Francis Fukuyama’s ideological change, from neocon to neoliberal, signaled among the intellectual class a similar but dissimilar change that was happening in the broader population. The two are parallel tracks down which history like a train came barreling and rumbling, the end not in sight.
The difference between them is that the larger shift was ignored, until Donald Trump revealed the charade to be a charade, as it always was. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, this populist moment. A new mood has been in the air that resonates with an old mood that some thought was lost in the past, the supposed end of history. It has been developing for a long while now. And when reform is denied, much worse comes along.
On that unhappy note, there is a reason why Trump used old school rhetoric of progressivism and fascism (with the underlying corporatism to both ideologies). Just as there is a reason Steve Bannon, while calling himself a Leninist, gave voice to his hope that the present would be as exciting as the 1930s. Back in the early aughts, Fukuyma gave a warning about the dark turn of events, imperialistic ambition turned to hubris. No doubt he hoped to prevent the worse. But not many in the ruling class cared to listen. So here we are.
Whatever you think of him and his views, you have to give Fukuyama credit for the simple capacity of changing his mind and, to some extent, admitting he was wrong. He is a technocratic elitist with anti-populist animosity and paternalistic aspirations. But at the very least his motivations are sincere. One journalist, Andrew O’Hehir, described him this way:
“He even renounced the neoconservative movement after the Iraq war turned into an unmitigated disaster — although he had initially been among its biggest intellectual cheerleaders — and morphed into something like a middle-road Obama-Clinton Democrat. Today we might call him a neoliberal, meaning that not as leftist hate speech but an accurate descriptor.”
Not exactly a compliment. Many neocons and former neocons, when faced with the changes of the Republican Party, found the Clinton Democrats more attractive. For most of them, this conversion only happened with Trump’s campaign. Fukuyama stands out for being one of the early trendsetters on the right in turning against Cold War neoconservatism before it was popular to do so (athough did Fukuyama really change or did he simply look to a softer form of neoconservatism).
For good or ill, the Clinton Democrats, in the mainstream mind, now stand for the sane center, the moderate middle. To those like Fukuyama fearing a populist uprising, Trump marks the far right and Sanders the far left. That leaves the battleground between them that of a milquetoast DNC establishment, holding onto power by its loosening fingertips. Fukuyama doesn’t necessarily offer us much in the way of grand insight or of practical use (here is a harsher critique). It’s still interesting to hear someone like him make such an about face, though — if only in political rhetoric and not in fundamental principles. And for whatever its worth, he so far has been right about Trump’s weakness as a strongman.
It’s also appreciated that those like Francis Fukuyama and Charles Murray bring attention to the dangers of inequality and the failures of capitalism, no matter that I oppose the ideological bent of their respective conclusions. So, even as they disagree with populism as a response, like Teddy Roosevelt, they do take seriously the gut-level assessment of what is being responded to. It’s all the more interesting that these are views coming from respectable figures who once represented the political right, much more stimulating rhetoric than anything coming out of the professional liberal class.
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“What is happening in the politics of the US particularly, but also in other countries, is that identity in a form of nationality or ethnicity or race has become a proxy for class.”
Fukuyama, who studied political philosophy under Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind, at Cornell University, initially identified with the neoconservative movement: he was mentored by Paul Wolfowitz while a government official during the Reagan-Bush years. But by late 2003, Fukuyama had recanted his support for the Iraq war, which he now regards as a defining error alongside financial deregulation and the euro’s inept creation. “These are all elite-driven policies that turned out to be pretty disastrous, there’s some reason for ordinary people to be upset.”
The End of History was a rebuke to Marxists who regarded communism as humanity’s final ideological stage. How, I asked Fukuyama, did he view the resurgence of the socialist left in the UK and the US? “It all depends on what you mean by socialism. Ownership of the means of production – except in areas where it’s clearly called for, like public utilities – I don’t think that’s going to work.
“If you mean redistributive programmes that try to redress this big imbalance in both incomes and wealth that has emerged then, yes, I think not only can it come back, it ought to come back. This extended period, which started with Reagan and Thatcher, in which a certain set of ideas about the benefits of unregulated markets took hold, in many ways it’s had a disastrous effect.
“In social equality, it’s led to a weakening of labour unions, of the bargaining power of ordinary workers, the rise of an oligarchic class almost everywhere that then exerts undue political power. In terms of the role of finance, if there’s anything we learned from the financial crisis it’s that you’ve got to regulate the sector like hell because they’ll make everyone else pay. That whole ideology became very deeply embedded within the Eurozone, the austerity that Germany imposed on southern Europe has been disastrous.”
Fukuyama added, to my surprise: “At this juncture, it seems to me that certain things Karl Marx said are turning out to be true. He talked about the crisis of overproduction… that workers would be impoverished and there would be insufficient demand.”