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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 3 - The End of History — From Nietzsche to Freud
In The End of History, Fukuyama argued that, over the long term, the whole world will converge on variations of the liberal democratic capitalist model. This was because there were, in his mind, no other existing models that could rationally organize modern societies. Rivals, such as Islamic and Christian theocracy, were culturally and geographically restricted — only liberalism, after the end of socialism, could bestride the world as a global system.

In his first book, Fukuyama was keen to stress the fact that history’s ending would not occur synchronously across geographical regions; instead, active outliers in the Global South would eventually catch up after a century or so. The enclaves of non-liberalism that existed in the developing world were not models for an alternative world order. Writing in The End of History, he could proclaim that “it matters very little what strange thoughts occur to people in Albania or Burkina Faso.” For Fukuyama, liberalism would win out, not because it was historically inevitable but because it represented an ideal form of rational social organization that, when compared to its competitors, had the fewest internal contradictions.

Yet the little-remembered last chapter of Fukuyama’s The End of History — “The Last Man” — takes its name from Nietzsche’s letztermensch, the passive, secure, and materialistic opposite of the übermensch (superman). Fukuyama uses the image of the Last Man to acknowledge the contradictions inherent in the liberal democratic system and the frustration felt by affluent liberal democratic subjects. As he wrote in 1992, “The passion for equal recognition — isothymia — does not necessarily diminish with the achievement of greater de facto equality and material abundance, but may actually be stimulated by it.

Fukuyama understood, in 1992, that liberal democracy would be in the most danger not from competing outside forces but from boredom and its effects on a restless population willing to experiment and reach for Platonic thymos, or spirited recognition. In The End of History, Fukuyama, influenced by Kojève’s readings of Hegel and Leo Strauss’s close analysis of Platonic conceptions of the human psyche in The Republic, argued that perennial aspects of human nature like thymos would endanger the coldly rational and technocratic world of advanced liberal democracy. Yet, at the same time, liberal democracy in The End of History is understood to be the only system with the potential to provide adequate recognition to humanity’s thymos.

While the clashes between human nature and the liberal democratic system were an important postscript to The End of History, they have moved center stage in Liberalism and Its Discontents. What remains constant is Fukuyama’s reliance on transhistorical psychological models of immutable human nature, rather than an analysis of material and economic relations, to explain the current fragility of liberal democracy.

His latest publication moves from the metaphysical frameworks of Plato and Nietzsche to the psychological perspective of Sigmund Freud — Liberalism and Its Discontents echoes the title of the Austrian psychoanalyst’s 1930 Civilization and Its Discontents. A deep-seated pessimism about modernity runs through much of Freud’s work. But Civilization and Its Discontents is not simply a rejection of rational society. Freud ironically points out that civilization is the cause of, and balm for, human misery.

                         Our civilization is largely responsible for our misery . . . we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions. . . . In whatever way we may define the concept of civilization, it is a certain fact, that all the things with which we seek to protect ourselves against the threats that emanate from the sources of suffering are part of that very civilization.

Freud’s theories about the relationship of humans to civilization — that discontent with civilization is generated within the system and used against it — are, to Fukuyama, equally applicable to liberal democracy.


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