There is always confusion about ideology, particularly liberalism in a liberal age. Everything becomes conflated with liberalism, often in distorted ways. Even many conservatives call themselves classical liberals, conveniently ignoring early liberals like Thomas Paine who, as egalitarian proto-leftists, often were radicals, rabblerousers, and revolutionaries. But it might be fair for conservatives to also claim a liberalism of sorts, since they obviously don’t want to be openly identified with classical conservatism: colonial imperialism, neo-feudalism, neo-monarchism, neo-aristocracy, land theft, genocide, slavery, indentured servitude, white supremacy, etc; whatever they may, in many cases, genuinely support (e.g., theocracy) but won’t acknowledge. Indeed, one might argue that every modern Westerner to some degree is a liberal at this point, because so much is framed and defined by it, be it progressive or reactionary. As often noted, the average conservative today is more liberal than the average liberal was a century ago (e.g., majority support and mainstream acceptance, even among Republicans, for same sex marriage).
Besides, there never has been a single liberalism. That insight is something many are beginning to struggle with. In a review of a recent book by Francis Fukuyama, Aaron Irion discusses liberalism and gives an overview of Fukuyama’s take on it without once mentioning conservatism (Maladapted Liberalism: A Review of Francis Fukuyama’s Liberalism and its Discontents). The thing is that Fukuyama’s so-called End of History wasn’t a general triumph of liberalism but specifically of neoliberalism, which in the U.S. is identified with the political right as economic conservatism, most infamously as Reaganomics (Starve the Beast, Two Santa Claus Theory, military largesse, creation of the permanent national debt, defunding public good, deregulation, plutocratic tax breaks, corporate subsidies, etc). It’s true that such neoliberalism has also taken over the Democratic Party, but we should honestly admit that the liberalism of the American majority is much further left, specifically about economics, in being less forgiving toward the neoliberal dominance of corporate capitalism and globalized plutocracy, not to mention still supportive of interventionist progressivism (American Leftist Supermajority).
The original neoliberals were FDR Progressives who lost faith in democratic processes, politics, and policies, especially the prioritizing of public good, and so most of them became Republicans and joined right-wing think tanks. Possibly a few well-intentioned idealists aside, most of them saw capitalist realism and corporate rule of the world as their new salvation, with democracy as a mere rhetorical flourish and side effect. It is one of the more illiberal forms of liberalism, that is to say only liberal at surface level and maybe not even that. One could, nonetheless, accept neoliberalism as a genuine kind of liberalism. It echoes the anti-leftist hyper-individualism that, in gaining power during the Cold War, sought to disempower and disenfranchise the political so as to usurp all power within the economic sphere and hence to have corporate-controlled markets replace democracy proper. This has involved two ideas: (1) spending money is voting with one’s dollars; and the corollary (2) money is speech. But what it ignores, as Corey Robin noted, is that “the implication for democracy is clear. There can be no democracy in the political sphere unless there is equality in the economic sphere” (The real problem of Clarence Thomas).
That is the ultimate test. The political right typically won’t denounce democracy entirely, although the early classical conservatives did so quite vociferously. To attack democracy directly these days is politically incorrect and shameful, and hence political suicide. No politician would ever get elected, not even in reactionary America, if they explicitly stated they were anti-democratic. So, instead, the reactionary right will claim to be for democracy, sometimes claiming to be the ‘Real Liberals’; but their purpose is to co-opt democratic rhetoric in order to defang democracy itself, to eliminate it as an effective possibility. Tellingly, neoliberals who want supposed ‘free markets’ to replace democratic politics don’t actually want freedom in markets either. They go bonkers if it’s suggested that markets and workplaces should be democratized, the only way that freedom could operate. As Robin suggests, economic democracy may be more directly important than political democracy, as leftists have long understood that power comes from those controlling material conditions and the means of production; hence the close link between social democracy and democratic socialism.
