Liberalism and Its Discontents, by Francis Fukuyama (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 192 pp., $26)

Just over 70 years ago, E. M. Forster published Two Cheers for Democracy, a collection of essays and articles written between 1936 and 1951—a period when liberal democracy faced the gravest of challenges, briefly exulted in its victory over the worst of tyrannies, and then found itself facing off against another implacable foe with the fate of the world again hanging in the balance. The sentiment encapsulated in Forster’s title runs throughout Francis Fukuyama’s latest book, Liberalism and Its Discontents. This mood becomes an explicit argument only toward the end of the book, where, in comparing liberalism with the available alternatives, Fukuyama endorses Churchill’s famous quip: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” So while the book aims to recover and rebuild faith in classical liberalism—the political theory that defends the foundational importance of “equal individual rights, law, and freedom”—even at its most vigorous, Fukuyama’s defense remains something less than wholly enthusiastic. And therein lies the principal strength and greatest weakness of liberalism itself: it often fails to inspire fervor, even among its most committed advocates.

If liberal democracy is a second-best, fallback position that we endorse because the alternatives are worse, is it fated to generate passionate detractors but only lukewarm defenders? It’s hard to craft rhetorically stirring speeches in defense of moderate, limited, constitutional government that safeguards certain basic rights but aims to be neutral regarding questions about the highest human good, the best way of life, or the right way to worship the divine. Yet is such a regime capable of defending itself in times of crisis—whether from foreign invasion, domestic unrest, or even debilitating self-doubt? Such questions are not the primary focus of Fukuyama’s sober and realistic defense of liberal democracy. But they seem to haunt its periphery.

Fukuyama’s critics would no doubt object to characterizing his work as pragmatic and moderate and insist on labeling him as an ideologically committed partisan, so devoted to the abstract ideals of liberal universal cosmopolitanism that he willfully ignores its shortcomings. Such a description misses the mark. For underlying Fukuyama’s attempt to offer a spirited defense of liberalism is a sobriety about its limitations. He acknowledges that there exist “many legitimate criticisms to be made of liberal societies,” including their consumerism, their inequality, and their lack of “a strong sense of community or common purpose.” Yet while he aims to articulate “the core ideas underlying contemporary liberalism, as well as some of the grave weaknesses afflicting liberal theory,” his defense of liberalism’s strengths is more profound than his consideration of its shortcomings.

Fukuyama’s core contention is that current problems lie not in liberalism itself, but in fundamentally sound elements of liberalism—the right to private property and the right to personal autonomy—that have been pushed to extremes and thereby distorted, disfiguring liberalism rather than revealing its true character. This creates a peculiar ambiguity to the book’s polemical dimension: it is directed at liberalism’s critics, but not quite at their specific criticisms. It aims instead to identify what Fukuyama sees as the true source of their discontent.

Indeed, the title itself evokes Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, which argues that psychic dissatisfaction grows in proportion to the extent to which society hems in basic impulses or drives and prevents them from being “discharged.” What if, despite liberalism’s many virtues, it impedes the expression of passions and stifles longings that it cannot ultimately extinguish? Perhaps there is something analogous in liberalism to the tragic dialectic described by Freud, in which civilization fosters the very discontentment that threatens to undermine it from within.

Fukuyama argues that liberalism faces threats today from both the populist right and the progressive left. Right-wing politicians such as Viktor Orbán, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have sought to weaken traditional liberal institutional restraints on executive power, undermining the independence of courts and seeking to monopolize or discredit the free press. Figures on the left, meantime, have attacked the sanctity of individual rights, calling for identity groups to be accorded greater political (and even juridical) significance and decrying free speech and scientific rationalism as instruments of oppression.

Fukuyama is alarmed by both the political threat coming from the right and the cultural threat posed by the left, but he spends more time refuting liberalism’s right-wing enemies. At the risk of reading into Fukuyama’s words our own interpretation of current events, the asymmetry of his treatment of the threats from the right and the left aligns with the distinction between the urgent and the important: apprehensions about the potential near-term consequences of a post-liberal Right must be addressed before the longer-term threat posed by the post-liberal Left (which is ultimately a deeper challenge because it is aimed at such first principles as the universality of human reason and notions of objective truth).

The historical genealogy of these two threats is a complex story, one that Fukuyama tells with synoptic grace. He argues that both challenges reflect the metastasizing growth of liberalism’s core principle of individual autonomy—the principle that, in Hobbes’s words, there is “no obligation on any man which ariseth not from some act of his own.” Fukuyama’s reflection on the origins of liberalism serves to highlight that liberalism was and remains principally a way to resolve the problem of “peacefully managing diversity in pluralistic societies.” Against a historical backdrop of violent conflict fired by clashing ethical, political, and religious visions of the human good, “liberalism sought to lower the aspirations of politics” so that government would limit itself to protecting “peace and security,” while leaving choices about how to live and what to believe in the hands of individuals. Thus the value of individual autonomy and the corollary virtue of toleration became central tenets of the liberal approach to politics.

