Liberalism and its Discontents, Francis Fukuyama. Book review by Iain Macwhirter


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THE American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, has made a career out of error. He announced the end of the story in a seminal work in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. History has been taking revenge on him for 30 years. It has at least allowed him to publish a succession of books insisting that he never really meant it.

Of course, he never meant that the story ended completely. It doesn’t do that. What he meant was that liberal democracy, modeled on the United States of America and Europe, was now the only game in town, historically speaking. It was no longer possible to conceive of an alternative social and economic system, broadly speaking, to liberal capitalism.

Even China had turned to the light like the industrial workshop of the West. Southeast Asia was on the same path and Africa would eventually get there too. Nor is there any longer an intellectual challenge to liberal democracy, since totalitarian nationalism and Marxist communism have both fallen into the dustbin of history.

Well, it’s a very chastened Francis Fukuyama that emerges in his latest book, Liberalism and Its Discontents. That he had to publish his last book on the eve of a war that deeply shook liberal democracy is a fitting climax to Mr. Fukuyama’s work.

So what is this system that seemed so efficient thirty years ago and feels clearly fragile today, and not only because of the authoritarian imperialism of Vladimir Putin. Liberalism is not just individual freedom from arbitrary state control, as in the classical definition. Fukuyama’s idea of ​​liberalism rests on three essential pillars: democracy, freedom of expression and the scientific method. All three are under attack, not just in Ukraine, but in the citadel of liberal capitalism, America.

The United States is torn apart by left and right illiberal movements fueled by social media.

On the right, Donald Trump’s America First populism. Trumpism has obvious anti-democratic and anti-science elements. His supporters stormed the Capitol building after he refused to accept the result of the 2020 presidential election. In his wake emerged online conspiracy theories ranging from the bizarre QANON, which claimed the Party Democrat was a front for pedophiles, to the paranoid belief that Covid is a Deep State mythos designed to rob Americans of their manhood.

Fukuyama also sees deep anti-liberal and anti-democratic tendencies on the left. He is not passionate about contemporary “identity politics”: radicalism based on race, gender or religion rather than class. He has been widely criticized for suggesting, as he does in this book, that the left is partly responsible for generating a right-wing mirror image of racial identity politics in the form of white nationalism. According to Fukuyama, identity politics revived, in a progressive form, the ethnic and racial nationalist thought of the 19th century.

He sees identity politics as a kind of perversion of liberalism. The original goal was to sort of level up: to ensure that racial, sexual and religious minorities had the same rights and opportunities. Affirmative action, wealth redistribution and other social goals are entirely compatible, he says, with liberalism. They are the product of the “justice as fairness” worldview of liberal philosopher John Rawls.

But something got lost along the way. Instead of treating everyone the same, regardless of race, religion or gender – the “colorblind” philosophy of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King – the promoters, first of multiculturalism and then of identity politics began to see these minority groups as exclusive moral communities in their own right. “Whiteness” itself has been demonized in a kind of reverse racism.

Proponents of what in America is called critical race theory say treating everyone equally is just a front to perpetuate “white privilege.” Liberal democracy is also a sham designed to conceal structural inequalities of wealth and power.

Identity politics ultimately leads to the moral relativism and extinction of universality that is at the heart of liberalism. So-called “intersectionality” on the left pits minority groups against each other – jostling to position themselves in a hierarchy of victimhood. Are black trans people more oppressed than straight black women? Who’s deciding ? LGBTQIA+ points to an endless train of new subdivisions of perceived oppression. Only the straight white male is out of reach, incapable of redemption, in this brave new world.

Critical race and gender theory is underpinned, says Fukuyama, by post-structuralist thought derived primarily from French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault argued that the very language we use in politics, literature, and science hides hidden biases and oppressive meanings. His successors, like the philosopher Jacques Derrida, provided tools to “deconstruct” the language of what might be called bourgeois patriarchal thought in order to expose its hidden meanings.

Even the terms “masculine” and “feminine” are viewed as suspect categories that load gender assumptions and exclude transgender people. Some feminists view science itself as an oppressive male mode of worldview.

Fukuyama is appalled that many radical scholars now view free speech itself as suspect and attempt to suppress or “cancel” ideas they disagree with. Identity’s emphasis on language, as an expression of hidden power, has led to the belief that certain words are themselves capable of doing harm.

Hence the demand that certain ideas not be expressed, such as the “gender critical” opinions of feminists who say that sex is immutable. Their opinions are censored, not because they are wrong, but because they make trans people feel unsafe.

It all sounds rather dense and abstract, but Fukuyama manages to explain his objections to identity politics with great clarity and concreteness. He does not fall back into the willful obscurity which is the calling card of the left-wing critical theorist.

Nor does he hesitate to criticize a particular form of liberalism, known in America as neo-liberalism. The cult of the market, an extreme form of liberal individualism, according to him, allowed inequalities to deepen in the 1990s with the connivance of governments of the right and the left. This led to the eclipse of the middle class and a populist backlash to elite capitalism in the form of Trumpism.

Fukuyama offers no particular solutions to the crisis of liberalism. It simply assumes that reason and moderation will ultimately prevail. He cites Churchill’s aphorism that democracy is the worst form of government apart from everything else. But perhaps we are beginning to realize in Ukraine that defending liberal democracy involves more than being reasonable.


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