Fukuyama still doesn’t get it

The author of The End of History is losing the debate to his dead mentor, but still refuses to concede:

Since Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations has been contrasted with my own End of History in countless introductory International Relations classes over the past two decades, I might as well begin by tackling at the outset the issue of how we’re doing vis-à-vis one another. At the moment, it looks like Huntington is winning.

The world today is not converging around liberal democratic government, as it seemed to be for more than a generation. The Third Wave of democratization that Huntington himself observed progressed in the period from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s from about 35 electoral states to perhaps 115 by 2008. But since then the wave has gone into reverse, what Larry Diamond has labeled a democratic recession. Not only has the number of democracies declined somewhat, but important qualitative changes have taken place. Big authoritarian powers like Russia and China have grown self-confident and aggressive. Meanwhile, existing liberal democracies have lost much of their appeal after the financial crises in America and the Eurozone during the 2000s, and are suffering from populist uprisings that threaten the liberal pillar of their political systems.

In place of the Left-Right ideological split defined largely by issues revolving around the relative economic power of capital and labor in an industrialized setting that characterized 20th-century politics, we now have a political spectrum organized increasingly around identity issues, many of which are defined more by culture than by economics narrowly construed. This shift is not good for the health of liberal democracy, and the number one exemplar of this dysfunction is the United States, where the rise of Donald Trump has posed a serious threat to America’s check-and-balance institutions. The phenomenon of rising populist nationalism is one that I have explored previously in this journal, and at much greater length in my most recent book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.

Huntington was very prescient in his depiction of “Davos Man,” the cosmopolitan creature unmoored from strong attachments to any particular place, loyal primarily to his own self-interest. Davos Man has now become the target of populist rage, as the elites who constructed our globalized world are pilloried for being out of touch with the concerns of the working class. Huntington also foresaw the rise of immigration as one of the chief issues driving populism and the fears that mass migration has stoked about cultural change. Indeed, Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post has labeled Huntington as a prophet of the Trump era.

What no one in the current debate can say is whether the current democratic recession will turn into a full-blown depression, marking a more fundamental shift in global politics toward some alternative regime type, or whether it is more like a stock market correction. The causes of the current recession in Western countries are reasonably clear: Populism has been driven by the unequal effects of globalization, as well as a cultural revolt against the large numbers of migrants moving across international borders and challenging traditional notions of national identity.

There are a number of reasons, however, to wonder if these forces will be strong enough to eventually overcome the factors driving the world toward greater convergence in economic and political institutions, or lead to serious geopolitical conflict on a scale matching that of the early 20th century. Neither the China model nor the emerging populist-nationalist one represented by Russia, Turkey, or Hungary will likely be sustainable economically or politically over an extended period. On the other hand, democracies have mechanisms in place for correcting mistakes, and a big test of American democracy will occur in November when Americans get to vote on whether they approve of the presidency of Donald Trump. Moreover, the rural, less-educated parts of the population that are the core of populist support are, in countries experiencing economic growth, in long-term decline. At this point, however, such assertions amount to no more than speculation.

It’s an interesting article, but the point that Fukuyama simply refuses to address is the intrinsic falsity of what he calls “socioeconomic modernization” and James Burnham, more straightforwardly, calls liberalism. The observable reality, and one of the core causes of the loss of popular faith in liberalism and the post-WWII neo-liberal world order, is that its claims to be founded on democracy and the will of the people have proven to be every bit as false as the claims of Communism to be founded on the interests of the working class.

Ideologies lose their adherents when their promises are contradicted by the observable reality. How can liberalism credibly claim moral superiority on the basis of the will of the people when from California to Brussels its primary institutions are openly elitist and anti-democratic? Rather like the failed Soviet Union, the rulers of the West pretend to respect the vote and the people of the West pretend to believe their vote matters. But the pretenses are failing, on both sides.

Liberalism also promises increasing societal wealth and rising living standards through openness, but there too it is failing on both counts. The wealth of the West is a debt-based facade; average wealth per capita has been rapidly declining for decades, to the point that only a small percentage of the population actually owns their own home anymore. Not only birth rates and marriage rates, but average life expectancies are actually falling in many Western countries, and the quality of life drops with every low-IQ criminal immigrant who invades the country with the full support of the ruling elites.

And the irony of calling Russia and China “authoritarian powers” when the government of the United States is spying on the entire global population, engaged in the military occupation of over 70 different countries and territories, and claiming the authority to decide who can be legally criticized or not under pain of imprisonment is deep indeed.

Fukuyama has retreated, but his new book demonstrates that his retreat is a fighting withdrawal rather than a concession. But it will avail him little, because Huntington has only begun to win the debate. Identity is indeed significant, but Fukuyama’s implication that new identities can be created to compete with the existing cultural and religious ones is as doomed to failure as the European Union, given that he is counting on higher education and a growing middle class to provide them.

Identity, as opposed to Huntington’s concept of culture, is a better descriptor of today’s politics because it is both socially constructed and contestable, as today’s debates over American national identity illustrate. Huntington’s cultures are, by contrast, fixed and nearly impossible to change. Contrary to the views of many nationalists and religious partisans, identities are neither biologically rooted nor of ancient provenance. Nationalism in the modern sense did not exist in Europe prior to the French Revolution; the Islam of Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi does not conform to any of the major traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Contemporary identities based on concepts of nation or religion were created by political actors for specific purposes, and can be displaced by other identities as the outcome of a political struggle.

So while culture does matter, Huntington’s theory really does not fit the current reality in many ways. Western democracies are at war with themselves internally over national identity; there is a slipping consensus that they fit into a broad category like “the West.” When Donald Trump spoke of “the West” in a speech in Poland in 2017, his West was a different one from the West of President Obama. Similarly, in other parts of the world, civilizational fractures are just one among many that are dividing people politically. The only countervailing forces are strong states like the ones governing China and Russia, not transnational entities based on shared cultural values.