A Certain Anachronistic Appeal. On Conversations with Francis Fukuyama

On the 3rd of May, the Georgetown University Press will publish “After the End of History. Conversation with Francis Fukuyama”. Our editor Ferenc Laczo from Maastricht University reviews the volume.

The eighteen conversations with editor and conversation partner Mathilde Fasting in After the End of History revolve around major themes in Francis Fukuyama’s oeuvre and revisit questions that have preoccupied him for decades. They paint a nuanced picture of Fukuyama’s core convictions while helping us retrace the partial transformation of his thinking.

The volume shows that Fukuyama – who studied comparative literature and political theory with the likes of Allan Bloom and Harvey Mansfield, eventually completing his dissertation on Soviet foreign policy in the Middle East in 1981 – entered the world of bureaucracy before he emerged as a world-famous intellectual and well-established academician. Often inspired by novels and films, he did so by engaging with ideas rather than academic disciplines. He has been creatively exploring large subjects such as the interaction between human nature, society and capitalism, or the connections between technological and economic progress, on the one hand, and ideas and values, on the other. Without employing strict methodologies, Fukuyama’s books have offered contextually sensitive comparisons to develop middle-range theories – neither excessively abstract models, nor overly particularistic accounts and explanations. 

Along the way, Fukuyama has directly critiqued mainstream economics and its presupposition that society consists of self-interested individuals. He frequently emphasizes in this volume of conversations that human cooperation has been central to the success of societies; as a matter of fact, our entire psychological makeup is geared towards the expectations of others and our desire for their recognition and respect. In After the End of History, Fukuyama laments the revival of “very crude” versions of modernization theory by the likes of Douglass North, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. Moreover, he has an argument with what counts as mainstream political science which has taken the existence of states for granted and has thus been unable to offer even rudimentary insights into the dilemmas and difficulties of state-building – a negligence that has come to haunt the United States in the early 21st century. 

There is also much suggestive evidence here regarding Fukuyama’s fine sense of trade-offs, ironies, and paradoxes. Fukuyama sees a recurrent pendulum swing between the values of liberty and equality that tends to overshoot, only to get overcorrected again. He states that education is a main social divider today, if a rather ironic one: educated people are prone to be on the left culturally while reinforcing their class advantages in myriad ways. 

Far from offering simple morality tales concerning the rise of democracy, he also sketches a paradoxical history, viewing modern democracies as lucky inheritors of nations created by “non-democratic” – in fact often brutally violent – means.

As these conversations attest, Fukuyama has come to recognize the seminal importance of modern statehood while remaining cognizant that strong states might violate the rule of law and prevent democratisation altogether. He underlines that a modern, impersonal state is quite artificial and is in fact much more difficult to create than to introduce a democratic regime. Moreover, democracy, if introduced before such an impersonal, rules-based state had been consolidated, is likely to create heightened demands for patronage. He speaks highly appreciatively of countries such as Denmark in this context, not because the Danish state is large and welfarist but rather due to its clean and highly efficient functioning. 

A special appeal of Francis Fukuyama’s thought is that it manages to combine such nuanced and often sobering assessments with firm and optimistic convictions. Fukuyama has no hesitation in declaring that democracy is “the better system” as it offers peace, prosperity, accountability as well as recognition – recognition which is, at least potentially, of a universal nature. In other words, democracy is both more effective and more moral than its alternatives. Even if momentous evidence from China shows that effective modernization is not always accompanied by growing signs of democratization, Fukuyama is clear on the fact that liberal democracy is more desirable and more desired too; as he reminds us, people evidently do not appreciate having to live under authoritarian governments.

After the End of History thereby calmly reiterates Fukuyama’s much-contested thesis first articulated at the end of the Cold War, namely that societies have not gone beyond the liberal republic in terms of their normative understanding of a just social order. Often misconstrued by his critics, the object of Fukuyama’s reflections has been the purpose of history rather than history as a series of admittedly unpredictable developments without a simple teleology. In other words, history as a series of events has obviously not come to an end, but Fukuyama remains confident that we might be able to identify its end goal. His focus on such an overarching purpose allows him to consider and not attach too much importance to recent and ongoing trends of de-democratisation. At the same time, he is ready to point to ironies when it comes to his end of history thesis. For example, while declaring that in his original conception the European Union more closely “represented” the end of history than the United States, he laconically adds that the EU in fact appears strongest where it is least democratic.

