Recently I appeared alongside Francis Fukuyama at a conference held at Michigan State University. The conference - sponsored by the LeFrak Forum on Science, Reason, and Modern Democracy - was devoted to the theme “Liberalism and Its Discontents,” the title of Fukuyama’s latest book. The panel was designed to provide a stark contrast between a view that would seek to redeem liberalism, and one hoping to bury it. I think, it’s fair to say, we fulfilled our assigned roles, disagreeing fundamentally on the cause and destiny of our discontents.
I began first by emphasizing our deeply unfortunate state of affairs - pointing to unhappiness especially on the left over deep and pervasive economic inequality, and, on the right, cultural degradation that has given rise to steadily increasing “deaths of despair” - and linked both “discontents” directly to the expected consequences of liberalism’s core assumptions about human nature and the nature of human political and social order. Fukuyama praised liberalism as arguably the most humane and decent regime ever to have come into being. He argued that there was no alternative that could possibly appeal to a people that valued prosperity, dignity, respect for law, and individual rights and liberty. He agreed with my portrait of our “discontents,” but disagreed that they were endemic to liberalism itself. In short, we looked at the same world and reached radically different conclusions about what we saw there.
Fukuyama advanced three main claims, all of which he asserted were drawn not from the more abstruse realms of political theory (at a conference dominated by Straussian political theorists), but grounded in empirical observations about the world. His three main claims were:
Liberalism arose in the aftermath of the Reformation as a solution to the wars of religion, and provided a way of arriving at peace and political stability without requiring metaphysical or theological agreement by citizens.
What we today regard as the ills of liberalism (economic and social) in fact are pathologies that do not necessarily arise from a healthy liberal order. They are, rather, contingent and accidental and thus can be cured without killing off the patient.
Liberalism should look to its many past accomplishments for evidence of future results. Because liberalism abandoned an effort to achieve “the common good,” it allowed for the flourishing of individual goods that culminated in a wealthy, tolerant, and peaceful political order. Its ability to provide prosperity and peace are proven by appeal to evidence and reality.
The three points are related. Because liberalism was premised upon the abandonment of a vision of human order based upon a conception of the common good (Claim #1), and instead rested on a modus vivendi of tolerance and limited government that protected property rights, it allowed for the flourishing of global peace and prosperity (Claim #3). Its current “discontents” can be cured by restraining the extremes of the economic libertarianism, woke-ism, and post-liberal conservatism (Claim #2). A genuine liberalism at once lies in our future, but can be seen in our recent past in which these three elements were muted or non-existent.
While Fukuyama claimed to the realistic political scientist and historian in the company of ethereal theorists, basing his claims upon reality-based evidence of liberalism’s acceptable costs in comparison to its greater benefits, reflection on the empirical soundness of his claims suggests otherwise. All three claims evince a strained effort to conform his perceptions of reality to the demands of his theory. Whether through selective history, wishful thinking, or a nostalgic fantasy of how the future will imitate a particular moment of the past, Fukuyama proves to be anything but a realist. His is a fantastical liberalism that rests ultimately upon a tendentious and highly selective retelling of evidence from the past and the present to extrapolate a vision of the future that is at once implausible but also one that shrouds the vicious nature of the liberal regime.
My responses, in brief and to each point, follow:
1. Fukuyama, like many of the participants at the conference, appealed to the familiar story of liberalism’s origins as offering “articles of peace” in a time of religious fratricide and war. This is the well-worn argument of such theorists as Judith Shklar, John Rawls, and Richard Rorty, and is now repeated in tones of faithful certainty by the liberal congregation. It is liberalism’s original “White Legend,” the story of the benighted times from which true salvation arose in the form of John Locke’s Second Treatise and Letter Concerning Toleration.
The problem is, it’s a simplistic just-so story that is repeated often enough that it now has assumed the status of Liberal Creed. Careful historical examinations of the period in which the lineaments of the modern state first took form instead show that the “wars of religion” were most often the cover that was used by political power seeking to throw off both the constraining conditions of the Church from above and the limiting power of the various aristocratic forms from below. Many battles of the so-called “wars of religion” were not fought over creed and what liberalism came to regard as irrational and private belief, but rather, over questions of political power.
