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Has liberalism destroyed itself?

14 May 2022

9:00 AM

14 May 2022

9:00 AM

Liberalism and its Discontents Francis Fukuyama

Profile Books, pp.192, 16.99

According to Vladimir Putin, liberalism is an ‘obsolete’ doctrine, a worn-out political philosophy no longer fit for purpose. In this well-timed, rather urgent book, Francis Fukuyama attacks that view and puts a vigorous case for the defence. Despite its faults, liberalism is a force for good, he says, and it remains the only political philosophy capable of taking on the authoritarians of Moscow and Beijing. But the despots are not the central focus of his argument. The biggest threats to the liberal society, he writes, come from within.

In Fukuyama’s crisp retelling, the liberal ideal emerged in the aftermath of Europe’s wars of religion. The notion that people could only exist as part of a rigid group had led to division, antagonism and slaughter. The new liberal philosophy aimed to break with that instinctive tribalism by arguing that people had certain innate rights, which they held independently of any group identity. The job of government was to create institutions that were beyond political control and which protected these new liberated citizens by guaranteeing their rights.

Fukuyama is alive to the hypocrisy of liberalism. The Declaration of Independence may have contained the liberal credo ‘All men are created equal’, but at the time all men were certainly not equal, especially in the US where slavery was still practised. Women were also excluded from the liberal idyll.

Despite these injustices, Fukuyama argues, the achievements of the liberal society have been enormous. As he records: ‘Between 1800 and the present, output per person in the liberal world grew nearly 3,000 per cent.’ Free people create free markets and so long as the economic benefits of the liberal society are widely felt, the market economy will thrive.


The trouble comes when the acquisitive economic impulse gets out of control, at which point liberalism begins its slide towards what Fukuyama terms neoliberalism. The neoliberal economy, which was set in motion by the deregulation of the Reagan-Thatcher years, ‘was pushed to a counterproductive extreme’, he writes. It built to a crescendo during the 1980s and 1990s before crashing disastrously in 2008 and all because ‘a valid insight into the superior efficiency of markets evolved into something of a religion, in which state intervention was opposed as a matter of principle’.

The government bank bailouts, austerity and the increased social resentment that followed the 2008 crash formed a toxic mix that fuelled the rise of populism. In a terrible and ironic stroke of misfortune, the liberal idea of economic freedom had ended up undermining the stability of liberal society itself. Liberalism, pushed too far, had become illiberal.

Away from the trading desks of Wall Street and the City, other liberals had also become fixed on the notion of individual freedom – not in the economic sense, but in relation to personal autonomy. Their concern was not money, but the right to be respected as individuals with specific identities, needs and views. These new liberals aimed to define themselves using ever more precise and intricate forms of self-identification. To deny or challenge an individual’s identity was to threaten their personhood at the deepest level, in a manner so grievous it amounted to violence. This ‘violence’ could not be accepted. The only option was ‘to enlist social pressure and the power of the state to silence voices critical of their agenda’. This is the new identity politics, which has, like neoliberalism, ‘begun to undermine the premises of liberalism itself’.

Fukuyama’s examination of this strain of illiberalism goes back to Herbert Marcuse, whose One Dimensional Man, an enormously influential book written in 1964, has much to answer for. Marcuse’s argument, developed in the comfortable surroundings of Brandeis University, Massachusetts, was that western society was an illusion, designed to create a ‘consumer culture that lulled ordinary people into compliance with its rules’. The status quo was therefore to be overthrown. During that struggle, ‘the wrong kind of speech could not be tolerated when exercised by repressive forces defending the status quo’. That argument is the origin of modern-day cancel culture.

Fukuyama’s point is that these destructive illiberal tendencies originate from within the liberal society itself. And into the mix we must add social media, that great accelerant of illiberalism. In the torrent of competing online voices the most extreme get all the attention, and an atmosphere of rancour divides people into polarised groups, shut off from all counter-argument. A liberal society works when people with opposing political views can debate with one another. But when people live in opposing political realities, the possibility of debate vanishes and the slide towards illiberalism has begun.

‘To paraphrase Winston Churchill,’ writes Fukuyama, ‘liberalism is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’ We don’t have to kiss goodbye to liberalism, he argues, but reform it. Part of that is to realise that although ‘personal autonomy is the source of an individual’s fulfilment, that does not mean that unlimited freedom and the constant disruption of constraints will make a person more fulfilled’. On the face of it, that argument tilts towards precisely the illiberal instinct that Fukuyama so deplores. But his call for ‘a sense of moderation, both individual and communal’ is both attractive and hard to dismiss. That, he says, is the key to liberalism’s survival.

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In this weeks Book Club podcast Sam Leith talks to Francis Fukuyama about how Putin’s invasion has strengthened feelings of Ukrainian nationhood.

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