These valuable insights might have been deepened further if the sources of the current tensions between democratic impulses and liberal values had been explored more directly. What Fasting calls epistocracy is critiqued by Fukuyama in a balanced manner but the much-debated co-constitution of technocracy and populism in our age receives surprisingly limited attention. In fact, Fukuyama’s positing of a superior, transhistorical ideal of the modern liberal republic lacks sufficient historical specification. Due to his cavalier underestimation of specific contexts and patterns, the otherwise balanced reflections Fukuyama offers in the volume do not substantially address how current political trends have interacted with new socioeconomic realities and changing cultural norms and values. 

Mathilde Fasting’s engaging volume of conversations is arguably most valuable as an intellectual self-portrait. Fukuyama’s detailed self-presentation reveals that he comes from a family of Westernized Christians of Japanese ethnicity; he describes the New York City of his youth in the 1950s and 1960s as cosmopolitan and multicultural while underlining that his otherwise prominent family played no notable role in the Japanese community. Fukuyama is still – and rather out of step with the current vogue in the United States – in favour of civic identities, common cultural and moral bases for societies, and a politics of assimilation. 

His self-portrait also reveals that his cultural preferences have remained conservative even as he has increasingly confronted the growing problem of inequality and shifted leftward on economic issues. He sounds distinctly conservative when he insists that states – unlike individuals, it seems – are self-interested, and that attempts to enforce human rights across borders should remain limited not only for practical but also for more normative reasons.

He also speaks out against new forms of utopianism, such as the ambition to regulate intolerance and abolish all manner of disrespect, pretences that there is no connection whatsoever between gender and biological sex, or growing hopes that a universal basic income could fulfil basic human needs without harming people’s sense of dignity.

His answers make it abundantly clear that, having experienced the disastrous consequences of attempts to democratise the world through the application of American power and of what were supposedly self-regulating markets, Fukuyama has broken with his neoconservative allies. He does remark how political disagreements also meant the end of personal friendships but – unlike Anne Applebaum in her recent Twilight of Democracy – refrains from dwelling on individual cases.

More generally too, the book offers surprisingly little by way of engagement with contemporary thinkers, the scholarship of Deirdre McCloskey constituting perhaps the most significant exception in this regard.

Distancing himself from revolutionary neo-conservatism in the name of incremental change, Fukuyama has remained a defender of capitalism who pleads for a liberalism with responsibilities – “an older conception of social democracy”, as he phrases it at one point. He perceives acute dangers in new-old forms of legitimation that derive from the people and are then employed to do away with restrains on power, impartial enforcement of the law, and the rights of minorities. He is also quick to remind us that there were much graver setbacks for democracy in modern history than what we have experienced in recent years and that the anger expressed at being disrespected is nothing new. The role of emotions attached to questions of identity were in fact highlighted already in his own early works, although their reception often – and rather tellingly – neglected this at the time. What Fukuyama sees as novel and more disturbing today is the simultaneous shift of power towards authoritarian states and giant corporations, with the latter now exerting unprecedented private power in over a hundred countries simultaneously.

After the End of History offers unmatched insights into Francis Fukuyama’s biography and scholarship and combines them with wide-ranging reflections on liberal democracies and global politics. Often mischaracterised as a whiggish thinker, Fukuyama strikes the reader as an open and intellectually curious person, whose critical diagnoses have reflected recent reconsiderations within liberalism – against the myths of self-regulating markets and promotion of democracy by force, in favour of an enhanced role for an efficient state and greater attention to questions of recognition. At the same time, three decades after the publication of The End of History, Fukuyama continues to combine sober realism with an overall trust in human development. In an age shaped by anger and panic, this confident liberalism must strike us as somewhat anachronistic but is not without a certain timeless appeal.

After the End of History. Conversations with Francis Fukuyama. Edited by Mathilde Fasting. With Francis Fukuyama. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2021.

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