June 6, 2014,
I argued that History (in the grand philosophical sense) was turning out very differently from what thinkers on the left had imagined. The process of economic and political modernization was leading not to communism, as the Marxists had asserted and the Soviet Union had avowed, but to some form of liberal democracy and a market economy. History, I wrote, appeared to culminate in liberty: elected governments, individual rights, an economic system in which capital and labor circulated with relatively modest state oversight.
A boy touches the east side of the former Berlin Wall. Markus Schreiber/AP
Looking back at that essay from the present moment, let’s begin with an obvious point: The year 2014 feels very different from 1989. Russia is a menacing electoral authoritarian regime fueled by petrodollars, seeking to bully its neighbors and take back territories lost when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. China remains authoritarian but now has the second-largest economy in the world, as well as its own territorial ambitions in the South and East China Seas. As the foreign-policy analyst Walter Russell Mead recently wrote, old-fashioned geopolitics has returned big time, and global stability is being threatened at both ends of Eurasia.
The problem in today’s world isn’t just that authoritarian powers are on the move but that many existing democracies aren’t doing well either. Take Thailand, whose frayed political fabric gave way last month to a military coup, or Bangladesh, whose system remains in thrall to two corrupt political machines. Many countries that seemed to have made successful democratic transitions—Turkey, Sri Lanka, Nicaragua—have been backsliding into authoritarian practices. Others, including recent additions to the European Union like Romania and Bulgaria, are still plagued by corruption. And then there are the developed democracies. Both the U.S. and the European Union experienced severe financial crises in the past decade, which meant anemic growth and high unemployment, especially for young people. Though the U.S. economy has now started to expand again, the benefits haven’t been evenly shared, and the country’s polarized and partisan political system hardly seems a shining example for other democracies. So has my end-of-history hypothesis been proven wrong, or if not wrong, in need of serious revision? I believe that the underlying idea remains essentially correct, but I also now understand many things about the nature of political development that I saw less clearly during the heady days of 1989.
Tunisians rally against authoritarian rule, Jan. 27, 2011.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGE.
When observing broad historical trends, it is important not to get carried away by short-term developments. The hallmark of a durable political system is its long-term sustainability, not its performance in any given decade.
Let’s consider, to begin with, how dramatically economic and political systems have changed over the last two generations. On the economic front, the world economy saw a massive increase in output, roughly quadrupling between the early 1970s and the financial crisis of 2007-08. Though the crisis was a large setback, levels of prosperity throughout the world have increased massively and on all continents. This has come about because the world has been knit together in a liberal system of trade and investment. Even in communist countries such as China and Vietnam, market rules and competition dominate.
Huge changes have taken place in the political sphere as well. In 1974, according to the Stanford University democracy expert Larry Diamond, there were only about 35 electoral democracies, which represented something less than 30% of the world’s countries. By 2013, that number had expanded to about 120, or more than 60% of the total. The year 1989 marked only a sudden acceleration of a broader trend that the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington labeled the “third wave” of democratization, a wave that had begun with the transitions in southern Europe and Latin America some 15 years earlier and would later spread to sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
The emergence of a market-based global economic order and the spread of democracy are clearly linked. Democracy has always rested on a broad middle class, and the ranks of prosperous, property-holding citizens have ballooned everywhere in the past generation. Wealthier, better-educated populations are typically much more demanding of their governments—and because they pay taxes, they feel entitled to hold public officials accountable. Many of the world’s most stubborn bastions of authoritarianism are oil-rich states such as Russia, Venezuela or the regimes in the Persian Gulf, where the “resource curse,” as it has been called, gives the government enormous revenues from a source other than the people themselves.
Even granting the ability of oil-rich autocrats to resist change, we have since 2005 witnessed what Dr. Diamond calls a global “democratic recession.” According to Freedom House, which publishes widely used measures of political and civil liberties, there has been a decline in both the number and the quality of democracies (integrity of elections, freedom of the press, etc.) over the past eight consecutive years.
