Sunday, November 13, 2011

John Gray Takes Down Francis Fukuyama

Every once in a while a seemingly innocent book review speaks so clearly and cogently that it commands assent. Such was the case when Martha Nussbaum took out after Judith Butler. Such is the case today with Prof. JohnGray’s takedown of Francis Fukuyama.

A decade or so ago a liberal feminist, Professor Martha Nussbaum took out after a radical feminist, Professor Judith Butler. The takedown was so beautifully crafted that you wonder how Butler, a darling of the politically correct,  continues to show her face at academic conferences.

Nussbaum revealed the simple fact that a woman who has become something of an intellectual icon, who has enjoyed a sterling academic career, cannot think straight. By showing that Butler’s writings contain nothing more than vacuous nonsense, Nussbaum showed, better than most, that in the American university system, success has nothing whatever to do with merit.

Thankfully, Francis Fukuyama is no Judith Butler. He is a serious thinker, a distinguished academic, who writes well and cogently. He became an academic star when he declared that liberal democracy and Western idealism would inevitably triumph around the world. 

Fukuyama was offering a strictly Hegalian idea, as seen through the modernized version offered by philosopher Alexandre Kojeve. He suggested that human history was a grand argument among great philosophers over the question of what was the best form of governance. Now, he asserted, the argument is over and, thus, history has ended.

Since Hegel has said that the great Idea always would out, Fukuyama wrote that liberal democracy would inevitably win the debate.

Fukuyama suggested that world history will inevitably make progress and that this could only happen through industrialization and free enterprise. These, he said, could only grow in the fertile soil of political liberty.

Writing brilliantly on the topic in The New Republic Prof. John Gray, from the London School of Economics, begs to disagree.

Pointing out that Japan industrialized during the Meiji Restoration  without the benefit of liberal democracy, Gray explains: “Fukuyama ignores the Japanese example because it does not support his belief that China, India, and other fast-emerging countries can modernize only by adopting our models. The possibility that these countries might be able to devise humanly successful forms of modernization of their own is not seriously considered, when in fact it is the great experiment of our time.”

Gray is reviewing the first volume in what appears to be Fukuyama’s two volume magnum opus: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. It feels like Fukuyama is trying to cover a lot of ground in less than 600 pages. I have not read the book, and I do not have a copy on my nightstand.

I like great ideas as much as the next man (or woman), but I have long since left the camp of those who think that Ideas rule the world. I have often asserted, in this blog, that those who look at the world through the lens of the great ideas fail to understand that, whatever is happening in North Africa and the Middle East today, we are not seeing the a triumph of liberal democracy.

People who fall in love with great ideas see them embodied in great myths. Hegel was nothing if not a mythmaker. Yet, when you use a great Idea as an analytic skeleton key, you will miss the salient points.

People who believe in the triumph of liberal democracy see it emerging from the Arab Spring. If you point out the undemocratic trends in North Africa or tell them that democratic elections in Egypt are likely to follow the path laid down by elections in Gaza and empower the Muslim Brotherhood, they will dismiss it as labor pains on the road to a splendid rebirth.

Their ideas are impervious to reality. They do not respond to arguments. They take it all on faith.

So explains Gray. He sees Fukuyama’s teleological vision as nothing more than a profession of faith.

It may look and feel like an affirmation of the truth of Western values, but in fact, Gray points out: “However it is glossed, the end of history can only be understood as a version of Christian apocalyptic myth.”

He continues: “Fukuyama is like many other secular thinkers in deploying a conceptual framework that makes sense only in a religious context. Only someone reared in the culture of Western monotheism could take it for granted that history has any kind of end point. The classical historians of Greece and Rome made no such assumption, and neither did the philosopher and historian David Hume, who forsook the intellectual inheritance of theism in order to adopt something more like the worldview of pre-Christian Europe.”

Unfortunately, theories of historical inevitability can easily lead to do-nothingism. Fukuyama is so convinced of historical inevitability that he disdains active interventions.

Gray explains that Fukuyama did not oppose the Iraq War because he questioned whether it was possible to make the world look like America. He rejected neocon policies because he thought that Iraq would naturally evolve toward liberal democracy without our having to do anything.

Gray summarizes Fukuyama’s argument: “It was that the policies of regime change were unnecessary, since in a slow, faltering, but ineluctable process, the world was already making itself over in America’s image. The present volume is a vehicle for the same soothing message. But in a time when the world is so full of surprise and danger, an intellectual sedative is not what is needed.”

Obviously enough, John Gray is a British philosopher. He evokes British political thinkers and opposes to Franco-German Idealism.

The intellectual war between Britain and the European continent goes back centuries. Those who are not very familiar with it will learn a great deal from Gray’s analysis.

Gray explains his disagreement with Idealism here:  “Like earlier theories, Fukuyama’s proposes an end point of political evolution that accords with prevailing notions of progress. Comte, Marx, Spencer, the Webbs, and Hayek each claimed to have identified laws of social development that (without being entirely deterministic) impelled humanity in a specific direction. In every case, the direction was the one that the author of the theory viewed as the most desirable for the species. Perhaps it is not surprising that there should be such an unfailing coincidence of putative laws of social development with progressive political hopes. Thinkers who produce grand theories of history are no less provincial in their outlook than any other section of humanity, and it is only to be expected that they would imagine that their values should be those of the species at large—if not at present, then in the future that is unfolding. What is harder to explain is how these theorists could believe—as they all did—that science underwrites their faith that their values will prevail.”

