar dangers, in the worst case: a tyranny of a ‘worldist’ majority. Maybe such a global dictatorship is the price we have to pay to save our planet.
How to do justice to such an inexhaustible and fuzzy concept like tianxia? Zhao says: By using a method called ‘combined synthesis’. But in contrast to the idea of interdisciplinarity that accepts the borders between the disciplines and does not strive for a theoretical integration, Zhao has exactly such an integration in mind. A perfect one that answers the perfect disintegration of modern society. And although he agrees that any object under observation has different aspects to it – political, economical, aesthetic, ethical, ‘social’ – he argues for a ‘reconstruction’ of the object from a perspective that integrates all perspectives – the political one. To invert Adorno’s famous dictum: For Zhao, the whole is the true.
His ‘combined synthesis’ does therefore not only reconstruct any object, but also the idea of a competent, legitimate observing authority that is able to overcome the polycontexturality and contingency of modern society (as well as the deficits of the disciplines; answers to political questions, he claims, are to be found in the area of economy and vice versa). Instead of grasping the reality of society operationally, he aims to return to the concept of a representatio identitatis. And tianxia appears as the common ‘denominator’ from which the world society can derive its unity – turning all social systems into one “Tianxia System”. It thus not only installs a social hierarchy in which politics is the CEO or king or president who resides over all the other areas, putting an end to their co-existence. It not only provides society with a new grand narrative – the global equivalent of the party’s ‘grand plan’ – and allows for creating a new universal telos that grants its ‘inclusion’ via politics. It also serves as a value framework or ‘ethical software’ that is able to program this new politics. One that can also justify ‘tragic choices’. For instance when it comes to the rights of humans who may refuse the ‘invitation’ to be part of this new order. Just like many people refuse to be part of Europe, i.e. the EU these days. Whoever wants to understand the ambition of Zhao’s proposal to create this new political unit – a world state – has only to imagine the European project on a global scale. Yes, it is obvious that the nation state is less and less able to cope with today’s challenges: climate change and the Corona crisis are global problems, migration is an European issue. The financial sector also operates globally. But the basic idea of Zhao’s global perspective is as simple as problematic: Treat the world like the world should be/wants to be treated. How can we make sure to treat the world – society – how it wants to be treated? Just like we cannot ask politics if it would like to be redefined, we cannot ask society how it wants to be treated. It has no mouth that allows it to instruct us: Treat me as a political entity please. The question is not, as Zhao suggests: to be or not to be a world – the world is already the world. Which is why it doesn’t need any ‘worldlization’. How much more world can it become? The question is who decides how the world should be treated. Zhao says: in the tianxia way. Part of it is what he calls an ontological principle: Co-existence comes before existence. From a logical point of view, this is nonsense: The existence of two things is the precondition of any co-existence. He could call it a social principle, one that is well known under titles like collaboration or co-operation. He could say it with Watsuji Tetsurō: We are inextricably social. Or with Kant: “Der Mensch hat eine Neigung sich zu vergesellschaften” – man has a tendency to socialize, to co-operate. But where Zhao stops, Kant continues: “Er hat aber auch einen großen Hang sich zu vereinzeln (isolieren)” – but he also has a great tendency to isolate herself. Or with Tetsurō: Human beings have a dual-nature – they are individuals, and they are members of various social groupings. We can either maintain a certain distance, or we can enter into intimate relationships. Kant’s principle is: Man wants harmony and unity; but nature – the world – knows better what is good for its species: it wants disharmony, disagreement. (“Der Mensch will Eintracht; aber die Natur weiß besser, was für seine Gattung gut ist: sie will Zwietracht.”) For him, it is this very ‘unsociablity’ that brings out the best in us – culture, taste, morality. Enlightenment. Books like Kant’s. Or Zhao’s, who disagrees with this idea, and by doing that, confirms it. Yes, his ontological principle puts harmony and unity first. But the effort that the party in China must make to hold the nation together as a unit speaks against an ontological principle – and in favor of Kant’s, which reckons with reality (in Luhmann’s terms: with the resistance of operations against operations). But while Zhao promotes harmony and unity, he at the same time blames the West for having destroyed it, for having forced the world in the direction of unworldliness, and by doing that, puts the East on the good, the ‘worldly’ side.
