Francis Fukuyama: academia shares blame for demise of liberalism

Thirty years after his breakout book declared democracy to be an unstoppable force, the End of History author explains to Matthew Reisz why a new defence of liberal values is urgently needed, and why scholars must share some responsibility for destabilising them

March 17, 2022
Francis Fukuyama
Source: Getty

Francis Fukuyama’s overnight rise from thinktank obscurity to arguably the world’s most discussed political scientist remains one of academia’s most remarkable transformations.

Back in 1992, the New York-raised Cornell and Harvard graduate was “just a foreign policy analyst working away at my little set of issues”, he recalls. By the end of the year, the RAND Corporation employee was a household name, having published a book claiming that pretty much everyone was now convinced of the virtues of liberal democracy.

The End of History and the Last Man pointed to “the totally unexpected collapse of communism throughout much of the world in the late 1980s”. It also cited the recent shifts to democracy in Portugal, Spain, Greece, Argentina and South Africa. Liberal democracy was riding high, Fukuyama argued, because it not only delivered the goods economically but also, unlike other forms of government, satisfied people’s deep-seated need to be recognised.

Even more strikingly, he claimed that “we have trouble imagining a world that is radically better than our own, or a future that is not essentially democratic and capitalist...we cannot picture to ourselves a world that is essentially different from the present one, and at the same time better”. Liberal democracy might just be “the final form of human government”.

Such assertions, unsurprisingly, did not pass unchallenged. In the 2006 afterword to the book, Fukuyama wrote that his central hypothesis had been “criticized from every conceivable point of view”. Some people, he recalls now, just produced “stupid arguments about ‘How could history end?’ or ‘This and that happened, therefore history is continuing.’” But the main case against The End of History and the Last Man was that it merely captured the mood at a particular moment of blinkered American triumphalism following the end of the Cold War.

Thirty years on, Fukuyama, now Olivier Nomellini senior fellow at Stanford University, retains his personal commitment to liberal democracy. However, he admits that the democratic wave he described was followed by a democratic recession and that populism now represents a serious threat. Even more worrying is the loss of faith in liberal ideals. All too many people can now imagine alternatives that are both different and – from their perspective – better. So it turns out that the intellectual battle was not won three decades ago and that there is an urgent need for Fukuyama’s new book, Liberalism and Its Discontents.

So what has gone wrong? Many on the left now associate liberalism, Fukuyama argues, with its extreme form, commonly known as neoliberalism, which has greatly increased economic inequality. Conservatives, meanwhile, have been alienated by what they see as liberalism’s ever-increasing stress on personal autonomy and fear the threat they consider this to pose to many of their core values.

These developments, Fukuyama tells Times Higher Education, should not be seen as grounds for dismissing liberalism itself. Instead, they reveal that “the ideas which are the intellectual foundations of a liberal society have got pushed to extremes, where they no longer make sense. On the right, the state becomes the enemy of all good things, and, on the left, individual autonomy trumps other kinds of collective goods.” In both cases, Fukuyama puts much of the blame on “academic writers who have had important insights but then pushed them too far”.

Part of the problem, notes Fukuyama, is the way that academia is divided into disciplines, identified by “a certain kind of methodology”. The veneration of that particular modus operandi means that “a lot of people who get tenured, promoted or noticed in academia are not people who make substantive discoveries about the real world but people who push the methodology further...There’s a certain competition in the ideas industry: once you start a trend, people can make a name for themselves by pushing that trend yet further.” We can see the real-world results all the way from financial deregulation to identity politics.

It was the economists of the so-called Chicago School, such as Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, who provided “the highbrow intellectual justification for Reagan and Thatcher”, Fukuyama points out. “Without them, I don’t think you would have seen the kind of policy changes and changes in public attitudes which have occurred since the late 1970s,” he adds. Fukuyama supports their stress on “the importance of a market economy” and even some of the policy changes this led to, but laments the terrible consequences when they “carried it to an extreme where the state became the enemy of economic progress...The state was taken out of some basic forms of regulation, particularly of the financial sector.” The 2008 crash was a direct result.