There is no such thing as limited democracy; no way to have partial self-governance, partial slave abolition, partial suffrage, partial civil rights, partial secularism, partial public good, etc. Either there is democracy in all areas and in all ways or there is no democracy at all. A free market is only actually free if everyone operating within it and affected by it is equally and effectively free (i.e., positive freedom). And such freedom, or lack thereof, is experienced personally and daily. Most people aren’t actively and explicitly involved in politics on a regular basis but almost everyone is constantly and obviously affected by economics every time they go to work and go to the store. But in the end, there is no separation between the economy and politics. Democracy is an entire culture of trust, a way of being and relating. Left-liberalism has always sought a balance between individual liberty and collective action, between private rights and public good. “Perhaps, if we all embrace something like the Last Man inside ourselves, devote ourselves to the struggle, to the hard work of moderation that it’ll require,” as Aaron Irion concludes, “we can struggle not against liberalism, but for a better liberalism and a better world.” That is the only honest issue to be debated.
For Fukuyama, once an advocate of neoliberalism, he has become one of its greatest critics and now largely, if not entirely, points in the opposite direction. In an interview with Sergio C. Fanjul, Fukuyama said that, “I was never opposed to social democracy. I think that it really depends on the historical period and the degree of state intervention. By the 1960s, many social democratic societies had become mired in low growth [and] high inflation. At that point, I think it was important to roll some of that back. That is, in fact, what happened in Scandinavia. Most of those countries reduced tax rates, reduced levels of regulation and therefore became more productive. But I think that in the current period, we need more social democracy, especially in the United States. We still don’t have universal health care, which I think is ridiculous for a rich country, a rich democratic country. My attitude towards social democracy really depends on what period you’re talking about and what country you’re talking about” (Francis Fukuyama: ‘The neoliberals went too far. Now, we need more social democratic policies’).
Social democracy is central to a liberal society. Such a society can only be created through active support, promotion, and defense. “All liberal societies,” Fukuyama continues, “have to [be able to] preserve their own institutions. When you get a political party, for example, that is anti-democratic or anti-liberal, that, if it gains power, it’s going to shut down freedom of expression, not going to permit future democratic elections and so forth, a liberal society has the right to defend itself. […] A liberal society must [have the ability] to protect itself from illiberal forces. […] The most severe one is from a resurgent populist nationalism that’s represented by Orbán in Hungary, by Erdoğan in Turkey, by Modi in India, by Donald Trump in the United States. All of these people were legitimately elected… but they use their legitimacy to threaten illiberal institutions. They want to eliminate the independent court system, they want to shut down opposition media, they [weaponize] the justice system to go after their political opponents.” The one and only thing liberalism can’t tolerate is intolerance. Yet the American right has always been fundamentally opposed to tolerance, as it has fought against social democracy.
So, where does Fukuyama’s ideal of ‘moderation’ fit in. Is he suggesting moderation between a fascist elite and a neoliberal elite, or rather moderation between the left-liberal majority and all the elites combined? This may be where Fukuyama stumbles, as maybe he remains anti-populist, paternalistic, and elitist in his wariness toward actual democratic self-governance. His state of confusion, unfortunately common among the elite, leads him to carry forward some of the illiberal views of democracy he held as a neoliberal. Sergio C. Fanjul asked him, “Are liberalism and democracy always fellow travellers?” His answer was that, “They are allies and they support each other, but they don’t necessarily have to exist at the same time. Orbán wants an illiberal democracy, with elections, but without freedom of the press or belief or free opposition. There are also liberal societies without democracy, like Singapore: there is individual freedom, but there are no elections.” *Sigh* There is no such thing as illiberal democracy or non-democratic liberalism. The former is a banana republic, with appearances of democracy only. And the latter is simply Confucian patriarchy and paternalism.
Liberalism and democracy are something else entirely, as expressions of freedom, egalitarianism, and justice; the complete opposite of social conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism, and social dominance orientation. The difficulty might be that liberal democracy, as rhetoric and reality, can seem unsexy and unexciting. In fact, to the reactionary mind and anyone under stress pulled into the reactionary, it comes across as downright boring (Boredom in the Mind: Liberals and Reactionaries). “Fukuyama makes clear,” Irion writes in reference to Fukuyama’s 1990s vision of the ‘Last Man’, “that liberalism may not remain unchallenged. In his telling at the time, liberalism brings peace, stability, and prosperity, but humans may struggle against it anyway. If for no other reason than “a certain boredom,” a desire to “struggle for the sake of struggle” and prove to themselves that they remain free, that they “remain human beings.”” It’s more than possible that Fukuyama too finds it a bit boring, in now giving a weak defense. Only the radical imagination, in narratizing new and inspiring visions, can inoculate against such moral ennui.
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Francis Fukuyama Plays Defense
by Krithika Varagur
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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