Monday, 13 June 2011

The Political Thought of Francis Fukuyama, Part One: Freedom and the desire for self-recognition

The most important and, indeed, controversial political science book of the last fifty years is undoubtedly Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992). Commented on frequently, but read sparingly by most who have an opinion on it, Fukuyama’s recklessly ambitious book has permanent status on undergraduate reading lists and is ubiquitously condemned by disillusioned socialists as much as it is loved by neo-Conservatives. Writing in the immediate years after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the fall of communism in Europe he daringly concluded that ‘What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or 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 universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."’

After 9/11 this view took a battering from those still in a state of permanent hostility to globalisation, and the failure of the American-led initiative to plant functioning western democratic institutions in post-Saddam Iraq enlisted the despondency of the left and right in making claims that there was no end point of history. The former became convinced that there had to be something more edifying than an evolutionary path towards Reaganism and lapsed back into moral relativism and the idea that no civilisation or political system should claim to be superior in our inter-connected, heterogeneous world; the latter found solace in denying that liberal democracy could be spread anywhere outside of the western world and, indeed, many non-occidental civilisations were gradually thought to be unworthy of its prestige. However, the 2011 Arab Spring’s unanimity in rejecting Islamist solutions as an alternative to the kleptocratic, patrimonial, junta dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa has suddenly made Al Qaeda look like a probable victim of the hidden hand of history that they claim to be liberating their Muslim brethren from. The automatic question, then, should be ‘was Fukuyama right?’ but that would be doing a great disservice to the man.

Anybody who has read The End of History will know that Fukuyama is not pompously dogmatic. He does not claim that there is an iron law of history in which all nations will one day reach the status of a liberal democracy; in fact there is, in his view, a good chance that it might not happen. Just as any semi-literate, rabble-rousing, factory worker could list off one or two Marxist clichés about ‘owning the means of production and exchange’ and dismiss appeals to patriotism as ‘false consciousness’ without reading even one page of Das Kapital, so Fukuyama has come to be referenced in many contemporary debates as the arbiter of a naïve teleological theory. Indeed, an Albanian friend of mine during my days at Oxford insisted that I, too, should read Fukuyama before presuming to dismiss neo-Conservatism, precisely because I deemed it sufficient to criticise what was being put forward in his name without actually reading his work.

What I enjoyed so much about The End of History was its originality. I fully expected Fukuyama to be yet another Reaganite paying homage to the free market and exalting wealth-creators as unwitting substitutes for the divinities that we are (unfortunately) leaving behind in our continual path towards an ever changing idea of modernity. Instead I was left with the urge to read Hegel and Plato and reconsider my own (seemingly instinctive) Anglo-Saxon beliefs that freedom can only be achieved when the individual is sovereign. My same Albanian friend used to tell me that it was otiose for English people to be reading John Locke and John Stuart Mill because it is in our blood already – on taking a postgraduate course in political philosophy at the London School of Economics (LSE) he failed to turn up for 11 out of 12 of his module seminars after discovering that all of the English students had already made their mind up that freedom was a consumer-esque privilege guaranteed only by pseudo-market choices in life. A de tour through the works of Hegel and the German conceptions of freedom as an inner spiritual experience fulfilled only by recognition at the hands of one’s peers contrasts greatly with the English view that freedom is simply freedom from arbitrary coercion at the hands of more powerful political actors. My friend wanted to get away from the dominance of the American Milton Friedman’s ideas on contemporary English notions of freedom and liberty (or classical liberalism as it is also known nowadays), and it is through reading The End of History that I came to appreciate his impatience. (NB: Friedman is still one of my favourite political thinkers to this day.)

People are often surprised that Fukuyama sides greatly with the Hegelian idea of freedom as a guiding force for political evolution, but the roots of his belief in the natural human desire for peer recognition spring from Plato’s teachings on the virtue of thymos. In the ancient Greek understanding of this word, meaning ‘spiritedness’, Fukuyama ingeniously proposed that liberal democracy could end up being the end point of evolution for modernising countries because humans naturally want to be superior to others, but of course not all can achieve this. As it is not possible for everybody to hold executive power of a nation, or lord it over whole communities of people through the influence of wealth and patrimony, or be a Military General, thymotic impulses can be channelled into more harmless areas of life so that humans can continue to seek superiority over their peers and gain recognition in other ways. Numerous examples of this can be cited in history from the release provided by the Crusades to generations of Feudal Barons previously locked in conflict with Kings, to modern day examples such as young ex-criminal men finding a channel for their megalothymia in the legalised world of boxing. According to Fukuyama this type of consciousness has been on going from time immemorial and was manifested most spectacularly in the French Revolution, whereby a multitude of different power groups and ambitious individuals realised (after much bloodshed) that they could best achieve freedom through compromise e.g. voting for their rulers but also delegating to them responsibility to make independent decisions.

