Liberalism and its Discontents—A Review

A Review of Liberalism and Its Discontents by Francis Fukuyama. Profile Books, 178 pages (March 2022)

Liberalism is in bad odour. In the third decade of the 21st century, it is an ideology with few friends. Derided with equal vigour by populists on the Right and “progressives” on the Left, it is no exaggeration to claim, as Francis Fukuyama does in his new book, Liberalism and its Discontents, that “liberalism is under severe threat around the world today.”

And yet, it was only just over 30 years ago that the same author—whose name is almost synonymous with liberal ideology—was proclaiming history’s “end.” Adopting Hegel’s historical teleology Fukuyama famously argued in 1992 that the fall of the Soviet Union marked the ultimate “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

So, history, it turns out, did not actually end, but what’s wrong with liberalism? Is it broken? Can it be fixed? Or was it a mistake, in the first instance, to prophesy that liberalism was history’s “absolute moment”? Like 1848, did history reach its turning point and fail to turn because it had some other telos—socialist, fascist, nationalist, religious?

Never an uncritical supporter of liberalism—always aware of the cultural and psychological toll its victory necessarily exacts—Fukuyama has long conceded that there “are many legitimate criticisms to be made of liberal societies.” Nonetheless, echoing Winston Churchill on democracy, Fukuyama insists still that “liberalism is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

In Liberalism and its Discontents, Fukuyama argues that the wrong kind of liberalism is what’s wrong with liberalism. Neoliberalism, namely, is what’s wrong with liberalism—that, and the idea of the “sovereign self” advanced in John Rawls’s left-leaning iteration of the political philosophy. Exchanging contingency for teleology, this is a Hegel-free Fukuyama, newly aware that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Liberalism and its Discontents is a sterling book. Fukuyama provides there a rousing defence of “classical,” or “humane,” liberalism. It is a call for liberalism to moderate itself if it wishes to survive from someone, notably, firmly embedded within the liberal tradition.

Liberalism, on Fukuyama’s account, is a pessimistic politics. What we get in his new offering is, effectively, a species of the liberalism of fear. Classical liberalism, Fukuyama explains, can be understood “as an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity.” Classical liberalism is not without aspiration, however. Tolerance may be its most fundamental principle, but it is also individualist, egalitarian, universalist, and meliorist. Which is to say, while classical liberalism is realistic about the human propensity for discord and violence, it is idealistic about the need for political equality and our potential for collective improvement. Candid to a fault, Fukuyama distinguishes between liberalism and democracy. The heyday, he claims, of what came to be known as “liberal democracy,” classical liberalism’s apotheosis, was the period from 1950 to the 1970s. After that, liberalism began to unravel. Liberalism became self-destructive and even illiberal when its core principles were pushed to extremes.

Fukuyama’s critique of neoliberalism is powerful and well executed. However, there is nothing new there. The Reagan–Thatcher revolution addressed, and solved, real problems. Yet, Fukuyama points to its unintended, and intended but adverse, consequences. Free trade leads to the expansion of markets and efficiency. It also leads to job losses for skilled workers in rich countries. Immigration, similarly, improves aggregate welfare. But, unsurprisingly, “few voters think in terms of aggregate wealth.” “A valid insight into the superior efficiency of markets evolved into something of a religion,” he notes, where natural monopolies were privatised, markets recommended for states without functioning legal systems, and deregulation applied to the financial sector. Neoliberalism, consequently, was hoiste by its own petard.

It is not just a question of misapplication, however. Neoliberalism, according to Fukuyama, is congenitally flawed.