He continues: “But if there are discoverable laws of social development—a large and problematic assumption—why should they conform to our changing conceptions of progress? If, like the laws that natural science aims to discover, these laws of development reflect objective features of the world, why should they be impelling humanity toward a better life? Few modern thinkers have entertained the possibility that social evolution might be moving in a direction that is thoroughly undesirable.”

Gray also casts a skeptical eye on the modern progressive faith in the idea of progress.

In his words: “Some human values are universal and enduring, but ideas of progress come and go like fashions in hats. Theories of convergence reflect disparate and incompatible ideals of human betterment. What all such theories have in common is that they have come to nothing. None of the regimes that was believed to be the near-inevitable end point of modern development has emerged anywhere in the world.”

If the great Idea has not descended on the world like the New Jerusalem, then how should we understand the movement of world history?

Gray responds to Fukuyama’s assertion that the end of the Cold War was the end of history: “To any detached observer at the time, it was perfectly clear that history had not stopped but resumed: like the past, the future would be shaped by ethnic and religious conflicts and resource wars, while more complex types of ideological conflict would replace the cold war stand-off.”

As for the triumph of liberal democracy, Gray offers a sobering reflections: “Nor does Fukuyama explore the possibility that the system he regards as the only sustainable model of modernization may be in decline. For Fukuyama, decline is a concept that only ever applies to other people. While other regimes rise and fall, democratic capitalism faces challenges that can always, in principle, be overcome. We will have to await the projected second volume for Fukuyama’s account of the recent financial crisis, which has left the gridlocked American political system, together with the paralyzed institutions of the European Union-supposedly universal models for political development—looking rather like dead ends.”


n.n said...

There is so much that can be said on the topic of human affairs, but I will start with the principle which defines them: individual dignity.

There is one objective truth: the natural order (e.g., procreation, limited resources). There is one ideal truth (which is axiomatic or an article of faith): individual dignity. The rest, including government, is a derivative and incidental truth as we seek an optimal comprise of individual dignity.

Our task is complicated since all people are vulnerable to corruptive forces (e.g. physical, fiscal instant gratification). There are individuals who suffer from delusions of grandeur, and there is no greater achievement for them than to control other sentient beings, especially humans. There are also individuals who choose to fail. Then there are the individuals who fear death, fear life, and choose to run amuck.

With the above in mind, there will never be a universally accepted compromise, and, in following, there will never be a perfectly acceptable, and therefore stable, system to direct human affairs.

The democratic process is predisposed to producing a tyranny of the majority (progressive involuntary exploitation and restrictive liberty). It is no more desirable than an authoritarian system which is predisposed to producing a tyranny of the minority. The best and most sustainable compromise arises from competing interests who are capable of keeping each other's ambitions in check. This is why authoritarian ideologies and the regimes which sprout from them are so defective. They, by design, marginalize and even eviscerate competing interests; and, with that, when a tyranny or conflict in interests does arise, nothing short of a revolution will suitably resolve the differences.

The optimal system is dynamical stable by design. It is based on individuals who accept moral knowledge, and are capable of self-moderating their behaviors. The introduction of totalitarian policies should be reserved for holding individuals accountable when they fail to respect other people's dignity. This system precludes the occurrence of class wars, whether it is defined by its material holdings, gender, incidental features, etc, because individual dignity is respected. Each class also knows its place and responsibilities in society and individuals voluntarily comply. For example, those with excess capital will invest in society's economic development, and if their judgment is sound, they will also receive a return on their investment (e.g. a beachfront property in Hawaii). Fortunately, this is not a permanent caste system, but the classes are malleable and transitions occur as merit provides.

We should be striving to determine the best compromise between the natural and enlightened orders. As we do, there should also be recognition of the intrinsic limitations imposed by each. There is no ideal compromise (i.e. perturbations whether natural or artificial in origin are inevitable) and therefore there is no end of history.

Anyway, that's the conclusion I have drawn from personal and historical observation.

Malcolm said...

OT: I thought you may like this article by Shelby Steele

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, n.n. for a beautifully cogent analysis.

And thanks to Malcolm for the link to Shelby Steele... an exceptionally brilliant analysis.

Karl Karnadi said...

I think you should read the book, "the origins of political order". The book is different compared the Fukuyama's previous books. There is no big claims, big ideas, there's no declaration that liberal democracy is the ultimate destination. The book provides unbiased analysis on the history political development, how the rule of law appears, accountability, etc.

So I don't think it is fair nor it is helpful for Gray to review the book based on Fukuyama's previous books or ideological beliefs..

Howard Cock said...

Im not sure that Mr Grays point is exact as to what Mr Fukuyama was saying, his view is that there are no political models different from some version of liberal democracy which can claim the spontaneous favour that it has in most of the world from a universal theoretical perspective , not that its practice would necessarily and automatically prevail in the whole of the modern world ......, the chinese model doesnt pretend to sell itself as the model society for the whole of the world , only for the chinese , the islamic fundamentalist model cannot pretend to prevail in non islamic countries ......communism is a wash out as we all know........ Mr Fukuyama indeed warned of the dangers of Megalothymia , of the tendency of many people given the right circumstances to seek to go beyond the assertion of their own dignity as the equals of others into the assertion of their superiority over rise to movements like what now we now know as populism ...... or authoritarian forms of democracy !!