Triumphalism to pessimism
Does the Russia-Ukraine war epitomise a crisis of liberalism brought about by attacks from the populist right and the so-called anti-scientific left? Perhaps so - but not in the way Francis Fukuyama imagines, suggests Paul Demarty
Among its many other malign effects, the Ukraine war has sparked a renewed lurch towards authoritarian political norms - both in Russia, where opposition media and organisations are facing more severe repression than ever, and in the west.
RT, the Russian state’s anglophone broadcaster, has been taken off the air in Britain and throughout the European Union. Education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, promises to “crack down” on “pro-Putinist” academics who forward “don’t trust either side” messages. Sir Keir threatened to withdraw the whip from the spineless blob of Labour ‘left’ MPs and edges towards adding Stop the War Coalition to his proscribed list of ‘poisonous’ organisations. Tory papers and MPs round on striking London underground workers as “Putin agents”. Social media companies skew their moderation policies in favour of Ukraine and the western powers - to the farcical extent of suppressing posts that indicate the far-right political allegiances of many Ukrainian combatants and at the same time creating an exemption to hate-speech policies for those targeting Russians. That is in the context of a truly disturbing wave of war fever among the western intelligentsia, which has led to a kind of anti-Russian Kulturkampf - suppressing concerts of the music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, university courses on Fyodor Dostoevsky, and so forth.
There are apparently good reasons, then, to doubt the vitality of liberal ideas under the current circumstances. We turn to Francis Fukuyama, a well-known American intellectual, who offered readers of the Financial Times an essay on the decline of liberalism (March 4). His diagnosis - unsurprisingly - is wrong, but interestingly wrong. He attempts to put this western political crisis in a wider historical context, and in doing so provides a mythology of liberal history plausible enough perhaps to gain wider traction.
Fukuyama is, in origin, an eccentric neo-conservative. To the usual sources - in particular, political philosopher Leo Strauss, who taught at the University of Chicago for many years and inspired several schools of neo-conservative thought - he added a big dose of Hegel. His most famous work, The end of history and the last man, was the most audacious cooptation of Hegel in modern rightwing thought: an argument that, in essentials, the dialectic of world history had terminated, after the fall of the eastern bloc, in the unsurpassable supremacy of capitalism and liberal democracy. His thesis, to put it mildly, has not aged well, but we should remark of Fukuyama that he is somewhat more intellectually honest than his peers. He publicly broke with the neocons over the Iraq war (after it started, mind), and published an extensive critique of the movement in 2006.
It is worth rehearsing this merely because Fukuyama’s FT essay notably tacks back towards classical neo-conservatism. But, in true Hegelian style, he has sublated his 2000s-era scepticism, and the result is a markedly pessimistic text, distinguished in that way from the End of history triumphalism.
Fukuyama begins by decrying the Ukrainian invasion, predictably enough: “Many have said that it definitively marks the end of the post-cold war era … or indeed [with a nod to his own former triumphalism] the end of The end of history.” Vladimir Putin, to be sure, is unlikely to have a good time of it in the end.
Even if Putin takes Kyiv and deposes president Volodymyr Zelensky, he cannot in the long run subdue a furious nation of more than 40 million with military force. And he will be facing a democratic world and Nato alliance unified and mobilised as never before, which has imposed costly sanctions on Russia’s economy.
However, he urges the west to wake up to the grimmer implications of the whole business: “We cannot take the existing liberal world order for granted,” he writes. “The problems facing today’s liberal societies did not start and do not end with Putin, and we will face very serious challenges even if he is stymied in Ukraine.”
What are those problems? First of all, the growth of rightwing populism in many hitherto liberal societies, with the usual roll-call of villains - Putin, Narendra Modi, Donald Trump and so forth. He is also concerned with a strain of thought on the left stretching “from 20th-century structuralism through postmodernism to contemporary critical theory that questions the authority of science”. He picks out Michel Foucault, who allegedly “argued that shadowy elites used the language of science to mask domination of marginalised groups, such as gay people, the mentally ill or the incarcerated”. His target, if the phrase “contemporary critical theory” be taken to represent ‘critical race theory’ and the like, would seem to be modern identity politics - although he does not use the usual dog-whistles of ‘cultural Marxism’ or ‘postmodern neo-Marxism’ favoured by modern rightwing charlatans like Jordan Peterson.
