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Francis Fukuyama: Liberalism and its Discontents

This week, Sam Leith spoke to Francis Fukuyama – the author of 'The End of History and the Last Man' and the newly released 'Liberalism and its Discontents' on the latest episode of The Book Club. You can watch their conversation below, listen to it here or read this transcript. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sam Leith: Liberal is a word that means something very different in Tennessee than it does in Muswell Hill. What exactly are the parameters of what you call classical liberalism?

Francis Fukuyama: It does have a very different meaning in the United States than it does in Europe. My definition of it is closer to the European one. Liberalism, in my view, is a system that's basically a limitation of power based on a rule of law and a constitutional framework that limits the power of executives. It's based on a number of philosophical presumptions. There's an element of universalism, because liberals believe that all human beings have an equal set of rights, and that these need to be protected by governments. In Europe, liberal parties have been associated with a kind of centre-right position that emphasises property rights and rule of law, and that's an important part of classical liberalism. 

But I would say that it doesn't really dictate any set of economic policies. For example, Scandinavia over the last couple of generations has been governed by social democratic parties that do a lot of redistribution. But I would regard these all as liberal parties, essentially, because they all respect basic individual rights. They tax at a higher rate than other countries. But I don't think that that's part of my definition of liberalism. So it really does have to do with that foundation of respect for law and respect for limits to government power.

Sam Leith: We talk about liberalism and democracy in a single breath. But you draw an analytic distinction between those two things, don’t you?

Francis Fukuyama: I think that’s necessary. I think that liberalism and democracy have been allies for much of the last hundred years, but they're not the same thing. So you could have a democratically elected government that doesn't respect liberal limitations on power. And I'm afraid that's what's going on in Hungary right now where Viktor Orbán is legitimately elected. He's used that electoral mandate to basically corral the media, to turn over properties and control a lot of the economy to cronies of his. And he's explicitly endorsed what he calls ‘illiberal democracy’, where you're not going to respect the rights of individuals to the same extent as other truly liberal countries in the rest of Europe. And he does that with a certain democratic mandate. I think this is true of a lot of right wing populists these days. From Erdogan in Turkey to Donald Trump in the United States, they all do get elected democratically, but they are not respecters of liberal limitations on their own power.

Sam Leith: Can an illiberal democracy be stable, or is it essentially a contradiction in terms?

Francis Fukuyama: I don’t think it can be stable over the long run because the first thing that these illiberal democrats do is to try to change the electoral laws so that they will never be removed from power. So Orbán has done that in Hungary. He's done a lot of gerrymandering of electoral districts to make sure that his Fidesz party really has a big advantage, despite whatever the popular vote may say. It’s been going on in the United States: I think the Republicans at a state level have been changing the rules for counting votes, such that if we have a closely contested election in 2024, they would actually be able to override popular will because they would award the right to assign. We've got this very strange system in the United States where we don't elect presidents by popular vote. We have this electoral college and they want to be able to control that. So I do think that there's a good reason why liberalism and democracy are closely allied with one another. I think that if you only have democracy, it tends to erode liberalism, and then that tends to erode democracy itself.

Sam Leith: Now this idea of erosion is fundamental to the book. Because the book is saying where we’re going wrong or where liberalism is under threat, as you see it. It’s threatened both on the left and the right, as you said. But are those threats symmetrical? And are those threats effectively arising from the same conception of liberalism?

Francis Fukuyama: I think that they come from different sources, but they are feeding off one another. As people push the boundaries of liberalism to an extreme on the right or the left, it stimulates the other side to push in a similar direction. But the problems are really different. So I think on the right, really what happened was the expansion of the notion of liberalism during the 1980s and 1990s to something that's now called neoliberalism. Sometimes neoliberalism is just a synonym for capitalism. But I think that, more accurately, it was an ideology that worshipped markets and denigrated the state to the point that it began to erode a lot of state institutions and led to a kind of globalisation that looked at economic efficiency as the be-all and end-all of life. And that began to erode people's incomes. It permitted the growth of a great deal of inequality across the world. It eroded the state's ability to regulate the activities of large corporations, and especially in the financial sector. I think it was directly responsible for the the big financial crisis in 2008 because the deregulation of that sector permitted these big banks to take unconscionable risks and it hurt ordinary people.