In more simplistic terms thymos can be satisfied by the knowledge that those who are not legislative rulers in parliament can make up for the disappointment of not holding power per se by voting out the very people representing them. Furthermore, these same megalothymian voters will probably have found a creative outlet for their desire for peer recognition in other ways that can satisfy their egos, such as joining voluntary civic societies, sports clubs, religious faiths, trade unions or any other organisations that can provide them with earned approbation. Europe’s disastrous experimentation with communism and fascism in the twentieth century is consequently explained as hyper-thymos, whereby the excessive demand for a redistribution of power and, furthermore, money, created a fractious world of competing interests increasingly soured by hatred and appeals to unanimity. Friedrich Hayek perhaps captured this best in The Road to Serfdom (1944) when he remarked that ‘the desire of the individual to identify himself with a group is very frequently the result of a feeling of inferiority, and that therefore his want will only be satisfied if membership of the group confers some superiority over outsiders.’ The extraordinary achievements of the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries can be seen as a thymotic desire on the part of a whole group of traditionally incongruous tribal factions fighting to prove that their Islamic religion was superior to all other faiths.

With the fall of communism in the late twentieth century the world looked likely to cast off the regression into absolutism, just as Western Europe had turned its back on fascism and given democracy a second try after the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945. By returning to rule by consent, efficient checks and balances on the power of the executive, regular competitive elections through secret ballot, and the rule of law for all citizens regardless of race or religion post-war Western Europe set a model for how restless ambitious individuals and non-state organisations could be included in the political process. Whether represented in mass organisations or in smaller interest groups the thymotic impulse yearning inside most of us in our age of instant communication and 24-hour news has been raised to even higher levels of consciousness as we invest more and more faith in our individual achievement and advancement through merit. This is ultimately why Fukuyama identified liberal democracy as the best answer to the future, for it is the best political system capable of maintaining consensus and guaranteeing liberty. Communism on the other hand crushed liberty, tyrannised the individual, protected the state from the worker (not the other way round) and survived through denouncing and destroying any competing agency capable of rivalling the state or operating outside its control.

On reading Mein Kampf Volume II last week I was also struck by how Hitler clearly saw that a liberal democracy was the biggest threat to Nazism, for it was capable of absorbing the National Socialists into the political process if votes for other parties held up and prevented one party from dominating. It is perhaps for this reason that the world’s most infamous proponent of unsentimental ethnic nationalism once saw fit to tell the German people that the NSDAP would never become a cult, happy with the role as a balancer of power between different Weimar parties. Looking at this from a Fukuyama perspective one could even go as far to say that Hitler wanted to extinguish democracy precisely because it offered consensus and coalition and was capable of satisfying the thymos of the myriad German political interests.

Whether the Arab Spring proves to be a decisive shift in the Islamic world towards democracy is hard to predict, but Fukuyama’s 1992 book is still worth consulting regardless of the outcome (which will not be immediate for all to see, anyway). It is impossible to do justice to the intellectual imagination of The End of History without making it sound deterministic. Indeed, Fukuyama’s emphasis on thymos as possibly the most important factor that will keep liberal democracy in the ascendancy because of its superior capacity for accommodating a multiplicity of competing interests and power groups sounds too impressive to be true. We in the west are growing increasingly disdainful of ideology and some might see his theory as trying to give a coherent view of an impossibly complex world. Indeed, in my next blog I will be assessing how Fukuyama’s new book The Origins of Political Order: From Pre-Human Times to the French Revolution has seen even this great scholar go to great lengths to avoid being categorised as an ideologue, even though the quality of his philosophical reasoning is as prescient as ever.

1 comment:

  1. I would have more sympathy with the argument if the Arab spring was not caused by maniacal dollar printing and subsequent commodity price inflation. "liberal democracy" is used by elites as it is "best by test" giving people the felling of freedom whilst granting them very little.

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