First, channelling Henry George, Fukuyama questions if a singular focus on property rights is just. “What if that property was acquired by violence or theft,” he asks rhetorically. Second, Fukuyama argues that neoliberalism’s emphasis on “consumer welfare as the ultimate measure of economic well-being” betrays an ideology with its values out of kilter. Invoking Justice Louis Brandeis’s political interpretation of the Sherman Act, Fukuyama posits that social goods like neighbourhoods and ways of living ought to trump economic efficiency. Third, neoliberalism’s foundational assumption that human beings are “rational utility maximisers” is profoundly incomplete, he states. We do, indeed, often act as selfish individuals, but individualism is a modern phenomenon, not a historical constant, and people are perpetually making choices “between material self-interest and intangible goods like respect, pride, principle, and solidarity.” We are, in short, social and emotional as well as selfish and rational creatures.

Who knew? Well, if this all seems obvious to liberalism’s longstanding critics—conservative, socialist, social democrat—Fukuyama’s critique of left liberalism is genuinely novel. Fukuyama proceeds to eviscerate the form of identity politics that emerged initially as “an effort to fulfil the promise of liberalism” but descended instead into a state of psychosis, plagued by patricidal imaginings. It is here that the book excels.

In Fukuyama’s synoptic intellectual history, Rawls is a bridge to nihilism and wokeism. Unlike Lockean–Jeffersonian liberalism, which “enjoined tolerance for different conceptions of the good,” Rawls enjoined “non-judgementalism regarding other people’s life choices.” Placing justice prior to the good, swapping a theory of human nature for an abstract “original position,” autonomy was absolutised. Choice was elevated to first place among human goods, with devastating consequences. Character formation was neglected, and life, unbound from tradition and inherited social roles, was emptied of meaning. Fukuyama doesn’t use the phrase, but he might as well have: Rawlsian liberalism created a culture of narcissism. “Freedom to choose,” he complains, extends now not “just to the freedom to act within established moral frameworks, but to choose the framework itself.” In other words, anything goes. Indeed, the more non-conforming, the better.

When told that the individual is sovereign and that our task in life is to “self-actualise,” modern liberal subjects are predictably self-indulgent. They often behave like “the spoiled child of human history” described by José Ortega y Gasset, incapable of wonder and respect. Failing to observe the principle of charity, contemporary critical theorists, for example, habitually mischaracterise their opponents’ arguments, erecting caricatures which are duly demolished with ease. Distinguishing between a good kind of identity politics and a deranged kind, Fukuyama answers point for point the objections levelled at liberalism by the latter.

Acknowledging that liberalism has been illiberal, endorsing racist and patriarchal ideas and policies, he notes that these are not intrinsic to liberalism. Rather, they are “historically contingent phenomena.” Liberalism, moreover, as a universalist philosophy, provided—and provides—“the theoretical justification for its own self-correction.” Thus, Fukuyama rightly observes that “it was the liberal idea that ‘all men are created equal’ that allowed Abraham Lincoln to argue against the morality of slavery before the Civil War.” The goal of the sane version of identity politics, he goes on accordingly, is to “win acceptance and equal treatment” for members of marginalised groups “as individuals, under the liberal presumption of a shared underlying humanity.” This, however, is lambasted by woke ideologues as a mere assertion of power, an attempt—cynical or otherwise—to impose a liberal worldview on groups who do not wish to adopt one.

If Rawls gave us moral relativism, the “epistemic or cognitive relativism” which has become pervasive in recent years was authored, above all, by Michel Foucault. Facts are out. Subjectivity is in. Consistently fair, Fukuyama readily concedes that there is often a kernel of truth in what Foucault and his deconstructionist and structuralist forebears had to say. Ideas are not neutral. Scientifically “validated conclusions have indeed reflected the interests and power of those expressing them,” he concedes. For the most part, however, Foucault was a paranoiac. Allergic to authority, he identified power everywhere, in institutions and “the language used to regulate and talk about social life.”

The current extreme sensitivity to the mere expression of words, combined with an irrationally anxious suspicion that institutions are shot through with racism, sexism, and other forms of domination, is Foucault’s legacy. He gave us a political lens at once fragile and self-lacerating or aggressively assertive. Turning Foucault’s own argument against him, crucially, Fukuyama asks if “there are no truly universal values other than power, why should one want to accept the empowerment of any marginalised group?” Anarcho-tyrannical on the one side and ethno-nationalist on the other, both equally incapable of accepting diversity, the alternatives to liberalism do not bear thinking about. Fukuyama, however, can bear more reality than most.