And so this was a development on the right that then stimulated the growth of the left, because people looked at this and they said, this is unacceptable that we get this degree of inequality. And that's really what launched the progressivism that you now see across the developed world.

Sam Leith: Although the progressivism that you’re specifically concerned about in this book isn’t the economic one, right, but the identitarian one. The backlash against neoliberalism globally could be seen as almost a kind of traditional Marxist position.

Francis Fukuyama: So I’m actually all in favour of a lot of traditional social democratic policies. I actually think that, especially in the United States, we need more redistribution, because I think that liberalism needs to be tempered by democracy. That is to say, by some equalisation of outcomes, because liberalism by itself produces too much inequality.

Sam Leith: So we’ve got illiberal democracies, but we’ve also got anti-democratic liberalism.

Francis Fukuyama: That’s right. I think, however, that what’s defined the left has shifted a lot. And it’s shifted for understandable reasons not to be based on these broad categories like social class: as Karl Marx had it, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. But it has shifted to see inequality in terms of the specific injustices done to racial minorities, to women, to gays and lesbians, to transgender people. So in a sense, the understand of inequality has shifted. 

And I want to be understood here. This was understandable, and it was a necessary shift in the understanding of inequality, because there are different forms of marginalisation that take place in liberal societies and those specific abuses needed to be dealt with. But it also had consequences in the way that people thought about society and ended up becoming a general critique of liberalism and the liberal individualism that underlies liberal thought. And that’s really where the problem comes up.

Sam Leith: And is it your position that within the ambit of liberalism, it is possible to produce redress for the injustices you describe without removing that idea of individualism that’s central to it.

Francis Fukuyama: Anyone that thinks that liberal societies haven't reformed themselves in really major ways over the last 150 years just hasn't been paying attention. I mean, we had slavery in the United States, and for all that in the US, there are still huge disparities in outcomes for African Americans versus white Americans. There's no question that there's been a tremendous amount of economic and social advance. And it's not a complete process. But that doesn't, I think, speak to the core of liberalism that still maintains that there's a human essence that needs to be protected by rights and needs to be protected regardless of the racial, gender, sexual orientation of the individual involved.

Sam Leith: Now you mention human essence, and that to go right back down to the beginning of liberalism, you discuss Kant and later Rawls, which posits some quite theoretical, abstract underpinnings for liberalism. But it is a very universalist creed, I think you’d agree. But as you also put it, it does have a very historically specific origin: 150 years of religious war in western Europe. Is it something that can transcend that origin and become as abstract and as universal as we think it is? Because I think one of the critiques of liberalism that’s sometimes made is that it’s very specific to the West, and that it can’t escape its historical origins.

Francis Fukuyama: That’s true. I think that, in fact, it goes even back further beyond those wars of religion into something that's very deep within the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden because they make the wrong choice. They eat the the forbidden fruit. And I think that story embeds a certain notion of human agency, that human beings have the power to decide between good and evil, and that moral autonomy is really the basis of a liberal understanding. I mean, that's really what holds the human race together: that ability to make choices between right and wrong. And the specific definition of right and wrong may vary culturally, but that's something that in liberal theory, all human beings have.

And as the centuries rolled by, that gets expanded into our current democratic understanding of human universality: that all people have a right to make basic choices in their lives, where they live, how they should live, who they're going to marry, what kind of occupations they'll follow and eventually comes to entail things like a right to vote. So, yes, it is something that's historically nurtured in western thought. It goes back a very, very long way.

But is it something that only people that grow up in that cultural tradition prize, or is it something that a lot of other people from other cultural traditions may partake in? I think the experience of the spread of these ideas outside of the West indicates that there is maybe something truly immersive.

Sam Leith: Among the critiques of liberalism is that – and this is something to be said for democracy – it is very good more for what it prevents than for what it enables. And the difficulty of liberalism is that it doesn’t have a very good way of arbitrating between competing notions of the good: it's not very good at coming up with a notion of the good in and of itself. And the second difficulty is that it has trouble dealing with nations, and the other essential social human groupings. Are those systemic problems with liberalism, and is liberalism enough if it won’t account for those two?

