A Prophet for Our Times
The modern American prophet cloaks himself in the trope of youthful utopianism lost, and the latest practitioner of this prophetic genre is Francis Fukuyama. His prose is a measure of his times and, as his readers, ours: times of disenchantment.
A classics major at Cornell, Fukuyama came under the spell of the Cassandra Allan Bloom. Bloom was a student of decline; his The Closing of the American Mind was a runaway best seller, a denunciation of universities for encouraging the decay of civilization by trading in the study of great books for what he thought was feeble-minded cultural studies. Bloom was also the most prominent American disciple of the German-born classicist Leo Strauss, whose style of textual analysis would influence generations of conservatives. Equally influential was his argument that liberalism contained an inevitable slide into extreme relativism, and loss of fundamental values. Fukuyama went on to Yale, to study comparative literature, at a time when the study of great texts there was approaching its heyday. Then came Paris with Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. The experience of abstracted theory weaned him from the humanities, so Fukuyama went to Harvard to complete his PhD in government, to be more connected to the political world. One of his mentors there was another Cassandra, Samuel Huntington. In the making of Francis Fukuyama there has been no shortage of grand figures, especially figures anxious about the state of American liberalism.
At first blush, Fukuyama’s trajectory appears to reverse the flow that gave us so many neoconservatives. The likes of Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and Nathan Glazer were New York Jews who journeyed from Left to Right. Their ideological offspring, like the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, drew from the well of dashed hopes. Wolfowitz, who also did time at Bloom’s feet as a Cornell undergraduate, would later be a ringleader of the “Vulcans,” the eponym of the Roman god of fire, who led America to war in Iraq.
Fukuyama, another née New Yorker, appears to have swung Right to Left. His rejection of the George W. Bush administration was a public event. In fact, a seam of conservative continuity runs through Fukuyama’s thinking. In the quarter century that saw America swing from Cold War euphoria to globalization dysphoria, Fukuyama has always worried about liberalism as a faith, about its ability to safeguard American values and institutions against degeneration and carrion eaters. Now, the former neocon and jaded Obama sympathizer gives us a book for our times, an epic of political decay.
Fukuyama is best known for a remarkable article. In the waning days of the Cold War, after stints in the policy world at the Rand Corporation and the US Department of State, Fukuyama was brought to the University of Chicago by Allan Bloom, who’d left Cornell in the interim, to lecture on global politics. The co-editor of neoconservative flagship journal The National Interest, Owen Harries, sought out Fukuyama for a piece connecting “history with the great traditions of political thought.”1 Francis Fukuyama has never looked back.
“The End of History?” appeared in the summer of 1989. Buoyed by the events of that spectacular season, it went as viral as a publication could in the pre-digital age. With erudition to match its eloquence, it became a book, The End of History and the Last Man
(having dropped the interrogative—and added Nietzsche to the original Hegelian thrust), three years later.
“Endism” was in the air—end of growth, end of empire, end of the middle class, end of industry, end of great powers. Fukuyama gave it a new twist. With so much doom and gloom, the lofty ideals of Hegel and Kant appeared to redeem the winner of the Cold War. The nasty, brutish, and short 20th century was coming to a close on a high, with individualism vanquishing collectivism.
Lauded as a herald of a liberal utopia, Fukuyama’s subtextual lament got lost in the noise. Fukuyama may have touted the victory of the democratic side, but he was not gloating. True to his Straussian roots, he was concerned that the vacuity of consumer culture and banality of electoral life would degrade politics. Leo Strauss had worried that the cult of liberty would drive out virtue and the pursuit of excellence. The classical question—what is good for the polis?—gave way to something else: what is good for me? Without an opposite in the form of Communism, liberalism ran the risk of becoming a flabby creed for couch potato citizens. Closing the dialectic with the death of Communism would spare liberalism of its need to renew and reinvent. “This is the ultimate victory of the VCR,” noted Fukuyama.