Just as important as the tianxia concept is a word that is not even a word: re. Reconstructing. Reinterpreting. Redefining. A very modern (‘Western’) notion – nostalgia. With Marshall McLuhan’s beautiful oneliner: Zhao drives into the future by looking into the rear view mirror. Heidegger discovered a better concept of technology in ancient Greece (the unifying force here: art). Zhao finds the realized tianxia ideal in the Zhou dynasty – the Reich of yesterday becomes the projection surface of a nostalgic future longing, a rather small system that allowed for an obviously very efficient top down coordination appears as ‘tomorrowland’ of world society. This vision shares many aspects with those of certain right-wing circles in Europe, most importantly a glorification of the then still valid family model.
How have the Europeans managed to universalize their Christian based value system? Certainly not in a very Christian way – through colonialism and imperialism. In other words, the world knows about human rights because millions of humans were not treated right. Part of this universalization was a quest for discovery, not only in science, and a missionary spirit. A spirit Confucianism lacked. A spirit China lacked, in contrast to the United States. Is Zhao trying to charge the Confucianist battery with such a spirit? To create a ‘combined synthesis’, in his words, of Confucian values and the missionary zeal and absolutist claims of the ‘West’? No, says Zhao. Tianxia can only arise organically. That is why the universal tianxia system is not an imperialistic one. That is what makes it different – better. (I could not help but think of of Mahathir’s beautiful statement from more than two decades ago: “European values are European values – Eastern values are universal values.”)
While I agree with Zhao that it would indeed be best if a new world order would emerge organically or in my terminology, via self-organization, as such a large and complex entity as the world i.e. world society in its current form cannot be controlled like the Zhou dynasty, that is, hierarchically, I don’t share his optimism that the tianxia ideal will become a reality. Yes, if everyone behaved in the tianxia way, we would not need a world government to save this planet. We could entirely rely on the powers of self-organization that our brains demonstrate so efficiently: no government, but nevertheless stable and highly performing. Neurons don’t lie. Neurons are not greedy or nepotistic. Neurons are very cooperative. They do not need to overcome their egoism and realize a ‘neuronization’ to become authentic. They already transcend all of these to form the one ‘body’ our brain is. (It could be interesting to relate Zhao’s ideas to psychological research, to our efforts in designing a consistent, harmonious self at the cost of suppressing things that don’t match with that vision we have of ourselves – the costs of that procedure are known. The harmonious, ‘worldly’ world would face similar ones.)
But people are not neurons. This is why I disagree with the very first sentence of Zhao’s book. Tianxia is not a theory – it is a story. A beautiful one, no doubt, just like Fukuyama’s i.e. Hegel’s or that of Marx. Reality is to be found somewhere else. In the resistance to these stories for example. For Kant, anyone who aims to describe the course of the world in such a way that it follows reasonable purposes inevitably ends up with a novel. But he also claims: such a philosophy is possible and may even help make this world a reality. He was still optimistic; what he could already observe in the 18th century made him confident that after some revolutions, “finally that which nature has as its highest intention”, a world state, an internally and externally perfect world constitution, would one day come into being. He was skeptical about speeding this process up via reason (“durch eigene vernünftige Veranstaltung”). We all know Hegel’s solution or ‘trick’ if you like: to identify i.e. confuse reason with history. And while Kant and Zhao disagree about how this state can be reached, they do agree on one thing: As long as states devote all their energies to their vain and violent expansionist aspirations instead of striving for the inner formation of their citizens’ way of thinking, the human race will remain in the present, chaotic state of its state relations (So lange aber Staaten alle ihre Kräfte auf ihre eiteln und gewaltsamen Erweiterungsabsuchten verwenden, anstatt sich um die innere Bildung der Denkungsart ihrer Bürger zu bemühen, wird das menschliche Geschlecht in dem gegenwärtigen, chaotischen Zustande seiner Staatsverhältnisse verbleiben).