The End of History was both melancholic (never-ending liberalism meant never-ending boredom) and, undoubtedly, hubristic. The Fukuyama that emerges from Liberalism and its Discontents is, in essence, a social democrat—a proponent, even—of a weak left post-liberalism. To some extent, he plays down the totalitarian threat posed by the woke Left. He is fully cognisant, though, of the danger posed by the populist Right. To avert catastrophe—a revival of violence, war, and dictatorship which characterised the first half of the 20th century—Fukuyama argues that classical liberals need to recognise the need for government. The real issue is not its size and scope but its quality. The Scandinavian countries, for instance, provide a good example of successful welfarist liberal societies. As a priority, wealth must be distributed more equitably the world over.

Most liberal societies at present, Fukuyama avers, tolerate far too much inequality. Not only that, but they are also vulgar, extravagantly consumerist, excessively permissive, too diverse, not diverse enough, and dominated by manipulative and unresponsive elites. Engaging with the work of American right post-liberals such as Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule, and Patrick Deneen (somewhat cursorily, it must be said), Fukuyama happily accepts that the “substantive conservative critique of liberalism—that liberal societies provide no common moral horizon around which community can be built—is true enough.” However, he does not believe there is any practical way back to a thicker, perhaps religious, moral order. Moral relativism is “a feature and not a bug of liberalism.” To accommodate diversity, a sense of community must almost inevitably be thin. Still, the “spiritual vacuum” at the centre of liberal orders is regrettable.

According to Fukuyama, the best we can hope for is a liberalism aware of its flaws, a liberalism that “prioritizes public-spiritedness, tolerance, open-mindedness, and active engagement in public affairs,” is unembarrassed by national identity and cultural tradition, seeks to devolve power to the lowest feasible levels of government, and accepts human limits and promotes the virtue of moderation. A liberalism, in short, which seeks to compensate for its own ineradicable shortcomings. In so saying, Fukuyama sounds a lot like a reticent Red Tory or Blue Labourite—a critic of liberalism who is not anti-liberal—an impression created throughout his new book. Now, that is “progress.” What Fukuyama succeeds in showing us is that liberalism need not be commensurate with the extremes of individualism or wokeism. His version of liberalism repudiates both.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/04/21/liberalism-and-its-discontents-a-review/
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Sorry but neoliberalism is not a form of liberalism, unless you use postmodernist definitions, which are not definitions really.
Discussing about liberalism- which honestly has become a blanket term- is devoid of any meaning unless you clearly specify what you mean by “liberalism”.
Every fool and their sister proclaims “the fall of liberalism” in a thunderous apocalyptic voice, but ask 10 people what they mean by liberalism, and you get 20 different answers.

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I think that liberalism in all its guises has amounted to an ideology of the educated class. And, not surprisingly, whether with Locke or Rawls or Fukuyama, it’s all about the class interest of the educated chappies. It advertises itself as beneficial to society, but in practice is only beneficial to the educated class.

I don’t see anyone in the educated class at all interested in what the ordinary deplorable middle class would like in society, or what the lower class would like.

The educated class arrogates to itself the sacred knowledge of what is good for the lower or “oppressed” class. And it is confident that the ordinary middle class is nothing but a bunch or racist-sexist-homophobes. Yeah, that should work.

Now it is my conceit to view modern society as composed of three layers: the educated gentry, that imagines itself living a life of creative endeavor; the middle class that lives a life of responsible adherence to fixed principles; and the lower class that is looking for a reliable patron.

Any liberalism that has half a clue must recognize this fundamental nature of modern society. Otherwise it is just a road to ruin. As right now.

