Skip to main content

Fukuyama, Francis. Liberalism and Its Discontents. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022.

A lot has happened in the 30 years since The End of History and the Last Man was published in 1992. For one thing, its author Francis Fukuyama went from being regarded as a kind of liberal wunderkind to the butt of many a joke. The alleged liberal triumphalism of The End of History looked increasingly silly amidst the backdrop of a rising, increasingly totalitarian China, in particular. And to be sure, Fukuyama celebrated liberalism in those pages; The End of History is a work of political theory meant to show that liberalism escapes the processes that crushed Communism and Fascism under the weight of their internal contradictions. But the alleged triumphalism of that book was always overstated. It was a misinterpretation by a group of people who, seemingly, had failed to read the final five, somewhat eerie, chapters of the book — the chapters grouped under the heading of “The Last Man.” In those, Fukuyama makes clear that liberalism may not remain unchallenged. In his telling at the time, liberalism brings peace, stability, and prosperity, but humans may struggle against it anyway. If for no other reason than “a certain boredom,” a desire to “struggle for the sake of struggle” and prove to themselves that they remain free, that they “remain human beings.”

Fukuyama’s latest book, Liberalism and its Discontents, is in some ways a coming to terms with the fact that his prediction of a besieged liberalism came true. But, in other ways, it’s a final breaking point between the Fukuyama of old and the Fukuyama of today. In contrast to his earlier works, with the partial exception of 2018’s Identity, this is a book characterized not by its showcasing of liberalism’s strengths, but liberalism’s weaknesses. It is still a defense of liberalism however, as Fukuyama himself says in the opening line of the preface.

He so begins this defense by getting to the “essence” of liberalism, making great hay to separate the ideals of liberalism from the reality of its practice, which becomes important for his theory of what went wrong. These first few chapters rely on the usual suspects, Hobbes and Locke in particular, to make the case for liberalism’s positive features. These are its focus on autonomy, the weight it gives to property rights, its role as “protector” of the democratic process, its connection to rationalism, and its emphasis on tolerance. According to Fukuyama, the most important among these is tolerance, the idea that “you do not have to agree with your fellow citizens about the most important things, but only that each individual should get to decide what they are without interference from you or the state” (p. 7). These principles are the basis of three justifications for liberal society: a pragmatic justification that sees liberalism as the only way to regulate violence and allow diverse populations to co-exist; a moral justification that sees liberalism as a protector of human dignity and personal choice; and an economic justification that sees liberalism as the engine of economic growth and the human prosperity it produces.

While the first few chapters constitute Fukuyama’s tepid defense of liberalism in the abstract, he quickly turns to where it all went wrong. In his telling, both the political right and the political left have pushed liberalism’s focus on autonomy to its breaking point. On the right, this push for autonomy came in the form of economic neoliberalism, with its emphasis on individualism, “personal responsibility,” selfish consumerism, and opposition to state action. In Fukuyama’s portrayal, the right’s embrace of economic neoliberalism was at first a justifiable reaction to the problems of the 1970s, with its characteristic low growth, burdensome state control, and ballooning debt loads. But after the effects of these problems were mitigated, the right hung on to neoliberalism and transformed it from “a valid insight into the superior efficiency of markets” into “something of a religion” (p. 22). Pushed to this counterproductive extreme, economic neoliberalism wreaked havoc on local communities and produced destabilizing events like the 2008 global financial crisis. Economic neoliberals bastardized classical liberalism by applying one of its insights, “personal responsibility,” not only to domains like an individual’s day-to-day choices but to domains well outside their control, leaving them to suffer the adverse effects of globalization, financial crises, and other shocks without help from a dogmatically non-interventionist state.

On the left, the advance towards extreme autonomy manifested in the cultural sphere through the push for “self-actualization” and the modern identity politics that it created, which Fukuyama sees as corrosive. Like the phenomenon on the right, left-wing cultural neoliberals expanded the liberal insight of self-actualization outside the bounds of an individual’s own life, where they might try and realize goals like getting a promotion at work or being a better spouse, and radically applied it to identity itself. In each of these cases, Fukuyama devotes two or three lines of scorn to the wide array of intellectual culprits he sees as responsible for these deformations. Here we find out that Robert Bork saw humans as consuming animals and nothing more, that Hayek’s hostility to the state was “driven more by ideology than by empirical observation” (p. 39), that Rawls elevates choice “over all other human goods” (p. 54), and the like.

