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Discontented Liberals Read On

“Liberalism and its Discontents” by Francis Fukuyama. Profile Books £16.99

The American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, has made a career out of being wrong. He famously announced “The End of History” in a seminal work 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. History has been getting its own back on him for the last 30 years. This has at least allowed him to publish a succession of books insisting that he never actually meant it. 

Of course, he never meant that history had come to a full stop. It doesn’t do that. What he meant was that liberal democracy, on the model of the United States of America and Europe, was now the only game in town, historically speaking. It was no longer possible to conceive of an alternative social and economic system, broadly, to liberal capitalism. 

Even China had turned towards the light as the industrial workshop of the West. South East Asia was on the same track and Africa would get there too, eventually. Nor was there any longer an intellectual challenge to liberal democracy, since totalitarian nationalism and Marxist communism were both in the dustbin of history. 

Well, it is a much chastened Francis Fukuyama who emerges in his latest book, “Liberalism and its Discontents”. That he should have published his latest book on the eve of a war which has shaken liberal democracy to the core is a fitting climax to Mr Fukuyama’s oeuvre. 

So what is this system that appeared so successful thirty years ago and now feels distinctly fragile, and not just because of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian imperialism. Liberalism is not just individual freedom from arbitrary state control, as in the classical definition. Fukuyama’s idea of liberalism rests on three essential pillars: democracy, freedom of speech and scientific method. All three are under assault, not just in Ukraine, but in the citadel of liberal capitalism, America. 

The US is riven by anti-liberal movements on the right and on the left turbocharged by social media. 

On the right, there is Donald Trump’s “America First” populism. Trumpism, has obvious anti-democratic and anti-scientific elements. His followers stormed the Capitol building after he refused to accept the result of the 2020 Presidential election. In his wake have come online conspiracy theories from the bizarre QANON, which claimed the Democratic Party was a front for paedophiles, to the paranoid belief that Covid is a Deep State myth designed to rob Americans of their virility.

Fukuyama also sees profound anti liberal and antidemocratic tendencies on the left. He is no enthusiast for contemporary “identity politics”: radicalism based on race, gender or religion rather than social class.  He has been widely criticised for suggesting, as he does in this book, that the left is partially responsible for generating a right wing mirror image of racial identity politics in the form of white nationalism. According to Fukuyama, identity politics has revived, in a progressive guise, ethnic and racial nationalist thinking of the 19th Century.

He sees identity politics as a kind of perversion of liberalism. The original objective was, as it were, to level up: to ensure that racial, sexual  and religious minorities were given equal rights and equal opportunities. Positive discrimination, redistribution of wealth and other  social objectives are quite compatible , he says, with liberalism. They are products of “justice as fairness” world view of the liberal philosopher John Rawls. 

 But something got lost along the way.  Instead of treating everyone equally, irrespective of race or faith or gender – the “colour blind” ethos of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King – the promoters of, first multiculturalism, then identity politics started to see these minority groups as exclusive moral communities in their own right. “Whiteness” itself became demonised in a kind of inverted racism.

 The advocates of what is in America called Critical Race Theory say treating everyone equally is just a front for perpetuating “white privilege”.  Liberal Democracy is also a sham designed to conceal structural inequalities of wealth and power.

 Identity  politics leads ultimately to moral relativism and the extinction of the universality which is the core of liberalism. What is called “intersectionality” on the left pits minority groups against each other – jostling for position in a hierarchy of victimhood. Are black trans people more oppressed than straight black women? Who gets to decide? LGBTQIA+ betokens an endless train of new sub-divisions of perceived oppression. Only the straight white male is beyond the pale, incapable of redemption, in this brave new world.

Critical Race and Gender Theory is underpinned, says Fukuyama, by post-structuralist thinking derived principally from the French philosopher, Michel Foucault. Foucault argued that the very language we use in politics, literature and science conceals hidden biases and oppressive meanings. His successors, like the philosopher, Jacques Derrida, provided tools to “deconstruct” the language of what might be called bourgeois patriarchal thought to expose its hidden meanings. 

 Even the terms “male” and “female” are considered to be suspect categories loading gendered assumptions and excluding transgender people. Some feminists regard science itself as an oppressive white male mode of viewing the world. 

Fukuyama is dismayed that many campus radicals now regard freedom of speech itself as suspect and try to suppress or “cancel” ideas they disagree with. The identitarian focus on language, as expressions of hidden power, has led the view that certain words are themselves capable of doing actual harm. 

Hence the demand that certain ideas should not be expressed, like “gender critical” views of feminists who say sex is immutable.  Their views are censored, not because they are wrong, but because they make trans people feel unsafe.

This all sounds rather dense and abstract, but Fukuyama succeeds in his explaining his objections to identity politics with great clarity and concreteness. He does not lapse into the wilful obscurity that is the calling card of critical theorist of the left. 

 Nor is he unwilling to criticise a particular form of liberalism, known in America as neo-liberalism. The worship of the market, an extreme form of liberal individualism, he claims, allowed inequalities to deepen in the 1990s with the connivance of governments of right and left. This led to the eclipse of the middle class and a populist reaction to elite capitalism in the form of  Trumpism. 

Fukuyama doesn’t offer any particular solutions to liberalism’s crisis. He just assumes reason and moderation will ultimately prevail.  He quotes Churchill’s aphorism that democracy is the worst form of government apart from all the rest.  But perhaps we are beginning to realise, in Ukraine, that the defence of liberal democracy involves more than being reasonable. 


Iain Macwhirter

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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