If tanxia has to rise organically, then why write a book about the need to redefine politics, which is about making collectively binding decisions, not about friendly or severe admonitions? Why recommend replacing the Western universals with better, more ‘worldly’ ones? If tianxia is the political equivalent to organic food, wouldn’t ‘planting’ be a more adequate strategy than ‘implementing’? What seems to be nostalgia could then be interpreted differently, in a Taoist way: as the realization of a reversal (fan). Such reversals usually take place when things have reached their extreme. We can think of the sun’s position or of the seasons. Maybe functional differentiation has reached its zenith and it is time for a turnaround? Then the world will sort itself out. All we have to do is wait.
That leads us back to the start. Zhao does not offer a Tao of Politics, to refer to Capra’s famous book. His philosophy is not about a ‘wu way’. He does not accept the world as it is (zi ran), but promotes a ‘logic of action’ and its universal validity or applicability ‘under all circumstances’. It doesn’t matter whether in Beijing or Bielefeld or Kuala Lumpur or Muskogee, as long as it’s the world. Some politicians of the past (here: Emperor Trajan) have advised against such a logic: “for it is not possible to set out a set rule that would apply regardless of circumstance”. But of course they did not live in a global world. While Trajan addressed the question how the Romans should deal with the Christians – his answer: on a case-by-case basis – Zhao’s logic of action addresses all citizens under the sky on a tianxia basis. He may call it organic (or ‘bio’ as we say in Germany) – it is still a universal logic of action. Which would disqualify it as philosophy. But it certainly qualifies Zhao as a political advisor. Maybe this is why he talks of a failed world: as if it was a state that has disintegrated to a point where basic conditions and responsibilities (in the American version: of a sovereign government) no longer function properly. Which is why it is necessary to provide it with both effectiveness and legitimacy. Only that this time, it is not an individual government supposed to grant stability – but the ‘world sovereign’.
Maybe he should take a look at Plato’s experiences in this regard. For one thing is certain: While the enthronement of tianxia may indeed be able to improve human institutions here and there – something Confucianism already does in Asia – and even cure some of the evils of ‘Western’ life i.e. lifestyle, it will not be able to cure the evils of human life. To quote the world citizen Stefan Zweig: “The followers of a future understanding of humanity must never be unaware that their work is constantly threatened by the eternal irrationality of passion, that again and again in the course of time a torrent of fanaticism, clenched from the primeval depths of the world of human instinct, will tear down all the dams. Almost every new generation experiences such a setback, and it is then their moral duty to endure it without inner confusion.” (Triumph and Tragic of Erasmus of Rotterdam, clumsy translation: me)
To understand that social reality is more contradictory and more fragile than the progress narrative of the West and the world narrative of Zhao would have us believe, one needs to turn to another Eastern philosophical tradition – the one associated with Laozi. Who by the way also lived during the golden days of the Zhou dynasty. Only that this philosophy may not be very helpful with regard to creating a new world order. Which is why he only has three very short appearances in Zhao’s book.
And to understand that a complex, nonlinear system like the world i.e. world society differs fundamentally from a little dynasty, he may need to put away his beloved Habermas and take a look at Niklas Luhmann’s work. Yes, a tianxia interference will cause a reaction. But most probably not the one Zhao has in mind, QED. From Luhmann’s perspective, the smallest political unit is not the individual, but political communication (as Zhao does not seem to like that ‘Western’ idea of the individual as the basic political unit or ‘atom’, it could help him achieve more theoretical consistency; he already gets close to Luhmann’s design when he talks about the inside and outside of politics being defined by politics itself).
