Fukuyama, F. (2022). Liberalism and its discontents. (Jorge Valero Berzosa)
Fukuyama, F. (2022).
Liberalism and its discontents.
Profile Books. 192 pp.
Little is left of that Francis Fukuyama who years ago consecrated the liberal system in which the United States and Europe lived as “the end of history”. According to the author, the Western system represented the last attainable political stage and would inevitably tend to spread throughout the planet because “the end point of the ideological evolution of humanity” (in the author’s own words) had been reached. Liberalism and its discontents unambiguously shows the intellectual journey that Fukuyama has been undergoing throughout this time, which crystallizes in a much less risky proposal than the one he defended in The end of history. The professor’s latest publication considers fundamental aspects for understanding the sociopolitical situation that democracies experience today, in addition to diagnosing their health and systematizing the problems they face. Liberalism has not only failed to spread, but is beginning to face serious threats whose origin lies within liberal societies themselves.
This essay is intended as a defense of “classical liberalism,” a system that Vladimir Putin a few months ago called obsolete. It seems pertinent that, at a time when the terms are no longer clear, Fukuyama begins by outlining what he understands by classical liberalism — a necessary division of the powers of the State and a subjection of public institutions to the rule of law — and the reasons that justify its preeminence over other political systems. He is especially concerned about recovering the liberal principle of tolerance, in the face of the increasingly frequent episodes of groups that prevent politicians and other social actors from freely exposing their ideas (even in universities, whose primary nature is to be spaces for the reasoned search for truth).
Two chapters are devoted to economic analysis, in which Fukuyama shows how liberalism, when it focuses solely on the absolute liberalization of the economy, leads to neoliberalism. In his view, this unbridled neoliberalism advocates an individualistic and selfish view of the subject, and makes the pursuit of self-interest the sole guide to his actions. Fukuyama unfolds a much richer vision of human nature, recalling that man has a social aspect that allows him to transcend this first frontier and seek interests beyond oneself. Conceiving the human being as a rational being, but excluding emotions, feelings and will, would be to have a mistaken conception of the human being: it would be incomplete. The inverse option — to credit the emotional in excess, discarding reason — also implies cutting off part of human nature.
The theoretical heart of the book lies in the fourth, fifth and sixth chapters. Fukuyama again offers a historical overview, in this case of various approaches to the “autonomy” of the human being (Luther, Rousseau and Kant, among others). Absolutizing personal autonomy and the capacity to choose, placing them above one’s own good, corrupts the liberal system, paradoxical as it may sound. This criticism has been postulated by both libertarians (Nozick) and communitarians (Taylor, MacIntyre, Sandel). Fukuyama adds his contribution to this, arguing that not all the options from which one can choose, although lawful, are equally good. In other words, there are some ways of exercising autonomy that are better than others, and that celebrating diversity for the sake of diversity alone does not seem to be a sufficiently solidly based course of action.
There is an underlying leitmotiv that runs through the whole work: the detractors of liberalism come from outside — as we saw in the Russian president’s statement — but also from within the liberal system. There are ideological options leaning both to the right and to the left of the ideological arc trying to undermine the pillars of the system. It is this internal attack which worries the author the most.
From the left, there are arguments in favor of collective rights and a hard critique against the little success of the liberal program. On the one hand, part of the progressive left began by championing “identity politics” as a way of effectively extending rights and equality, basically to complete the liberal program in a real way and eliminate any type of discrimination. However, taking this program to the extreme meant extending the autonomy of individuals to entire collectives. The problem arises when an individual right and a collective right collide.
On the other hand, from left-wing positions, liberalism is also in the spotlight because of its limited success at the global level: inequality, poverty and injustice continue to exist. The temptation here is predictable: why not tackle these problems from another political framework? The answer is clear: there are societies in which giving prevalence to one of the branches of government — generally the executive over the legislative and judicial — has led to the country’s economic growth, but at the cost of suppressing the freedom and lives of so many. The case of China is par- adigmatic.
The conservative attack on liberalism is based on the fact that the latter has undermined roots, traditions, religion and national unity. This tendency defends that liberalism has become a shell of rules without content (a common reproach made to the European Union). In this regard, Fukuyama reminds us that today’s world is not comparable to that of a century ago, and that it will be difficult to find the common trunk that many conservatives claim is necessary to build a solid vision.
Nevertheless, Fukuyama does not succumb to the temptation to disassociate liberalism from the nation-state system which, with its peculiarities, is still in force in our century. One problem with liberalism is the timidity with which it acts when claiming cultural tradition or patriotism. This causes that illiberal nationalism appropriates it. For Fukuyama, the nation-state remains the actor best armed to defend the liberal system and the liberal principles.
The author deals with technology as a threat to the principle of freedom of expression in chapter seven. Fukuyama focuses on some risks, for example, that all the media may fall under the control of a single entrepreneur or business group, or that the Internet may offer massive but poor quality and distorted information. The point here is that the essay does not propose any solution beyond the announcement of the need for a balanced protection of the values of transparency and privacy (which does not really address the heart of the matter).
The book closes with a chapter in which the author draws up a list of principles for the reconstruction of liberal society. Among them we find the defense of the threatened freedom of expression, the primacy of individual rights over collective rights and the idea that individual autonomy is not absolute. The latter is particularly interesting, since it puts in the mouth of a liberal the idea that there are absolutes that should not and cannot be voted on, absolutes that are even above our freedom. Fukuyama gives the example of slavery: no matter how much the majority voted in favor of it, there is a prior premise, “we are all created equal”, and therefore the liberal system not only cannot allow it to be voted on but has the duty to safeguard that fundamental right.
There are two aspects that are particularly relevant for educators reading this book. The first is to rethink the role of the university as a space for academic discussion. A growing aggressive woke culture threatens freedom of expression, naturally associated with the university institution. Meetings are prevented, events are sabotaged and conferences are assaulted on the grounds that society contains structural errors that must be corrected, even by force if necessary. The real fact is that someone is banned from public space because of his beliefs, not because of his actions, which is a direct attack on the liberal system.
Secondly, Fukuyama’s references to character and the capacity we all have to cultivate it are highly interesting. He defends the need to educate citizens with character and public spirit, since they are the ones who in the end make society flourish.
This is an aspect of enormous interest for all of us who are devoted to education, since, together with the family, the school is where any person begins to work on the forging of character. Fukuyama’s point, following in the wake of many before him, is that good character formation leads to the proper exercise of our freedom.
Fukuyama, in short, takes up the problems liberal political system faces and launches some pertinent ideas, as we have seen. The threats to the system are better developed than the solutions, but although some questions remain unanswered, the essay provides us with a fairly accurate map of the situation. Some of the challenges that liberal democracy must face today are clear. And if anything is clear, from beginning to end, it is Fukuyama’s believe that there is not yet a better alternative to the classical liberalism that has prevailed in recent centuries.
Jorge Valero Berzosa ■