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Francis Fukuyama’s Shrinking Idea

He famously hailed the triumph of liberal democracy. Now he struggles to see a future for it.

Illustration by Max Löffler

There’s an intriguing phenomenon in publishing you could call the One Great Idea book. Usually written by a leading senior scholar in an interdisciplinary field such as international relations, political philosophy, or comparative literature, the One Great Idea book displays a command of numerous languages and wide-ranging familiarity with classics in philosophy or religion. Its major aim is to reduce our understanding of complex realities by identifying one guiding thread that helps unravel the mystery with which it is concerned.

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 240 pp., $26.00

In the modern world, the best exemplar of the One Great Idea book is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Although it was published in two volumes, and contains insights on subjects as different from each other as federalism, the education of young women, and military discipline, Tocqueville’s masterpiece was dominated from start to finish by one and only one idea: that democracy had, mostly problematically, influenced every area of American life. Unlike the Enlightenment thinkers who preceded him (Voltaire, for example, wrote poetry, drama, history, philosophy, and even theology), Tocqueville made no effort to master all the available genres. His Recollections, unlike Rousseau’s Confessions, are not especially personal and are confined to a limited period in his life: the French Revolution of 1848. He, in contrast to Diderot, would edit no encyclopedia. And though his other books, especially The Old Regime and the Revolution, are still read and debated, it was Democracy in America that put forward a unifying theory.

We do not have many Tocquevilles among us in the contemporary world. The country of his birth, France, comes closest to keeping alive the tradition of what one French philosopher, André Glucksmann, called “the master thinkers.” (Glucksmann wrote to warn against them.) We can now trace the roots of many of these to one of the most captivating intellectuals of the twentieth century: the Russian-born French philosopher and civil servant Alexandre Kojève, whose seminars on Hegel in the 1930s shaped the way Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Lacan, Raymond Aron, Louis Althusser, and others too numerous to mention understood the world.

A Marxist, but of the most unorthodox variety, Kojève taught that there was direction and meaning in history and that the key to understanding both of these lay in an appreciation of Hegel, whose vision of the dialectic imagined a state of eventual universality, the highest form of human consciousness, in which individual finite selves would be tied together in a spiritual recognition of each other. Kojève’s command of languages and his range of interests were superhuman; he wrote about Buddhism, quantum physics, ancient philosophy, and the paintings of his uncle Wassily Kandinsky. A policymaker as well as a philosopher, Kojève was instrumental in creating the free trade policies of the West in the years after World War II. He also may have been (the charge is widely disputed) a Soviet spy during the 1940s. His life is the stuff of which movies—at least French movies—are made.

One of Kojève’s most important interlocutors was the German-born American political philosopher Leo Strauss; the two argued over many subjects, none more vigorously than Xenophon’s dialogue Hiero. Strauss did not keep Kojève to himself: One of his best-known students, Allan Bloom, studied with and wrote about Kojève, calling him “the most brilliant man I ever met.” In Ithaca, New York, the trail of influence continued unabated. In one of Bloom’s last classes at Cornell sat the future foreign policy specialist and political thinker Francis Fukuyama.

After Cornell, Fukuyama went on to Harvard to study with such distinguished political scientists as Harvey Mansfield and Samuel P. Huntington. He then took a job on the policy planning staff at the U.S. State Department, before moving on to a distinguished academic career. Bloom had done Fukuyama the greatest of favors by introducing him to Kojève’s thought: As it happened, the editor and publisher of The National Interest—Owen Harries and Irving Kristol, respectively—were looking to publish a One Great Idea journal article to help the fortunes of their magazine. Fukuyama had submitted something on “the end of history.” The piece amounted to an English-language summary of Kojève’s main writings, leading Fukuyama to the conclusion that Hegel’s universal synthesis would be realized in politics through the eventual triumph of liberal democracy across the world. Harries not only published the essay, but surrounded it with reactions from the crème de la crème of the American foreign policy establishment.

