Francis Fukuyama Plays Defense

If a neoconservative, as Irving Kristol once quipped, is a liberal mugged by reality, what should we make of Francis Fukuyama? In 1989, when Fukuyama published his landmark essay, “The End of History?,” he was a thirty-six-year-old political-science Ph.D. with a pristine neocon résumé: he had been Allan Bloom’s protégé at Cornell; an analyst for the RAND Corporation, the military-oriented think tank; and an official in both Ronald Reagan’s and George H. W. Bush’s State Departments. The essay, which Fukuyama later expanded into a book called “The End of History and the Last Man,” characterized the impending collapse of the Soviet Union as part of “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and declared liberal democracy to be the “final form of human government.” And it launched him, practically overnight, as a public intellectual of unusual prominence.

In the thirty-three years since the publication of “The End of History?,” Fukuyama has lightly revised his thesis to accommodate new developments, like the rise of an undemocratic China; explicitly rebuked neoconservatism after the Iraq War; and written more than a dozen more books, bringing the same vast geographical and historical sweep to bear on subjects ranging from biotechnology to the origins of political order. He also supported Barack Obama in 2008 and, in recent years, has endorsed some redistribution of wealth. Fukuyama has, one might say, been cornered by reality, many times over. But, each time, he comes back fundamentally unscathed. “While bullies can still throw their weight around, democracy and capitalism still have no real competitors,” he wrote cheerfully in the Washington Post, in 2008. In 2018, he told The New Statesman that “people should calm down a little bit” about the rise of illiberal governments. For all his concessions to current events and minor shifts in allegiance, Fukuyama has never really given up on his big idea.

As Louis Menand has recounted in this magazine, Fukuyama is a heterodox thinker within any field, be it political theory or foreign policy. “The End of History and the Last Man” relies on an idiosyncratic reading of the German idealist philosopher Hegel, with a sprinkling of Nietzsche. They are not, and were not, exactly part of mainstream American political thought. Nevertheless, Fukuyama’s vision of liberalism—as in the political doctrine that focusses on the rights of individuals rather than any specific political orientations in America or Europe—has been always entertaining and often seductive, even to skeptics. Liberty and equality, he wrote, with characteristic bravado, in “The End of History and the Last Man,” “are not accidents or the results of ethnocentric prejudice, but are in fact discoveries about the nature of man as man.” Such sweeping, affective observations are key to Fukuyama’s style, which spurns data-heavy economics in favor of lofty arguments on the plane of ideas.

His latest undertaking is to make the case for liberalism itself amid various accounts of its decline. These days, proponents of American liberalism are particularly introspective, since the world’s richest and most powerful democracy has been dented by successive illiberal blows, from religiously motivated laws to a violently disputed election. Liberalism could scarcely imagine a better cheerleader in this bleak landscape than Fukuyama, who has a unique skill for imbuing a sometimes ponderous ideology with a narrative thrust.

He mounts his defense in “Liberalism and Its Discontents,” published this month. Why now? It’s not just because, as their critics allege, liberal democracies have failed to live up to their own ideals but also because “many impatient young Gen Z activists in America and Europe regard liberalism as an outmoded baby boomer perspective.” (The typically high-minded Fukuyama, it appears, is not immune to the cruder discourses of the Internet.) This is not his usual macro-history but a slim volume, fewer than two hundred pages, outlining both the virtues and the major critiques of liberalism, and suggesting principles for its preservation.

Right out of the gate, however, Fukuyama sounds defeated. He opens with the defensive assertion that liberalism is not an “ ‘obsolete’ doctrine, but one that continues to be necessary in our present diverse and interconnected world.” In subsequent chapters, he fields a painstaking array of arguments against liberalism. At one point he lists ten critiques in quick succession, among them that it is “self-indulgently consumerist,” “too lackadaisical about achieving genuine social justice,” and “dominated by manipulative elites.” After such a thorough excavation, Fukuyama’s vision for reviving liberalism sounds both laborious and uninspiring. He suggests that liberals restore the ideology’s “normative framework, including its approach to rationality and cognition,” “take federalism seriously,” and “respect a zone of privacy surrounding each individual” in order to promote “democratic deliberation and compromise.” His final recommendation is for moderation, and here’s how he sells it: “Moderation is not a bad political principle in general, and especially for a liberal order that was meant to calm political passions from the start.”

Fukuyama himself admits that most of this is no “rousing endorsement.” And it is even less so coming from the onetime prophet of liberalism’s triumph. In fact, the most interesting narrative that emerges from this book may be the evolution of its author’s tone, from evangelism to damage control.

For Fukuyama, the big surprise of liberalism’s trajectory after the Cold War has been the scope and impact of neoliberalism—the free-market reforms of deregulation, privatization, and austerity that began in earnest in the nineteen-seventies. He believes that neoliberalism, as opposed to classical liberalism, has tanked liberalism’s reputation among young people today. Although many neoliberal policies started half a century ago, their effects, like excessive inequality and financial instability, are more plainly visible to him now.

Neoliberalism is not a complete theory of justice, morals, or the good life but a narrower set of ideas about political and economic institutions, and how they should work in the service of free markets. It emerged, in Fukuyama’s account, as a valid reaction to bloated mid-century welfare states in the U.S. and Europe, but was then “pushed to a counterproductive extreme.” Internationally, institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank sought to undo capital controls in many other countries, triggering financial crises with “alarming regularity.” Some neoliberal reformers in the U.S. and abroad also rolled back the social-welfare policies that had improved their fellow-citizens’ quality of life. Fukuyama writes all this off as an anomalous hijacking of liberal principles: “Liberalism properly understood is compatible with a wide range of social protections provided by the state.”

