Francis Fukuyama, Liberalism and its Discontents, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022. 192 pages.
Francis Fukuyama shot into prominence as the Cold War was ending in the early 1990s, with his The End of History and the Last Man. A Hegelian-inspired reading of where the world might be heading, the book was a celebration of liberal democracy as the final stage at which history had arrived. It brings to mind William Wordsworth’s Prelude with its line about the beginning of the French Revolution. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” For in the 1990s, liberal democracy was on the rise in many parts of the world where it had previously been in eclipse – eastern Europe, Latin America, South Africa.
Clio has not been kind to Fukuyama’s celebratory vision. The decades that followed the 1990s have seen significant regression from liberal democracy in country after country, with the current wave of authoritarian regimes and illiberal populist parties putting paid to any notion of liberal democracy as the necessary ideal that people throughout the world could aspire to or achieve. To be fair to Fukuyama, he has not been an ideologue wedded to his original thesis. He has gone on to author a number of books of high quality, in particular two volumes spanning millennia of state building and more recent democratic aspirations, The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay.
He has now written a shorter essay which probes the current status of liberalism as a credo and the challenges it faces from both right and left. Its primary focus is on the United States, but it has larger implications for the era in which we find ourselves.
According to Fukuyama, classical liberalism had a number of key premises – individualism, egalitarianism, universalism, the right to autonomy and the procedural importance of law. No less important in the more recent period has been its association with values like diversity, the protection of human dignity, economic growth through markets and modernization.
But some of liberalism’s core principles have been pushed to the extreme by its opponents. On the right, neoliberalism Chicago school–style – with its irrational opposition to government intervention, denigration of social solidarity and promotion of the selfish individual – has turned the efficacy of markets into something of a religion. In the process, a necessary balance between the principle of personal responsibility and state support under adverse conditions has been lost.
On the left, the proponents of identity politics with respect to gender, race and the like were justified in pointing to serious limitations in the original liberal formulation. But what began as a criticism of liberalism’s failure to live up to its own ideals turned into a critique of liberal ideas themselves. In the process, group rights came to trump individual rights, and the door was opened to intolerant forms of behaviour toward speech or actions that deviated from newly proclaimed norms.
In an interesting section of his essay, Fukuyama points to a parallel between the critique of rationality and science that can be traced back to figures like Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault and corresponding critiques on the right. Postmodernism fostered a conspiratorial attitude toward the subversive power of ruling capitalist elites, and a mirror hostility came to pervade the view of the alt-right toward technocratic and educated elites seeking to tell their inferiors how best to live and behave.
Threats to freedom of speech, Fukuyama notes, can come clearly enough from authoritarian leaders and governments of one stripe or another. But they can also come when media power is concentrated in too small a set of hands, when standards of civility and rational argument are thrown overboard, when platforms in social media simply reinforce existent beliefs and preferences.
For Fukuyama, neither right nor left provides a viable alternative to a well-ordered liberal society. A return to some kind of religiously bound order which traditionalists on the right might prefer is not on, at least in the Western world. Conversely, the introduction of identity politics into every sphere of ordinary life, as some on the left would propose, will not carry the day either, and neither will inordinate taxes on the wealthy.
In his penultimate chapter, on the question of national identity, Fukuyama recognizes that there is a tension between the universalist claims about human rights that liberals are prone to make and the particularist attachments of nationalists. But nation-states dominate the present world order, and the ability to enforce rights rests with them. So while pursuing universal ideals, liberals need to take appeals to patriotism and cultural traditions seriously.
He concludes his essay with a recapitulation of key liberal principles that need to be upheld. These include the need to avoid extreme inequality in society, a degree of devolution of power through federalism or subsidiarity, freedom of speech, the primacy of individual rights over the rights of cultural groups, and the need to prioritize public-spiritedness, tolerance and open-mindedness.
There is much in Fukuyama’s essay that will appeal to those of a liberal temper. But the same is unlikely to be true for those who, for one reason or another, see liberalism as a bogeyman of sorts. For those of a more conservative temper, it opens the door to excessive diversity as an end in itself, insufficient respect for the values of tradition and religion, and a cult of universalism that goes uneasily with the rooted societies in which we live. For many on the left, it is still caught up with an earlier history of colonialism which most liberals of the day supported, and with a set of capitalist values that, in light of the climate-related crisis we face, are even more ominous today than in the past. For these critics, liberalism is a comfortable doctrine for those in the top tiers of a hopelessly unequal planet headed for the rocks.
Though I lean to the left, I am prepared to be more generous in my assessment of Fukuyama’s essay. I like his willingness to admit liberalism’s historical failures or deficiencies on a range of issues like colonialism or equal rights for all; his insistence on the need for an active role for government to counter the limitations of the market; and his emphasis on the importance of universal rights and freedoms as ideals, even if they cannot always be realized in practice.
But what perhaps endeared me most to Fukuyama’s essay was the Greek precept “meden agan” – “nothing in excess” – with which he ended his essay. By pure coincidence, I concluded my 2020 memoir Itineraries: An Intellectual Odyssey with exactly the same precept, emphasizing the need for balance in our lives and, by implication, in the way in which our societies can function. There is still much that we moderns can learn from the ancients, and Fukuyama, to his credit, has taken this verity to heart.