Another leading academic thinker who took things too far, according to Fukuyama, was the political philosopher John Rawls, whose 1971 work Theory of Justice is described in Liberalism and Its Discontents as “the dominant articulation of contemporary liberal theory”.

“The basic foundation of a liberal society is that we are all autonomous individuals capable of making moral choices,” explains Fukuyama, “but in Rawls’ Theory of Justice autonomy trumps every form of good that someone might desire, any substantive moral doctrine or normative order that gets in its way. The old understanding of liberal pluralism is that we all have different moral commitments, so we have to live with each other and respect those commitments. Rawls is basically saying that, if any of that gets in the way of anyone’s autonomy, that commitment has to give way to the protection of autonomy...But you can’t actually have a society if everybody gets to make up the rules of that society. That’s the end of the line in the terms of Rawlsian thinking.”

Other themes explored in Fukuyama’s book are identity politics and the rejection of science. Here he sees the influence of a further strand of academic thinking, postmodernism –and particularly the work of Michel Foucault. He says this despite the fact that he has “spent a lot of time with postmodernism. I went to Jacques Derrida’s lectures, I went to a seminar with Roland Barthes, I met Michel Foucault when I was an undergraduate, so I have been immersed in those ideas for quite a while. Foucault is a genuinely brilliant scholar, so I think the blanket denunciations you sometimes hear from conservative critics are not justified.”

Yet he identifies two areas in which Foucault, “the key theorist who defines the later discourse on both language and science”, has had a negative impact. 

In writing about modern natural science since the Enlightenment, Fukuyama claims, “Foucault argues that its language and cognitive structure were not objective and impartial but reflect the interests of the people who created these structures in order to maintain a certain hierarchical domination of various marginalised groups.”

This argument, suggests Fukuyama, “begins with a real insight. There is no question that the language and structure of scientific objectivity has been used by groups to impose a view of the world which suits their interests.” Good examples include “scientific racism” and indeed Chicago School economics, whose practitioners claimed and probably believed that they were “simply reflecting the nature of the world, when in reality they were reflecting a set of interests, for example on the side of capital rather than labour”.

But where Fukuyama parts company with Foucault is when he “extends that framework to talk about practically everything and doesn’t offer a criterion by which you could distinguish truly objective science and science which is being manipulated behind the scenes by an elite. We have to distinguish between scientific-sounding arguments which are reflecting agendas and work that is truly empirical.”

One consequence that Fukuyama flags up is “the extraordinary sensitivity to words, where words are essentially a form of power and potentially even of violence” that can be seen in today’s “cancel culture” and the retreat from the traditional liberal commitment to unfettered free speech. His book notes that racism is now often seen not as “an attribute of individuals, or as a policy problem to be solved”, but as “a condition that is said to pervade all American institutions and consciousness. Like Foucault’s biopower, it reflects an underlying power structure of white supremacy that is embedded in language and that hides itself even from progressive people who believe themselves to be anti-racist.”

A suspicion of science and Enlightenment values can also, of course, be found on the right of the political spectrum.

“I wrote a blog post last year,” recalls Fukuyama, “where I said that I didn’t think many of Trump’s followers had actually read Michel Foucault and I was corrected by another professor who pointed out three or four examples. What Foucault did was to make people aware that science was not completely objective, that there were these underlying power issues which drove the way that science understands the world. Once you open the floodgates to that, people on the right can take up those ideas just as well.”

Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault

Classical liberalism arose out of the European wars of religion, according to Fukuyama, as “a solution to the problem of violence in diverse societies”. “People are most supportive of liberal institutions when they have been through a violent conflict, such as the Thirty Years War [1618-48] or the Second World War, which show what happens when illiberal ideas are put into practice in politics,” he says. But it is precisely because liberalism deliberately sets out to lower the temperature of political conflict that it can also seem slow-moving and unexciting to those burning to address injustices or promote a particular set of values. And this is exacerbated by today’s intense polarisation, with both political sides bridling at core tenets of liberal democracy, he adds.