But is neoliberalism really separable from what Fukuyama dubs classical liberalism? The distinction has long been fuzzy; the twentieth-century Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, for one, was both a vocal defender of classical liberalism and a co-founder of the Mont Pelerin Society, the international neoliberal forum, in 1947. And Fukuyama stumbles in characterizing neoliberalism as liberal individualism pushed to right-wing extremes. As the historian Quinn Slobodian has argued, the pioneers of neoliberalism were not focussed on individuals’ rights; they were concerned, primarily, with the institutions of markets. Neoliberalism has not only been about tearing down regulations so that people can buy things more freely but about actively building and reinforcing institutions, like the World Trade Organization, that insulate markets around the world from the vagaries of nation-states and democracies.

After five decades of privatization and austerity around the world, it is nearly impossible to picture any liberal democracy today without its neoliberal institutions. And Fukuyama doesn’t really try, offering only a tepid suggestion to redistribute some wealth in order to offset inequality “at a sustainable level, where [social protections] do not undercut incentives and can be supported by public finance on a long-term basis.” (A colleague of Kristol’s riffed that a neoliberal is “a liberal who got mugged by reality, but has refused to press charges.”) After reading Fukuyama’s chapter on neoliberalism, it becomes clear that the task ahead for liberals isn’t more abstract argumentation but, rather, devising practical ways to curb the regulations and bodies that push democracies to serve markets instead of their citizens.

But Fukuyama has been anticipating certain other problems with liberalism for decades. In “The End of History and the Last Man,” he wondered whether, even after the collapse of rival ideologies like communism, liberalism might contain the seeds of its own decline. “Could we assume that successful democratic societies could remain that way indefinitely? Or is liberal democracy prey to serious internal contradictions, contradictions so serious that they will eventually undermine it as a political system?” Fukuyama wrote, presciently, in 1992. At the time, he concluded that it did not—but he did accurately identify several sore spots: liberal societies tended to “atomize and separate people,” were deleterious to community life, and would continue to harbor inequality. What he had underestimated was the extent to which liberal societies could breed hyper-individualistic consumers, obsessed with “self-actualization” and identity at the expense of politics and public-spiritedness.

Fukuyama is clearly flummoxed by the scale at which these threats have escalated. And he tries to make sense of it by briefly turning the floor over to communitarian critics of liberalism, who grasped such issues much earlier. In doing so, he retraces a major debate of the nineteen-eighties, which followed John Rawls’s seminal liberal treatise, “A Theory of Justice,” from 1971. While Rawlsian liberalism posits that humans are fundamentally autonomous, communitarians like Michael Sandel, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Walzer argue that they are fundamentally shaped by their communities. And whereas liberalism protects individuals’ rights to choose their own versions of the good life, the communitarians countered that states or other communities should take an active role in shaping a common good. Such arguments have recently returned to the public sphere, from both the left and right. They touch a nerve for many in the U.S., who, despite living in the world’s richest country, may still feel they lack community, shared values, or hopeful future.

Fukuyama scrupulously entertains several communitarian critiques, and even repudiates Rawls for his “elevation of choice over all other human goods.” But he never convincingly accounts for the social and moral voids that plague today’s liberal societies. He turns instead to a taxonomy of “thick” and “thin” political visions. (These terms were also trotted out in earlier liberal-communitarian debates; Walzer wrote a book titled “Thick and Thin,” in 1994.) “Successful liberal societies have their own culture and understanding of the good life, even if that vision may be thinner than those offered by societies bound by a single religious doctrine,” Fukuyama writes. He finds the conservative critique that liberal societies “provide no strong common moral horizon around which community can be built” to be “true enough,” but struggles to come up with ways to “reimpose a thicker moral order.” Wearily, he concludes that this “thinness” is a “feature and not a bug” of life under liberalism.

Were Fukuyama really hoping to convince the skeptics, he could have easily reached within liberalism’s own history for examples of how it can enrich, rather than erode, the social fabric. In late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century England, the liberalisms expounded by reformist economists like William Beveridge and J. A. Hobson helped establish the modern welfare state, as the Oxford scholar Michael Freeden has shown. For them, liberalism was not just about protecting free choice but also about actively generating the conditions for individuals to flourish. In the U.S., Progressive-era liberals like Herbert Croly, who co-founded The New Republic, in 1914. saw liberalism as about more than abstract equal rights; it was also about concrete things like higher wages and a social safety net.

Rather than showing how such visions of welfare have been part and parcel of liberal democracies, Fukuyama avers only that liberal democracies “remain superior to the illiberal alternatives.” Alternatives from the left are largely reduced to caricature; Fukuyama’s bogeymen of a “progressive post-liberal society” include the evaporation of national borders, “essentially meaningless” citizenship, and “anarchist” rule along the lines of the short-lived autonomous zones that arose in Seattle and Portland in the summer of 2020. Having summoned such stand-ins for the left on one end, and the more obviously undesirable spectre of right-wing illiberalism on the other, Fukuyama absolves himself from having to truly confront the social and material deprivation of liberalism’s subjects.

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