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Francis Fukuyama is right: Socialism is the only alternative to liberalism

In Liberalism and Its Discontents, Francis Fukuyama diagnoses the political and psychological malaise caused by capitalism. His analysis makes one thing clear: liberalism is incapable of addressing the social, economic, and ecological crises it faces.
by Samuel McIlhagga 

Part 5 - But What Is Classical Liberalism?
Fukuyama admits that what he calls classical liberalism has historically specific connotations, yet still decides to use it to attempt to describe an ideal liberalism untainted by recent transformations. This is an odd position for a Hegelian to take. The German philosopher famously insisted that the specific form that society took should not be understood as an aberration or deviation from an ideal; ideals that could not be actualized were instead untimely. As Hegel states in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820), “What is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational.

Absent in the theories of contemporary defenders of liberalism is Hegel’s cold but clear-eyed realism. Defenders of classical liberalism often attempt to anachronistically draw a lineage between their ideas and the supposedly timeless views of a handful of European thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These theorists did not understand themselves as liberals, being far more concerned with classical political forms and the constitutional squabbles of their day. When we refer to classical liberalism in the present day, we rarely actually mention those who would have recognized the term — mostly individuals who offered a specific set of short-lived free-trade policies connected to a critique of aristocratic landed interests and mercantilism in early nineteenth-century Europe.

Throughout much of the book, Fukuyama jumps between two notions, liberal democracy and liberalism. The former denotes a specific configuration that took shape across much of the Western world after the end of World War II and the latter describes a transhistorical ideal stretching back to the English Civil War and the American Revolution. These two concepts serve to paper over each other’s limitations. Liberalism as an ideal can be marshaled as a critique of the deficits of actually existing liberalism, and actually existing liberalism can be drawn on to reject socialism and other political projects that have not succeeded in becoming hegemonic.

In reality, liberalism, much like conservatism, is simply a set of political moves and cultural associations determined by historical, sociological, and political positioning among factions in particular systems. Witness the relativity generated by comparing the huge differences between Australian, European, and Japanese liberals and their American counterparts. Fukuyama could have headed these criticisms off by clearly defining a narrow set of values for his definition of classical liberalism. Alternatively, he might have coined a new term to describe the actual and more capacious set of values he cares about. What Fukuyama advocates instead is not classical liberalism but a form of humanistic social democracy.

Indeed, what is odd about Liberalism and Its Discontents is that, when Fukuyama sets out to describe the values he cares about without using the term classical liberalism, he often sounds like a socialist or Marxist of the secular, humanist, universalistic, and democratic mold.

In a recent interview with Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani, Fukuyama surprisingly agreed with a large amount of the current populist social democratic program recently proposed by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. For instance, in Liberalism and Its Discontents, he argues that economic class, rather than social identities, should be the basis for the subjectivity of political actors: “Social policies should seek to equalize outcomes across the whole society, but they should be directed at fluid categories like class rather than fixed ones like race or ethnicity.

He goes on to argue that collective conceptions of the common good have been replaced by an overemphasis on personal autonomy, self-actualization, and choice: “Over time in liberal societies, there has been a growing reluctance to posit substantive human ends that have priority over other ends; rather, it is the act of choice itself that has the highest priority.

Ironically, the “liberal” values Fukuyama cares most about — freedom of speech, institutions of accountability, human rights, mechanisms of personal autonomy, and a conception of the common good beyond identity politics — are eroded by the capitalist dynamics built into the liberal framework. Within a democratic system, liberal freedoms actually exist in spite of capitalism, not because of it. Outside of America, which has a historically underdeveloped left, liberal traditions were won by social democrats and socialists, for whom rights to organize and speak were essential.

Indeed, the dividing lines between Fukuyama’s “populism” and “progressivism” do not map consistently onto other political systems. The discontents generated by liberal democracy have varied from nation to nation. For instance, a particular republican left liberalism in France has rejected what they have understood as American notions about personal autonomy with regard to lifestyle choices and values, and instead insists on a common-good civic nationalism emphasizing universal French values such as strict laïcité, which has, in practice, served to marginalize Muslims and other minorities.

In Peru, the socialist Pedro Castillo, influenced by Catholic liberation theology, won his election by attacking both economic inequality, neoliberalism, and, to an extent, social liberalism. Consequently, the dynamic map of discontent Fukuyama proposes is specifically an American one — the constellation of attitudes and policy positions that make up American populism and progressivism are not universally fungible.

Fukuyama’s admirable desire for universalistic and humanistic politics frustratingly leads him back to an exhausted nineteenth-century ideology. Instead, we should look at the actual state of modernity in its specificity. China has demonstrated that capitalism can succeed without an accompanying democratic appendage. Its mirror image, an effectively democratic noncapitalist state, has yet to explicitly emerge. In a world defined by political crises and climate breakdown, perhaps the best way to defend the values Fukuyama cares about would be through an imaginative political order. This political order would recognize how capitalism causes destabilizing social consequences such as inequality, and drives the economic causes of nationalism and war — all of which are bad for democracy.

The aim of this political project would be to replace the unconstrained authority of the market with democratic accountability, held together by the lynchpin of organized labor. This has always been the project of myriad socialist traditions — and especially the democratic one. Their institutions were wounded at the end of the last century. This defeat was, however, not total. In almost every country across the developed world, there exist left-wing and socialist forces, some of which have grown their bases. They can fulfil the liberal democratic promise that capitalism is incapable of realizing, but they can only do this if they replace democratic capitalism with democratic socialism. What Fukuyama has made blindingly clear is that, left to its own devices, liberalism will do nothing to alleviate the crises it has caused.



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