So began, or more properly sped up, the phenomenon of “endism”: bold declarations announcing that history will never again be the same. (Daniel Bell may have started the contemporary craze with The End of Ideology, published in 1960.) By the time Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man—a book expanding on his essay—in 1992, everyone that mattered wanted to debate the idea that history had reached its logical conclusion and in particular that democracy proved a more stable form of government than totalitarianism. At long last, Kojève had arrived in America.

The End of History was both bold and stimulating; I remember my deep absorption in all the complexities of his argument, so refreshing in comparison to the vapid hypothesis-testing of the political science profession. Whereas most One Great Idea books tend to present gloomy, Puritan-like sermons about how far we have fallen, this one shook up such pessimism. It forced a rethinking of the value of liberal democracy and the success of modernity. We had no need to accept the utterly bleak worldview adopted by the children of Nietzsche such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. The world, Fukuyama reminded us, was not going to hell in a handbasket.

The only flaw in the brilliance of The End of History was that its thesis turned out to be wrong, and wrong in a huge way. For one thing, China found a way to produce rapid economic growth while bypassing democracy. The Soviet Union did indeed collapse, but far from turning to liberal democracy, it gave us something more closely resembling fascism. And even the liberal democracies themselves have witnessed growing inequality and political instability. The theory’s particular failures also revealed a major problem with the One Great Idea book: If the one great idea turns out to be wrong, everything else in the book is likely to be ignored.

At a time of populist unrest, bitter political polarization, and rampantly spreading authoritarianism, Fukuyama’s book now appears to have been written for another planet. Far from avowing the triumph of liberal democracy, in 2019 many believe we will be lucky to hold on to the dwindling number of liberal democracies we have. And the force that may do us in appears to be the very opposite of Hegel’s universality: the obsessive particularism of ethnic identification.

Perhaps understanding the possibility of obsolescence, Fukuyama has worked hard to keep his idea alive. He published other books, none of them so intensely discussed, in which he adjusted his thesis to account for new events and in particular to place a greater emphasis on culture at the expense of economics. In the preface to his new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, he returns once again to the controversy he started and tries to defend himself against (unnamed) critics. Those critics, he maintains, simply misunderstood him; by “end” he meant a target or a destination, not a literal ending. Besides, he writes, the original article had a question mark at the end of its title (although the book, which attracted far more attention, did not). This is another problem with the One Great Idea book: The author has invested so much in what he has written that he has to perform exceedingly lame twists and turns later just to keep it on the playing field.

Perhaps the most significant concession that Fukuyama’s new book makes is its lack of world-defining ambition. Identity runs to scarcely half the length of The End of History. It does emphasize the importance of identity, but not to the exclusion of everything else. Its chapters are short and to the point. Older and wiser than when he wrote his most famous work, Fukuyama is less given to grand pronouncements. Identity is merely a book, not a blockbuster.

To be sure, Fukuyama’s new book does contain a thesis. As it happens, the new idea stands in the sharpest possible contrast to the older one. Liberal democracy, far from showing us a glimpse of a universalist future, now, we are told, faces a severe crisis. Rapid economic growth makes contemporary liberal democracies attractive destinations for people seeking a better life. But the resulting diversity, furthered by the new groups seeking recognition, is attacked by groups already in the home country as a lowering of their status. “The retreat on both sides into ever narrower identities threatens the possibility of deliberation and collective action by the society as a whole,” he writes. “Down this road lies, ultimately, state breakdown and failure.” With the rise of ethnic politics, there may soon be few if any liberal democracies left. The particular has completely subsumed the universal.

Fukuyama’s new pessimism is far deeper than his discarded optimism. The left-right dichotomy that formerly polarized liberal democracy dealt with the question of the proper size of government; compromise, at least in theory, was always possible. Today, he argues, we are dealing with problems of recognition and resentment, and they are more difficult to resolve. As Fukuyama pithily puts it: “either you recognize me, or you don’t.”

On this key point, I believe, Fukuyama is incorrect. Partial recognition is not only possible—it is common. Biracialism, religious syncretism, and the invention of traditions all allow for compromises over identity. In fact, what we witness in one country after another in today’s world is an astonishing blending of elements once considered fixed: the crumbling of racial and religious sameness on display at the latest wedding of an English prince; the popularity of new age religious rituals and rhetoric; the celebrated successes of the diverse French soccer team; the composition of any major symphony orchestra. Identity may be important, but identity is fungible. We make what we are.

