Liberalism and Its Discontents by Francis Fukuyama. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 182 pages.
“In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something fundamental has happened in world history.” These were the seminal opening words of Francis Fukuyama’s article “The End of History?” published in the summer 1989 edition of The National Interest. Fukuyama, then a policy planner at the State Department, offered a simple, unoriginal, yet provocative thesis: humanity was on the precipice of a “post-historical world.” Rather than preparing for war, or for disorder at the mercy of communism’s coming demise, the world should prepare for a permanent end to imperial and ideological conflict. “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea,” Fukuyama wrote, was within sight. Our destiny, the world’s destiny, was liberal democracy: a Pax Liberalismus spurred by American global supremacy.
Months later, in November of 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The Eastern European bloc, then the Soviet Union, crumbled and collapsed in two years. Fukuyama had been dismissed by some as a self-indulgent charlatan. “I don’t believe a word of it,” said the neoconservative writer Irving Kristol. Yet now Fukuyama found widespread attention—and a new public role—as a prescient analyst. U.S. policymakers, the media, and the American intelligentsia turned Fukuyama’s hypothesis into prognostication—and into triumphalism. Here was confirmation that forty years of Cold War was worth it. The United States finally had the “the long peace” that supposedly justified proxy wars and killing fields, with Vietnamese children burned by American napalm bombs, with disappeared people in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, with military support for brutal regimes in Central America and the Middle East, and all the rest.
Fukuyama was present at the creation of history’s future. “All I can say is, if people can’t take a joke . . . ,” he would later say about the impact of his essay. But he took it seriously enough to turn his article into a 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, earning him international acclaim, a devoted readership, and teaching positions at George Mason University, Johns Hopkins University, and Stanford, where he is currently a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
It is now thirty years since the publication of The End of History and the Last Man. One might say again that “something fundamental has happened in world history.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has remade the landscape of the inconceivable. Land wars, wars for territory and prestige, are back. The war in Ukraine also comes as a global pandemic has transformed government’s responsibility to the public. We are regularly subjected to pronouncements that neoliberalism is dead, that a deregulated state trusting in market imperatives no longer serves the public good.
The world has been remade again. Yet if there were reasons to be optimistic about democracy in 1989, there’s little of that now: instead, fears about the demise of liberal democracy are rampant—in Europe and in the United States as much as anywhere else. So, now, as white nationalism and necropolitics animates the U.S. Republican Party, as over one million Americans have died from the Covid-19 virus, and as climate change has wreaked unmitigated, irreversible damage to world stability—not to mention mass incarceration operating as the primary solution to unemployment and poverty—what ambitions demarcate our era, what paradigm will determine our new order? What is to be done, dear Francis?
The best Fukuyama can muster, as conveyed in his new book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, is to mount a “defense of classical liberalism.” He’s looking backward, at what went wrong. The right and the left have distorted liberalism, attacked its premises, eroded its value, he argues. The right let neoliberalism run amok, while the left took refuge in identity politics that destroyed “modes of discourse” that stimulate free thinking. As a result, he implies, the liberalism of the post-Cold War moment is waning. Après Francis, le déluge.
It turns out that Fukuyama doesn’t like what history’s end has wrought. Liberalism has been corrupted by bad actors on all sides who have lost faith in its tenets: free speech, universal tolerance, and human equality. Rampant consumerism has atomized public interactions and suffocated civic life. Only “a sense of moderation, both individual and communal” can restore faith in the promise liberalism seemed to offer three decades ago. We need to return to Cold War liberalism, to the principles of liberalism that made it an emancipating philosophy nearly a half-century ago. We have to turn back.
Fukuyama was not the first to predict the end of history—far from it. Fukuyama is most enamored with the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in many ways the subject of The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama sought to marry Immanuel Kant’s vision of humankind’s “perfectibility” with Hegel’s theory of historical dialectics in arguing for liberal democracy as a verifiable endpoint to centuries of war and conflict. Fukuyama’s more contemporary antecedents included Daniel Bell, whose 1960 book The End of Ideology argued that the defeat of fascism and the illegitimacy of communism meant that “the old nineteenth-century ideologies and intellectual debates have become exhausted.”
Fukuyama is often called a neoconservative, but he is first and foremost an anti-materialist. In Fukuyama’s view, ideas have ontological, independent power; they shape human destiny without attachment to politics or economics—to political economy. People operate on a quotidian level based on their intellectual frameworks for understanding events. Economics will inform ideas, but ideas and culture determine human history. Fukuyama’s follow-up to The End of History was Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, published in 1995. He argued that shared trust among individuals allows collaborations between capital and labor that foster close-knit, stable families, and communities that can reconcile the contradictions between capitalism and democracy in daily life. “All successful economic societies . . . are united by trust” among citizens, he wrote.