After assessing the problem, Fukuyama turns towards the discontents that grace his title by asking “are there alternatives?” He finds alternatives both on the broadly nationalistic, populist right and the progressive wing of the political left. The religious right opposition to liberalism stems from the fact that liberalism creates a “spiritual vacuum” by lowering the sights of politics, and therefore promotes moral laxity, selfishness, and materialistic tendencies. Another variety of right-wing criticism comes from the nationalist right, which believes that liberalism sacrificed the bonds of national community in favor of global cosmopolitanism. Some are ethnonationalist like Hungary’s Viktor Orban but some like Yoram Hazony are cultural nationalists, believing that distinct cultures form the basis of nationalism. The right-wing alternative to liberalism is thus one that suppresses and neglects individual autonomy and freedom in the name of promoting moral goods, sometimes (as in the case of Adrian Vermeule) through outright authoritarianism. What these thinkers have in common is that they all think that the elements of liberalism they dislike today are inherent features of liberalism itself, and that is the basis for their call to move beyond liberalism entirely.

When Fukuyama turns his sights to the left post-liberals, a slight inconsistency in his accounting emerges. While liberalism’s right-wing challengers are reacting to the effects of an overly autonomized liberalism, cultural progressives play something like a double role, with one foot in and one foot out of liberalism. They are at once culprits that pushed liberalism to the brink from within, and advocates for an alternative system. Fukuyama addresses this in a roundabout way by admitting that the threat posed by the right is significantly more dangerous than that posed by the left. That is, according to him, in part because a coherent left alternative to liberalism has yet to emerge and because “the extreme left tends to be anarchist rather than statist” and therefore an imposition of its will is less likely (p. 126). When Fukuyama attempts to envision what a dangerous and coherent post-liberal left may look like, he can only imagine that it might be more focused on identity politics and promote overt preferences based on race and gender. In other words, a post-liberal left would essentially be an acceleration of the trends that left-liberals themselves have embraced, rather than a distinct alternative.

Despite his criticisms of both the culprits of our predicament and those who suggest alternatives, Fukuyama tries to give each of these ideologies a fair hearing. Unfortunately, it largely falls flat. This is in no small part because of his decision to include such a breadth of intellectual thinkers in a 150-page book. Despite admitting early on that he doesn’t want to rehash the entire history of liberalism, for the uninitiated reader this book will read something like an intellectual conveyor belt, with Fukuyama standing at the end marking each, from Foucault, Marcuse, Nietzsche, Hayek and many more, with a stamp that reads “started with some true insights but ultimately went too far,” without giving the reader much of a sense of the complexities of these thinkers’ contributions. Still, this pose gets at the heart of Fukuyama’s argument. He wants to advocate for a liberalism that self-regulates itself, that can moderate its worst impulses and stop its drive towards total autonomy at just the right moment before it drives off the cliff into detrimental extremity. But Fukuyama is, understandably so, unclear about where exactly to draw that line. This creates a kind of mismatch between his diagnosis of the problem, and his proposed solutions. But it also gets at the heart of the differences between a Fukuyama, who acknowledges modern liberalism’s failures but believes that they were not inevitable and that they can be corrected, and some of the discontents that he describes. Patrick Deneen, for instance, sees our modern predicament as the inevitable outcome of liberalism itself, a system that according to him in Why Liberalism Failed, “generates endemic pathologies more rapidly and pervasively than it is able to produce Band-aids and veils to cover them” (p. 179). To his credit, Fukuyama never anthropomorphizes liberalism in this way, treating it as a sentient political actor when it of course isn’t. Rather, he gives agency to liberalism’s defenders and critics alike, leaving open the possibility for complexity, evolution, and change. In short, he leaves open the possibility that actors, real people in the world, can produce the Band-aids needed to fix liberalism’s current problems.

And that is where the real value of this book lies. Despite its failure to provide concrete solutions, and its oversimplification of complex political theories, Liberalism and its Discontents is a sober and somewhat paradoxically pessimistic as well as optimistic work. The pessimism stems from the fact that, whereas the Francis Fukuyama of 1992 saw liberalism’s potential downfall as a product of its own success, the Francis Fukuyama of 2022 sees liberalism’s potential downfall as a product of its own failures and maladaptation. In other words, there will be no debate about whether this latest book is triumphalist. It roundly isn’t. For Fukuyama now, liberalism is merely the best of somewhat bad options, and moving away from it not only isn’t desirable, but it’s also almost practically impossible. This is quite a change of tune from his End of History days. Today’s liberalism is no longer defined by its positive characteristics, its lack of internal contradictions, but rather is defined in negative space; it merely “isn’t those other options.” But Fukuyama makes clear that it needn’t be that way, and that’s why this is an optimistic book. That’s the hope Fukuyama leaves his reader with. Perhaps, if we all embrace something like the Last Man inside ourselves, devote ourselves to the struggle, to the hard work of moderation that it’ll require, we can struggle not against liberalism, but for a better liberalism and a better world.