Francis Fukuyama: ‘In recently democratised countries I’m still a rock star’
The world-renowned political thinker on what’s left of ‘The End of History’, the crimes of the neocons and having the ear of the Chinese leadership
The first volume of Francis Fukuyama’s history of political development has been one of only a handful of books by a foreigner to make a profit in China. As Fukuyama explains when we meet near his home in Palo Alto, California, foreign books in China are usually pirated. But The Origins of Political Order, which narrates the emergence and growth of the state “From Pre-Human Times to the French Revolution”, engages respectfully with Chinese history and culture, and features an overarching version of national history that the Chinese themselves no longer teach or learn. Enough of his account of the country’s enormous historic strengths and equally enormous historic weaknesses survived the censor’s scalpel to make the work valuable to the Chinese reading public.
Fukuyama goes on to say that a friend in Beijing had learned that the Communist party would translate that book’s recently published companion volume, Political Order and Political Decay for publication in a private edition for its senior leadership. “They take the analysis seriously,” he said. The two volumes set out to compare and contrast the progression of various societies across time, in pursuit of a goal he calls “Getting to Denmark”. The proverbial Denmark, like the actual state, is a robust liberal democracy with an effective state constrained by the rule of law – a package “so powerful, legitimate, and favourable to economic growth that it became a model to be applied throughout the world”.
As he describes his reception in China, Fukuyama beams with pride that the authorities regard him as sufficiently impartial to take notice of, especially as he is perhaps the person most closely identified with the espousal of the victory of western liberal democracy over all its ideological competitors. Fukuyama became an unlikely intellectual celebrity back in 1989 when he declared that the defeat of the USSR in the cold war represented not “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.” To have written a book 25 years later that the Communist party elite in Beijing feels compelled to make compulsory reading is a feat plainly gratifying to its author and ensures that his stern and chastening message will have been received by at least one of the audiences to whom it is addressed.
His book makes clear the fundamental debility of a political system lacking upward accountability, as the still nominally communist Chinese system does. But it also emphasises the dangers of the improper sequencing of different elements of political development: too much rule of law too soon can constrain the development of an effective state, as happened in India; electoral democracy introduced in the absence of an autonomous administrative bureaucracy can lead to clientelism and pervasive corruption, as happened in Greece. Even the societies in which a proper balance of democracy, rule of law and an effective state has been struck in the past are susceptible to political decay when rent-seeking extractive elite coalitions capture the state, as has happened in the US. The failure of democratic institutions to function properly can delegitimise democracy itself and lead to authoritarian reaction, as happened in the former Soviet Union.
“They understand that their system needs fundamental political reform,” Fukuyama says of the Chinese. “But they don’t know how far they can go. They won’t do what Gorbachev did, which was take the lid off and see what happens. But whether it will be possible to spread a rule of law to constrain state power at a pace that will satisfy the growing demands of the rising middle class is also unclear. There are 300 to 400 million Chinese in the middle class; that number will rise to 600 million in a decade. I had a debate a few years ago with an apologist for the regime. I pointed out that in many regions of the world when you develop a sufficiently large middle class, the pressure for increased political participation becomes irresistible. And the big question for China is whether there will be a point at which its people will push for greater participation, and he said: ‘No, we’re just culturally different.’”
It was, in effect, a rehash of the old “Asian values” argument concerning the hierarchical and deferential social ethic that goes by the name ofConfucianism in east Asia – allegedly the reason that Asians lacked the impulse to individual self-assertion that resulted in the demand for self-government in other parts of the world. The democratic transitions in South Korea and Indonesia put an end to that argument decades ago, Fukuyama says, just as the Arab spring debunked a parallel claim regarding Arabs. This is the part of Fukuyama’s argument about the end of history that he still stands behind without reservation or qualification – the Hegelian philosophical anthropology that saw history as the working out of the struggle between masters and slaves for recognition. “I really believe that the desire for recognition of one’s dignity and worth is a human characteristic. You can see manifestations of this in all aspects of human behaviour cross-culturally and through time.”
The relevant historical analogue for the Chinese rulers, Fukuyama says, is probably Prussia under a series of enlightened monarchs, which allowed a rule of law to spread gradually without extending democratic participation to the people. But, of course, Germany came to the “end of history” after initiating and fighting two of the most brutal wars the world had ever seen.
Would the next rising power be able to control the titanic energies of its people and manage a transition that avoids the blood-letting Europeans had to endure?Political Order and Political Decay emphasises the enormous difficulty of implanting democratic political institutions in places where the state has collapsed, or where it never really took root in the first place. For Fukuyama, the great challenge of state-building is creating and sustaining an institution of collective rule that cuts against the grain of human nature: we are designed to favour friends and family, and a patrimonial tribal order is “hard-wired”, he argues, into our neural circuitry. Though the right set of institutions can allow us to override these instincts, we naturally revert to them whenever political order breaks down. The first volume of his book recounts the expedients to which the first modern states resorted to overcome tribalism – it discusses the eunuchs who administered the Chinese state, the kidnapped Christian slaves who ran the Egyptian state – and the historical accidents that allowed state, society and rule of law to reach an equilibrium favourable to modern political order in western Europe. The second volume demonstrates how vulnerable even the best-developed modern state apparatus is to “repatrimonialisation”. Both volumes emphasise that the state is an institution that feeds on war, one whose national stability has often been buttressed by ethnic cleansing; and that the European Union after 1945, for instance, was built atop a pile of mass graves.