To end on a positive note: Zhao brings a Chinese perspective to bear that was missing from the international discourse so far. It is about time that the Western domination of science, the hegemonic character of scientific discourse – an equivalent of the political hegemony of the West – is being challenged and enriched by contemporary Chinese thought. His analysis of American politics for instance is a joy to read – not only because it is as harsh and ruthless as it is correct, but also because he sometimes finds images that stick (for instance when he describes the US as a nation that participates in a global game and at the same time determines its rules). I also think it is important that researchers and scientists take up the challenge to live up to our new global reality. In the case of genetic engineering, it was Peter Sloterdijk who volunteered to philosophically frame the new reality of gene manipulation. He had to cope with similar hostilities as Zhao, and he too was blamed for his origin (nationality). We should therefore first of all be grateful to Zhao, even more so as most Western attempts to find answers to this new situation center around the same old boring distinctions. Society will decide whether his theory will grow organically, inorganically (chemically, i.e. by ‘China farming’) – or end up on the ‘rubbish heap of theories’ that Zhao transported so many of his predecessors to. As damaged and deranged this world may be, at least some of us are free ‘from uncritical adherence to theoretical or ideological schemes’, and can construct their practice on the basis of their experience, while using whatever information or analysis is available to them, from a variety of sources. It is good to have a radical ‘worldist’ like Zhao Tingyang among them – along with Zhao’s colleague Tu Weiming (who also teaches in Beijing), Yu Ying-shih and many others who have been reflecting on the possibilities to expand the Western or euro-centric perspective and help us move towards a world science that is not interested any longer in where a thought comes from – East, West, North or South – but whether it can be used.
Zhao Tingyang (2020). Alles unter einem Himmel, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.
Call for Papers: Political Communication – Dubrovnik 2019
Place: International University Centre (IUC), Dubrovnik, Croatia
Address: Don Frana Bulicá 4 HR – 20000 Dubrovnik, Croatia
Dates: May 29th –31th, 2019
Theme: The conference committee invites contributions, which analyse and discuss political communication based on Niklas Luhmann’s perspective on systems theory. The overall theme of the conference is to promote a better understanding of how political communication codes various areas of contemporary society.
We welcome contributions from scholars who practice and study political communication at all levels of society. The conference is relevant for theoretical and empirical studies in politics, aesthetics, sociology, theology, history, economics, health, psychology, ecology and organization. Contributions are not limited to studies focusing solely on political systems, but may also include politically coded communication in other areas of society. Analytically, systems theory is empirically open. As it turns out, new semantics, different codes, and changing forms transform and develop structures at varying and opposed levels. As such, contributions could, for example, focus on how the media of power is formed; how the code government/opposition informs communication; how double contingency is handled within politically coded communication; which paradoxes emerge in conjunction with political coding and how they unfold. The conference aims to gather scholars working with theoretical and methodological clarifications, as well as empirical studies. Furthermore, contributions are welcome that compare or combine system analysis with other forms of analysis or aim at developing systems theory by including thoughts from other traditions (e.g. Foucault, Bourdieu, Deleuze, analysis of discourse, ANT, STS).
Abstracts of no more than 400 – 800 words should be send to the conference organisers by March 1, 2019 – full papers should be circulated prior to the conference.
Klaus Laursen, Aarhus University, Denmark firstname.lastname@example.org
Steffen Roth, La Rochelle Business School/Yerevan State University, France email@example.com
Markus Heidingsfelder, Xiamen University Malaysia, firstname.lastname@example.org
Gorm Harste, Aarhus University, Denmark
Gina Atzeni, Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich, Germany
Trump wird gern als taktlos beschrieben, was in den Massenmedien als Defizit angesehen wird. Doch was genau ist das, über das er offenbar nicht verfügt? Genauer gefragt: Wie läßt sich ‘Takt’ operationalisieren?
Jedes Routinehandeln kann als taktlos angesehen werden. Es ist geradezu ein Musterfall taktlosen Verhaltens. Denn Takt besteht darin, sein Gegenüber “nach Maßgabe seiner eigenen Selbstdarstellung zu behandeln” (Luhmann 1999: 233). Aus dieser Perspektive wird deutlich, dass nicht nur Trump taktlos handelt, sondern auch die Massenmedien, die ihm Taktlosigkeit vorwerfen. Sie behandeln ihn nicht gemäß seiner Selbstdarstellung als ‘stable mental genius’ (wobei dieser Satz wiederum eine Reaktion auf das Buch von Michael Wolff darstellt, eine enorme Taktlosigkeit), sondern als ‘Idioten’. Zwar wahren selbst die von Trump zu Gegnern stilisierten, traditionellen Zeitungshäuser wie die New York Times oder die Washington Post mehr oder weniger die Form und lassen Taktlosigkeiten nur in den dafür vorgesehenen Meinungsrubriken zu.
