Liberalism in the 21st century

by Jeroen Bouterse

Francis Fukuyama does not mind having to play defense. Recognizing that the problems plaguing liberal societies result in no small part from the flaws and weaknesses of liberalism itself, he argues in Liberalism and its Discontents (Profile Books: 2022) that the response to these problems, all said and done, is liberalism. This requires some courage: three decades ago, Fukuyama may have captured the spirit of the age, but the spirit has grown impatient with liberalism as of late. Fukuyama, however, does not think of it as a worn-out ideal. He has taken note of right-wing assaults, as well as progressive criticisms that suggest a need to go beyond it; and his verdict is that any attempt at improvement will either stay in a liberal orbit or lead to political decay. Liberalism is still the best we have got.

Liberalism, according to Fukuyama, is primarily a system to manage diversity. Its foundational idea is tolerance, for which reason Fukuyama places its roots in the seventeenth century, at the end of the early modern European wars of religion. He swiftly moves on to individualism, property rights, and free trade, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps as to what all this has to do with each other: the historical introduction proceeds at such a pace that there is little time for details. From the French Revolution onward, Fukuyama identifies two competitors to liberalism: nationalism and communism. Social democratic parties are introduced in one breath with communism, but are clearly compatible with liberalism.

Fukuyama’s thesis from here on will be that liberalism has a ‘core idea’ – its emphasis on individual autonomy – that works best in moderation, but has been taken to extremes that have in turn led to illiberal backlash.

First, Fukuyama looks at economic thought, where neoliberalism and libertarianism took trust in individual economic freedom to lengths that proved destabilizing. Fukuyama believes that liberal critics of excessive state intervention are onto something – government support can incentivize dependent behavior – but that moderation is the key. Fukuyama looks favorably upon Scandinavian countries, which tax their citizens and provide public goods. This is compatible with “liberalism properly understood” (27), because it does not take away personal responsibility but benefits freedom in the long run.

Underlaying destructive neoliberal policies was an anthropology that linked human well-being only to consumption (rather than to production as well) and that relied on spontaneous order rather than on coordinated action. Again, Fukuyama is sympathetic to theories about efficient markets and self-organization, but “the theory can be carried to extremes” (39). Also, liberal economic theory, rooted in individualism, has had a difficult time accounting for intangible social goods such as respect, pride and solidarity. These are not mistakes so much as blind spots: individualism, though the result of a contingent history, is here to stay, but again, neoliberalism carried it “to an extreme” (45).

So far for the neoliberal overinterpretation of individual autonomy. On the left, liberal thinking overshoots itself in the form of a hyper-abstract notion of the ‘self’ that is the substrate of this autonomy. In John Rawls, the dominant theoretician of contemporary liberal ideas about justice, the persons whose choices are the basis of the social contract have been stripped of all their contingent qualities. Fukuyama agrees with critics who accuse Rawls of relinquishing any substantive notion of the good life, in favor of unconstrained choice. Are we not supposed to value a public-spirited, studious, hard-working person more than a good-for-nothing weed-smoking social media addict? But Rawls’s theory, he gasps, “would not allow” us to judge these two people differently (56).

Even apart from the suspicious reliance on the subjunctive (did Rawls not write enough to extract repugnant conclusions directly from his work?), it seems to me we have entered the realm of philosophical fiction here. Suppose these conclusions can be shown somehow to follow from Rawls’s setup – the veil of ignorance apparently preventing those in the original position from recognizing, with Fukuyama, that the complete absence of deserved praise or blame is socially unsustainable. There is still no serious case that such ideas have been translated to a significant extent into political views or policy choices in liberal societies. Fukuyama does little more than expressing his annoyance at New Age spirituality and wellness, whose obsession with inner selves serves as evidence that Rawls has molded us into narcissistic apolitical creatures.