A book of this ambition was bound to draw out legions of critics. They could be shrugged off; events could not. History, no doubt upset at being consigned to the same heap as Communism, struck back with a vengeance.
True, most Communist regimes dropped away; democracy came back in Chile and Paraguay; apartheid was dismantled in South Africa. Germans tore down the Wall and the number of democracies rose markedly. But settling political scores still led to bloodletting. Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and Rwanda was horrifying. States appeared to be “failing” all over the place. Autocrats got a renewed lease. They embraced capitalism, showered their subjects with the bounty of consumption and rigged electoral life with impunity. Why bother shooting your enemies when you can muzzle them with a system of information control that would amaze George Orwell? The spread of “political Islam” drew more attention to the limited appeals of liberalism. The Western response—military bloat, state secrecy, and infringements on personal freedoms—only compounded concerns. Fukuyama felt the need to explain.
Moreover, Fukuyama had not appreciated the depth of tensions within the liberal camp. Democracy’s economic correlate, capitalism, pressed especially hard on the solid middle class upon which that liberal faith had been built. Inequality rose. Social mobility stalled. In a sense, 1989 ripped away veils to reveal a new set of divides.
By the early 2000s, Fukuyama’s neoconservative suit was wearing thin. While he was teaching future leaders at Johns Hopkins, the Vulcans plunged the United States into the living nightmare of the Iraq War. In power, self-described Straussians were determined to export their ideals to the corners of the planet that, in the eyes of these idealists, resisted them most fiercely. The Vulcans went on a crusade to introduce the virtues of democracy to Iraqis; after them, the rest of the Muslim world. Fukuyama was dismayed. “We don’t have the first idea how states came into being,” he moaned.2
Back to History
His two-volume opus, The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay, is his answer to History’s cunning. Instead of looking to the future with philosophers under his arm, as he had in The End of History, Fukuyama now looked back. How did states come into being? Where do our public institutions come from? What were the conditions that enabled freedom to survive or spread? To tackle these, Fukuyama turned from Strauss to a different mentor, Huntington, whose jeremiad, The Clash of Civilizations, was a response to, and something of a demolition of, The End of History.
Just as Allan Bloom and the Straussians had made careers harping on the failures of American liberalism, Huntington had made a vocation debunking the second happy myth of American exceptionalism—that of modernization. In the late 1960s, in the midst of the Vietnam War and unrest at Harvard Yard, Huntington went after modernization theory, the blissful conviction that all good things go together, a central tenet of American social science. Economic growth is good for social mobility, social mobility is good for democracy, and democracy makes the world safe for capitalism, it said. But History sided with the pessimist; you can have growth without democracy, and you can have democracy without growth. When it came to the Third World in particular, growth could undermine democracy by raising expectations and destabilizing politics. The obsession with ideas of liberty had obscured the precondition of institutional order, according to Huntington. Order was the condition for freedom and development, not the other way around.
In the confusion of the post Cold War era and the mayhem produced by Vulcan voluntarism, Fukuyama went in search of clues to understand order by voyaging to the beginning of history—with history stripped of its capital letter “H”—to find its tributaries. The new Fukuyama forsakes the philosophical voice in favor of the epic of rising and falling systems and orders; Fukuyama swapped “endism” for “beginningism.”
From Tribes to States
The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay are masterpieces of grand historical social science in the tradition of Barrington Moore, Charles Tilly, and Michael Mann. And, in exchanging big ideas for big history, they reveal the limits of the genre.
In the beginning there were tribes. The organization of institutional life around kin, both fictive and biological, formed the first institutions to govern communal life. Family clans could give rise to more abstract forms of rulership like kings and emperors—some, such as the Mongol Empire, could span vast territories and lead to ornate rituals to resolve internal conflicts. But what they did not do well, according to Fukuyama, was produce transfers of power and resources outside the kinship ring.