Francis Fukuyama: That’s absolutely correct. So the essence of liberalism to say we cannot agree on the good life as defined by, let’s say, a religious tradition. If we insist that our politics should be built around a single religion, we’re going to end up fighting each other as Europe did after the Protestant Reformation. And so we're going to lower the sights of politics to say that we want to survive and live peacefully among one another and agree to disagree about those ultimate things. And that means that you're not going to get a tightly-bound religious community like John Calvin's Geneva.

But that's not a bug. That's a feature of liberalism. But it does mean that if you want a strong sense of community, you're probably not going to get it in a liberal society. I think that the attraction that people have to feel about liberal societies really has to do more with freedom and the ability to make what you want of your own life. This ability not to be told by either your priest or the government how how you ought to live. And that's something that people can take pride in.

The second issue you mentioned really does have to do with the nation. And I think that is also a problem because liberals believe that all human beings have equal rights and that those rights need to be protected by governments. I think that you can actually reconcile liberal theory with the actual existence of nations because those rights need to be protected by a state. The state is really the locus of power in the modern world. And states necessarily have limits on whose rights they can protect. And so if you live in a liberal society, it has an obligation to protect the rights of the citizens of that society. But the way the world is organised, that state does not have the obligation to protect the rights of citizens in countries a thousand miles away. And in fact, if they try to do that, that's also going to lead to a pretty chaotic world where states are able to use force way outside of their territorial jurisdictions.

So that's why I think the nation and liberal theory need to come together. The other thing is that in a liberal society, people need to have a source of community and mutual identification, and the nation still remains a pretty strong source of that. You just go to an Olympics and watch people cheering for their own country. That’s an important identification that needs to be kept liberal: meaning to say you can't build a nation around race, around religion, around some fixed value.

Sam Leith: Well, you can.

Francis Fukuyama: You can, and that’s been a source of problems. So that's really what we're facing in contemporary Russia that they've got this one notion of what Russian national identity is that's not compatible with multiple other ethnic identities within their own society. So it's an uneasy compromise in a sense between liberal ideals of universal human equality and the need for nations. But I think it's one that can actually be reconciled in practice.

Sam Leith: That idea that there is a communitarian underpinning to the liberal dispensation in any given state: how has that been affected, whether undermined or improved, by globalisation? When you’ve been talking about neoliberalism and the difficulties of allowing inequality to run riot, it’s much harder to create a juridical framework in which inequality can be reined in by the democratic process, when the companies that run it are so international that they’re outside the reach of any given state’s laws.

Francis Fukuyama: It has been a big problem because the globalisation brought about by what I would call neoliberal ideology has put economic efficiency at the summit of all social goods. It necessarily erodes other objectives that a democratic community may want to pursue. So this is clearest in terms of the environment, where a lot of the global trade laws have actually gotten in the way of environmental enforcement. Because according to the free traders, these are simply political obstacles that are meant to be protectionist rather than serving other ends. And I don't think that that's an acceptable understanding of the way democratic communities have a right to determine their own futures. So, economic efficiency should be one social good among others. And it really ought to be up to democratic communities to determine the priority, the relative priority, let's say, of environmental protection against economic efficiency.

Sam Leith: Obviously democratic communities can make those decisions. But when the problems are global, when the money moves globally, it’s much harder for them to do that. How much stock do you place in the international institutions which I guess are our best attempt to regulate those problems?

Francis Fukuyama: There’s such a variety of international institutions that it's impossible to generalise. I think the United Nations has been a failure in terms of regulating security just because of the nature of the Security Council. Whenever you get a dispute between one of those five, two of those five members, you don't get any kind of action whatsoever. And I think that's been repeatedly demonstrated. On the other hand, there are other areas like public health where the World Health Organisation actually plays a pretty important role in coordinating responses to things like global pandemics. It didn't do an adequate job during Covid, but it's much better that it existed than than it doesn't. And then the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and the IMF, also play important roles in regulating a lot of our economic lives and especially the lives of of poorer countries. So it really depends.

In the security realm, Nato, I think, is really an important institution and it worked during the Cold War. And I think it's working today in light of the challenge posed by Russia. But I think that especially global warming has led a lot of people to say that the entire universe of existing institutions – because they are based on nation states – will not be adequate to meet the challenges and needs to be replaced by something more resembling global government.

And that, I think, is a dangerous idea because at a nation state level, we have developed institutions that balance the power of the state with instruments of constraint. That's what the rule of law is. It basically says if you have executive authority, there are certain things you cannot do to violate individual rights or to act against commonly accepted laws. And they have to be democratically legitimated.