While the story of political modernity can be told in a number of ways, a main telling emphasizes the consolidation of political power in a wholly new form: the modern state. In order to advance the modern form of the the state, strenuous efforts were undertaken to extricate the “secular” from “religious” powers (terms which were repurposed for this project). Among the most compact and persuasive counter-narratives to the Liberal “White Legend” Creed is this powerful essay by William T. Cavanaugh: “A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State.” Cavanaugh’s essay is a tour-de-force retelling of the conventional liberal narrative. In a host of details, many gleaned from accounts of prominent historians of the early modern state (such as Richard Dunn and Anthony Giddens), Cavanaugh outlines how this story was constructed to the benefit of incipient liberal actors through both emphasis upon selective incidents and even a wholesale refashioning of the actual motives of the main historical actors. In short, in the effort to forge the modern liberal state - the most powerful political entity ever known in the history of humanity - a story of “limited government” was told that required the cordoning off of “religion” to the private sphere, rebranding what were frequently political battles as religious battles. Not surprisingly, the rise of a Whig polity - the party especially of the modern bourgeoisie and its attendant political class - would require a Whig interpretation of History.
From another, complementary perspective, among the best stories of this same consolidation of political power remains Bertrand de Jouvenel’s classic book On Power (1949). Contrary to liberalism’s claim that it represents a world-historical advance in the idea of “limited government,” Jouvenel shows in his magisterial book that the modern state assiduously disassembled actual existing “federalism” of the pre-modern era through the dissolution of various competing “estates” - whether clerical or nobility. This centralization of power was achieved in significant part through an appeal to the masses, a “people” who were promised liberation from the old aristocracy. Tracing the same story told in an economic vein by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation, Jouvenel explores the irony of how liberation from more decentralized political forms ended consolidating and magnifying the centralized power of the modern state at the expense of decentralized political power that constrained the overweening ambition of central political authority. Yet, appropriating and redefining such terms as “liberty,” “limited government,” and “federalism,” the modern state shrouded its ascendant and consolidated power in what we today recognize as the centralized modern liberal state.
The main insights of Jouvenel’s analysis were echoed in a powerful and pressing form by Robert Nisbet in his 1953 classic text, The Quest for Community. Like Jouvenel - but now in the wake of the twin totalitarianisms of the 20th-century - Nisbet concluded that the modern state rested upon the dissolution or effectual redefinition of various memberships and communities that once functioned as the main forms of communal identity - family, church, guild, township, college, and so forth. Once sufficiently dissolved in all but a shell, the allegiance of the dissassociated individuals was instead directed exclusively toward the modern state. Whereas Nisbet attributed the rise of the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and communism to a modern “quest for community,” he predicted that the same dynamics would come to affect liberal democracies as well. The modern state - the political form of the modern nation - was the wedding of liberalism’s individualism and centralization.
One hears none of this history in Fukuyama’s “just-so,” amputated version of early modernity. His claim to empiricism is deeply marred by a mountain of unexamined assumptions and tendentious claims, all aimed to warn his listeners that any retreat from liberalism will thrust us back into the dark ages of internecine war, intolerance, and oppression.
Hence, my parting challenge to him late in our exchange: we ought to be very suspicious indeed about claims that liberalism has ushered in an era of unparalleled toleration and peace. If anything, empirical evidence would suggest that liberalism’s foremost political instantiation - the United States - has rarely, if ever, evinced founts of toleration toward a constant but changing cast of “unacceptables,” beginning with the native population on this continent, and extending today to unwanted children who are eliminated in the name of liberty and choice. Nor should it be suggested that this nation stands an exemplar of peace toward the current (changeable, but ever-present) enemy of liberalism. By some estimates, the United States has been at war almost continuously during its existence, by some estimates, 92% of the time. Yet, we are to believe that liberalism has brought us the incontestable blessings of “peace.”
