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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Francis Fukuyama-Wrong Again!

No matter how he changes his mind, I always end up disagreeing with Francis Fukuyama.  His triumphalism about American-style democracy and capitalism in “The End of History” struck me as hopelessly crude (as well as self-serving); Fukuyama had put the ideas of the great left-wing Hegelian thinker Alexander Kojeve through a neocon sausage machine.   At first glance, Fukuyama’s praise of China in yesterday’s Financial Times oped is more in the spirit of Kojeve. After all, Kojeve had sometimes defended Stalin:  if you wanted to rush a feudal society and economy into the industrial age, you couldn’t behave like a perfect gentleman.  Along similar lines, Fukuyama now suggests that American democracy is no system to imitate if you need to get big results in a hurry.  China’s virtue, says Fukuyama, is that the political system can make “large, complex decisions” quickly and well.

Being in a hurry is an age-old reason why intellectuals sometimes have a soft spot for autocrats, as Leo Strauss pointed out (consider his debate with Kojeve about tyranny). 

Fukuyama fudges the real issue by suggesting equivalence between democracy and the sensitivity of the Chinese leadership to some quarters of “public opinion”.  Without endorsing a lie, can one speak of “public opinion” in a country where dissent is ruthlessly suppressed and no expense or effort is made to filter the Internet?   

Machiavelli himself admitted that even tyrants need friends and supporters.  But the political ideal of democracy is different.   It’s not just about enough backing to shove the right answer down people’s throats; it’s about the sense of freedom and equality we feel when we debate and negotiate with each other over what needs to be done, the process of public justification.

Nowhere is Fukuyama more wrong than in his suggestion that the American system with its checks and balances is less equipped to deal with the long term than China.  China’s leaders have the tools, in the short run, to suppress ethnic and class conflict (the latter’s existence acknowledged by Fukuyama).  But in the long haul, the governing elite is trapped by their own commitment to one-party rule.  They have no plausible mechanisms for mediating potentially explosive social and cultural differences.  They can only hope to keep the lid on as long as possible.  Fukuyama describes the American system as “polarized”.  He has been reading too many Chinese Communist Party tracts if he really doesn’t see the seriousness of the fault lines in China.  And they are exponentially more frightening than America’s divisions, since so far there is no ability to imagine alternatives other than repression or collapse.

Don’t get me wrong.  I admire the success of the Chinese leadership in bringing millions of people out of dire poverty, creating a dynamic middle class.   Some of the initiatives on green energy are impressive, too; this has to be weighed against the general refusal to cooperate on climate change as a global commons problem.  I agree with Fukuyama about the correctness of the Chinese response to the financial crisis-and contrary to many American critics, I also think that the currency policy is broadly justified.  But is Fukuyama right that shortcomings in the US response to the crisis can be blamed on the American system of democratic government?  Until recently at least the Obama Administration may have been listening to the wrong economists.   The framers seem to have given the Executive branch some pretty powerful tools of macroeconomic policy.  Failure to use them aggressively can’t be explained by the difficulties of negotiating with Congress.

We need a reality check about China’s economic success.   China’s investment in industrial espionage is a powerful testament to its dependence on the kind of innovation that is produced by free societies; much of China’s growth has derived from competitive wages but that’s not a sustainable basis for prosperity since there are other low and lower-wage economies that are open to investment and technology, and they are rapidly catching up (I’ve talked to managers of multinational firms who are already moving out of China to more attractive sites of production).  I’m by no means a Sinophobe and I think that China’s leaders have made some good calls.  But the challenges and dilemmas they face into the future make me all the more impressed with the accomplishments that freedom and democracy have brought to America and to other societies that have taken the wager of pluralism and ordered liberty.     


Posted by Rob Howse on January 19, 2011 at 09:04 AM in Article Spotlight, Current Affairs | Permalink


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At the end of history, don't American Christians yearn for the return of an authoritarian dictator, Jesus, who requires all to share and who grants salvation not by hard work but by blind faith?