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Excellent essay, overall. Best at the end:

“Most liberal societies at present, are . . . vulgar, extravagantly consumerist, excessively permissive, too diverse, not diverse enough, and dominated by manipulative and unresponsive elites. . . . [L]iberal societies provide no common moral horizon around which community can be built . . . [T]he “spiritual vacuum” at the centre of liberal orders is regrettable.”

The decline of religion (and I say this as an atheist) is a hugely destructive component in the decline of liberal society. Just as the author of this piece takes Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” out of context, so to Jefferson’s aside that there be a “wall of separation between church and state” has been twisted to undermine the Jeffersonian ideal. Society (and liberalism) may rebound if we tolerate more religiosity (and hence, a moral code) in our public sphere. No one was ever harmed by listening to readings from the Bible or the Koran.

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Especially when it comes to Gender, which is in reality the least negotiable of all biological facts. I read a few days ago that the latest is ‘racoon gender vibe’, I wonder if they put racoon gender vibers in with the men or the women? On the news just this morning: some Indian is demanding that her newborn daughter have her name written in Squamish. It was denied and of course xe will be going the the HRT and of course xe will win.

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To my eye, connecting Anglo-American liberalism with class is accurate.

Locke’e treatises on government were published in 1689-90 with the hope of framing a workable synthesis for the government of England following the Civil Wars, the Interregnum and the Restoration. Locke’s proposed settlement clearly favored the landed gentry and the gentlemen of trade and the professions. Ultimately, the Grandee Parliamentarians prevailed following England’s century of revolution.

The American synthesis of 1789 was only a bit less favorable to the governing class than was the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Another point that should be considered is how completely the marriage of liberalism with capitalism corrupted liberalism.

I wholeheartedly agree. The state should be striving for religious neutrality. Right now, in the US at least, there is overt hostility at the level of the federal government.

Kudos to you as an atheist for having the spiritual and intellectual humility to come out and say this. Many of your most prominent fellow travelers lack these qualities.

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You didn’t provide any specifications, either.

Don’t all ideologies ultimately serve the ruling class? Yeah, I know the Marxist rhetoric might say otherwise, but that rhetoric is not true in practice.

What’s really kind of ironic is that Fukuyama’s hypothesis in End of History might actually be right (well, half right) if viewed through a certain lens? The world we live in is what it looks like when the liberal, capitalistic bourgeoisie “wins”. Yes, there are alternative systems like China and Russia, but they only really exist in their current form because of the exceeding consumerism of the West. Russia sells energy, and China sells finished goods (and have consumer-centric economies themselves). Short of some cataclysmic world conflict sending us back to agrarian societies, is there any other serious competition on the horizon?

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And evidently, in recent decade, even as we have sent more people to college, proving them with at least middling quality education, for one reason or another they do not follow ‘responsible adherence to fixed principles’, principles by which one consistently creates new value. Rather, they slide into the lower class group seeking patronage of one form or another, in which they are paid not fore what they produce, for for the trouble they do not cause.

Of course we can trace much of the failure of education back to Rawls and Foucault; we have an educational system which doesn’t have or value fixed principles. Rather, since Alinsky, the rules for radicals are about how to shake down whatever the sources of power might be. When power is elusive, we value bright bling in the moment.

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Hmmm.

Does this imply that there are no fools among the group consisting of singletons plus all persons whose siblings are all male?

I kind of think I falsify that claim. I’m a fool and I have no sisters.

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Logically analyzing an idiom is not logical.

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Glad im not the only one who still equates religion to a moral code. The biggest problem of the fall of religions is the moral vacuum left behind.
Societies (mostly the western ones) have committed the deadly mistake of putting science above morality, and this is a sure way to dystopia.
To make things worse, morality, common sense and logic have fallen under the axe of postmodernism, and societies seem to be spiraling out of control into different types of collective madness.
Nowadays people can chose their own flavor of collective madness.
Maybe some will disagree with me, but the rabid russophobia and ukrainophilia on display today is a form of collective madness/hysteria.
That in this day and age when so much information is at the tip of our fingers, whole societies can be driven into collective madness so easily, is worrisome to say the least.
Maybe movies like “wag the dog” should be mandatory to watch in schools.