But let’s put this democratic recession in perspective: While we may worry about authoritarian trends in Russia, Thailand or Nicaragua, all of these countries were unambiguous dictatorships in the 1970s. Despite those thrilling revolutionary days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, the Arab Spring doesn’t look like it will yield a real democracy anywhere but the country where it started, Tunisia. Still, it is likely to mean more responsive Arab politics over the long haul. Expectations that this would happen quickly were extremely unrealistic. We forget that following the revolutions of 1848—Europe’s “Springtime of Peoples”—democracy took another 70 years to consolidate. In the realm of ideas, moreover, liberal democracy still doesn’t have any real competitors. Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the ayatollahs’ Iran pay homage to democratic ideals even as they trample them in practice. Why else bother to hold sham referendums on “self-determination” in eastern Ukraine? Some radicals in the Middle East may dream of restoring an Islamist caliphate, but this isn’t the choice of the vast majority of people living in Muslim countries. The only system out there that would appear to be at all competitive with liberal democracy is the so-called “China model,” which mixes authoritarian government with a partially market-based economy and a high level of technocratic and technological competence. Yet if asked to bet whether, 50 years from now, the U.S. and Europe would look more like China politically or vice versa, I would pick the latter without hesitation. There are many reasons to think that the China model isn’t sustainable. The system’s legitimacy and the party’s ongoing rule rest on continued high levels of growth, which simply won’t be forthcoming as China seeks to make the transition from a middle-income country to a high-income one. China has accumulated huge hidden liabilities by poisoning its soil and air, and while the government remains more responsive than most authoritarian systems, the country’s growing middle class likely won’t accept the current system of corrupt paternalism when times get tough. China no longer projects a universalistic ideal beyond its own borders, as it did in the revolutionary days of Mao. With its rising levels of inequality and the massive advantages enjoyed by the politically connected, the “Chinese dream” represents nothing more than a route for a relative few to get rich quickly. None of this means, however, that we can rest content with democracy’s performance over the past couple of decades. My end-of-history hypothesis was never intended to be deterministic or a simple prediction of liberal democracy’s inevitable triumph around the world. Democracies survive and succeed only because people are willing to fight for the rule of law, human rights and political accountability. Such societies depend on leadership, organizational ability and sheer good luck. The biggest single problem in societies aspiring to be democratic has been their failure to provide the substance of what people want from government: personal security, shared economic growth and the basic public services (especially education, health care and infrastructure) that are needed to achieve individual opportunity. Proponents of democracy focus, for understandable reasons, on limiting the powers of tyrannical or predatory states. But they don’t spend as much time thinking about how to govern effectively. They are, in Woodrow Wilson’s phrase, more interested in “controlling than in energizing government.” This was the failure of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which toppled Viktor Yanukovych for the first time. The leaders who came to power through those protests—Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko—wasted their energy on internal squabbling and shady deals. Had an effective democratic administration come to power, cleaning up corruption in Kiev and making the state’s institutions more trustworthy, the government might have established its legitimacy across Ukraine, including the Russian-speaking east, long before Mr. Putin was strong enough to interfere. Instead, the democratic forces discredited themselves and paved the way for Mr. Yanukovych’s return in 2010, thus setting the stage for the tense, bloody standoff of recent months. India has been held back by a similar gap in performance when compared with authoritarian China. It is very impressive that India has held together as a democracy since its founding in 1947. But Indian democracy, like sausage-making, doesn’t look very appealing on closer inspection. The system is rife with corruption and patronage; 34% of the winners of India’s recent elections have criminal indictments pending against them, according to India’s Association for Democratic Reforms, including serious charges like murder, kidnapping and sexual assault. The rule of law exists in India, but it is so slow and ineffective that many plaintiffs die before their cases come to trial. The Indian Supreme Court has a backlog of more than 60,000 cases, according to the Hindustan Times. Compared with autocratic China, the world’s largest democracy has been completely hamstrung in its ability to provide modern infrastructure or basic services such as clean water, electricity or basic education to its population. In some Indian states, 50% of schoolteachers fail to show up for work, according to the economist and activist Jean Drèze. Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist with a troubling past of tolerating anti-Muslim violence, has just been elected prime minister by an impressive majority in the hope that he will somehow cut through all the blather of routine Indian politics and actually get something done. Americans, more than other people, often fail to understand the need for effective government, focusing instead on the constraint of authority. In 2003, the George W. Bush administration seemed to believe that democratic government and a market-oriented economy would spontaneously emerge in Iraq once the U.S. had eliminated Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. It didn’t understand that these arise from the interaction of complex institutions—political parties, courts, property rights, shared national identity—that have evolved in developed democracies over many decades, even centuries. The inability to govern effectively extends, unfortunately, to the U.S. itself.Our Madisonian Constitution, deliberately designed to prevent tyranny by multiplying checks and balances at all levels of government, has become a vetocracy. In