Posted by: Peter Tong | Feb 6, 2011 7:14:31 PM

Incidentally, Fukuyama's actual arguments in The End of History aren't inconsistent with his new FT essay.

First and foremost, Fukuyama's FT criticisms of "the American model" are the very same things that separate American from the Western European model that Fukuyama saw as ascendnt. E.g., from the FT essay:

"If the democratic, market-oriented model is to prevail, Americans need to own up to their own mistakes and misconceptions. Washington’s foreign policy during the past decade was too militarised and unilateral, succeeding only in generating a self-defeating anti-Americanism. In economic policy, Reaganism long outlived its initial successes, producing only budget deficits, thoughtless tax-cutting and inadequate financial regulation."

Second, Fukuyama's new essay doesn't suggest that the China model is a viable competitor to western liberal democracy. Quite the contrary: he specifically says that "China’s model is sui generis; its ­specific mode of governance is difficult to describe, much less emulate, which is why it is **not up for export**."

Posted by: Adam White | Jan 23, 2011 10:15:29 PM

"at some point after the original publication of the "End of History" Fukuyama shifted from the American to the European model."

That wasn't my argument, and it's flatly incorrect as a matter of fact. His book directly rejected pro-American triumphalism, in the parts I quoted above. But even if you want to look only at his original essay, you're still wrong. There's nothing approaching American triumphalism (and tellingly, you quote no passages supporting your point). Instead, this is Fukuyama's description of what "triumphed":

"The state that emerges at the end of history is liberal insofar as it recognizes and protects through a system of law man's universal right to freedom, and democratic insofar as it exists only with the consent of the governed."

There's nothing in there that points to the American model, to the exclusion of the Western European model. And his essay's emphasis on the end of History ushering in a "Common Marketization" of international relations points directly (and explicitly) to the EU model, not the modern American model.

Whether or not Fukuyama distorted Kojeve, as you suggest he did, the fact is that you're distorting Fukuyama. And from your little one liners about "neocons," it's pretty clear that your mistakes owe to little more than partisan political animus. That's a pity.

As for your pithy one-liner -- "as history just keeps failing to end" -- are you seriously saying the Communism remains a viable alternative to liberal democracy? Because that is the "History" that Fukuyama is referring to -- not simply the general continuation of news and events.

Posted by: Adam White | Jan 23, 2011 10:03:58 PM

"When someone throws around lines like 'neocon sausage machine,' he basically admits to his readers that he's not being serious. But even ignoring that pointless throw-away line,. . . ."

Talk about throw away language.

Posted by: Anotheranon | Jan 23, 2011 7:30:18 PM

As history just keeps failing to end, Fukuyama keeps shifting his position. As one of my colleagues observed who read my post, the one common element to all these positions is Fukuyama's absolute certainty that he knows what the grand finale is going to be. So you are right that at some point after the original publication of the "End of History" Fukuyama shifted from the American to the European model. Going through all his changes of mind over those years would have tried and bored readers of this blog-so i didn't bother with that. I'm well aware that the triumphalism in the original book was accompanied by a kind of regret or sadness about "men without chests"; once liberal democracy and capitalism triumphed there would be no room any more for macho men and their bloody struggles. In my introduction to the English translation of Kojeve's legal philosophy (with B-P Frost) I address that exact feature of Fukuyama's "End of History" as a further distortion of Kojeve. But the psychological claim that triumph would be accompanied by sadness or nostalgia on the part of a certain kind of man does not as such vitiate the characterization of the analysis of history and its end as triumphalist. Perhaps at a deep level there might be some contradiction or inconsistency in a triumphalism that by its own admission leads to post-triumphal depression. But American capitalism has generated medicines to treat depression, and perhaps pharmaceuticals could help the poor deflated macho men get back their mojo?

Posted by: Rob Howse | Jan 22, 2011 2:03:52 PM

When someone throws around lines like "neocon sausage machine," he basically admits to his readers that he's not being serious. But even ignoring that pointless throw-away line, anyone familiar with Fukuyama's "End of History" -- both the original article in The National Interest and the subsequent book -- knows that Howse's characterization of the Fukuyama's argument bears absolutely no resemblance to what he actual wrote.