Liberalism, in Fukuyama’s view,
is a doctrine, first enunciated in the 17th century, that seeks to control violence by lowering the sights of politics … It does this by respecting the equal rights and dignity of individuals, through a rule of law and constitutional government that checks and balances the powers of modern states. Among those rights are the rights to own property and to transact freely, which is why classical liberalism was strongly associated with high levels of economic growth and prosperity in the modern world. In addition, classical liberalism was typically associated with modern natural science, and the view that science could help us to understand and manipulate the external world to our own benefit.
What rightwing populism and ‘anti-science’ leftism do is attempt to impose total world views on all. The result can only be discord, repression and ultimately the degradation of norms (so it is said) that make an invasion of Ukraine possible.
How did we get here? “In the half-century following World War II, there was a broad and growing consensus around both liberalism and a liberal world order” - a funny way to describe the cold war and the complex history of decolonisation, but leave that aside. The problem came at the end of this happy period:
On the right, the economic liberalism of the early post-war years morphed during the 1980s and 1990s into what is sometimes labelled ‘neoliberalism’ … The market was worshipped and the state increasingly demonised as the enemy of economic growth and individual freedom. Advanced democracies under the spell of neoliberal ideas began trimming back welfare states and regulation.
The left, meanwhile, became obsessed with “individual choice and autonomy, even when this came at the expense of social norms and human community”. Besides undermining traditional and religious sources of authority, this inevitably spilled into a critique of liberalism itself as “an ideology that masked the self-interest of its proponents”:
On both the right and the left, foundational liberal ideas were pushed to extremes that then eroded the perceived value of liberalism itself. Economic freedom evolved into an anti-state ideology, and personal autonomy evolved into a ‘woke’ progressive worldview that celebrated diversity over a shared culture. These shifts then produced their own backlash, where the left blamed growing inequality on capitalism itself, and the right saw liberalism as an attack on all traditional values.
He then proceeds to an account of geopolitics which is no less bizarre for being essentially the ‘conventional wisdom’ of US state department propaganda: that there is a vast conspiracy of illiberal regimes - from Russia to China to Venezuela - who all connive at the rollback of the liberal world order. “At the centre of this network” - who else? - “is Putin’s Russia, which has provided weapons, advisors, military and intelligence support to virtually any regime, no matter how awful to its own people, that opposes the US or the EU.” Despite all this, Fukuyama returns to his cautious optimism - in Ukraine, Putin has overstepped the mark so much that the west’s residual liberal conscience may yet reawaken.
Fukuyama’s article is something of a wild ride. He cannot seem to decide whether the crisis he diagnoses is primarily driven by internal logic, adventitious errors, or enemies and bad actors.
It is notable that, with regard to every tendency he criticises, Fukuyama has a concrete example, a name or a country, or indeed a long list of countries. The rogues’ gallery includes Putin, Foucault, Milton Friedman, Nicolás Maduro, and so forth. But liberalism he leaves wholly abstract. He cites no liberal (to his satisfaction) philosophers or political scientists. It is presented almost as an immutable, infallible magisterium, in the Catholic, neo-scholastic style - sublimely indifferent as to the identity of its adherents, but attaching hated human names to all the heresies. The trouble with Friedman is that he got liberalism wrong; it is not a problem with liberalism that it gives you Friedmans.
Fukuyama’s summaries are, in any case, frequently wrong and vulgar. Foucault did not, in fact, believe that power operated for the benefit of “shadowy elites”. Indeed, he believed almost the opposite: that power was a wholly impersonal force that produced both the elites and the oppressed in one movement. His politics - eccentric as they were - were liberal in precisely Fukuyama’s sense: in valorising small acts of resistance to power as such, the sights of politics are certainly lowered. It would seem, then, that this very thing at the core of liberalism’s virtues - its epistemic and political modesty - not only fuels its alliance with science, but also produces anti-rationalist thought along the lines of Foucault.
