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Liberalism And Its Discontents by Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama is a not very quiet American. He has been famous since the summer of 1989, when he wrote an essay called The End of History? for The National Interest. This made such a splash that the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, whom I met by chance at a party, asked me whether I had read it.

To my embarrassment, I had not, though I did go away and read it afterwards, as it was evidently something any thoughtful person should have a look at, if only to see whether Fukuyama was quite as foolishly optimistic as he sounded.

He was. In his celebrated essay he wrote:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

This was not the effusion of some callow youth. Fukuyama was 36 when he wrote it, and in a way he deserved his fame, for he expressed what many western liberals believed to be the case.

His new book has one great merit. It is short: only 154 pages. The tone of voice is bland, optimistic, friendly. In the photograph of Fukuyama inside the back cover, he smiles in a benevolent way, conveying not only his desire to help, but an off-putting confidence that he knows how to help.

His intentions are so terribly good that one cannot help being reminded of Pyle, the touchingly upright but also disastrously over-confident idealist, “impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance”, who is the title character of Graham Greene’s masterpiece, The Quiet American.

Fukuyama has set out to write a defence of “classical liberalism”, and on his first page quotes with approval John Gray, who says liberalism is “universalist, affirming the moral unity of the human species and according a secondary importance to specific historical associations and cultural forms”.

Here at once is a problem for all those of us who agree with Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:

“Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”

Burke is not mentioned by Fukuyama. He does, however, touch on the French Revolution, telling us that it “spawned the next major competitor to liberalism, which was nationalism”.

Surely, one thinks, nationalism has often been liberalism’s ally? Did not 19th-century liberals see the creation of nation states as a way of bringing the blessings of freedom to countries which had previously been under imperial rule?

And what is happening in Ukraine? That came too late for Fukuyama’s book, but Sameer Rahim has just asked him about it in an interview for Prospect magazine:

Rahim: “You hear people in the west say Ukraine is fighting our battle – fighting for liberalism and fighting for democracy. How true is that? Or is it really them defending their nation?

Fukuyama: “Well, look, I think it’s a meaningless distinction. Everybody that fights for a set of values, fights for it as embodied in a specific country. You know, nobody fights for the abstract principles of liberalism. They care about being an independent country. But I think that many Ukrainians, certainly all the ones I know, also take pride in the fact that they are a free country.”

In practice, Fukuyama admits, liberal values have to be “embodied in a specific country”. There are places in his new book where he also admits this.

For example, one wonders what he is going to say about Afghanistan, where so many western leaders preached liberalism, only to run away from the difficult task of upholding it. Here is one of the only two references to that country in Fukuyama’s book:

“There are many parts of the world in which identity politics is very pronounced. The Balkans, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Kenya, Nigeria, India, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Lebanon, and other countries are divided into clearly demarcated ethnic or religious groups, and loyalty to those smaller identities often takes precedence over larger national identities. Identity politics makes liberalism difficult to implement in such societies…”

As an account of what went wrong in Afghanistan, this is not much help. The ninth of Fukuyama’s ten chapters is devoted to a discussion of national identity, but here we find the admission that he has no idea what to say to “nationalist partisans” in Quebec, Scotland and Catalonia who seek “complete separation”:

“There is a big hole in liberal theory regarding how to deal with such demands and how to define the national boundaries of states that are fundamentally liberal.”

What we find in this book is an unwavering determination to argue for liberalism as a universal ideology, which must be defended against such aberrations as neoliberalism, on the right, and identity politics, on the left.

Abstractions pass before our astonished eyes, and many great thinkers are mentioned in a cursory way, but Fukuyama flees from the local, the particular.

He is, one might say, a liberal on the run, never stopping long enough in one place to be in danger of being pinned down, or to get to the bottom of the “discontents” that are mentioned in his title.

These are liberal discontents, and as far as one can tell, he is not really discontented at all. Optimism keeps breaking in. He is never at a loss for some sweeping generalisation of almost unbelievable banality:

“Liberalism by itself is not a sufficient governing doctrine on its own; it needs to be paired with democracy so that there can be political corrections made to the inequalities made by market economics. There is no reason to think that such corrections cannot occur within a broadly liberal political framework in the future.”

Jolly good. Fukuyama soars into the higher platitudes, where he is safe from contradiction, for he has said nothing concrete enough to be contradicted. What a contemptible evasion of responsibility.

On the Afghanistan point, here is Rory Stewart, towards the end of The Places in Between, his account of walking across that country, on the latter-day liberal elite which set out to create, in the words of the United Nations Assistance Mission, “a centralised, broad-based, multi-ethnic government committed to democracy, human rights and the rule of law”:

“Policy makers did not have the time, structures or resources for a serious study of an alien culture. They justified their lack of knowledge by focusing on poverty and implying that dramatic cultural differences did not exist. They acted as though villagers were interested in all the priorities of international organisations, even when those priorities were mutually contradictory.”

And here is Stewart’s furious footnote on the following page:

Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neo-colonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a 19th-century colonial officer. Colonial administrators may have been racist and exploitative but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language…”

They did not pretend, as culpably naive, self-regarding liberals like Fukuyama do, that we are all the same really, and we all believe in the same ineffably woolly, free-floating principles. What a disgraceful, third-rate book this is.