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Francis Fukuyama is right: Socialism is the only alternative to liberalism

In Liberalism and Its Discontents, Francis Fukuyama diagnoses the political and psychological malaise caused by capitalism. His analysis makes one thing clear: liberalism is incapable of addressing the social, economic, and ecological crises it faces.
by Samuel McIlhagga 

Part 2 - Intellectual Origins

The publication of The End of History and the Last Man coincided with the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, and the independence of various Soviet satellite states like Poland and Lithuania. Initially, all these post-Soviet states adopted liberal, democratic, and capitalist models of governance. Accordingly, Fukuyama became a both famous and somewhat misunderstood figure in academia — a prophet of the triumph of liberal democracy and the material inevitability of capitalism.

In the press, he was written about as a reverse Karl Marx. For those who had not read his book, the lesson to be taken from it was that history was over because American capitalism had won against the Soviet Union. Indeed, in the aftermath of 9/11, journalists, who had misunderstood the book, attempted to contact Fukuyama to ask if history had started again.

However, Fukuyama is distinct from the political-economic partisans of free trade and laissez-faire capitalism like Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman — men who defended the price mechanism as a more rational means of distributing and allocating resources. Instead, Fukuyama is a writer and political scientist deeply concerned with how humans, and their supposed transcendent psyches, operate within specific historical political, economic, and cultural systems.

Although he no longer identifies as a neoconservative, like many of that coterie, Fukuyama is deeply concerned with transhistorical and universal ideals. The failure of the Iraq War, a major neoconservative project that Fukuyama initially supported, seems to have pushed him away from the view that liberalism, democracy, and capitalism occur naturally if the ground is cleared by “well-intentioned” interventions.

Yet his political idealism still runs deep. Born in Chicago in 1952, Fukuyama’s family moved east to Manhattan. His family background contains academic, religious, and mercantile strains. Fukuyama’s paternal first-generation Japanese immigrant grandfather ran a hardware store on the West Coast, while his maternal grandfather was a prominent academic economist and university administrator at Kyoto University. His father was an academic sociologist and minister in the Congregational Church — a bastion of bourgeois liberal and puritan religious idealism. The emphasis Fukuyama places on democratic self-management, political-moral predestination, and individual autonomy within a liberal “priesthood of all believers” seems to be a secularized holdover of his Calvinism.

In 1970, Fukuyama started his undergraduate career at Cornell in classics: he is in many ways a classical political thinker. One can see the influence of ancient Greek political theory everywhere. For instance, Fukuyama takes an interest in the basic Aristotelian units of politics (monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy) and their relation to liberal modernity, and continues to use the Platonic theory of the soul (divided between reason (logos), spirit (thymos), and appetite (eros) to describe eternal human nature and its need for recognition. During his time at Cornell, Fukuyama fell in with the philosopher and classicist professor Allan Bloom, best known for his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, which criticized the practice of moral relativism and historical contextualism at American universities.

Bloom, who was taught by the philosophers Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojève, introduced Fukuyama to an idealist intellectual tradition stretching back to Hegel. Strauss influenced the conservative academy with his Natural Right and History (1953), which argued for a transcendent and transhistorical set of naturally occurring rights that might provide politics with a moral compass.

Strauss’s followers in America developed an approach to interpreting political texts that emphasized perennial problems and the power of the authored text to independently generate meaning. Kojève was an unorthodox Marxist thinker, French economic administrator in the European Common Market, and neo-Hegelian who reintegrated the German philosopher’s thinking on history into contemporary politics. His 1946 Introduction to the Reading of Hegel proposed an earlier theory of the “end of history” that influenced Fukuyama’s own thesis. Kojève suggested that the rational Napoleonic Empire’s victory over the absolutist Prussian state at Jena in 1806 represented the apex of human political possibility: the parameters of all future political action were drawn by Napoleon at Jena.

After Cornell, Fukuyama spent time in a comparative literature program at Yale and studied under the post-structuralists Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida in Paris, before switching to political science at Harvard. While Fukuyama would become engaged with the empirical quantitative and qualitative study of hard-nosed foreign policy and international relations, he retained a deep interest in the text and human ideals, which he carried to the RAND Corporation, the State Department, and advisory roles under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

The success of his 1989 National Interest Article “The End of History?” resulted in a $600,000 advance to write a follow-up — The End of History and the Last Man. This pushed Fukuyama back into writing and academia, where he popularized the idealism of his intellectual precursors.


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