Since Locke, this autonomy has had two principal manifestations—one economic, the other intellectual. In the realm of economics, the foundational liberal rights are the right to private property and the freedom to exchange goods and services. Fukuyama argues that these sound principles are distorted, however, when taken to an extreme in the “neoliberal” economic theorizing that trusts the spontaneous order of markets to the exclusion of government action and that elevates economic efficiency and consumer welfare above all other social values. Absolutizing the value of the free market leaves individuals unconscionably vulnerable to accidents and misfortunes beyond their control and fails to secure important human goods, because the underlying anthropology that sees human beings as “rational utility maximizers” neglects the desire for crucial moral, spiritual, and social goods—especially the desire for respect, both for individuals as persons and for beliefs, rules, traditions, and ways of life that they admire. Neoliberal policies, on this view, thus foster economic inequality and individual atomization that feed “populist reaction” against liberalism as such.

Originally, the intellectual or spiritual manifestation of autonomy concerned the right to believe and worship as one’s conscience demanded. But this realm gradually expanded to encompass broader questions of moral choice, personal identity, and social practice. Fukuyama retells the broadly Hegelian story of how Christian moral teachings about human dignity and equality, the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on the sanctity of individual conscience, and the Enlightenment’s stress on “the act of choice” as in some respects “more valuable than the substance of what was being chosen” gave rise to the modern conception of the human subject, which found political expression in the French Revolution’s assertion of the Rights of Man. In a complex argument that does not quite mirror his neat thesis on economics, Fukuyama traces the devolution of the principle of personal autonomy to an extreme emphasis on human choice that finally turns on itself by undermining “the individualism and universalism” essential to liberal autonomy. This critique, as developed by radical authors such as Herbert Marcuse and Michel Foucault, first gained traction in American universities in the 1970s and 1980s and provides the epistemological framework for contemporary identity politics.

Still, the postmodern critique of liberalism cannot be understood simply as the reaction to a one-sided exaggeration of an originally sound liberal principle. True, a fixation on the sovereign self has led to an excessively self-centered individualism. As Fukuyama reminds his fellow liberals, individual choice is not the sole human good; social cohesion and the substance of what people choose are both integral to human flourishing. The excessive emphasis on personal autonomy, however, does not straightforwardly account for the most important threat to liberalism that Fukuyama identifies: the rejection of moral and epistemic universalism. Nonetheless, Fukuyama provides a useful sketch of how the postmodern denial of “universally valid modes of cognition,” as found in “the critical theory tradition associated with identity politics,” stems from a “radical subjectivism” that roots knowledge “in lived experience and emotion” and asserts the incommensurability of human experience across groups.

Liberalism and Its Discontents excels in highlighting the weaknesses of liberalism’s critics. As a defense of the liberal establishment, it is an exemplary display of how deep learning can inform prudential political judgment and is wholly convincing as an argument for liberal democracy as the best of the available alternatives. At the level of philosophy, however, the book must stand as a prelude to work that we hope Fukuyama will take up: a full and positive defense of liberalism’s compatibility with what is noblest in humanity and its traditions.

Deep apprehensions about liberalism articulated by twentieth-century thinkers as different as C. S. Lewis, Hannah Arendt, and Hans Jonas predate the distortion of classical or humane liberalism that Fukuyama describes as occurring over the last 50 years—not to mention the concerns articulated by older nineteenth-century liberals, such as Tocqueville or Hegel, who warned of liberalism’s excesses. A full defense of liberalism must do greater justice to such critics. This sort of approach is not alien to Fukuyama: a key strength of The End of History and the Last Man (1992) was its clear-eyed consideration of whether the foundational reorientation to peace and security at the basis of liberalism might simultaneously lead to material prosperity and spiritual poverty.

In appealing to the need to moderate liberalism’s excesses, Fukuyama reminds his readers that moderation is both a moral and an intellectual virtue. Recognizing moderation as a virtue, however, requires a sober awareness of the limits of politics. One detects in Fukuyama’s work a careful study of political philosophy and an immersion in the great works of political theory, which helps him see clearly both the charms and the limits of utopianism. But one wishes that this background had been emphasized more and that he had set his argument for liberalism’s virtues against the inevitable trade-offs of political life.

One can certainly make the case that the goods sacrificed are worth the goods attained. Hegel, for example, was clear-eyed about the fact that the political conditions of Athenian cultural greatness were incompatible with recognition of the principle that “man as man is free,” but he thought the realization of the latter principle more just, and thus worth sacrificing classical antiquity’s “beautiful freedom.” Likewise, Tocqueville could lament the passing of a certain human excellence made possible by the French ancien régime even as he affirmed the equality of the democratic age. These perspectives represent correctives to the winner-take-all attitudes and the ever-disappointed hopes that politics currently engenders.

At the same time, it is incumbent on us to ask: Can liberal democracy endure absent a transcendent belief in universal equality and the sanctity of the human person? Might Nietzsche have been right that with the waning of belief in Christian metaphysics will come a waning of commitment to Christian morality—and of the ethical framework that has sustained modern democratic political forms? Fukuyama is aware of such deeper questions, but in his present work he mostly sets them aside to direct his attention to the exigencies of the moment. While there are good prudential reasons for taking this approach, one wonders what he would say about more theoretically sophisticated and spiritually ominous challenges to the liberal democratic order.

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