Doch genau diese Rubriken erlauben es, die Taktlosigkeit als eigene Form zu kultivieren. Sie tritt allerdings nicht als solche auf, sondern tarnt sich als rationale, gar objektive Stellungnahme. Taktlosigkeit ist also nicht nur eine Frage des Stils. Man kann auch stilvoll taktlos sein – sofern man nicht gewillt ist, dem anderen seine Selbstdarstellung abzukaufen. Dabei geht es gar nicht darum, ob diese gelingt oder nicht, ob sie glaubhaft ist oder Bruchstellen aufweist oder sich – wie im Falle von Trump – gleich selbst dementiert. Es geht allein darum, sein Gegenüber im Hinblick auf die eigene Darstellung zu schonen: “Takt verlangt, dass man den anderen so behandelt, wie er erscheinen möchte, und ihm hilft, einen guten Eindruck zu machen.” (Luhmann 1999: 359)
Aber warum sollte man das tun? Ganz einfach: weil man an einer Fortführung des Kon-Takts interessiert ist. Taktvolles Verhalten tritt deshalb vor allem in Interaktionssituationen auf. Das erklärt, warum die Massenmedien – es sei denn sie übertragen ein Gespräch, also eine Interaktion – weitgehend auf Takt verzichten können. Ist ein Sender an einer Fortführung des Kontaktes interessiert – im Falle von Fox: an einem guten Verhältnis zu Trump – kommt wiederum Takt zum Zuge.
Trumps via Twitter verbreitete Taktlosigkeiten gegenüber Jeff Sessions signalisierten also nicht zuletzt ein Desinteresse an der Fortführung des Kontakts, was von den meisten Beobachtern genau so interpretiert und durch dessen Entlassung schließlich auch verifiziert wurde. Sessions’ Antwort forderte von Trump, ihn gemäß seiner Selbstdarstellung als treuen Staatsdiener zu achten (was insofern problematisch war, weil er damit implizit darauf hinwies, dass er kein ‘Trump guy’ ist; wohl wissend, dass Trump genau das von ihm erwartete). Zu taktvollem Verhalten gehört aber auch, dass man sich mit der eigenen Selbstdarstellung zurückhält. Hier tut sich Trump als besonders taktlos hervor.
Allerdings ist Takt alles andere als eine leichte Übung: er muß rasch, intuitiv erfolgen und erfordert darüber hinaus ein Feingefühl, dass Trump offenbar nicht besitzt. Zu seinen Gunsten sei jedoch gesagt, dass vor allem der Aufrichtige Schwierigkeiten in Taktfragen hat. (Vgl. Luhmann 1999: 359) Ist Trump also schlicht zu aufrichtig? Da er in einem fort die Unwahrheit sagt, zumindest wenn man den ‘fact checkern’ der Massenmedien Glauben schenkt, scheint letzteres nicht zuzutreffen. (Die Washington Post hat sich aufgrund der Vielzahl der Trump’schen Lügen gar bemüßigt gesehen, eine neue Kategorie einzuführen: den “bottomless Pinocchio”.) Es scheint eher um die Aufrechterhaltung des Images eines aufrichtigen bzw. authentischen Präsidenten zu gehen – eines nicht-politischen Präsidenten, der sich im Gegensatz zum professionellen Politiker nicht in der Kunst der Verstellung übt, sondern ‘unverblümt’ sagt, was ihm in den Sinn kommt: “He’s no paragon of deceit, which requires more plotting, patience and discipline than he could ever muster. He’s a geyser of revelations, and in terms of the transparency with which he shows us the most eccentric and ugliest parts of himself, he’s the most honest president in my lifetime.” (Bruni 2018) Das Paradox besteht darin, dass er ausgerechnet mittels seiner Ausfälle (‘lashing-out’) Tugendhaftigkeit für sich beansprucht. Und tatsächlich macht sein Vorbild – seine gleichsam vorbildliche, tüchtige, erfrischende Taktlosigkeit – in den USA zur Zeit Schule.
