Fukuyama’s ‘Future of History’: Is Liberal Democracy Doomed?

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Dimitri Messinis / AP

Pedestrians pass by a beggar off Athens' main Syntagma Square, on Friday, Feb. 3, 2012.

“Imagine,” writes scholar Francis Fukuyama in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “an obscure scribbler in a garret somewhere trying to outline an ideology of the future.” Fukuyama, a distinguished political philosopher and public intellectual, is hardly obscure, nor is it likely that he’s lived anywhere near a garret in the past few decades. The Stanford academic is already famous for his pronouncements on the future: in the years that followed the 1989 publication of “The End of History,” an essay in The National Interest that eventually became a book, few phrases better captured the zeitgeist of a triumphant, capitalist West, basking in the collapse of Soviet communism. Yet history, as we all know, hasn’t quite ended. Fukuyama’s latest revision tries to reckon with a world whose future is far more complicated and uncertain than he would have hoped two decades ago.

As the Berlin Wall fell and Soviet bloc countries convulsed in pro-democracy protests, Fukuyama plotted the “end of history” in these emphatic terms: it’s “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” His vision follows an almost Marxist view of historical progress, one whose final stage is not a socialist ideal, but a capitalist one. That certainty in the inexorable, logical triumph of liberal democracy — and its corollary economic system, laissez faire capitalism — still underpins the rhetoric of a host of World-Is-Flat, free-trade enthusiasts. It also underlies the unilateralist zeal of Washington’s neo-conservatives; Fukuyama signed on to the Project for a New American Century, a group formed in the late 1990s comprised of some of the chief intellectual advocates and architects of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

To be fair, Fukuyama can’t be faulted for all the over-interpretations of his original idea. In the years since, he has distanced himself from neo-conservatives, decrying, among other things, the ineptitude of the American occupation of Iraq. It could be argued his ideal would resemble something closest to the E.U., an integrated, globalized space linked by networks of democracy and trade. For good reason, then, given the E.U.’s current dysfunction, he wrings his hands over the fate of liberal democracy itself in “The Future of History,” an essay in the January/February edition of Foreign Affairs.

The most discussed challenge to liberal democracy these days is the enduring appeal of the “Chinese model.” In time for last month’s World Economic Forum’s conclave at Davos, the Economist rolled out a latter-day red scare cover on the success of authoritarian state capitalism, as epitomized by the status quo in Beijing. While democracies fuss and fumble, China’s highly centralized, efficient system hums along, managing crises, lifting tens of millions out of poverty while steadily advancing Beijing’s footprint across the planet. But, Fukuyama shrugs, there are cracks in the edifice — already China has to expend an astonishing amount of effort quashing protests across the country and quieting dissidents. Fukuyama insists:

The Chinese government argues that its citizens are culturally different and will always prefer benevolent, growth-promoting dictatorship to a messy democracy that threatens social stability. But it is unlikely that a spreading middle class will behave all that differently in China from the way it has behaved in other parts of the world. Other authoritarian regimes may be trying to emulate China’s success, but there is little chance that much of the world will look like today’s China 50 years down the road.

Fair enough. What scares him is not the threat facing democracies from outside, but from within. As we’ve written about at length, the divide between the proverbial haves and have-nots in much of both the developed and developing world is growing wider. This is only being exacerbated, says Fukuyama, by the way technology, particular that of the digital world, keeps progressing. He writes:

Inequality has always existed, as a result of natural differences in talent and character. But today’s technological world vastly magnifies those differences. In a nineteenth-century agrarian society, people with strong math skills did not have that many opportunities to capitalize on their talent. Today, they can become financial wizards or software engineers and take home ever-larger proportions of the national wealth.

This has been brought into stark relief in the wake of the financial crisis, with millions in search of jobs that no longer exist in the post-industrial, service sector economies of the West, while the paladins of high finance continue to rake in massive bonuses. In Fukuyama’s reckoning, and those of generations of political theorists before him, the middle class is an essential bulwark for any democratic society. But the middle-class is being hollowed out in much of the developed world. This won’t change on its own. “Elites in all societies use their superior access to the political system to protect their interests, absent a countervailing democratic mobilization to rectify the situation,” writes Fukuyama. “American elites are no exception to the rule.”

What the “obscure scribbler” needs to do, then, is come up with an ideology that is at once progressive and populist, beginning “with a critique of the elites” and carried by the conviction that one must overthrow the “narrative of a past generation” — that “free markets and smaller states” are the panacea for all social ills. Harnessing new technologies and working beyond the old legacies of the welfare state, “it would have to argue forthrightly for more distribution and present a realistic route to ending interest groups’ domination of politics.”

You would think that the seeds of that have already emerged with the Occupy movement, but Fukuyama is dismissive of it. He pours scorn on the right-wing populism of the Tea Party and the more xenophobic backlashes that we’re seeing across stretches of Europe, but, in a bizarre move, saves most of his powder for the “postmodernism” and “multiculturalism” of the global left, which he claims has undercut the left’s “own authority as a voice for the majority of citizens who feel betrayed by elites.” This is a strange complaint, redolent of Ivory Tower battles Fukuyama has waged over the years rather than real politics on the street. Moreover, for all his diagnosis and prescription, Fukuyama leaves you with a mess: a political road map that is at once post-national, but can’t transcend nationalist feeling; a critique of contemporary capitalist dogma that could be read out at Zuccotti Park, but which has a gnarled contempt for all those who would gather there; a desire to be truly populist, yet an even stronger need to chart out a guiding, “master narrative” for all human society. Whatever emerges from this is anyone’s guess. It’s clear, though, that history has a long way to go.