the polarized—indeed poisonous—political atmosphere of today’s Washington, the government has proved unable to move either forward or backward effectively. Contrary to the hysterics on either side, the U.S. faces a very serious long-term fiscal problem that is nonetheless solvable through sensible political compromises. But Congress hasn’t passed a budget, according to its own rules, in several years, and last fall, the GOP shut down the entire government because it couldn’t agree on paying for past debts. Though the U.S. economy remains a source of miraculous innovation, American government is hardly a source of inspiration around the world at the present moment. Twenty-five years later, the most serious threat to the end-of-history hypothesis isn’t that there is a higher, better model out there that will someday supersede liberal democracy; neither Islamist theocracy nor Chinese capitalism cuts it. Once societies get on the up escalator of industrialization, their social structure begins to change in ways that increase demands for political participation. If political elites accommodate these demands, we arrive at some version of democracy. The question is whether all countries will inevitably get on that escalator. The problem is the intertwining of politics and economics. Economic growth requires certain minimal institutions such as enforceable contracts and reliable public services before it will take off, but those basic institutions are hard to create in situations of extreme poverty and political division. Historically, societies broke out of this “trap” through accidents of history, in which bad things (like war) often created good things (like modern governments). It is not clear, however, that the stars will necessarily align for everyone. A second problem that I did not address 25 years ago is that of political decay, which constitutes a down escalator. All institutions can decay over the long run. They are often rigid and conservative; rules responding to the needs of one historical period aren’t necessarily the right ones when external conditions change. Moreover, modern institutions designed to be impersonal are often captured by powerful political actors over time. The natural human tendency to reward family and friends operates in all political systems, causing liberties to deteriorate into privileges. This is no less true in a democracy (look at the current U.S. tax code) than in an authoritarian system. In these circumstances, the rich tend to get richer not just because of higher returns to capital, as the French economist Thomas Piketty has argued, but because they have superior access to the political system and can use their connections to promote their interests. As for technological progress, it is fickle in distributing its benefits. Innovations such as information technology spread power because they make information cheap and accessible, but they also undermine low-skill jobs and threaten the existence of a broad middle class. No one living in an established democracy should be complacent about its survival. But despite the short-term ebb and flow of world politics, the power of the democratic ideal remains immense. We see it in the mass protests that continue to erupt unexpectedly from Tunis to Kiev to Istanbul, where ordinary people demand governments that recognize their equal dignity as human beings. We also see it in the millions of poor people desperate to move each year from places like Guatemala City or Karachi to Los Angeles or London.
Even as we raise questions about how soon everyone will get there, we should have no doubt as to what kind of society lies at the end of History.
Mr. Fukuyama is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the author of “Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy,” which will be published on Oct. 1 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
TIMOTHY STANLEY and ALEXANDER LEE
Sept 1, 2014,
Twenty-five years after Francis Fukuyama’s landmark essay, liberal democracy is increasingly beset. Its defenders need to go back to the basics.
A boy touches the east side of the former Berlin Wall. Markus Schreiber/AP
Most of us in the West are liberals, whether we admit it or not. We want equal rights for all, reject racial differences, cherish the freedom of worship while preserving the freedom to disagree, and seek an economic order that suits the ambitions of the individual. But there’s a growing sense that liberalism isn’t delivering at home and that it’s not as popular as we think it ought to be in the developing world. The problem is that hubris has blinded its defenders to the crisis consuming liberalism’s identity, leaving them unable or unwilling, to respond to pressing challenges around the world.Twenty-five years ago this summer, Francis Fukuyama announced the “end of history” and the inevitable triumph of liberal capitalist democracy. His argument was simple:Democracy would win out over all other forms of government because the natural desire for peace and well-being set nations on a path to progress from which it was impossible to divert. If a state—even a Communist state—wished to enjoy the greatest prosperity possible, it would have to embrace some measure of capitalism. Since wealth-creation depends on the protection of private property, the “capitalist creep” would invariably demand greater legal protection for individual rights.As many critics pointed out, Fukuyama’s logic was a bit too reminiscent of the pseudo-Hegelian historical determinism that Marxists and Fascists deployed to disastrous effect earlier in the 20th century, but when his article appeared in The National Interest, it was hard to disagree with him. The Berlin Wall was about to fall, the Soviet Union was collapsing, and the world was clamoring for the consumerist boom in an orgy of free-market excitement. Everything seemed to suggest that only liberal capitalist democracy allowed people to thrive in an increasingly globalized world, and that only the steady advance of laissez-faire economics would guarantee a future of free, democratic states, untroubled by want and oppression and living in peace and contentment.History isn’t over, and neither liberalism nor democracy is ascendant.Today, it’s hard to imagine Fukuyama being more wrong. History isn’t over and neither liberalism nor democracy is ascendant. The comfy Western consensus he inspired is under threat in ways he never predicted. A new Cold War has broken out. China’s “Marxist capitalism” suggests you can have wealth without freedom. And the advance of ISIS may herald a new, state-oriented Islamic fundamentalism.
