Saturday, September 10, 2022

Making History End, Again

Andrew Koppelman

Liberalism – the idea that the purpose of government is to guarantee to individuals the freedom to shape their own lives – is, Francis Fukuyama observes, “under severe threat around the world today.”   Political rights and civil liberties became more widespread in the late twentieth centuries, but since then have been in retreat.  His new book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, is a shrewd and concise anatomy and critique of the new authoritarian alternatives.  

Some think  his most recent work retreats from the triumphalism of his bestselling 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man.  In fact, he hasn’t budged an inch. Nor should he.  There he argued that with the advent of liberal democracy, mankind “achieved a form of society that satisfied its deepest and most fundamental longings” as much as any political principle could.    Liberty and equality “are not accidents or the results of ethnocentric prejudice, but are in fact discoveries about the nature of man as man.”  His core claim in his new work is that, despite recent setbacks, he was right the first time: the rivals are variant forms of liberalism, and draw their rhetorical power from the attractions of a free society.  They are, however, defective mutations: the discontents with liberalism arise from “the way in which certain sound liberal ideas have been interpreted and pushed to extremes." 

The earlier book was commonly misunderstood as a prediction that liberalism was inevitably destined to prevail.  In fact, he explained in 2019, “The word ‘end’ was not meant in the sense of ‘termination’ but ‘target’ or ‘objective.”   History is contingent and unpredictable.  His claim was that history has a point, that the human race has a common purpose toward which it has moved and should strive.  Misfortunes can’t refute that purpose, any more than my claim that a student has enormous promise is refuted if she is then hit by a bus.

The deeper challenge to liberalism, the one that Fukuyama must answer, is loss of faith in its institutions.  The fall of the Soviet Union showed that a regime is vulnerable if its leaders no longer believe its guiding philosophy.  He wrote in The End of History: “The critical weakness that eventually toppled these strong states was in the last analysis a failure of legitimacy – that is, a crisis on the level of ideas.”   Is liberalism headed for a similar fate?

Liberalism and Its Discontents aims to show that purported alternatives to liberalism, on left and right, are phony remedies that will produce oppression and misery. 

I elaborate in a review of the book, newly published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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