This is not a position to which Fukuyama subscribes. Rather than treating collective identities as works in progress, he views efforts at recognition such as nationalism or religious fundamentalism as residing in, of all places, the human soul. To appreciate the power of such forces, he writes, we need to return to Socrates and the stress he placed on thymos, or the need to be treated as worthy by others. (Fukuyama included a discussion of thymos in The End of History.) Under modern conditions, moreover, people not only want recognition from their peers, they want a feeling of self-worth as well. If we are to understand why Syrians are being killed, why Croats and Serbs continue to distrust one another, why Ukrainians despise Russians, and even why Donald Trump was elected, thymos may provide the answer.

It is widely believed that another One Great Idea book, Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, which foresaw a new era of divisions and conflicts, was written in response to The End of History. In Identity, Fukuyama concedes the debate to his former teacher. Indeed, he goes beyond him. For Huntington the clash of civilizations was primarily cultural, a struggle between the competing traditions and worldviews of the West, the Islamic world, and China. For Fukuyama the clash over status, when it isn’t governed by thymos, “is rooted in human biology” and therefore unlikely ever to disappear. “Our present world is simultaneously moving toward the opposing dystopias of hypercentralization and endless fragmentation,” he concludes. It is difficult to be more pessimistic than that.

For all its failure to make accurate predictions, The End of History dealt at least with the future. Not many thinkers were discussing the end of history when Fukuyama began, and that fact contributed to the uniqueness of his book. Identity is not like that. Almost nothing in Fukuyama’s book is new: Charles Taylor (whom Fukuyama cites) has written about the politics of recognition, and a host of writers far too numerous to credit here have written about ethnicity, borders, globalization, strong religion, and every variety of nationalism. Identity summarizes arguments that already seem dated. It is, moreover, primarily concerned with the recent past, and when it ventures to make a prediction, it simply carries current trends into the future.

What, moreover, are we to do with the political conflicts raised by identity politics? Here too Fukuyama’s analysis is disappointing. He blames both the left and the anti-immigrant right for their unbending attachment to “understandings of identity based on fixed characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and religion.” But the left (and for all I know the right) is divided between essentialists who hold that race and gender are fixed and the social constructionists who believe the exact opposite. He even claims, against all evidence, that our present stalemate over immigration is caused by those who oppose any form of “amnesty” and those “opposed to stricter enforcement of existing rules,” when in fact it is on the right, and the right only, where intransigence and unyielding intolerance reigns. I agree with him that, in theory, it is easy to imagine trade-offs that can improve America’s dreadful policies toward immigrants. But to realize them, we need to explore the disproportionate influence of rural areas and the South in Congress, the failure of leadership in the Republican Party, the obdurate persistence of racism, and other messy realities that do not find much expression in this book.

The contrast between Fukuyama’s first book and this one raises a question of form as well as content. For writers of nonfiction, getting reality wrong would seem to be the biggest imaginable sin, a luxury allowed to fiction writers but not to us. Simply being wrong, however, is not Identity’s major problem. The End of History was wrong, but it was also stimulating, breathtakingly ambitious, a paean to the importance of ideas. Karl Marx got his One Great Idea—that the future belonged to communism—wrong, but he is not therefore, in the famous words of Paul Samuelson, a “minor post-Ricardian.” History befuddles all who write about it. Uncovering trends is valuable even if there is no guarantee that the trends will continue. You can be wrong and still change the world. Identity, by contrast, both begins and ends with a whimper. Nothing is startling and little is gained.

Give me The End of History over Identity any time. Rehashing is not Fukuyama’s strength, but that is what he does here. I am no better at predicting the future than anyone else, but I am willing to bet that in five years, Fukuyama’s Identity will be all but forgotten. That will be a shame. We lack great One Great Idea books. I hope there is out there someone in his or her thirties or forties willing to take a chance on something that will have us talking as long as The End of History did.