It’s been a quarter-century since Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed the victory of liberal democracy. Perhaps he was not triumphalist, Michael Ignatieff notes, but Fukuyama argued that Communism’s defeat by democracy had effectively ended History.
If History is written in dialectical struggles, the most recent would have been between liberal democracy and Communism. If these ideological struggles exist within a grand narrative called History, it had to play itself out, whether we like it or not.
As you know, Fukuyama was taking a page from Hegel. He was arguing that History follows a script wherein the World Spirit will inevitably manifest itself in a government that expresses the will of the individual.
In passing, one can wonder why, if liberal democracy and Communism are thesis and antithesis in a Hegelian dialectic… the synthesis would be: liberal democracy.
In other words, be careful when juggling big ideas.
More importantly, the Hegelian notion of historical inevitability suggests that human agency has precious little influence on the course of events… beyond facilitating or inhibiting the movement of the World Spirit.
We should, at the least, question this big theory. If there is no script, if the outcome is always in doubt… then believing in the World Spirit can lull us into complacency and make us more irresponsible.
Reviewing Fukuyama’s newest book, Ignatieff makes a salient point: it wasn’t liberal democracy that won with the fall of Communism. It was capitalism. The two may coexist but they do not need to do so.
Thus, the world today seems to be divided between liberal democratic capitalism and authoritarian state capitalism. The two systems or practices are in competition.
I have often posted about this conflict. Ignatieff defines our historical moment:
Capitalism did win in 1989—no credible alternative has emerged—but capitalism didn’t lead to liberal democracy. Market systems turned out to be politically promiscuous: they could share a bed with any number of political regimes, from Nordic democracies to Singaporean meritocracies. In Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Western liberal democracy now faces a competitor Fukuyama did not anticipate: states that are capitalist in economics, authoritarian in politics, and nationalist in ideology. These new authoritarians are conducting an epoch-making historical experiment as to whether regimes that allow private freedoms can endure when they deny their citizens public freedom.
Of course, one might turn this around and ask whether regimes that allow their citizens political freedom can survive while stifling economic freedom under a mountain of bureaucratic regulations, government interference and high taxes.
Have we Americans sacrificed our economic freedom in the interest of gaining what appears to be freedom of political expression and personal behavior?
Is the free market hollowing out the middle class and producing more inequality or is it a government that insists on interfering in the market?
Ignatieff explains Fukuyama’s argument about the importance of the bourgeoisie:
Fukuyama’s assessment depends greatly on the global rise of the middle class. “No bourgeois, no democracy,” the Harvard theorist Barrington Moore Jr. famously wrote. Fukuyama cites figures showing the worldwide middle class expanding from 1.8 billion people in 2009 to a projected 4.9 billion in 2030. As their incomes rise, he argues, they demand rule of law to protect their property and then demand political participation to safeguard their social standing. They do so not just to defend their economic interests but also for moral reasons. Beyond a certain level of status and income, people become insulted when authoritarian systems of rule treat them as disobedient children.
But, aren’t citizens in our great Republic being insulted when the government allows them to act like disobedient children, and protects them from the consequences of their bad decisions?
In the meantime, Fukuyama believes so strongly in the dialectic and in the advent of the World Spirit that he insists that authoritarian regimes will necessarily incite rebellion. One is reminded of Hegel’s myth of the master and the slave, where the philosopher described the slave’s rebellion as inevitable.
One is obliged to note that, after what happened in Tienanmen Square a quarter century ago, Nicholas Kristof and Jonathan Mirsky among others predicted that the government’s victory would be short lived and that the People who soon rise up to claim their liberal democratic freedoms.
We know how that worked out. And we know that Mirsky did admit that he had been wrong.
Fukuyama, however, has somewhat hedged his older declaration. If liberal democracy did not triumph in 1989, it will, one day, inevitably. Now, he is less sure when it will happen.
We must note that if you do not tell when it will happen, your prediction can never really be tested against reality. It’s not for nothing that Hegel was considered an idealist.
Being an idealist means never having to admit you are wrong.
If his [Fukuyama’s] analysis is true, however, then Presidents Xi and Putin should beware. Over the long term—and nobody knows how long that might be—authoritarian regimes that allow their citizens capitalist freedoms but deny them democratic rights will explode, in revolution, coups, civil war, or a combination of all three. Democratization, Fukuyama seems to be saying, will eventually turn out to be necessary to Russia’s and China’s very survival as unitary states.
Beyond whatever yearnings people have for free expression it seems also to be true that people want to live in harmony with their neighbors and to prosper. In China these values are surely more important than the quest for individual self-expression. There it’s more important to save face than to express your feelings. And it’s also more important to prosper than to sue.
In addition, Fukuyama does admit, these countries are less likely to follow the path toward liberal democracy at a time when Western nations seem to be using it to sabotage their economies.
Unfortunately, Fukuyama’s insistence on imposing Hegel’s fictional History on reality leads him to make what appears to be a very naïve analysis.
In particular, Ignatieff says, his analysis of events in the Arab world has little to do with reality. Apparently, Fukuyama is the only person who still believes that the Arab Spring ushered in a new democratic era in Arab politics.
He [Fukuyama] also takes a relatively optimistic view of political developments in the Arab world, arguing that a middle class is steadily growing there, education levels are rising, and economies are opening up, all of which mean that autocracy or military dictatorship cannot last forever. Islam, he insists, is not an enemy of democracy. Indeed, Islamic parties have best captured the demand for political voice and dignity.
Ignatieff easily refutes the claim:
Fukuyama’s assumption that middle classes always want democracy would seem to break down in Egypt, where the middle class of Cairo teamed up with the army to restore a military dictatorship after the first wave of the Arab Spring. Elsewhere, Islamists have exploited demands for voice and dignity, and Syria and Iraq are crumbling as their regimes fight to hold on to power. Not even Fukuyama is up to the challenge of predicting how long this battle will last, or who will win.
Fukuyama is aware of the fact that American democracy has seen better days. He does not recognize that America was founded as a republic, not a democracy, so he wants America to solve its problems by eliminating the constitutional system of checks and balances.
Presumably, this reform would allow the majority to impose its will on the minority, something that the founders of the American Republic specifically wanted to avoid.
Ignatieff explains Fukuyama’s position:
The new element in his analysis, absent from the 1989 essay, is his damning portrait of the state of American democracy. A declining middle class, starkly increasing income inequality, overweening special interests, and partisan gridlock have resulted, he argues, in “a crisis of representation,” leaving millions of Americans convinced that their politicians no longer speak for them.
Of course, many millions of Americans are in despair because they believe that the government is the problem, not the solution.