Since those books in the 1990s, we saw world-shaking events: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2008 financial crisis, and the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Fukuyama weathered the storms by writing a series of ambitious books that tackled arcane, academic subjects but with clear, crisp prose and erudition. Among his best is The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay, a serious, sweeping, two-volume world history that focused on the development of modern states, on the transition between monarchical and democratic regimes. He then moved back into contemporary politics with the 2018 publication of Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. Among the key takeaways from Identity, Fukuyama argued that a “desire for recognition” determines the health of the individual and the state; that institutions of democratic governance can decay and die if deprived of universal, predetermined liberal values; that current obsessions with “identity politics”—whether determined by race, gender, nation, or sexual orientation—inhibit the cultural and social pluralism that tolerates differences (and differing opinions) and safeguards political order.
Fukuyama is now included among a cadre of centrists who’ve built careers advocating for a liberalism that avoids “extremes”—always evolving—on the left and the right since 2016. But unlike those making a career out of easy posturing against “illiberalism” and “populism,” Fukuyama actually cares about ideas. In addition to Kant, Marx, and Hegel, Fukuyama has read his Lacan, Marcuse, and Foucault—the leading lights of leftist, postmodern political theory. He is also well-versed in Freud, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. Fukuyama is a serious thinker, even willing to take on neoconservative and centrist ideologues—as he did in his book America at the Crossroads, which critiqued the 2003 Iraq War from the right. He is someone who surprises readers with transient moments of contrarianism.
In his current defense of classical liberalism, he swerves against neoliberalism. It may have started from a good place—“its premises were often correct” according to Fukuyama—but it created an “irrational” reaction against government where “economic efficiency” overrode “all other social values.” Fukuyama’s takedown of neoliberalism makes the book an interesting read for a moment, but it becomes hollow and deflating as the criticism gets lost in his attachment to “economic individualism” as the locus of liberalism. All we get then is the realization that neoliberalism went off the rails because its foundations were “historically contingent.” Attention neoliberals: beware of history.
While neoliberals have corrupted individualism from the right, Fukuyama affixes blame on the political left for their own perversion of “individual autonomy.” Fukuyama’s main enemy here is John Rawls, author of the 1971 book A Theory of Justice. Fukuyama faults Rawls for “the absolutization of autonomy, and the elevation of choice over all other human goods.” Rawls articulated the theory of a “property-owning democracy” that ensured the individual was invested in their own pursuits, their life’s purpose, through the help of a redistributive welfare state. The result, however, according to Fukuyama, was a solipsism that protected individual interest at the expense of universal rights.
From Rawls, Fukuyama draws a crooked line to the dangers of identity politics. Postmodern political theory has spilled too much ink on misguided attacks against liberalism for its inattentiveness to racial inequalities; for those who feel that “liberalism is more procedural than substantive”; that it prohibits radical reforms; and that it is the handmaiden of a neoliberal era that has reinforced the status quo. Once more, Fukuyama acknowledges, these critiques have “a number of true observations,” but they get carried to “unsupportable extremes.” These extremes become attacks on rationality, on the scientific method for not affirming the concerns of specific groups. Liberalism’s critics have created a “cognitive crisis,” as identity politics have strayed from the “premise of universal human equality.”
Meanwhile, we have retreated into online fantasies, echo chambers of false information that affirm selective versions of reality. This leads Fukuyama to make some useful points about “mistaking . . . words for actual power,” a good lesson for all liberals and their critics, but then slips into lazy both-sidesism. “Progressives and white nationalists come together in valuing raw feeling and emotion over cold empirical analysis,” we are told.
The only hope is to return liberalism to its general principles: tolerance, good governance and federalism, freedom of speech, individual rights, and yes, moderation. Our decades of liberalism have produced a lack of appreciation for it among its beneficiaries. We have instead become “complacent” and are now able to castigate liberalism without fear of the consequences to liberalism’s long-term health. In this sense, we have ended up where Fukuyama feared we would be in 1989, with the “prospect of centuries of boredom” materializing in less than half a century. How convenient for him.
Fukuyama writes that he is not concerned with policy; his book is about the principles of liberalism. That is too bad, because it prevents him from wrestling with the contradictions of classical liberalism. In historical terms, classical liberalism’s embrace of individual and property rights after the Glorious and American Revolutions meant liberals saw no problem with slavery, with women treated not just as second-class citizens, but as property. Classical liberalism collapsed in the twentieth century because abolitionists, suffragists, and labor unions pointed out these contradictions, which made free-market ideology the lingering feature of classical liberalism. In rejecting the notion that illiberalism is produced from liberalism, Fukuyama ignores how the two are concurrent—how liberalism can tolerate inequality to the point that it will undo its principles.