Anybody that says that we need to replace the existing nation state-based type of cooperation with some form of global governance really has to explain how you would limit the actions of a global executive, through law or through democratic legitimacy. And we have no idea how to do this. The idea that the United States and China and Europe can all agree on a common set of laws and rules and then delegate serious coercive power to this organisation: you just try to imagine that and you realise why that's not going to happen.

Sam Leith: Right back at the foundation of liberalism, the aspects of it that you describe as being really basic – the idea of individual worth and individual power of choice and human dignity – it seemed very closely and intellectually naturally allied to the idea of property rights and the economic booms and the free market implications that that had. But at the moment we find ourselves and have for some years in a situation where it seems that on what we've tended to call the left, there's been a general interest in expressive individualism, in social liberty, and much less enthusiasm for economic liberty. And on the right, very often. Why is it that that peculiar bifurcation seems to have happened, given that, you know, originally those two things seem to go very obviously together?

Francis Fukuyama: They simply appeal to different social classes in a certain way. The defence of property rights, the economic liberalism was always associated with a kind of rising middle class. The Liberal party in Britain in the 19th century was really the expression of the commercial bourgeoisie that had arisen in the 19th century and emphasised property rights over other kinds. They were not actually in favour of necessarily expanding the franchise and that sort of thing. The left was really defined by the desire for people that were not part of that system to break their way into it. And that really defined the politics of the left and right through much of the 20th century.

And I think it continues to this day where you have a progressive left that is defined by their desire to expand individual autonomy in a whole variety of cultural ways, and a right that continues to emphasise property and economic rights. And I think that part of the problem we've had is that both of those sides took those ideas, which were at base liberal and expanded them into something that really began to challenge the liberal order as a whole.

Sam Leith: You say on both sides they’ve taken this basically sound idea to extremes. Is there anything in liberal theory or in the history of liberalism that might draw that line between what could be considered reasonable and what would be extreme?

Francis Fukuyama: There are several things. So in terms of the economic liberalism, I don't think liberalism has ever been sufficient by itself. As I said, it really needs to be paired with democracy. And so if you don't temper a liberal economy with a political mechanism for some degree of redistribution, you're not going to get stability. There'll be too much inequality. People will regard the system as illegitimate and they'll rise up against it. I think that on the other side, the real limitation is people's need for community. It turns out that identity politics that tries to say that the liberal order is really wrong and that we're all just rooted in these racial, ethnic gender categories fail to generate any sense of patriotism, any sense of loyalty to a broader society where people feel that they have a stake in a common nation.

Sam Leith: Don't they feed emotionally on loyalty to that identity group? Aren't they replacing the nation with something else?

Francis Fukuyama: They’ll never succeed in doing that because the tendency is towards fragmentation. And for that reason, I think that progressive parties that have moved in that direction just never get any kind of electoral success because people still feel this loyalty to the nation. And they feel that liberals really care much more about people in distant countries than they do about their own fellow citizens. And so that becomes an automatic limitation in the political success of that understanding of identity politics.

Sam Leith: You’re talking at the moment about the attacks and the crumbling of a clear idea of liberalism. And you say ‘people who have experienced violence, war and dictatorship long to live in liberal societies as Europeans did in the period after 1945. But as people get used to a peaceful life under a liberal regime, they tend to take that peace and order for granted and start longing for a politics that would direct them to higher ends’. And I think you say that we're perhaps at a similar point in human history. Do you think that's where we are now? Do you think that essentially too long a peace leads us to war?

Francis Fukuyama: This harks back to something I said in the last couple of chapters of The End of History and the Last Man, where I said that there is this side of the human personality that the Greeks called thymos. It’s the pridefulness and the desire for respect that sometimes conflicts with your rational pursuit of self-interest. One of the problems in a liberal society is that it doesn’t give you a source of striving for higher ends if you simply have peace and prosperity. And I think that you can see this both on the left and the right today, where, in the United States we're having a lot of disputes over mask wearing and vaccination mandates. And protesters are wearing stars of David, saying that their requirement to get vaccinated and to wear masks is like Hitler's treatment of the Jews. And I think that's a perfect example of complacency. 