Tribal affiliation and identification were the bedrock for societies before the advent of the state. To Fukuyama, the failure to understand this was the mistake the Vulcans made during the invasion of Iraq. Thinking that American occupiers could toss the future of Iraq to elections presumed that democracy did not need an underlying order. Then things blew up.
Escaping tribalism was monumentally important. How societies broke from clan rule determined their pathway to the present. India, for instance, never broke free of kin loyalties. The invasion of Turko-Afghans from the north, then of Central Asians, did not topple incumbent kinship networks and principalities; the newcomers wound up allying with them. The British relied on local clans to keep their rentier racket going. India was on the road to “neo-patrimonial” power.
If India stumbled out of the gate, China and Europe did not; they broke from rule by kin. But then came a second big step in history. China escaped the grip of strong society, but created a strong state.
Europe, in Fukuyama’s account, got the sequence right. First, it broke with kin, and then it never allowed a single powerful state to take hold. Europe avoided the triumph of tribal societies over the state (as in India) or the victory of the state over society (as in China). But not all of Europe got democracy, the third big step in the sequence. The further one goes along the trail of political development, the band of breakthroughs becomes more narrow. Those who “got to Denmark” (that is, reaching the far shores of democratic life—the goal of the whole epic) were exceptional. A violent struggle over power gripped Europe, which prevented the consolidation of a single, strong polity. The result was a patchwork of weak absolutisms (e.g. Spain), successful absolutisms (e.g. France), and failed oligarchy (e.g. Poland). Only a few built accountable governments (England and Denmark). Even fewer institutionalized democracy.
How to run that gauntlet? It was all about sequence, getting the “preconditions” right, following the order of institutional development in a way that introduced state formation before checking its authority, and building the rule of law before throwing it all open to elections.
In contrast to the deterministic idealism of The End of History, with reason yearning to fulfill itself, The Origins is full of accidents, contingencies, and hazards on the road to “Denmark.” But is it any less deterministic? Not really. In response to the big question—why England, why 1688?—the story pivots from luck to pluck. The singular genius of English common law, fused with the inheritance of Roman law, yielded the Glorious Revolution. For all Fukuyama’s nodding to collective-action problems and equilibrium traps, the narrative still smacks of good old-fashioned Whiggery.
Political development has a flip side: decay. This is the theme of the sequel, Political Order, which brings us to the present, and the problem of America. No system is stable. All orders are prone to traps and involutions. What Huntington taught his student was that institutions are a bit like teeth. They naturally rot; unbrushed, they rot faster. Institutions naturally decline; unreformed, they decline faster.
There are two kinds of decay. The first arises from the fact that humans contrive institutions to solve the problems in one particular environment, or when faced by a particular set of competitive pressures. Once the institutions are in place, people are invested in conserving them. Stability frees people from having to revisit the rules and norms; this saves time and money. But these “legacy investments” can ossify. Indeed, faced with outside threats, people can redouble their loyalties to outmoded models. This is Japan’s plight, according to Fukuyama. The second source of decay is the “repatrimonialization” of power and the distribution of valuable resources to favored friends and family. This is what’s happening in Russia.
In the war against decay, some societies enjoy advantages over others. It helped to have the right balance of power before the advent of modern revolutions. Why? Because the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution unleashed new forces that made it harder for states to build order before liberty. They gave us middle classes, which tipped power toward society at the expense of states. So, if Clio had not blessed your country with a state and the rule of law before the twin revolutions that brought us modernity, it was very hard to make up for missing preconditions. Without the preconditions, it’s hard to get on the right side of history.
The past gives us a thick handbook of case studies of decay. Much of Political Order is a catalog of corruptions, patronage, spoils, and public plundering of the planet for private gain. Compared to the first volume, this one is not just depressing; it is also, sometimes, disappointing. It is ploddingly detailed, but lacks the fascinating comparisons and contingencies of its predecessor. Nor does it have the creative conceptual detours of The Origins, even if some are a bit loopy. This volume reads like one damned declension after another.