In some ways, Fukuyama says, he has been “trapped” by the ideological cul-de-sac in which his claims regarding the “End of History” have placed him. Though he still stands behind the assertion that liberal democracy is the eventual destination of history, he has qualified his argument and narrowed the scope of his ideological triumphalism, postponing the arrival of liberal democracy to the indefinite “long run”. He would not, he tells me, use the same heightened rhetoric today that he used in 1989 to describe what he now calls a “historically contingent demand for greater political participation” that ensues as people become more prosperous and educated.
Fukuyama’s career as a public intellectual began with an essay that promised to distinguish between “what is essential and what is contingent or accidental in world history”. His own career, as he makes clear to me, was almost entirely a series of accidents. He took up ancient Greek under the influence of his charismatic freshman year teacher Allan Bloom, who inculcated him into the ideas of the emigre German philosopher Leo Strauss, and to a network of aspiring young intellectuals that included men who would figure prominently in his later career, Paul Wolfowitz and I Lewis “Scooter” Libby. There was a detour into the modish French philosophers of the day, as part of which he made a pilgrimage to Paris (where he also wrote a novel) to study with Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacanand Roland Barthes. But he soon concluded, while enduring an interminable session in which Barthes would riff, pun and free associate over random sequences of words pulled from the dictionary, that “this was total bullshit, and why was I wasting my time doing it?”
He applied to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to study national security. While the French post-structuralists and their epigones would go on to dominate American literature departments in the 1980s, his new cohort at the Kennedy School would populate the State Department and Pentagon. And in a remarkable turn of events, Fukuyama’s old mentor Bloom would become a bestselling intellectual celebrity with The Closing of the American Mind, two years before Fukuyama’s own ascent to global fame.
“The End of History?” began as something of a recondite joke. Fukuyama was at the time a mid-level figure in the Reagan State Department witnessing the rapid unravelling of the Soviet mystique. “I remember there was a moment when Gorbachev said that the essence of communism was competition, and that’s when I picked up the phone, called my friend and said, ‘If he’s saying that, then it’s the end of history.’” Fukuyama is careful to point out that the coinage was not of his own making, but instead that of a Russian émigré professor named Alexander Kojève whose seminars on Hegel influenced postwar French existentialism.
But the triumphal eulogist of America at its world historical apogee never fell victim to the crude simplification of his own argument to which his neoconservative friends fell prey – and which his own rhetoric had done so much to invite. As he would later write in a 2006 book repudiating the neoconservativism of his youth, the misreading of the events of the 1989 led directly to the calamities of the early 21st century that, in his view, have forever discredited the neocon approach to the world. “There was a fundamental misreading of that event and an ensuing belief that if America just did what Reagan had done, and stood firm, and boosted military spending, and used American hard power to stand up to the bad people of the world, we could expect the same moral collapse of our enemies in all instances.” Fukuyama continues to credit Bloom and Strauss with broadening his intellectual horizons, but the adventure the adherents of those neocon thinkers embarked on, culminating in armed intervention in Baghdad, was, Fukuyama says, a bloody fiasco. “I don’t know how they can live with the consequences of their actions.”
Fukuyama has always been an intellectual comfortable with his proximity to power, conceiving of his role as offering guidance to the organs of the American national security state, starting with his first job at the Rand corporation in the late 1970s. He has never indulged the romance of the adversary intellectual who sees the working of that system as irremediably corrupted. He showed me the cover of a recent issue of Foreign Affairs carrying an excerpt of Political Order and Political Decay whose headline announces “America in Decay”, and indicated his discomfort with broadcasting a message that would give comfort to America’s geopolitical adversaries.
It is one index of the state of American politics when a man of such impeccably centrist instincts feels impelled to assert, as Fukuyama has done, that the US has become an oligarchy, and to lament the absence of a leftwing popular movement able to check the excesses of that oligarchy. He insists that he was right in the 1970s and 1980s to oppose the expansion of the welfare state, and to support the muscular use of American power around the globe during a time of retrenchment. But the pendulum has swung far in the other direction. “What I don’t understand is my friends on the right who don’t think it’s necessary to rethink their ideas in light of subsequent events.”
“I think where I’ve had my biggest and most positive audience is in recently democratised countries – Ukraine, Poland, Burma and Indonesia,” he says. “In places like that, I’m still a rock star. In places like that, the End of History writings allowed people to see themselves as a broad historical movement. It wasn’t just their local little disputes, there were deeper principles involved. And to be able to go to those places and tell them that they are on the right side of history with regard to political change – to this day I’m touched by it. To be able to go to Kiev and tell people there that democracy still remains the wave of the future – it’s in those moments that I feel most fully that I’ve made and am making a lasting contribution.”