You're living in a liberal society. The government is not asking very much of you, but even the slightest imposition on your individual freedom, you compare it to the worst tyrannies of previous ages. You can only do that in a society that's really forgotten what real tyranny is like. And I think that one of the things that has happened with Putin's invasion of Ukraine is to remind people what real tyranny looks like. It isn't a mask mandate. It's having your city relentlessly bombed because somebody doesn't like your national identity. That's what real tyranny looks like.

Sam Leith: To move on to Ukraine, a lot of the conversations we’ve been having in the media have been saying ‘this is a crunch point – this is the front line of the war of liberalism against tyranny or autocracy’. And I’m wondering, do you think that’s right without qualification? Do you see the Ukrainians as fighting on behalf of an idea, or are they fighting for thymos, or a nationalism and a sense of their homeland?

Francis Fukuyama: It’s a little bit of both. I actually have been spending a lot of time in Ukraine over the last seven or eight years and have lots of Ukrainian friends. And nobody does one or the other. Everybody fights for their independence and sovereignty, even if you don't live in a democracy. But in Ukraine, I do think that people have appreciated the fact that they're living in a free society. They can criticise the government, they can say what they want and they want to defend that. And they don't want Putin to take it away from them. And so what they're doing is a combination both of patriotic defence of their sovereignty. And it's a fight for higher ideals. I think all of us have an interest in supporting that because the broader liberal democratic order is really what's at stake in this current war. It's not a war just about this country, Ukraine. It's really the attempt to roll back the entire expansion of the realm of liberal democracy that took place after 1991 and the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

Sam Leith: Parenthetically, you do mention Ukraine in the book, and you say because you have been working in Ukraine with scholars of liberalism, you said that it had before the invasion, the most complete oligarchic control of the media anywhere in the world, which is very surprising to me because having paid attention to Ukraine more recently, I was under the impression it was an extraordinarily pluralistic, liberal democracy.

Francis Fukuyama: The big problem in Ukraine prior to the war was corruption. And the corruption came from the fact that much of the economy was owned by six or seven oligarchs that were a kind of byproduct of the way the Soviet Union collapsed. What's remarkable is that structure has really crumbled now. Ukraine has experienced a birth of a nation that really would not have been possible but for the invasion. So the oligarchs have all fled. Their properties are being confiscated or destroyed.

Sam Leith: Confiscated by the Russians?

Francis Fukuyama: Confiscated by the Russians. Like Rinat Akhmetov, who is the big pro-Russian oligarch in eastern Ukraine, just had his largest steel factory bombed by the Russians. He tended to be pro-Russian before the invasion. None of the Russian speakers, as far as I can see, have any sympathy now for Russia given what they’ve done in Kharkiv and other Russian-speaking territories.

I think that the whole earlier division has really been replaced by an extraordinary sense of national unity around Zelensky and around the idea of a free Ukraine. So Vladimir Putin is going to be remembered as one of the fathers of the Ukrainian nation when this is all over with.

Sam Leith: And Zelensky, who most of us have come to consciousness of as a war hero president, how did you rate him before all this happened? Was he deeply implicated with these oligarchs? Was he ruling by permission of them?

Francis Fukuyama: To a much less extent than other Ukrainian politicians. He had been linked at the time of his election to [Ihor] Kolomoisky. And there had been a lot of suspicion that he was acting on his behalf. I think that after he became elected, he proved that actually wasn't true. You know, they continue to act against Kolomoisky’s interest. There was a big reversal of a privatisation that they were trying to contest, and he didn't manage to do that. And I think that the thing that was remarkable about Zelensky was that he was the outsider candidate that was elected over other candidates that were much more representative of oligarchic interests by an incredible margin, which indicated that the Ukrainian people as a whole really wanted an outsider that wasn't connected to any of the existing corrupt elite. What happened after he was elected was that those same oligarchs then tried to corrupt the parliamentarians in his own party. And so there's a continuing struggle, but I think to a much greater extent than previous politicians. Zelensky was free of that kind of oligarchic control.

Sam Leith: So his being elected in the first place would be an instance of liberalism and the rule of law.

Francis Fukuyama: Absolutely, and democracy. Something that would be completely impossible in Russia, for example.

Sam Leith: Francis Fukuyama, thank you very much indeed for your time.

Francis Fukuyama: Thank you for talking to me.