Doch der eigentliche Grund für Trumps Problem mit dieser “Doppelgleisigkeit” (Luhmann) ist seine ‘Eingleisigkeit’, seine – gleichsam fanatische – Überzeugung, dass es für alle Fälle richtige Situationsauslegungen gibt. “That is probably the worst thing about him – his certainty. That all he knows is all anybody ever need to know.” (Bill Maher) Die Welt des Taktes muss ihm aus dieser Perspektive notwendig wie eine unwirkliche Scheinwelt vorkommen. (Vgl. Luhmann 1999: 359). Diese Vorstellung hängt eng mit seiner Ablehnung der üblichen politischen Umgangsformen inklusive der politischen Rhetorik und der politischen Notwendigkeit der Verstellung zusammen, die professionelle Politiker im Laufe der Zeit lernen. Aus Sicht der Massenmedien ist er schlicht nicht in der Lage, sich zu verstellen, es übersteigt seine kognitiven Kapazitäten: “It’s not merely that this emperor has no clothes. This emperor has no camouflage, at least none that’s consistent and effective.” (Bruni 2018) Trump ignoriert die Funktion des Taktes, weil es ihm nicht um die Vermittlung von Selbstdarstellung und das Interesse des Sozialsystems an der Fortsetzung des Kontakts geht – sondern gleichsam um Selbstdarstellung um jeden Preis.
Auch wenn die Vertreter der Massenmedien in Interaktionssituationen wie den Pressekonferenzen im Weißen Haus den Repräsentanten weitgehend ihre Würde lassen (nicht zuletzt, um künftig ob mangelnden Taktes nicht von ihnen ausgeschlossen zu werden, wie es Jim Acosta widerfuhr) – sobald inkonsistente Fakten sichtbar werden, sind sie nicht mehr an “as if arrangements” (Burns 1953) oder “polite fictions” (auch) interessiert, sondern im Gegenteil daran, Widersprüche des Verhaltens aufzudecken, also Trumps Taktlosigkeiten mit Taktlosigkeiten zu begegnen. Auch hier können sie dem Präsidenten, der sie tagtäglich damit beliefert, dankbar sein.
Takt läßt sich nicht formalisieren, wird also mit Hilfe informaler Normen institutionalisiert, mit Hilfe von Kollegialität und Freundlichkeit. “Wer taktlos und unfreundlich handelt, fällt auf.” (Luhmann) (1999: 362) Da genau das in der Absicht Trumps liegt, kommt es ihm entgegen. Die ‘gute Erziehung’, die eine Sally Yates genossen hat, verbietet es ihr, auf Trumps Attacken einzugehen: “I am not going to dignify that with an answer.” (Yates 2016) Obwohl einer höheren Gesellschaftsschicht entstammend, legt Trump keinen Wert darauf, diesen Status in seinem Verhalten zum Ausdruck zu bringen – womöglich auch um der Darstellung von ‘Volksnähe’ willen. Doch seine Impulsivität, seine mangelnde Wartefähigkeit und Unkontrolliertheit des Ausdrucks scheinen nicht Ausdruck einer wie immer gearteten Taktik zu sein. In der Regel wirken diese verwandten Einstellungen taktstabilisierend, im Falle von Trump stabilisiert ihr Fehlen die Taktlosigkeit. Auch seine via Twitter beglaubigte Unfähigkeit, sich an weiten Zeithorizonten zu orientieren, gehört hierher.
Gerade im Rahmen kollegial-kooperativer oder organisatorischer Arbeitszusammenhänge wird die Individualität der beteiligten Personen ‘herabgedimmt’. Sie ist hier eher hinderlich, denn sie wird schlicht nicht benötigt und deshalb auch kaum honoriert. Der Finanzbeamte, der uns gegenüber seine Individualität herausstellt, wird uns eher skeptisch machen; genau wie der Kollege, der ständig seine Vorliebe für das Werk von Frank Zappa kundtut, anstatt sich auf die Sachaufgabe zu konzentrieren. Takt gebietet uns dann, darüber hinwegzusehen. In der Regel stellt sich unser Gegenüber aber auf diese Grenzen der individuellen Selbstdarstellung ein. Im Falle Trumps können damit weder Parteigenossen, andere Staatsmänner- und frauen noch seine eigene Untergebenen rechnen.
Illustration: Hammad Siddiqui, Trump Structure (2018)