Moderation in all things

Mike Phipps reviews Liberalism and its Discontents, by Francis Fukuyama, published by Profile

Francis Fukuyama shot to fame over thirty years ago when he proclaimed the “end of history”. The triumph of liberalism over its major ideological adversaries in the 20th century – principally fascism and communism – marked the end of an historical epoch of ideological struggle: liberalism had apparently won.

As the Cold War with the Soviet bloc ended, on the West’s terms, this summing up of the political picture looked very cute and tidy. But there remained a few awkward questions. Which liberalism had actually triumphed? Was it the free market neoliberalism spearheaded by Thatcher and Reagan, or the modern interventionist doctrines associated with an earlier generation – that of Keynes and Beveridge, both card-carrying members of Britain’s Liberal Party?

Was it economic or political liberalism? The two are often on collision course – not just because most economic neoliberals tend to be politically conservative, but because radical economic policies of privatisation and marketization have often been pioneered by authoritarian dictatorships – Pinochet’s Chile, or US-occupied Iraq.  In 1993 in Russia, Yeltsin showed his contempt for liberal democracy by shelling the Russian Parliament, killing nearly 200 people, to get his radical economic free market programme through – and the West backed him. Naomi Klein gives many more examples of this in The Shock Doctrine.

Perhaps Fukuyama’s proclamation was just a more general celebration of the global triumph of the American way of life. His world outlook is very US-centric.  But this is even more problematic. The American way of life is unsustainable and non-generalizable. If the USA, 5 per cent of the world’s population, consume 2 5 per cent of global energy resources, that becomes an unachievable aspiration for the rest of the world to emulate – there are not enough 25 per cents to go round. So the ecological challenge to liberalism remains highly relevant.

And not just the ecological. The last thirty years suggest it may have been premature to write off authoritarian nationalism and religious fundamentalism.  Oh, and the economic crash and the challenges of the Covid pandemic suggest that socialism is still very much in ideological contention.

Fukuyama doesn’t see this, but he recognises that liberalism is under attack from both right and left. The left don’t like the extreme inequality that liberalism’s economic doctrines promote. The right are hostile to liberalism’s commitment to personal autonomy. “The answer to these discontents,” reckons Fukuyama, “is not to abandon liberalism as such, but to moderate it.”

Fukuyama justifies liberalism on three grounds: by promoting toleration, liberalism allows populations to live peacefully with one another. Secondly, its emphasis on human autonomy allows people to make their own choices. Thirdly, by protecting property rights, it promotes economic growth: “No entrepreneur will risk money in a business if he or she thinks it will be expropriated.”

It’s clear for Fukuyama that private property is the only foundation for economic growth. But of course private property and the profit motive can be a barrier to investment and growth – always assuming the latter is a desirable goal in a world of limited material resources. And a society ordered on the basis of private property, profit, incentives and inequalities might also be a limitation on human autonomy and people’s ability to make genuine choices.

Fukuyama likes the Asian tiger countries for the balance they strike between economic growth and liberal institutions. Maybe he should take a closer look at the latter. Elsewhere, liberalism has apparently pushed personal autonomy “too far”, endorsing unlimited equality and too much emphasis on lifestyle choices, which undermine social cohesion. This is an old complaint, articulated by traditional conservatives and socially conservative communitarians like Tony Blair.

There is a real problem with this ‘broad sweep’ approach that sees history in terms of ‘swings of the pendulum’ – state intervention went “too far” in the 1970s, so the pendulum had to swing back to a more free market approach, but the latter’s rapid privatisation went “too far” – and so on. But Fukuyama resolutely refuses to see anything fundamentally flawed in the essence of economic liberalism and its emphasis on profit and accumulation that allows market forces to penetrate every area of state provision and personal life – from education to security, public health to personal relations.

Fukuyama wants to balance individual property rights with other social goods, for example protecting small traders from big multinational predators. The problem he can’t see is the necessity for the big predators to drive smaller competitors out of business and use their economic clout to rig the political system in their favour to permit them to do this.

Looking to individual liberal-democratic states to balance the ‘excesses’ of free market economic liberalism may be too little too late. The global free market has incorporated entire national economies into a complex international network. These activities are regulated by unelected and unaccountable international bodies, such as the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organisation.

This new market fundamentalism is highly ideological. It does not bother about the human impact of its policies, nor does it bother about the effect on democracy and civil liberties wrought by the power of global corporations over humanity. This again underlines the contradiction between democratic political liberalism and economic liberalism, which prefers an authoritarian political framework to push through its unpopular and punitive policies.

Fukuyama does briefly wonder if some of the core beliefs of liberalism need re-thinking, including, fundamentally, individualism. This leads him to question another central liberal tenet, that of human rationality, and in particular the way a narrow conception of how economically rational actors behave in the market place has been mobilised in support of existing economic and political power structures.

“While liberal societies agree to disagree about final ends,” he opines, “they cannot survive if they are unable to establish a hierarchy of factual truths.” The institutions he appeals to, to do this – the courts, science, responsible journalism – “are not deliberately engineered by the elites who oversee them to disempower or manipulate ordinary people.” But in many countries, including apparently liberal democracies, they often are.

Fukuyama needs something stronger than existing, corrupted institutions to come to the defence of the liberal belief in human rationality, whose fragility would seem to call into question the very idea of human progress. In his search for equilibriums, he seems to have lost sight of this, but the deeper point is that liberalism, in its failure to understand the processes at work in society, cannot guarantee this progress. In truth, human rationality and progress are real – but liberalism will only get you so far.

Fukuyama is aware of the legitimate criticisms made of liberal societies: they are consumerist; they don’t provide a strong sense of community; they are too permissive; too diverse; insufficiently diverse; too tolerant of inequality and a lack of social justice; they are dominated by manipulative elites. But does this mean society should be founded on alternative principles and could they even make such a political transition in practice?

Fukuyama considers and rejects the conservative and nationalist critique of liberalism, but from the left, he looks only at the ‘progressive’ critique of inequality in liberal societies. If progressivism gains too much influence, he foresees a nightmare world where race and gender identities take centre-stage in every area of life, relegating liberal meritocracy to the sidelines.

In other words, he defends liberalism against conservatism, but attacks progressive views from a conservative perspective.  In doing so, he caricatures these views. It’s a curiously US-centric view as well, but then the whole book is really a defence of American liberalism rather than any broader variant. He might ponder that the emphasis in the US on various identities – he rarely mentions the big one, class – happens precisely because US society falls so far short of being a real meritocracy.

What Fukuyama can’t contemplate, however, is the possibility of a society organised on collective, cooperative principles, rather than individualist, competitive ones.  So socialism doesn’t get a look-in. Instead, moderation is offered as the key to liberalism’s survival.  It’s a rather pedestrian conclusion and an insufficiently robust response to the very real authoritarian threats that liberal values face. If liberals are struggling to defend these values against the rise of an irrational authoritarianism, the choice looks increasingly to be between socialism or barbarism.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

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