FRANCIS FUKUYAMA at deBalie in Amsterdam

Dignity versus Democracy in Fukuyama’s latest book, Identity.

Twenty-six years after publishing his seminal essay, The  End of History, Francis Fukuyama looks again at the state of liberal democracy in the world today. This time the forecast is less rosy. The eminent political thinker was asked if his crystal ball had perhaps become a little dusty. His most recent book, ‘Identity’, draws on the ancient Greeks, Hegel and others to provide an explanation, and some solutions, for the apparent implosion of democracy and liberalism and the resulting rise of populism. 

Identity argues, in a nutshell, that the rise of populism is linked to a crisis of identity rather than economics.  Indeed, Fukuyama admits that identity is the ‘master concept’ of his book. He explains, in deceptively simple manner, how the traditional polarity between right and left wing politics is being replaced by an axis based on identity. The rise of populism which may be seen across the world stage in the election of leaders like Orban in Hungary and Erdogan in Turkey,  even Trump in the US and Brexit in Britain, is linked to a rising need for recognition by many of those affected by globalization. Such explanations are not new. Yet  what Fukuyama argues in Identity is that globalization has resulted in an identity crisis for many of the previously working class, now middle class in Europe and America, rather than the a straightforward concern with material wealth.  

‘Democracy has to be constrained.’

As Fukuyama points out, many of the populist leaders today were voted into office, via generally democratic means, therefore one cannot really blame a faulty democratic process. Most of these men are strong, charismatic leaders who promise to give a voice to many of those who feel forgotten. Most of these leaders claim to represent the true interests of the people who elected them and as such, are less concerned with the institutions of democracy such as the rule of law and a free press. Thus we see what Fukuyama calls a turning of the democratic part of the liberal democratic order on the liberal part thereof. It is the liberal part specifically which this  political scientist believes is currently under threat. ‘Democracy has to be constrained, it is not just about winning elections’, he explains. ‘We should care more about structures that limit power than pure democracy’, he warns.

So why haven’t we seen a populist uprising from the political left? Good question, and one to which Fukuyama has not immediate answer, except to say that theoretically it is quite possible. In reality however, it is the political left that has undergone the most significant change in recent decades. The political economist argues that left wing parties in many Western countries have begun to represent minority groups rather than the traditional proletariat of the early twentieth century. He agrees that ‘the old white working class have  not been doing well’ and they feel an increasing sense of alienation and inferiority in the face of the rising global elite. ‘This group has seen genuine downward social mobility.’ As such, Fukuyama admits that these people have good reason to vote for populist parties and for many, populist leaders provide them with a sense of belonging. This is frequently linked to ethnicity and nationalism. Nationalism is a concept to which Fukuyama returns more than once. He views it as both an essential but potentially destructive force. The nation state provides a framework around which institutions of a liberal democracy can cohere and gain credibility. However, nationalism as a source of identity can cause problems. It is frequently linked to notions of ethnic and/or religious superiority and thus the assertion of one’s own status and dignity, above that of others.

‘Democracy is based on a recognition of basic human dignity’

Fukuyama draws on the notion of the Greek thymos, meaning pride or spiritedness, to explain man’s need for recognition and dignity.  He suggests that the first major thinker who argued along these lines was in fact Martin Luther (1483-1546) in his defence of the sanctity of the individual’s relationship with God, rather than the Catholic church. He goes on to argue that this privileging of the ‘inner believer’ was secularised by thinkers like Rousseau and Kant who further explored the tension between individual and society. As Fukuyama points out, this strand of individualism has run strongly through Western thought for over three hundred years. At its core is the notion that we are all moral beings and as such, are capable of making good or bad choices. Whatever choices we make, we are individual agents who have the right to make such choices about our own lives. It is our agency that provides us with dignity. For Fukuyama then, ‘democracy is based on a recognition of this basic human dignity.’

How does one protect/ ensure respect for this basic human dignity, this notion that all men are, in this regard at least, equal? Thus far, universal liberalism has proved the most successful. Fukuyama draws on Hegel here, who argued that universal recognition is the only rational form of recognition. Liberal institutions and ideas like the rule of law or freedom of the press are designed to help protect such universal forms of recognition from majorities, powerful leaders and even certain religious beliefs. The desire to be recognised is universal and yet, right now, Fukuyama argues that invisibility is pervasive in society. ‘The older white working class are feeling particularly invisible right now’, he claims. Yet ironically, in both capitalist and Marxist schools of thought, recognition is intimately connected to material wealth. As the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, himself said, ‘The rich man glories in his riches, and the poor man is invisible to his fellow human beings.’  

Fukuyama accuses both Marxists and contemporary free market economists of viewing the world in ‘the same narrow-minded, materialistic way – they ignore the power of ideas’ he says. What’s more, he argues that notions of identity should be centred on ideas rather than ethnicity, religion or material wealth. His book has more to say  about religion, psychology, even fundamentalism and has been criticised for not giving enough credit to the role of technology and social media in shaping notions about identity in the future. He is also dismissive of climate change as an issue around which liberal democracies can mobilise. Perhaps most pertinent are his views on the European Union. For surely it is a union of ideas/ideals more than anything else? As such it may well represent the beginnings of his own utopian vision for the end of history – an international community, regulated by global structures based on the rule of law? Yet he points to the fact that power continues to sit at the national level in the EU. As such, ‘European citizenship is only metaphoric’ he states. Yet metaphors are the stuff of which ideas are made.

‘How do you stop populism?’

So what solutions does he propose, one may well ask? Fukuyama admits that these are not easy to come by and are unlikely to be absolute but rather partial and temporary. He does however highlight the need to create broad, inclusive identities that bring people together around ideas/ideals. Such a process begins, he argues, with a willingness to listen to and accept opposing views rather than summarily dismiss them out of hand.  He suggests that metropolitan elites are just as guilty of this as their less educated counter-parts. But ultimately, if the aim is to protect liberal democracy and stop populism, then the only real solution is to win elections. ‘You have to slog it out in the trenches if you want to win elections ‘ as he puts it. You have to win back the trust of the voters, their support can not simply be assumed based on the moral superiority of liberalism. Indeed trust may well be the most important commodity of all in future societies. Food for thought indeed and Francis Fukuyama has never struggled to provide his readers with such victuals.    Souwie Buis   10th March 2019

This programme was produced in cooperation with Atlas Contact and John Adams Institute.