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Fukuyama’s Inner Civic Republicanism (Part 2)

Rethinking liberal triumphalism—and its limitations

Associated Press

“For virtually coeval with the enunciation of Lockean Liberalism,” Francis Fukuyama wrote in a passage in his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, “has been a persistent unease with the society thereby produced, and with the prototypic product of that society, the bourgeois. That unease is ultimately traceable to a single moral fact, that the bourgeois is primarily preoccupied with his own material well-being, and is neither public-spirited, nor virtuous, nor dedicated to the larger community around him or her. In short, the bourgeois is selfish.”

These were strange sentiments coming from the author of the controversial 1989 essay “The End of History?—a work best known for asserting that the impending collapse of the Soviet empire and its system of communism signified the final triumph of liberal democracy over all possible alternative systems of government. However, even in the original exposition of his thesis, there were clues that Fukuyama did not fully endorse the political and economic system he was claiming was the best human civilization would ever produce. In particular, he noted a “broad unhappiness with the impersonality and spiritual vacuity of liberal consumerist societies,” which intimated to him “the emptiness at the core of liberalism.”

Fukuyama also summarized Alexandre Kojève’s judgment of the postwar European countries as “precisely those flabby, prosperous, self-satisfied, inward-looking, weak-willed states whose grandest project was nothing more heroic than the creation of the Common Market.” Kojève was the actual originator of the End-of-History thesis Fukuyama propounded—or, rather, he was an idiosyncratic interpreter of G.W.F. Hegel who asserted that the philosopher had identified Napoleon’s defeat of the Prussian army at the battle of Jena in 1806 as the precise moment history ended. That moment, Kojève argued, marked the permanent triumph of the principles of the French Revolution over the reactionary forces of European royalty. However, as Shadia Drury has clarified, Kojève was interpreting Hegel’s complex philosophical ruminations through a distorting Nietzschean lens.

Hegel posited a Master-Slave relationship that emerged at the dawn of civilization, and identified the central dynamic of history as a mutual “quest for recognition” of their humanity arising from both parties to this relationship. The Slave did not receive the recognition he sought because of his inferior status; the Master did not garner the recognition he wanted because recognition from an inferior was meaningless; only when they acknowledged each other as equals could they attain the recognition they both craved. Transmogrifying this Hegelian motif, Kojève interpreted the French Revolution as the necessarily violent triumph of the slave class over its masters. Like Nietzsche, he also condemned the victory of the slave class as a reversion to the base animality of primitive society—a condition in which people attended only to their gross physical needs and not the higher ideals of an aristocratic order.

Fukuyama’s cynicism about the bourgeois order in The End of History and the Last Man manifestly had its origin in Nietzsche’s worldview; the addition to the title of the phrase “the Last Man,” Nietzsche’s term of derision for the bourgeoisie—“men without chests”—gave the game away. Yet much of the terminology Fukuyama deployed in the book—terms such as “public-spirited,” “virtuous,” and “larger community”—is unmistakably akin to the vocabulary of civic republicanism. In a subsequent book, The Origins of Political Order, however, he dismissed classical republicanism as a viable alternative, on the grounds that “it did not scale well.” As the ancient republics of Greece and Rome grew in size, he explained, “it became impossible to maintain the demanding communitarian values that bound them together.”

That judgment is sensible enough, but Fukuyama, in his latest book, Identity, finds value in the republican ethic as a means for fortifying liberalism against the onslaught it now faces from identity politics. Abroad, ethno-nationalism has already turned formerly democratic nations against liberal democracy entirely, and the overwhelmingly white American right-wing, crazed by America’s rapid evolution toward a multiethnic society, seems intent on accomplishing the same feat here at home. Meanwhile, the American Left, he surmises, believes that diversity, in and of itself, can pass for a national identity. But Fukuyama argues that America’s national identity must remain a credal one, founded on a strong belief in liberal and democratic political values. He also acknowledges that simply sharing a creed is insufficient to fully sustain a democratic order: Achieving that goal requires an active and involved citizenry, exactly as civic republicanism stipulates. To that end, he recommends a national service requirement for all of America’s youth, an idea that civic republicans throughout America heartily endorse.

“National service,” he writes, “would be a contemporary form of classical republicanism, a form of democracy that encouraged virtue and public-spiritedness rather than leaving citizens alone to pursue their private lives.” To meet the challenges posed by the end of history, in other words, we need to revivify the historic civic-republican creed.