Liberalism and Its Discontents: Francis Fukuyama on the Future of History

Francis Fukuyama at Fronteiras do Pensamento São Paulo

Francis Fukuyama at Fronteiras do Pensamento São Paulo

Poor Francis. History didn’t end after all. Neither did liberalism triumph over the forces of evil. Possibly one of the most misunderstood or misinterpreted books of recent times, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man[1] did not necessarily imply a happy ending to humankind’s convoluted narrative. Rather, Prof Fukuyama argues that, after the inglorious demise of communism, democratic liberalism remains as the only viable political edifice able to promote wellbeing, ensure freedom, and shelter diversity.

In a slender new tome, Liberalism and Its Discontents[2], the professor rather bravely takes on all those conspiring to derail the establishment from the exotic fringes on both the far left and right of the spectrum. Prof Fukuyama is not the first to map discontent and subject the disgruntled to rigorous analysis. He is, however, the most experienced of diagnosticians.

Written before Russia’s latest assault on a neighbour got underway, Prof Fukuyama’s book proposes an inward look rather than an investigation of the forces that shaped contemporary (geo)political reality. The academic is most interested in how liberalism deals with its critics and deflects their often-misinformed attacks.

A palpable sense of urgency lends coherence to the book – and provides it with a clear purpose. Prof Fukuyama stresses the need for democratic liberalism to overcome its natural shyness and cast aside its tendency towards constant self-reflection. He argues that liberal democracies must reclaim the narrative, and deliver improved outcomes, lest authoritarians seize and carry the day.

Me, Myself, and I

Helpfully, Prof Fukuyama reminds his readers that democracy and liberalism are distinct concepts that do not always travel together; although when they do, magic can happen.

Liberalism as practiced in, say, Singapore (or Hong Kong before its fall) is quite authoritarian whilst Viktor Orban’s Hungary and Narendra Modi’s India prove that democracies can also become quite illiberal.

Prof Fukuyama directs most of his ire to free-market thinkers on the right and sociocultural warriors of the left. Both extremes seem most preoccupied with ensuring and protecting the sovereignty of the individual – a fashionable concept first masterfully captured in the 2002 Adam Curtis documentary The Century of Self[3]. They seem less interested in the collective or just pay lip service to the concept for political convenience.

Dogmatic followers of neoliberal thinkers like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman wish to entrust and expose the individual to the invisible hand of the free and unfettered market, considering that most, if not all, interference from the state – the embodiment of the collective – detracts from the sovereignty of self.

The sociocultural warrior, of course impeccably woke, wishes to confine the individual to ever-smaller identity groups: cocoons where existentialist angst is carefully formulated and cultivated – and invariably redefined as a form of oppression. However, such angst is never expunged for that would, of course, defeat the purpose of the exercise. Freud is alive and well in progressive politics.

On the left, Prof Fukuyama identifies several culprits: Herbert Macuse of the Frankfurter School who provided the disruptive 1960s with a philosophical framework – “tolerance equals repression” – and radical feminist Carole Pateman who considers liberalism just another excuse to perpetuate patriarchy.

Alt-Truth’s Founding Fathers

Charles Mills, the inventor of the much-maligned critical race theory, also gets a few swipes from Prof Fukuyama’s sharp mind and pen. Prof Mills, who passed away last year, dismissed liberalism as another form of institutionalised racism: almost every societal ill may be traced and attributed to racial injustice.

As such, Mills is little different from the likes of Michael X, an unapologetic racist who preached black power and violent revolution but turned out to be an ordinary drug pusher and murderer. In 1975, he was hanged in a Port of Spain gaol.

More consequential, French philosopher Michel Foucault gets blasted by Prof Fukuyama for undermining trust in science. He was, in a sense, the first to validate alt-truth and discard verifiable fact as merely another opinion. Foucault, who died in 1984, would likely be most shocked to see his thought appropriated by the populist and nationalist right.

The philosopher suspected that the ‘language of science’ had been appropriated by ‘shadowy elites’ to mask and justify the oppression of marginalised people. As such, Foucault and his structuralism aided and abetted – albeit ‘avant la lettre’ – today’s conspiracy-obsessed contrarians.

Prof Fukuyama goes on to explain that liberalism emerged in the seventeenth century and represented an admission that people are unlikely to agree on most of life’s important topics such as, say, religion.

To avoid natural tension boiling over into violence, liberalism introduced effective antidotes such as tolerance and equality under law. Government was to ensure the rule of law and proportional representation under a constitution that respected the rights of all – most importantly, the right to disagree, but pointedly not the right to disobey.

Today’s protesters should, perhaps, be reminded of the unsolicited advice dispensed by the French-Russian philosopher Alexandre Kojève (1902-1968) to the generation of ’68 as it stood on the cusp of upsetting the establishment: “Learn Greek.”

It was Kojève who first suggested history was at its end. In fact, he argued that the French Revolution had buried history because the advent of the self-evident ‘rational supremacy’ of a regime of ‘rights and equal recognition’ did away with the need for violent struggle. Regrettably, humans mostly run on emotion, not rationality.

Finding the Lost Commons

On the far right, the diversity that thrives in liberal societies is seen as an attack on, and the undermining of, the hegemonic culture and ethnicity. To them, liberalism is its own worst enemy and contains within a similar contradiction as the one identified by Karl Marx in capitalism: the seed of its own destruction.

Populists and nationalists reject the rule of law when this law is used to guarantee the freedom of ‘other people’. Meanwhile, the far left buries diversity under identity politics and pigeonholes people according to their individual beef with wider society.

Whilst interesting and an excellent summary of the issues assailing contemporary politics, Prof Fukuyama’s latest book is perhaps not as captivating or insightful as some of his earlier work. It reads like an extended lament on the demise of the political centre and, in parallel, the shrinking of the societal commons.

The author proposes to address the issues he raised with a compact to-do list that includes, amongst others, a return to ‘impersonal government’, a reappraisal of the principle of subsidiarity, and a toning down of group demands. All good ideas, no doubt, but somewhat unlikely to be implemented anytime soon.

The political centre, the glue that keeps stratified societies together, thrives on the existence of a solid commons. However, that commons has been privatized and deregulated. It is now owned by profit-seeking businesses and exploited for the benefit of their shareholders.

In other words, the citizens’ stake in society has gradually decreased with a corresponding increase in the rather narrow-minded individualism that lurks behind the identity politics of victimology. We are no longer stakeholders in society but have been reduced to a commodity to be exploited by both business and politics. We may be the 99% but also have 99 reasons to disagree and diverge. The one-percenters grow rich out of that.

An impersonal government based on subsidiarity is all good and well but probably not enough to restore the sense of belonging that both the right and left seem to clamour for. There is common ground; it only needs to be rediscovered, remapped, and reclaimed.

[1] The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama. Free Press 1992. 418pp, out of print, ISBN 978-0-2419-9103-9

[2] Liberalism and Its Discontents by Francis Fukuyama. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2022. 192pp, hardcover, $22.99, ISBN 987-0-3746-0671-8

[3] The Century of Self by Adam Curtis.


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