THE GREAT EXPERIMENT: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure
Author: Yascha Mounk
Price: Rs 1,990
LIBERALISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS
Author: Francis Fukuyama
Publisher: Profile Books
Price: Rs 499
The philosopher Francis Fukuyama is probably best known for a misinterpretation of his work. His 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, was assumed to be a statement of fact rather than the description of a process. He has been defending himself ever since: “The word ‘end’ was not meant in the sense of ‘termination’ but ‘target’ or ‘objective,’” he wrote in 2019. The Soviet Union had collapsed; Marxist collectivism wasn’t the “end” of history. Liberal democracy was. Fukuyama thus committed the sin of optimism, a dicey destination for a serious thinker. In his new book, Fukuyama acknowledges that we’re in a rocky patch on the road toward that “end.”
There are serious threats from right-wing populism and left-wing identity politics. Illiberal democracy — autocracy — is on the rise. This is a conclusion shared by another prominent political philosopher, Yascha Mounk. Both books raise serious challenges, from the political centre, to the way liberal democracy has been operating for the past several generations in America and the world. They are a rare thing: Academic treatises that may actually have influence in the arena of practical politics.
Both authors use the word “liberal” in its classical sense. Liberalism is government by the rule of law, with the goal of protecting individual rights, equality and enterprise, built on a structure of rational, objective facts. “Democracy” is the process by which the law is agreed upon. Both authors assume that liberal democracy is the best way to manage competing interests in a diverse society.
Fukuyama writes with a crystalline rationality. He identifies “neoliberalism” on the right and “critical theory” on the left as the primary threats to the American Republic. Those terms need to be unpacked as well: “Neoliberalism” refers to the Chicago and Austrian schools of economics, which “sharply denigrated the role of the state in the economy.” This was the philosophy popularised by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Fukuyama believes neoliberalism was a legitimate response to the “excessive state control” of the late industrial age, “a valid insight into the superior efficiency of markets” that “evolved into something of a religion” and led to “grotesque inequalities.” Fukuyama believes, however, that markets need to be regulated by the state. “Economic efficiency isn’t the sole purpose of human life; there is a social component as well. People crave respect, not just as individuals, but as members of groups with distinct “religious beliefs, social rules and traditions,” he writes.
And so there has been a backlash from the left, an attack on the libertarian and capitalist excesses, the “primordial” individualist tendencies of neoliberalism. “Critical” theory argues that individual and economic freedoms were just a smokescreen for the basic power arrangements that underpin capitalist society. Power lay in groups, in identity — in whiteness, in patriarchy, in a plutocratic business system. Critical theory also led to notional academic exercises like “critical race theory,” in which society was defined by immutable racial groups, the whites “privileged” and “people of color” oppressed.
Enter Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the British Brexiteers — the right-wing populists of the past decade. If academics could traffic in radical subjectivity, so could demagogues. The idea that American society was divided between Caucasians and “people of color” was simplistic. Broad swathes of the recent immigrant populations, Latinos and Asians, wanted no part of that.
Yascha Mounk’s analysis is similar to Fukuyama’s, but he is a different sort of writer — more passionate and personal. He is Jewish, born and raised in Germany, a proud American citizen now. He is accessible in ways Fukuyama is not: “My political values are left of center. The American politician of the past 50 years I most admire is Barack Obama.” So it is no surprise that he agrees with Fukuyama about the economic inequalities imposed over the past 40 years by the neoliberal regime; and it is also no surprise that he is frightened by right-wing populism. He is equally appalled by the “challenger ideology” — his term for critical theorists. He believes that “entitlement programs that are explicitly targeted at members of particular ethnic groups, for example, provide a strong incentive for members of all ethnicities, including whites, to identify with their racial groups and organize along sectarian lines.”
Both Mounk and Fukuyama pose a practical challenge to looming battles over identity politics in the Democratic Party and economic elitism among the Republicans. An effective liberal democracy, Mounk writes, “should oppose monopolies that allow inefficient corporations to quash would-be competitors.”
Do they have any practical answers? Both authors suggest that some form of national service might be a way to bind the national wounds; Mounk includes a section on Gordon Allport, the 20th-century sociologist whose work suggested that it is harder to hate someone when you know them; interaction among tribes lowers the friction. But Fukuyama, rather elegantly, settles on a plea for moderation. “Recovering a sense of moderation, both individual and communal, is therefore the key to the revival — indeed, to the survival — of liberalism itself.”
The advocates of enlightened liberalism may not be noisy. But, as the people of Ukraine are proving, they can be stubborn. We can only hope that Fukuyama was right the first time: That humanity is stumbling toward a modest state of grace. It will not be easy; an active, engaged citizenry will be necessary. But any other fate is unimaginable.
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