I fail to see the fingerprints, and I think it is rather regrettable that Fukuyama is giving up on Rawls, whose project so closely matches his own ideal of a liberalism that identifies and justifies sustainable social arrangements in value-pluralistic societies. Fukuyama seems to have no principled objections to Rawls, but rather shirks away from his very consistency. To this apologist of liberalism, it’s all a bit too liberal. Thus, he warns that freedom has evolved nowadays to mean not just the “freedom to act within established moral frameworks, but to choose the framework itself” (e.g. 62). Why, yes, I guess this is a distinction; but as Fukuyama says elsewhere, its refusal to impose a thicker moral order is a feature and not a bug of liberalism (120). Yes, he believes it can go too far. But this recurring motif, that it’s all about moderation, leaves us with few handles on where to draw the line between just enough and an excess of liberalism. Whenever the reader’s position is less dead-center than Fukuyama’s, they may be disappointed that he refuses to lead or even follow them into liberal utopia, especially if the stated reason is that one can have too much of a good thing.

Another ‘extreme’ development of liberalism is identity politics. Fukuyama gives a sympathetic account of its liberal roots. It started as a left-wing effort to complete the liberal project: to fulfill liberal ideals such as equality and equal protection, which supposedly liberal societies failed miserably to live up to. More recently, however, progressive critique has shifted to criticism not of hypocrisy, but of liberalism itself. Fukuyama does not buy into this move: when we examine such supposedly more fundamental criticisms more closely, it turns out they “fail to hit their target […] and amount to a charge of guilt by association.” (76)

Fukuyama does not want to dispense with identity politics: there is a liberal interpretation of it, in which it serves liberal aims because it helps groups claim their rights. Its illiberal interpretations simply need to be rejected. There is no woke-bashing in this book; refreshingly, you will not find the term ‘cancel culture’, even though there is a full chapter on freedom of speech. What comes closest is Fukuyama’s worries about the erosion of privacy by social media, combined with a conflation of language and power that leads to extreme sensitivity about speech. On the left, Fukuyama does not see these tendencies as in themselves corrosive of liberal democracy; at worst, they hurt the left’s ability to accomplish its goals (111). On the right, however, social media have allowed Americans to live in a world completely untethered from reality. This is a major political problem.

These chapters seem to me to hit precisely the right balance. Fukuyama’s writing remains level-headed while taking on extremely worrying trends; and though he takes both left-wing and right-wing tendencies into consideration, there is no symmetric both-sides-ism. The left is not toying with authoritarian alternatives to liberalism, he says, matter-of-factly (126). Progressive post-liberalism would probably be restricted, on the cultural front, to a regrettable intensification of the importance of identity categories at the cost of the ideal of a color-blind meritocracy. On the economic front, it could look like an expansive form of social democracy.

That last part especially doesn’t sound too dystopian, and Fukuyama doesn’t really fear getting to Denmark. Almost all serious left-wing politics appears to be compatible with liberalism. The threat to liberal democracy comes from the right; but it, too, can salvage a lot of its intuitions and preferences without having to break with core liberal ideas. In his second-to-last chapter, Fukuyama breaks a lance in favor of the nation as a locus of identity. Because it is nation-states that have the power to enforce and protect, strong sub-national identities are risky as they tend to cause violent struggles for control over state power. So is delegating power to supranational bodies such as the European Union, and so is watering down the social contract implied in national citizenship by granting political rights to non-citizens. Yes, Fukuyama admits, there is a tension between liberal universalism and national identity, but that doesn’t mean liberals can’t work with the nation state.

Fukuyama’s liberalism is truly a big tent, encompassing much of the left and right. It’s barely an ism anymore, and more a call for decency and moderation, for lowering the temperature. For all the disillusionment – paraphrasing Churchill, Fukuyama sighs that liberalism is “the worst form of government, except for all the others” (128); and the worse ones are gaining traction – there is a deep optimism in the way Fukuyama traces the liberal roots of the current illiberal backlash. The slippery slope does not tend downwards towards the edges, but towards the middle. People want to live in liberal societies broadly-speaking. That person slightly to the right or left of you is not on an inexorable logical path to Nazism or Maoism; no, it is almost the opposite – there are liberals everywhere, and that person far to the right or left of you may just be an overexcited liberal.

In spite of his serious (although sometimes rather compact) reflections on left- and right-wing criticism, then, the only thing left for Fukuyama to do in the last chapter is restate classical liberal principles. There are no convincing alternatives on the table. Diversity is here to stay, individualism is here to stay. This simply calls for tolerance, and for liberal freedoms. Fukuyama is politely putting his finger on the scale for traditional political ideas and practices. There is no discernible excitement for what is not an exciting message, but it’s a worthwhile message nonetheless.