Politics / 25 years after "The End of History" by Francis Fukuyama

How to preserve liberal values when institutions undermine them

John Gray in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski and Adam Puchejda · 13 June 2017

Adam Puchejda: For more than 30 years, you have been saying that liberalism is in decline and that liberal institutions are not necessarily serving to advance the ideals of justice and freedom. But when we look at the post-war histories of Germany, Japan, Denmark and many other countries, can’t we conclude that constitutional democracy, rule of law and protection of individual rights form a core of the best possible political system we have experienced in history? Which is what Fukuyama tries to argue in his books.

John Gray: And you continue to claim that in the light of Donald Trump’s election? That’s an important point, because the core of Fukuyama’s original analysis on the end of History was the claim that the entire world, or most of it at least, was moving towards a new era in which idealized versions of American political institutions would be replicated everywhere. That’s clear both in his original article The End of History? and the book which came out later. To underline how sure he was about this claim he even dropped the question mark into the title of the book.

Fukuyama often attempted to say that his theory is misunderstood, vulgarized, etc. It’s not. It has a falsifiable element to it, which says that after the end of the Cold War there will only be one type of government in the world – that was the core of his argument and it proved to be wrong. For instance, in today’s Russia we have a form of neo-bolshevism resting on a crony capitalism, Russian orthodoxy and rule by fear, which – liberals will never understand that! – is truly popular among Russians. Even when Putin finally leaves office, we should not expect Russia to become a liberal democracy. But we also have China, a much more successful country and much more stable. These are two great world powers where the legitimacy of Western liberal democracy is not accepted and will not be accepted.

AP: But is liberal democracy still not the best system for solving the problems of modern societies, and one that will eventually be implemented in most countries around the world?

That’s just faith – a secular version of eschatology. The term “end of History” was originally invented by a Russian thinker, Vladimir Solovyov, and it comes from religion. I’m not a critic of religion, but I don’t think that religious categories should be simply transferred to politics. The core of Fukuyama’s theory – although now he denies it – was a prediction. Not that there’ll be no conflicts between states, that does not falsify his thesis. What falsifies it is the emergence of stable, highly durable, anti-liberal regimes and political forces which can be around for a very long time, if not forever. And to say this does not falsify Fukuyama’s claim, because to say that in the future these regimes might change is nonsense, just blind faith. And faith might be a good thing when we find ourselves in desperate situations – it’s usually when people go to church and pray. But in politics it is a very bad guide.

AP: Even so, hope is part of liberalism, isn’t it? The belief that people and institutions can gradually improve, especially in the long run.

Liberals believe that when they are threatened, as you are now in Poland. Then liberalism becomes a desperate hope and liberals say, like Fukuyama, that there’s some sort of a long-term process at work in history. I assert that there is none. History is entirely contingent and there’s no process leading to liberal democracies. Even if you claim the process is not linear, that you can take three steps forward, two steps backward, or that it can be stopped altogether for a while. History did not end with the Cold War. Europe returned to its normal condition of conflicts and chaos masked by the idea of a “European project”. Fukuyama exaggerated a local victory into a universal one

I was in Washington at that time and must say that his claim had an extremely pernicious effect. I talked to people at think-tanks who were strong anti-communists for a very long time and who said at that time “Well, now we don’t need much defense any more, do we? We can reduce our spending on defense”. That belief lingered on for a few years. For me it was a complete delusion and a dangerous fantasy. I believed that with the USSR gone, all the conflicts which for years were repressed would reappear. I shared the view of George Bush Snr. who welcomed the end of the Cold War, but knew it was going to be an extremely difficult time. Still, Western policy for a few years rested on that complete fantasy of the end of history.

Łukasz Pawłowski: Are you saying that we cannot talk about progress when discussing the organizational features of our past and present political systems? That we can’t say some systems are better than others?

We can say that some political systems are better than others, obviously, and that some are extremely bad. Nazism is extremely bad, Stalinism as well. The Chinese form of government has been extremely bad and tyrannical. Sometimes you get a better one for a while. But the key point I’m making is too simple and too obvious to penetrate the liberal mind. In my view, what is gained in improvements in government is eventually always lost. Progress happens – if by progress you mean improvement – and then is swept away. In the 20th century, Nazism was not even a “step back” in history. It advanced forms of barbarism which have not existed before. It was a new type of extreme barbarism.

I’m old enough to remember the 1970s and although there were many flaws in that period, there was much more freedom of expression than there is now. Gains in political freedoms are real, but then they are usually lost. Liberals, however, believe that any loss will be just a blip, a step back, and then the process, imagined, delusional process of gradual, cumulative progress will carry on.