But most disturbingly, the connection between capitalism, democracy, and liberalism upon which Fukuyama’s argument depended has itself been broken. In the wake of the credit crunch and the global economic downturn, it has become increasingly clear that prosperity is not, in fact, best served either by the pursuit of laissez-faire economics or by the inexorable extension of economic freedoms. Indeed, quite the opposite. As Thomas Piketty argues in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, free markets have not only enlarged the gap between rich and poor, but have also reduced average incomes across the developed and developing worlds. In the countries hardest hit by the recession—such as Greece and Hungary—voters have turned away from precisely that conception of liberalism that Fukuyama believed they would embrace with open arms. Across Europe, economic interventionism, nationalism, and even open racism have exerted a greater attraction for those casting their democratic votes than the causes of freedom, deregulation, and equality before the law. Liberal capitalist democracy hasn’t triumphed. Instead, the failures of capitalism have turned democracy against liberalism. In turn, liberalism’s intellectual self-identity has been left in tatters.Sensing that Fukuyama’s titanic argument has hit something of an iceberg, liberal theorists have desperately been trying to keep the ship afloat. A raft of books have hit the shelves trying to breathe new life into liberalism, amongst which Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual and Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea stand out. Both accept that Fukuyama’s hubris has been exposed by recent events, and are under no illusions about the challenges that liberalism faces. But instead of addressing those challenges head-on they have turned to the past for solace and validation. By labeling an arbitrary set of ideals “liberal” and trying to demonstrate how they have supposedly triumphed over all challengers down the centuries, they seek to craft a new historical narrative capable of “proving” the inherent righteousness of liberalism. Since “liberal” ideas have always triumphed, Siedentop and Fawcett argue, they are manifestly right, and while things might not be working out so well now, the logic of history shows that they will prevail in the end.Instead of addressing those challenges, liberal theorists have turned to the past for solace and validation. Leaders across the political spectrum have been quick to adopt this form of historical determinism. In Britain, David Cameron’s center-right government is proudly liberal, and has not been afraid to use history to mold the next generation of voters into an appropriately liberal form. Earlier this year, his former education minister, Michael Gove, tried to recast the First World War as an example of liberal values triumphing over Germany’s proto-fascism, and as “proof” of the undoubted righteousness of the sort of militant liberalism that neoconservatives adore. Closer to home, Hillary Clinton—now in the first stages of a barely denied run for the White House—has adapted a similar outlook in the realm of foreign policy. Looking back at the great ideal of America as established by the Founding Fathers through rose-tinted spectacles, she has subtly distanced herself from Barack Obama’s cautious realism abroad and instead used discrete references to the past to justify aggressively exporting liberal values across the globe as often as possible. Given that history has “proved” how great liberalism was in previous battles against tyranny, the argument goes, liberalism will inevitably win out if we pick enough fights and put enough muscle behind it.But while this new liberal historicism may have a certain rhetorical appeal, it fails to convince. Instead of recognizing the weakness of Fukuyama’s original approach, Siedentop, Fawcett, Cameron, and Clinton have simply dusted down the same old historical determinism, just without the economics. It isn’t any more convincing than when Fukuyama tried it.It was the great liberal philosopher Karl Popper who first exposed the weaknesses of historicism as a mode of political justification in his devastating critique of Marxist and fascist determinism. It is ironic that his arguments now apply to the liberalism he sought to defend. Following Popper’s argument, it’s easy to see at least two fundamental logical problems with the historicist approach to liberalism. First is the claim that anyone in the past who expressed any degree of egalitarianism or concern for individual conscience is a liberal. The idea that there is a straight line of human progress that leads from Saint Paul through Luther, the Philosophes, and Lloyd George to Jack Kennedy is patently absurd: They all had different definitions of freedom and what it ought to accomplish. Second, the idea that there is a “historical law” guiding the development of societies is fanciful. Even if there were some weird sort of pattern which suggested that “liberal” ideas did indeed “win out” in the past, it wouldn’t be anything more than a mere curiosity. It wouldn’t prove anything about liberalism in itself, nor would it say anything about the future. It would just tell us what happened before. To read meaning or predictive power into any pattern in the past is, in fact, about as intellectually respectable as reading tea leaves. As the weaknesses of the new liberal historicists’ arguments show, liberalism is struggling to recover from its post-Fukuyama malaise because its defenders are just being too lazy. Siedentop, Fawcett, Cameron, and Clinton seem to assume that everyone with an ounce of sanity must be a liberal, and that there is hence no need to defend liberalism