Though it is not an argument I make commonly, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that Fukuyama is simply not Hegelian enough. He is happy to talk of “the end of the End of history”, with a slight tone of self-deprecation; there, indeed, is an Aufhebung if ever there was one. He is nonetheless incapable of grasping his opposing forces of liberalism and illiberalism as a dialectical, rather than purely extrinsic, opposition. He acknowledges that there is a dynamic of backlash in Trump, Modi, Putin et al, but blames it all on the excesses of the ‘anti-science left’. The two poles of illiberalism are subject to mutual negation; but liberalism, his philosophia perennis, is not - its popularity merely fluctuates. Why? Surely not that he has merely failed to read enough Hegel: this is Francis Fukuyama, after all. Something must have rendered him blind to it.
He nods in the right direction, at least, in describing the effects of the neoliberal ‘revolution’ - spiralling inequality, outsourcing and deindustrialisation in the west, and so forth. Though - as noted - he treats neoliberalism as a kind of heresy, at least for a moment he understands that the fortunes of one doctrine or another rather depends on the material conditions in which the would-be believer encounters the doctrine. However, this is only half the picture. He acknowledges the relationship between neoliberal excesses and the growth of ‘illiberalism’, but he skirts over the other essential question: what about the people who benefited from neoliberalism - the bankers, the politicians, the authors of triumphalist Hegelian think pieces? Would they not have a certain political predisposition in the opposite direction from the MAGA-hat crowd?
One does not have to be a hidebound Marxist to think so. To acknowledge it would be to concede more than he wants to, however. He denounces the idea, as we noted, that liberalism is “an ideology that [masks] the self-interest of its proponents”; but to discuss the history of liberalism’s crisis, as he does, demands that conclusion. If inequality is implicated in this ideological crisis, then it must also be a crisis of the ideology of the rich and powerful, of the ruling class.
We would then go back to the root of the problem - liberalism is a doctrine to reduce violence by clipping the wings of politics, but in fact cannot do so. This is because it is, just as much as a doctrine, an ideology, and thus the commitment to private property and market exchange hailed by Fukuyama in this essay is not a valid conclusion from true premises, but an antecedent condition for its emergence. Liberalism, and its whole complicated family tree, thus takes its place within the political-ideological dynamic of capitalist society, which is to say, within a dialectical struggle with conservatism - the Party of Liberty and the Party of Order. The crisis of liberalism is not some recent historical phenomenon, as purportedly demonstrated by some exceptionally fatuous graphs Fukuyama reproduces from Freedom House: it is a moment in a long-standing political cycle - a cycle that in fact goes back to the 17th century origins of bourgeois society properly so called.
The mutual critiques of conservatism and liberalism are symmetrically, but only partially, true. Conservatism meets its limits in the falsity of its picture of organic social relations outside the market; it tends towards corruption, jobbery and incestuous patronage, and its only recourse when its political authority is shot is hypocritical demagogy against some perceived out-group. All this is perfectly obvious to liberals. But liberalism reshapes, rather than abolishes, social elites: ‘meritocracy’ loses its sheen in the face of actual political developments, and quasi-apolitical government by experts is experienced as a tyranny. The result really is, as Strauss said, a vacuous nihilism; and authoritarian demagogues may trivially exploit this weakness.
What do the liberals do when liberalism goes into crisis? That ought to be obvious, from our opening remarks: the whole liberal world is currently deranged with military enthusiasm, enthusiastically endorses sweeping censorship, and buries dissent in jingoistic invective. It, too, happily identifies an out-group to demonise (in this case, any random Russian one happens to bump into). In order to save liberalism, one must burn it to the ground.