Still, Political Order is riddled with deep insights of the kind that emanate from grand social science narratives, even if they are often disheartening. For Fukuyama, the Middle East got the worst of all worlds: decay without development. In December 2011, a street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of the Tunisian municipal building that housed local authorities who had been tormenting him with Kafkaesque cruelty. The ensuing protests brought down the autocratic government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The spring of 2011 appeared to vindicate The End of History. But regional hopes gave way to despair because there were no institutionalized states to be democratized. This was not Brazil, or East Germany. Ben Ali did not govern a consolidated state; there was no rule of law that needed democratic representation. He governed a neo-patrimonial fiefdom. The region is thus being swept by three simultaneous crises. Feeble modern institutions are rapidly decomposing. New social forces are clamoring for voice. And belligerents are returning to a fight over the role of faith in politics that had been resolved (albeit unevenly) in the West and China a long time ago.
The portrait of the United States is more uplifting, but not a lot more—especially given the enormous advantages that sired the country. If America had the benefits of inheriting centuries of European political development, it is squandering its early lead.
The lead, in fact, may have actually been a problem. What happens when you are “Number One” and never pause before reminding the rest of the world? “The United States is trapped in a bad equilibrium,” Fukuyama concludes. It inherited as much as, if not more than, it created; indeed, one of its founding credos is decidedly mistrustful of the public authority. Now, the United States runs the risk of concocting a paralyzed state (what Fukuyama calls “vetocracy”) while elites shelter unearned privilege for friends and family. At its worst, it’s like mixing Japan with Russia.
Persistent beliefs in exceptionalist myths are not helping. The historical distrust in government coupled with empowered spoilers leads to a self-defeating cycle in which public authorities underperform and taxpayers defect to private solutions for public problems. To top things off, the dysfunction is becoming good business for those with deep interests in “keeping things the way they are.”
Declinism has a long tradition; it is sown into the modern condition. From the time that Market Man broke onto the stage and threw off his shackles, thinkers ranging from Edmund Burke to Oswald Spengler—and Leo Strauss—worried about the corrosive effects of modern life on manners and the civic conditions of the polis. With Europe paralyzed and the United States caught in its high-level equilibrium trap, we are now in the nth wave of declinist storytelling.
How would Fukuyama break the cycle? How do you reverse decay once it is itself institutionalized, once we outsource to private agents what used to be the defining (and profitable) features of public authority, and leave the state encumbered with the rest? On these questions, America’s latest Cassandra is allusive. Here we return to his narrative strategy and his sequential model. In the United States, previous stalemates relied on external shocks like the Great Depression to reset the political system and reverse decay. It took a civil war and a new alliance to do the same in England in the 17th century.
What about now? There is no shortage of jolts, no surplus of satisfaction. The effects of 9/11, wars gone awry, competition from China, the Great Wage Slowdown, and the outrage from the Left and Right against Wall Street insiders makes one wonder—and worry—what it would take to shake things up. Politics is not a marketplace; there are no self-correcting mechanisms, nothing intrinsic to stop the rot. For the misfortunate entering the 21st century without the right historically derived credentials, the future looks pretty bleak. But even for those who got the sequence right, it is going to be an uphill battle. With luck and leadership, democracy can survive. This Fukuyama assures us. Faintly.
True to a prophetic voice, he concludes that the enemy is complacency. “No one living in an established liberal democracy should therefore be complacent about the inevitability of its survival.” After a thousand pages of sweeping historical analysis, the call for vigilance seems anemic, unless one has already conceded defeat. Fukuyama is not ready to throw in the towel. He knows, after all, that History can be notoriously cunning; it can deceive even the most elaborate of stages, sequences, or necessary conditions. But it’s hard to find room for hope in this learned study of decay.
- James Atlas, “What Is Fukuyama Saying? And To Whom Is He Saying It?,” New York Times Magazine, October 22, 1989. ↩
- Gideon Rose, “The Future of History with Francis Fukuyama,” Foreign Affairs LIVE, March 26, 2012. ↩