2. Fukuyama claims that the “discontents” of today’s liberalism - economic and social - while real, are nevertheless curable. He looks especially to Europe as the antidote to the Anglo-American “neo-liberalism” that became the political hallmark of the right beginning with the Reagan-Thatcher years, and was continued through the Clinton-Blair and into contemporary times. Seeing this as the main reason for economic “discontents,” he believes already there is a move away from the market fundamentalism of the sort once advanced by Hayek and Friedman, and an effort to reestablish the model of economic social democracy of Western Europe.
He acknowledges the challenge of social dissolution that arises form the heart of liberalism. He admits the seriousness of weakened social bonds, moral structures, and formative institutions that is one of the main consequences of liberalism’s “success.” He names me, Sohrab Ahmari, and Adrian Vermeule as among the thinkers who press home this point. Yet, he rests his case on the claim that there is “no going back.” As in the economic realm, liberalism can assuage these excesses ultimately by allowing human nature to assert itself. As he wrote in the essay that served as the preliminary statement to his book, “liberalism properly understood is perfectly compatible with communitarian impulses and has been the basis for the flourishing of deep and diverse forms of civil society.”
The noteworthy phrase in his claim is “properly understood,” the ultimate keep of the fantastist presented with contradictory empirical evidence. Only liberalism without its attendant pathologies is real liberalism, that is, liberalism “properly understood.” A liberalism that generates our deep and pervasive discontents is merely based on a misunderstanding.
On our panel, I challenged Fukuyama to name a single liberal society that is not experiencing some extreme form of “discontent” that he acknowledges exists, but which he confidently believes can be detached from liberalism itself. If we are to trust empirical evidence, and not just theory, I asked him to point to a liberal nation that is not experiencing the discontents he believes to be merely temporary or accidental.
In his response to my challenge, he pointed to European efforts to hold at bay economic neo-liberalism - but failed to note that any of the nations for which that might be true are also severely marred by extreme forms of social dissolution, whether in the decline of family formation, the collapse of birthrates, the decline of religious observance, and a pervasive weakness of the institutions of “civil society.” If we are to follow the actual evidence, it is impossible to avoid a conclusion that, far from being contingent or accidental, our “discontents” are endemic to liberalism itself. To shore up this brief political experiment premised on a “myth” of human individualism and self-creation is merely to invite further disease. What Fukuyama wishes to describe as a pathology is - if we follow the evidence - more correctly understood to be a genetic disorder within liberalism itself.
3. But what if we can point to a moment when liberalism flourished without these pathologies? Wouldn’t that prove you can have all the benefits and none of the negative consequences?
Proof against the previous claim can be found in a moment of liberalism’s ascendancy, when it neither evinced extreme economic inequality nor social dissolution. Like so many American liberals, Fukuyama longs for a liberalism that appears to have flowered briefly in the decades immediately after World War II. In his essay, he writes: “The period from 1950 to 1970 was the heyday of liberal democracy in the western world.” He lauds the rule of law, advances in civil rights, relative economic equality combined with robust economic growth, and the expansion of a middle-class economic welfare system.
Against critics such as me, Ahmari, and Vermeule who, he believes, wish to revive some form of medieval Christendom, Fukuyama writes that surely we do not fool ourselves in thinking that we can “turn back the clock.” And yet, in pointing to two decades in which liberalism enjoyed its “heyday,” Fukuyama offers as an empirical claim that liberalism can thrive without any of its apparently attendant discontents by … turning back the clock! Neither radical economic inequality nor social dissolution were as much in evidence in the United States during those decades before liberalism apparently - if contingently - began to unravel.
Fukuyama is learned enough to recognize that appeal to these decades is self-damning. We are indeed not incorrect to wax nostalgic about the apogee of the American century, but the benefit of hindsight clearly discloses the utter uniqueness - and temporariness - of that moment. America was the victor in a global conflict, its economic and social life was relatively untouched at a moment when much of the rest of the developed world had been reduced to rubble. It briefly enjoyed the unique spoils of victory, freed of any economic competition and producing goods and resources desperately needed by the rest of the world. It created an international economic system that was highly beneficial of its own economic and political interests - one that is today increasingly fragile. It was an uncontested economic and political hegemon during those years, effectively governing at least half the globe.