There also is a great deal more to be said about liberalism and the “liberal world order.” Missing from Fukuyama’s book is any substantive discussion of United States foreign policy. There are references to Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan as either “failed states” or “struggling developing states,” but he chooses to ignore how the fall of communism engendered U.S. imperial adventurism that led to failed projects of nation-building. How did liberalism allow for the expansion of exorbitant military power—even if Fukuyama wants to argue liberalism did not create it—to the point that it curtailed the rights of peoples at home and abroad, that gave license for interventionism without restraint; that deprived Iraqis, Afghanis, and Somalians of another fundamental principle of liberalism: the right to live?
Liberalism and its Discontents ultimately offers readers a worldview that rejects progress in favor of revanchism. Fukuyama turns out not to be the neoconservative he is often labeled, but a conservative akin to Edmund Burke, someone who would prefer a lasting plutocracy over a liberalism that might temporarily destabilize society so that, in time, more individuals obtained political rights. Whereas the neoconservative project is premised on global disruption—what is more disorderly that forcing, and enforcing, democratic governance through the barrel of a gun?—Fukuyama’s project is anti-modern. He wants a liberalism without liberals—since the current ones apparently don’t uphold what he defends: a liberalism, in Fukuyama’s words, that would entail “equal individual rights, law, and freedom” for all.
This position, in many ways, is a distortion, even a caricature of liberalism, one that conflates the left with liberals. There are number of legitimate critiques of liberalism: its obsession with technocracy (that facilitated the rise of Silicon Valley), with substituting education and “self-consciousness” for political action, for its proclivity to conjure foreign enemies to justify a national purpose that distracts from liberals’ failures to address inequities at home. But above all, Fukuyama seems upset that most of the left has not settled for invoking “individual rights and freedom” as the way to tackle the crises of 2022.
This makes Fukuyama’s defense of liberal democracy in the twenty-first century even more curious, given that Fukuyama does not seem to like modern democracy—movements for racial, economic, and gender justice get short thrift—or modern liberalism—which, at is core, believes in universal rights and the progress, if not perfectibility, of humankind to the benefit of the most marginalized in society. There is also something strange, even tragic, about embracing “tolerance” for liberal ideas but writing a book that discredits liberalism and left-wing political projects working to create universal acceptance for Americans within identitarian categories: a legal means to end employment discrimination against LGBTQ Americans, breaking down barriers to citizenship and legal rights for immigrants, or efforts to roll back state restrictions that prevent Blacks from voting.
On the one hand, therefore, Fukuyama has a book-length straw man. For what sane liberal, small “d” democrat (the primary audience of his book) does not support tolerance and individual rights? On the other, it is hard to see how classical liberals could rectify societal ills today—even if those ills were exclusively the fault of individuals. This is the paradox Fukuyama has made.
To the extent that Fukuyama’s version of classical liberalism exists in the present, one needs to look no further than the Joe Biden administration. Biden has theoretically rejected the shibboleths of neoliberals while avoiding social democracy in the form of universal health care programs, full employment policies, and a Green New Deal. During his 2020 campaign, Biden also pledged a “national commitment to freedom, tolerance, and inclusivity” for all Americans. Fukuyama might be unsatisfied with that agenda, but so are most American voters, who currently give Biden a 39.6 percent approval rating due in part to rising gas prices and the limits of his “post-neoliberal” economic agenda. Thus far, Biden’s liberalism cannot compete with obstructionists like Joe Manchin or Republican Party reactionaries who stoke Americans’ fears, hatreds, and intolerance.
Given the existential crises we confront as a globe, we should receive Fukuyama’s classical liberalism as would a congregation of Southern Evangelicals forced to sit through a defense of polytheism: with a mixture of confusion, boredom, and anger. “Classical liberalism” is practically moot in our era. It is a liberalism without the power to create change. Classical liberalism, like much of liberalism today, is performative—gesturing toward democracy but never moving us toward equality.
Liberalism and its Discontents can be read as an inadvertent indictment of the past thirty years of history and what we have done to make sense of it. Fukuyama would prefer that capital not be rapacious, that people not be selfish political beings, that materialism not yield greed, that we chasten the impulse to confirm our preconceived biases. No such world exists. And it cannot, given how the events after the Cold War were interpreted in ways that led us to this moment. Fukuyama’s argument relies on world history to rewrite his own, to correct the history he failed to foresee in 1989. For teleology, whether in the hands of historians or former government officials, is ultimately a reactionary and artificial effort to attribute order to complexity. Unable to arrange history in a triumphalist narrative, in an arc that bends toward democracy, Fukuyama asks us to forget the present to preserve the past.