Conservatives often have difficulties accepting increasing diversity in relation to race, gender roles and sexual orientation. Meanwhile, on the progressive left, Fukuyama writes in Liberalism and Its Discontents, a deep commitment to certain forms of diversity often does not extend to “political diversity, or diversity of religious views if the latter are held by conservative Christians”. Meanwhile, critical theory “permits progressives to write off that entire element of society as part of a racist, patriarchal power structure that is illegitimately clinging to its former privileges”. The result of this, the book goes on, is deeply dysfunctional, as “both sides quietly entertain hopes that a large majority of their fellow citizens secretly agree with them and are prevented from expressing this agreement only through media manipulations and false consciousness propagated by various elites. This is a dangerous dodge that allows partisans to simply wish actual diversity away.”

Vladimir Putin, as Fukuyama’s book points out, has declared liberalism to be an “obsolete doctrine”. The decision to invade Ukraine, he adds now, might act as a wake-up for the West: “The peace and prosperity of the post-World War II period, and particularly since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, has been taken for granted by many people in Europe and North America lucky enough to enjoy it,” he says. “This is what has allowed anti-mask and anti-vaccine activists to compare themselves to the Jews under Hitler, or to think of Justin Trudeau as the epitome of tyranny. What the Russian invasion of Ukraine will hopefully do is to awaken them out of their complacency and remind them of what real tyranny looks like. And the Ukrainian fight for their independence should teach them something about the value of democracy, and the need to struggle to keep it.”

Fukuyama admits that it may prove difficult to “return to a greater consensus around liberal values” and reclaim the optimism of 1992. He draws on his experience as a teacher to indicate how we might get beyond the kind of shrill, performative politics that makes people feel better but does little to change anything, all too common in an era of polarisation and social media.

“I run a small public policy unit and I’ve been involved in public policy educational institutions my whole life,” he reflects. “What we teach our students is that public policy is really hard. You have to identify problems and issues accurately; understand what causes them; mobilise a coalition of people to support change, which often involves convincing legislators to vote for things they might not otherwise want to vote for; deal with a legal system which puts all sorts of constraints on you; and then actually implement the change. We teach our students about the chain which goes all the way from the problem to the implementation of the solution.

“The internet has focused people round the mobilisation stage: someone calls their attention to something they find outrageous and it’s really, really easy to say ‘I’m with you on this. I think that is outrageous too.’ But that can relieve them of having to deal with the difficult problems of actually changing the policy or the conditions which gave rise to the injustice.” Although “real change is extremely hard”, it is still possible to teach students about more and less effective ways of making it happen.

As a final thought in his book, Fukuyama suggests that we should “borrow a page from the playbook of the ancient Greeks”, embrace the neglected virtue of moderation in politics – and think again about whether we should always exhort university graduates to “follow their passions”.

Asked to expand on this, he describes a graduation speech he recently attended “where a well-known conservative supreme court justice said: ‘You are normally told to follow your passions. Well, Hitler followed his passions and it really led to disaster. So maybe you should think about which passion you are following rather than the value of passion itself.’”

Matthew Reisz is a freelance writer and editor. He was a staff journalist and Books Editor at Times Higher Education from 2007 to 2021.


Liberalism and Its Discontents is published by Profile on 17 March.

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Reader's comments (4)

This is total dishonest reinvention and self-promotion. Fukuyama is not and never has been "liberal." Why doesn't this former THE "reporter" know that? A glance at any FF's writings or the reviews to seeing that his "chair" is not really at Stanford but at a right-wing institute associated with Stanford would tell him. I guess he paid no attention to any of that. It is not sufficient to cite "GoodReads" and not the text itself.
ad hominem: try arguing against the points he make instead. We are now at the stage where we think making character assassination and insults constitute making an intellectual argument.
Fukuyama shows no understanding of Foucault
Considering the "end of history" and the nearly universal ;-) acceptance of democracy and freedom in the world - the thought might be comforting that no one can always be wrong. Thus Mr Fukuyama may well be right this time but will it help? Comment to expatacademic: Even Foucault seems not to have understood Foucault - but his cat certainly has.