I am not quite sure that this is what Fukuyama means, or thinks he means, when he writes: “The Ukrainians, more than any other people, have shown what true bravery is, and that the spirit of 1989 remains alive in their corner of the world. For the rest of us, it has been slumbering and is being reawakened.” He does not bother to mention the bewildering array of police actions, censorship and mob ideology unleashed in the west since Putin’s invasion, and his portrayal of Putin as a malevolent puppet-master of global authoritarianism rather suggests he shares it; but perhaps he is as fond of Dostoevsky as I am. Suppose he also finds all this stuff alarming and distasteful: the choice is then posed to him whether to denounce it or not. Should he do so, he undermines his case that this is a life-and-death, good-and-evil struggle, that there is a liberal us (the US and Europe) and an illiberal them (Putin, Maduro, etc). Should he not, he merely enacts the contradiction in his own writing. In the event, he does not denounce it all.
Thus, peculiarly, he arrives where he started - among neo-conservatives. The latter took from Strauss - perhaps unfairly to the old man - the idea that a tonic for liberal nihilism was the revival of great and ancient virtues, even at the cost of noble lies to the population: saving the world (for example) from Saddam’s chemical weapons arsenal would have such a great effect on American moral fibre that it scarcely mattered whether the weapons were real or not.
In the first heyday of the neocons, under Ronald Reagan, rolling back the Evil Empire served that purpose: a national mission highly germane to mythological presentation to the population. Then history ended, and the neocons regrouped with the notorious Project for a New American Century (PNAC) - a programme for the projection of US interests globally, explicitly presented in messianic terms. We Marxists like to say that the bourgeoisie ceased to be revolutionary long ago (1848 is the date typically given), but its pseudo-revolutionism lives on and, if anything, has gone through a purple patch these last 30 years. ‘Liberal humanitarians’ and neo-conservatives alike have given us countless ‘colour revolutions’ (most pertinently the 2014 coup in Ukraine) and even vulgar military conquests presented in messianic terms. It is the neo-conservatism of this era, above all, that gave us the Iraq war - the one which alienated Fukuyama.
After the disastrous adventures of the Bush era, and their slow, horrible afterlives in the tenure of Barack Obama (who added one or two of his own), there came the American revival of conservative ‘isolationism’ (scare quotes are very necessary), as exemplified in Donald Trump’s 2016 election trail rhetoric (but not at all by his erratic, but quite interventionist, presidency itself). A peculiar thing happened in the Trump era - those PNAC neocons started defecting, explicitly or de facto, to the Democrats. The never-Trumpers include David Frum, author of the ‘Axis of Evil’ speech; Liz Cheney, daughter of Dick; and many more. The persistent and largely libellous accusations against Trump of Russian collusion prepared this coalition for the current moment - a most auspicious one to relaunch neo-conservatism version one. At last Barack Obama and David Frum could agree on an Evil Empire to fight.
Fukuyama’s adoption of the ‘liberalism’ discourse should perhaps be seen in the light of this new alliance, which carries the promise of a spiritual renewal through bloodshed (so far, admittedly, the blood of others: those Ukrainians in whom the spirit of ’89 is undimmed …). Perhaps, then, his article serves the purpose of mapping enemies without and within. The needs of the time demand action against the ‘woke’ excesses of contemporary liberalism, in favour of an overtly militaristic strain; rightwing isolationist ‘America first’ rhetoric is likewise little better than treachery. We must accustom ourselves to the need to fight for liberal international norms (Fukuyama dodges the question of how much should be sacrificed here, but the rapidly spreading insouciance in the political and media class about whether a limited nuclear exchange with Russia would really be that bad reminds us what is actually at stake).
For Marxists, this programme looks less like a bold new revival than a further attempt to stave off decline. True, Fukuyama broke with the neocons in 2004-06 - but broke in the direction of a routine foreign-policy realism. Yet, regardless of the balance of power between neocon utopians and technocratic realists, the trajectory of US militarism is obvious - its result, in country after country, is pure destruction, city after ancient city reduced to brick dust, lunatic after lunatic armed to fight the enemy of the day on our behalf in civil conflicts essentially kept aflame forever. Such efforts can, in principle, go on for a long time: there are, after all, so many countries left to destroy.
But not as many as there are court intellectuals ready to put a flattering spin on this steady slide into barbarity. Say what you like about Fukuyama and his slightly dodgy record in the way of prognostication. He is a good man to have around in a moment that demands a noble lie.