against its shortcomings. But no amount of retrospective back-patting will convince those who simply don’t think the same way. It’s no wonder, given their intellectual arrogance, that so many liberals are surprised when large parts of the world rejects them—or that people spurn their wise counsel when markets collapse and life savings are threatened by the accidents of free-market capitalism. If liberalism is to survive and flourish, it has to be rescued from Fukuyama’s grasp and from the perils of historical determinism. It has to be defined and defended all over again. This of course raises the question of what liberalism actually is—and it’s notable that so many liberals skip this step in debate as though it was unimportant. In a recent issue of Foreign Policy dedicated exclusively to reevaluating Fukuyama’s legacy, the unresolved problem of “the liberal identity” was conspicuous by its absence. Article after article foundered in their attempts to defend liberal alternatives to populism or socialism precisely because they offered no satisfactory post-Fukuyama understanding of liberalism. But it is impossible to defend liberalism against its critics without making it clear precisely what it stands for. Skeptics can hardly be won over if liberals can’t tell them what they are being won over to or how it differs from the uninspiring mess created by Fukuyama and his continuators. Surrounded by the confused, jargon-ridden babble of political commentators today, it is perhaps easy to forget that liberalism is defined by a commitment to liberty. At root, liberty is a concept grounded in the individual. It is the freedom to be all that one is, to actualize the fullness of one’s potential as a human being endowed with the capacity for creativity and the ability to make autonomous value judgments for ourselves. But it is impossible to defend liberalism without making clear what it stands for. It is, of course, true that liberty can be read many ways. As Isaiah Berlin observed, there is positive liberty, the freedom to do something; and there is negative liberty, the freedom from something; and depending on circumstances, one or the other can appear to be of greater importance. But while this distinction has tended to dominate debates in political philosophy since the Second World War, it is perhaps more useful to think back to the writings of Voltaire and the earliest Encyclopédistes and to remind ourselves that liberty in its purest form—both positive and negative—can be thought of as the realization of man’s inherent dignity as a human being. This is more than just a matter of high-flown words. The concept of human dignity has two important implications, both of which were recognized by Cicero as far back as the first century B.C. but seem to have been forgotten today. The first is that we all share the same degree of dignity: No one has any less potential than any other, and no one’s humanity is any less pronounced than anyone else’s. The second is that our humanity imposes upon us the same basic needs. By virtue of our nature, we all require food, shelter, clothing, security, and a range of other basic goods necessary for sufficiency and survival. Though deceptively simple, these implications have profound meaning when we consider how individual liberty is to be translated into a social and political construct. If the liberty of each person is to be maintained and maximized, the principles of equity and the common good must be embedded in the structure of society. And since society is structured above all by law, the law must reflect these precepts. To have liberty is hence to live according to laws grounded on equity and the common good; and where law deviates to even the smallest degree from either, it necessarily becomes the instrument of private or factional interests, and liberty is lost. Such liberty is, however, dependent upon the morality of the citizenry, especially those in office. While law may structure society, it is only the will of governors and people that gives it its character and force. It is only if everyone recognizes the dignity of the human person that they will recognize the inherent value of equity and the common good, and strive to defend and preserve not only their own liberty, but also that of all others in their society using law. As soon as the commitment to human dignity breaks down, society becomes a jungle in which it is everyone for himself; self-interest dominates, law becomes partial, and tyranny supplants liberty. In short, a liberal politics must be a moral politics. Liberalism will not work if too much emphasis is placed on total human autonomy at the expense of all others, nor if it is obsessed with materialism and consumerism. In contrast to the Fukuyama model of yoking liberal values to economic self-interest—a combination that, when given free rein, has often damaged society at large in recent years—a model that emphasizes human dignity allows for a more positive, relevant kind of politics that constantly struggles to assert itself. Instead of encouraging us to rest easy in the assurance that liberalism will certainly triumph, a conception of liberty based on human dignity recognizes that there is nothing inevitable about its success. While each of us may wish to be free as an individual, it shows that individual freedom is dependent on us all being free; and that means that we all have to cling to our shared humanity, our shared dignity. If liberalism has a future, therefore, it lies not in Fukuyama’s shattered determinism or the more recent liberal historicism of Siedentop, Fawcett, and Clinton, but in each of us. It lies not in economics, or the tides of history. It lies in the recognition of the worthiness of humanity itself.