History does not look like that. It was already explained by ancient Greek and Roman writers, by Machiavelli, by Edward Gibbon, even by David Hume. But it is not understood today, because it’s too simple, too obviously true and too threatening to liberal ideas of progress. Liberals believe that progress in ethics and politics, let’s say in civilization, can advance despite many setbacks, just like knowledge can advance. It can’t because of human irrationality, passions and complications of human societies.

ŁP: Fukuyama, however, seems to claim that even if we slide back to another political system in the end we will return to liberal democracy. Not because Fukuyama so much wants it, but because it is a flexible political regime, best adapted to assuage tensions and contradictions which exist in every society.

I disagree. History does not have an end, it goes on. In 1989, history just returned to a more normal pattern that was for some time disguised by ideological disputes of the Cold War.

ŁP: What is this pattern?

A long pattern of ethnic, religious and national conflict, wars for resources, clashes between states. That is what I said back in 1989 would happen and that is exactly what has happened. Samuel Becket, a writer I like very much, says in one of his books: “The end? Again?”. There’s no end, there’s no beginning either.

I’m not a disciple of Karl Popper, I don’t think his philosophy of science really works, but I do think his idea of falsification is useful in political discussions. What would Fukuyama and his supporters say if over a long period of time China was more prosperous and fertile in invention, if its technologies and wealth grew faster than in western liberal democracies?

ŁP: He would say that at some point the growing Chinese middle class will exert enough pressure on the government to increase political participation, thus effectively turning the country into a liberal democracy.

That’s just a Marxist fantasy. It’s essentially Marxism turned into a form of liberalism. If you look at actual history, you see that middle class turns to illiberal doctrines like fascism or Nazism whenever they get scared. This belief in the middle class is a vast generalization and a false one. Look what’s happening now. Are there any mass middle class movements challenging the restrictions of freedom in Hungary or other countries? Of course not. It’s just a Marxist paradigm that has been taken over by liberals. The middle class is at least as likely as the rest of society to back authoritarian regimes.

Have people forgotten how Europe looked back in 1930s when tyrannies, including Nazism, were immensely popular with middle classes? In Nazi Germany, most of the lawyers, medical professionals, teachers actively supported Hitler or were at least complacent about him. Where did the resistance come from? It came from a few Catholics, some Jewish groups, some Communist and military officers. It did not come from the bourgeoisie. Historically speaking, there’s no reason to say that the middle class is more fond of democracy than other classes, but liberals came to believe in that. No hard facts show that there’s any middle-class movement against Putin in Russia.

AP: But why is liberal democracy so weak and prone to attacks? Are liberal values so fragile, or is it the institutions of liberal democracy which are so ineffective?

To answer this question, I think that liberals should first ask themselves: is liberalism a theory or a philosophy of history, and under what circumstances and against what empirical and historical evidence would they abandon the theory? I know from countless conversations with liberals that there is no such evidence and no such circumstances, because it is a kind of religious commitment for them. And that’s a weakness and a danger that blinds them to the strength and enduring power of anti-liberal forces which re-emerge on a regular basis.

But liberal values are different from the institutions of liberal democracy. The sources of liberal values are in Jewish and Christian religion, though religion has of course produced illiberal values as well. Tolerance and other liberal values emerged as a sort of solution to European wars of religion. They are still important and deserve to be renewed, but they are not identical to any particular pattern of institutions, not even identical to liberal democracy. Those values existed in times when there were liberal regimes which were not democratic and democracies – as I have mentioned – quite often turned into illiberal regimes in parts of Europe and in America. Liberals, however, tend to concentrate too much on a particular set of institutions.

AP: Do you believe that liberal values could be renewed in a different institutional setting?

In principle they could. It depends on circumstances. It has nothing to do with human spirit, or hope, or any of these evangelical notions. What is possible in one time is simply not possible in another. For example, in the case of Europe, if European institutions reacted differently to the Greek crisis, if they’d said “Let’s give Greece five years of holiday from euro, so they can solve various problems”, that would be a truly liberal solution. But they didn’t do that. They preserved the institutions, the banks, the currency as their chief priority at the expense of abject poverty and the destitution of the Greek people, and 50% youth unemployment! Are they going to become liberals, that 50% of unemployed young people, many of whom have been unemployed for 10 years now? I doubt that.

ŁP: If history did not end, where do we go from here?

In my view, the real challenge we are facing today is how to preserve major liberal values – freedom and tolerance – while recognizing that institutions and policies have so far actually undermined those values. That seems to me to be the core thing.