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My problem with what you call “the radicals”, is that when you analyze, they are actively and unwittingly enforcing the sources of power, not shaking them down.
When i look around, these radicals are the most useful idiots to those in power, and the fact the corporate media is egging on these radicals so blatantly, is a clue for me.

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Exactly so, and it’s of course a tricky that the ruling class uses to play the lower against the middle. And it depends on promoting a misunderstanding of the nature of ‘inequality.’ This from the link below to Persuasion, “the global left remains deeply confused about the distinction between economic fairness and equality.”

Not that I agree with some of the labels of “populism” or what ‘the left’ needs to focus on, but wwhat we’re discussion here is the games promoted over grievances.

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That sounds good and seems to make sense, but after browsing a bit through the article you linked, i have to come back to my obsession: the definition of terms.
The term “left” is used improperly to describe different things in that article, and that annoyed me, because i see this too often, and it is so destructive. Same as the use of the term “liberalism” in the main article here on Quillette.

The way i see things is different, but not by much:
Drastically over-simplifying things, we could agree on the existence of a high, middle and low class.
Drastically over-simplifying things we could claim that there is a historic tradition of class struggle.
There is so much devil in the details that i chose to ignore the details.

Now let’s look at what is happening today.
The concept of class has been changed, now we don’t have the high class oppressing the low class, now we have men oppressing women, whites oppressing blacks, straight oppressing gay…the concept of social class has been surreptitiously phased out, in favor of identity politics.

Did anyone notice how in feminist literature and rhetoric, women are treated (implicitly not explicitly) as a social class?
Creating artificial and imaginary social classes and then pitting them against each other is the new mantra in modern politics, its the new and artificially created “identity struggle”, whose main purpose is to suppress true class struggle.
“They” (damn i hate this word), they the power elites (the way C.Wright Mills describes the term), are even pitting generations against each other, by giving them an identity (generation x, y, z, boomers etc) and then launching narratives about how one generation has harmed another.

Left my biggest gripe for last, the definition of “left”.
Traditional left values are pretty much known to the public as “social democracy”.
Paid vacation, free medical care, media sponsored by public money, major public enterprises, strong social security net, strong unions, those are classic left values.
For obvious reasons those values stink badly to the noses of the high class, one way to get rid of these values was the neo-liberalist ideological movement of the 80s and 90s, which slowly gave way to a new way of destroying everything left, namely creating and empowering abject entities and calling them “left”.

Personally i outgrew the good-evil view of the world. Right now i consider neither the left nor the right to be good or evil, i consider balance between them is good, lack of balance is evil, and balance is the one thing missing the most in today’s landscape.
Personal opinion of course.

Oh and sorry for the wall of text, i usually avoid it because its bad, but sometimes i fall prey to the temptation of talking too much :stuck_out_tongue:

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A necessary observation and something that is sorely missed in today’s “polite” society. Not moments ago, one of my rather Democrat-leaning colleagues spoke openly in front of a group of us during a coffee break. We were discussing the furor in Florida and when it came to the subject of the Republicans in that state, her quick reply was earnest and revealing. She said simply, “I hope they all just die.” Alas…

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Agreed. Separate it from the supernatural inspiration or source material, and it can be taken as just good common sense.

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Yes, for sure, the switch of terminology of ‘right’ and ‘left’, everything is obscured. In the terms of hte French Revolution, the Right are the centralists, the Monarchists, the Church, all representing and depending the old way, Ancien Regime. And the “left” are the workers and peasants, powerless, who seek hope in the Arc of History and Justice, which moves in epicycles, perhaps always toward the left, (because the Hebrew and Arabic languages are written from right to left???)

And the writer in that particular piece from Persuasion is trying to salvage the good populist intention of the Left from the modern leftists who have taken over…