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The Plank in Frank Fukuyama's Eye

Francis Fukuyama is still pointing out all the ways illiberal regimes fail to keep their promises. But look around you.

Francis Fukuyama, Professor of Public Policy at th
Francis Fukuyama (Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images)

Imagine a world in which the nominal head of state is almost entirely cut off from the generals who command his armed forces. In such a world, the conduct of military policy would be at once stilted by top-heaviness and stymied by a reliance on bureaucracy—not to mention cut off from any kind of democratic influence or checks. These problems would extend to other areas of government as well: as the inefficiency of one-man rule meets the near-infinite reach of an authoritarian state, we find ourselves subject to powers ever more eager to meddle in our affairs and ever less able to meddle in them well. Similar crises plague the economy, visibly manifested in the gross misallocation of resources: row upon row of housing lies empty or faces demolition for lack of tenants who can pay (to say nothing of families who could buy), all while children go hungry and men sit at home for lack of worthwhile work. Culture is stifled too, as the top-down imposition of regime-approved values does not (as promised) unleash man’s natural creativity, but simply suffocates it.

Without liberal democracy, Francis Fukuyama warns, this world becomes a reality. It is, of course, no small mark against his theory that this world exists under liberal democracy.

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In an essay published this week in the Atlantic, the elder statesman of American political philosophy once again defended the “End of History” thesis he first proposed in a 1989 essay for the National Interest, then expanded in a 1992 book. On first glance, Fukuyama’s theory seems very simple; on a little reflection it starts to seem complex, and on a little more it becomes simple again.

With the defeat of Soviet communism, Fukuyama argued that the end of history first placed by Hegel at the end of the French Revolution had finally arrived. Liberal democracy, tied up with capitalism, was the endpoint of development for man and his governments. All progress had been leading to this point, and there was nowhere left to go (except maybe backward).

Fukuyama was cagey enough to end the title of the essay with a question mark, and his thesis was presented as a kind of question too: “Whether, at the end of the twentieth century, it makes sense for us once again to speak of a coherent and directional History of mankind that will eventually lead the greater part of humanity to liberal democracy.” Or the inverse: whether there are “any fundamental ‘contradictions’ in human life that cannot be resolved in the context of modern liberalism, that would be resolvable by an alternative political-economic structure.” He answers yes to the former and a soft no to the latter—wrong, of course, on both counts.

Through years of challenge, Fukuyama has qualified the original bold thesis to the point of non-existence—including as early as the 1992 book, which effectively abrogated the triumphalist thesis with its “Last Man” addendum. (In fact, the “or, maybe not” that has kept the end of history limping along for the last three decades was contained in the first essay’s admission that “it is impossible to rule out the sudden appearance of new ideologies or previously unrecognized contradictions in liberal societies.”)

The term is borrowed from Thus Spake Zarathustra, but Fukuyama’s last man is not Nietzsche’s. Nietzsche’s last man is a pathetic creature, incapable of desiring (much less achieving) anything beyond comfort. Fukuyama’s last man is just a normal man at the end of history—he has nothing more than comfort, but he has not lost the drive for greatness, megalothymia, that is in his nature. And so Fukuyama has always wondered whether stronger forces like nationalism and religion could pull the soul away from liberalism.

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Thus liberal extremists like the Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last and Bill Kristol (themselves Nietzschean, not Fukuyaman, last men) are deathly afraid of recent developments. Last asked in the Bulwark in response to Fukuyama’s Atlantic essay: “What if it is the end of history, but liberalism loses?”

Kristol picked up on a few of Last’s important questions: “What if the problem is that some large proportion of the citizenry has decided that it does not want democracy, because democracy gives power to out-groups they hate?” More subtly: "What if some large proportion of the citizens in democracy have decided they want illiberalism as a choice? Not because they are complacent, or deluded, or mistaken—but because they are clear-eyed about who they count as their enemies? 

Their explanation is wrong and ill-motivated (interestingly, the piece is subtitled “The enemy is us.”) but they’re onto something here. Forget the friend–enemy stuff and put it more simply: what if “some large proportion of the citizenry has decided that it does not want democracy…Not because they are complacent, or deluded, or mistaken—but because they are clear-eyed.”

Fukuyama’s theory of democratic triumphalism—and, for all its qualifications, it is that—has been run through the wringer. Its maximal claims have all collapsed, and even those who beat war drums for its march are starting to admit that they may have been too hopeful.

And so Fukuyama has shifted to more pragmatic arguments: maybe the stuff about liberal democracy written in the hearts of men was a little overstated—but look at the alternatives!

Following Alexandre Kojève, Fukuyama has pointed to the European Union as the best expression of his ideal liberal megastate. But there is little doubt that, fresh out of service in the Reagan administration and reflecting on the end of the Cold War, Fukuyama had the United States in mind when he first wrote “The End of History?” Either way, in 2022, neither the U.S. nor the E.U. is a great model of governance—to say nothing of resolving the contradictions of history and human nature.

In supposed contrast to Western democracies, Fukuyama sees new illiberal powers as brittle and susceptible to shocks. Their leaders are out of touch, their structures are inefficient. They make hilariously bad assessments of their own state capacity. Vast swaths of the population don’t actually support their government. Modes of production pitched as cutting edge prove ill-fitted to human society. In China, “massive housing complexes [are] being dynamited because there is no one to buy apartments in them.” In Iran, liberal protestors are taking to the streets in demonstrations that often turn to violent or semi-violent clashes with police. Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth.

Maybe the only worthwhile contrast drawn between West and East is on the question of the Ukraine war. When Putin announced in September that he would send more Russian men to die for the sake of a little land, it is reported that draft-eligible Russians fled to the border by the thousands to avoid service. Vladimir Putin's empire is a paper tiger—it commands none of the loyalty, say, of a post-historical regime that sends boys from Kansas to be blown up in Kandahar for the sake of a gender studies program.

“Putin’s legitimacy,” Fukuyama writes, “was based on a social contract that promised citizens stability and a modicum of prosperity in return for political passivity, but the regime has broken that deal and is feeling the consequences.” 

So it seems that two things distinguish illiberal civilizations from their enlightened counterparts. First is that they feel consequences for breaking their promise of “stability and a modicum of prosperity in return for political passivity.” Second is that too few men die blindly in their idiot wars.

A return to history, then—in Crimea, or Kabul, or Taiwan, or the American plains and hollers from which farmers’ sons are drawn to die in all of them—may be well worth entertaining.

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