Fukuyama’s admitted expiration date of this “heyday” - the 1970s - marked the beginnings of the end of its hegemony, with the limitations of its military dominance revealed, its unique economic position now compromised by reliance upon Middle Eastern oil (and resulting quagmires of the coming decades), and its brief internal political harmony unraveled by the social dissolution that material success, the dismantling of inherited institutions, and hubris invited. Today it is largely agreed we are in the twilight years of a brief imperial moment, one that was genuinely unique in the history of the world. This is the evidence that Fukuyama offers for a liberalism that can withstand its discontents.
It is a highly suspect political order that can only work under such unique, ideal, and temporary historical conditions. If the world, and even America, was not yet liberal before 1950, and became overwhelmed by its discontents only twenty years later, what conclusion can and should we draw from this evidence? Not, it seems, the conclusion Fukuyama urges us to reach that contradicts what we should clearly see with our own eyes: that liberalism has the internal resources and capacity to overcome the discontents it generates. Rather, actual evidence, unblemished by wishful thinking and gauzy nostalgia, suggests that Fukuyama is much more the “theorist” than the hard-headed empirical scientist that he lets on.
Fukuyama finally appears to be aware of the limits of his own claims of liberalism’s inherent superiority, both on our panel and in his essay appealing to the specter of non- and anti-liberal alternatives as the paramount reason to race to liberalism’s succor. In his essay he names nations such as India, Hungary, and Russia as exemplars of anti-liberal alternatives that - whatever America’s imperfections - should compel us to avoid an illiberal fate. Such nations, he writes, use state power to “dismantle liberal institutions and impose their own views on society as a whole.” (As an aside, here again, the empirical evidence would suggest that liberal orders are hardly immune from such forms of political and social imposition. But this digresses from the main point to be drawn from his peroration).
On our panel, it was above all Russia, and the war in Ukraine, that he (and others) repeatedly invoked as the specter that should haunt faint-hearted liberals. If liberalism could aspire once again to overcome its discontents, it was in our shared commitment to combat the threat posed by an illiberal global contender - Russia, most immediately, and - looming on the horizon - China.
Here, once again, the invocation of liberalism’s “heyday” of 1950-1970 is instructive. These were the decades not only of a unique condition for the United States, but of the consolidation of America as one of two global superpowers who contended for worldwide ideological hegemony. America was able to hold at bay political discontents in considerable part not only because of its wealth, but because of the existential threat perceived by an external foe. Liberalism, it turns out, flourished when it had an enemy.
The irony is almost too rich: Fukuyama made his name and reputation as the bold thinker - yes, theorist - who posited that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 represented the End of History. History had ended because the most ancient political puzzle had been solved: to the question, “what is the best regime,” the events of 1989 answered, “liberal democracy.” No further contender to liberalism was available. The 20th-century contenders of fascism and communism had been defeated, and the only regime standing - the only regime that satisfied fundamental human political needs - was liberal democracy. While he acknowledged that there would remain discrete holdouts to this incontestable conclusion, none posed a genuine threat to liberalism’s finality.
Thirty-three years later, Fukuyama rests his hopes for liberalism upon our shared acknowledgement of a common enemy. The hope for history’s cessation was brief. In retrospect, 1989 represented not the ultimate victory of liberalism, but a Pyrrhic head-fake. Our present “discontents” were already becoming manifest by that point, with economic globalization and the financialization of our economy beginning to generate a world-historical condition of economic inequality, while all the measures of social health were already plummeting throughout the developed West.
1989 wasn’t the End of History; it was the beginning of the end of liberalism.
Fukuyama didn’t know how to read the signs of the times in 1989 any better than he does today. However, now he knows that liberalism needs propping up by any available means, and if tendentious misreading of the evidence is what’s needed, he’s equal to the task. The problem is, it’s not 1989, much less 1950. The 2000s have certainly showed us that history had not ended. But the indisputable gathering evidence suggests that Fukuyama’s project has.
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Whatever one's persuasions, Patrick Deneen is riveting: at once "deep" and easy to read.
Compelling. The 1950s were “exceptional” for the additional reason of Ike’s sagacious leadership; advances in civil rights at home and restraint (mostly) abroad. We ignored Ike’s warnings about the military-industrial complex to our peril.