"His triumphalism about American-style democracy and capitalism in 'The End of History' struck me as hopelessly crude"

That line could not be less accurate. "The End of History" was not about the triumph of "American-style democracy and capitalism." Fukuyama's argument was that after the fall of Communism the remaining viable (inevitable) modern form of government was the Western European model, not the American model. As Fukuyama wrote in the Afterword to the book version, in response to those who argued (as Howse does here) that his original essay was "jingoistic triumphalism" in favor of the American model, "the European Union is a much fuller real-world embodiment of the concept than is the modern United States."

Fukuyama actually returned to this point just a couple of years ago, in an op-ed:

"The End of History was never linked to a specifically American model of social or political organization. Following Alexandre Kojève, the Russian-French philosopher who inspired my original argument, I believe that the European Union more accurately reflects what the world will look like at the end of history than the contemporary United States. The EU’s attempt to transcend sovereignty and traditional power politics by establishing a transnational rule of law is much more in line with a 'post-historical' world than the Americans’ continuing belief in God, national sovereignty, and their military."

No one reading those lines, and the corresponding parts of the original book or article, would mistake Fukuyama for someone wielding a "neocon sausage machine," whatever that is.

And even setting aside the question of whether Fukuyama foresaw the American or European model is inevitably predominant, you miss an even more obvious point: Fukuyama's argument wasn't "triumphant" at all. As he concluded his argument in the original essay, "The end of history will be a very sad time. ... I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again."

Posted by: Adam White | Jan 21, 2011 10:14:25 PM

Perfect response to Fukuyama's really scary (albeit not «revolutionary») praise for the virtues of absolutism, a praise that leads to serious distortions, if not delusions ---Howse's point about China's reliance on industrial espionage rather than home-grown talent and creativity and the Party's hate/hate relationship with the Internet are salient omissions fuelled by Fukuyama's enthusiasm. Alas, the list could go on.

Posted by: Denyse Goulet | Jan 19, 2011 12:58:39 PM

Nice post: well said.

"Nowhere is Fukuyama more wrong than in his suggestion that the American system with its checks and balances is less equipped to deal with the long term than China."

It seems Fukuyama has failed to learn from (or forgotten his) Tocqueville who, while not addressing an authoritarian state like China, nevertheless suggested that, in Jon Elster's words, "democracies are less suited than aristocracies to deal with long-term planning, and yet are superior in the long run to the latter." Substitute Chinese-style authoritarianism for "aristocracies" and the point remains. And thus,

"On the one hand, 'a democracy finds it difficult to coordinate the details of a great undertaking and to fix on some plan and carry it through with determination in spite of obstacles. It has little capacity for combining measures in secret and waiting patiently for the result.' On the other hand, 'in the long run government by democracy should increase the real forces of society, but it cannot immediately assemble, at one point and at a given time, forces as great as those at the disposal of an aristocratic [or modern authoritarian] government.'"

Elster proceeds to quote from another passage from Tocqueville that fills out this theme, speaking favorably of the effects of democratic government and governance on civil society. In part that passage reads:

"Democracy does not provide a people with the most skillful of governments, but it does that which the most skillful government often cannot do: it spreads throughout the body social a restless activity, superabundant force, and energy never found elsewhere, which, however little favoured by circumstances, can do wonders. Those are its true advantages."

As Elster explains, one conclusion to be drawn from this is that the advantages of democracies "are mainly and essentially by-products." Its comparative disadvantages as a decision-making apparatus, in other words, are abundantly compensated for and transcended by its salutary effects on civil society. This, together with a democratic legal system which better serves justice than a non-democratic system, suggests we have ample reason not to fawn over China's authoritarian exercise of its sovereign powers, even if we, as you note, recognize its real achievements, such as those having to do with the reduction of poverty (although the manner in which this has been achieved is having some striking inegalitarian consequences that may come back to haunt the leadership).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jan 19, 2011 9:58:38 AM

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