The book has been written in extremely lucid and simple language with as little use of topic-specific jargon as possible, making it well suited to the needs of a general reader. If Mill was “a prophet of empty freedom”, Fukuyama is a “prophet of the modern liberal label”.
Book: Liberalism and its discontents
Author: Francois Fukuyama
Year of publication: 2022
Editor: Profile Books Limited
Growing income inequality, growing threats of terrorism, cultural discouragement, religious fundamentalism, immigration issues, etc. are some of the trends that have seriously affected the idea of liberal states around the world. Liberalism, despite its inherent resilience, has been marked by certain inconsistencies in recent times, which have given rise to an illiberal political culture in some parts of the world and diminished the liberal quotient of these societies. The recent Russian-Ukrainian conflict has given new impetus to this sharp dichotomy and deepened the chasm between an open liberal world order and an overbearing authoritarian world order, not to mention their otherwise enduring hot and cold relationship in the past century.
Since his seminal work, The End of History and the Last Man, where he argued that liberal democracy was essentially “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution”, the author has come a long way in defense of the current liberal order which inevitably marks our reality. He attempted to “present the theoretical underpinnings of classical liberalism and some of the reasons why it generated discontent and opposition”. At the very beginning, the author lucidly explained the nuance of classical liberalism – a moot point throughout the book, “like the peaceful management of diversity in pluralistic societies”.
According to him, the idea of tolerance and respect for human autonomy (borrowed from the philosophical traditions of Kant) – individual action and its choice for self-realization within a moral framework, and its relation to liberal thought, is a touchstone for evaluating the effectiveness of these values. Another important facet of his argument is the clear distinction he made between democracy and liberalism. Like Fareed Zakaria, he too addressed the fact of the rise of illiberal democracies.
The author says that “there are many legitimate criticisms to be made of liberal societies”. It seems that he tried to scorch the liberal perspective as well, for his sphere, when it widened, on both sides of the ideological spectrum, engendered aberrations within the larger framework of his own order, thus leading to the phenomenon of identity politics in the extreme. left and complete withdrawal of the state in the form of the removal of government protections and regulations – neoliberal order, right. By focusing on certain “historically contingent phenomena”, he recognizes the flaws that liberalism possesses.
The author leaned heavily on the neoliberal model of capitalism, which “provided scholarly justification for the pro-market, anti-state policies pursued by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.” He considers the neoliberal philosophy as the main reason for the creation of income inequality, global financial crises, environmental problems in the world. Admittedly, he, like Rawls, appears as a social egalitarian in the face of these questions. The author rightly admits that these vicissitudes of societal dynamics have created a backlash in the form of protectionist and anti-globalization movements and thus left liberal philosophy enough leeway to fill the vacuum by creating a conducive atmosphere to their logical expression by the masses.
On the other hand, he remained particularly critical of left-liberals who unwittingly, at times, gave rise to “group identities, which prevented an individual from exercising his own agency and then seeking to “cancel this whole element of society within a racist and patriarchal power structure that illegitimately clings to its former privileges” to create a state based on “epistemic relativism”. He thinks this aspect of left-liberals has given more vigor to the ideas of conservatives, who rely on these deceptive means to create states based on ideas like racial purity, ethno-religious nationalism, etc.
By referring to some of the critical theorists ranging from Herbert Marcuse to Foucault, and their criticism of liberal states in the form of the latter being exploiters, Eurocentrics, individualists, exclusionists, etc., has been skillfully countered by the author by putting emphasis on meritocracy, welfare states, multiculturalism, upward economic and social mobility, etc. While he accepts the prevalence of “vetocracy” in American politics, he is optimistic about the role of a liberal state tied to a proven rule of law.
There are two distinct facets of this book that I consider to be the main features in terms of normative meaning in determining the adequacy of certain liberal principles in the present day. The first is the author’s exposition and, therefore, an attempt to reconcile the principle of universalism with that of an idea of modern nation-states. He apparently finds few contradictions between these values, as he believes that states with fixed territoriality can, under a rule of law paradigm, establish its authority by exercising its legitimate power. He says, “National identity as a liberal and open society is something liberals can be justly proud of. becomes a potentially excluding category” that can generate a potential conflict with universal values and a nation-state.
The second facet that seems endearing is its attempt to remedy the flaws of liberalism through the proper integration of certain ideas such as individualism, federalism, the welfare state, privacy, tolerance and freedom of expression. The author believes that these principles must be underpinned by a certain “moderation” (just like the Buddhist idea of Madhyamāpratipada), because “moderation is not a bad political principle in general, and in particular for an order liberal who was supposed to calm political passions. from the start”.
Be that as it may, the book fails to assess some of the essential changes that have animated certain societies in South and Southeast Asia, where culture, religion and concepts such as Asian values have recently steeped in liberal values. Moreover, the book took a rather bland approach to national state capacities and the procedural aspects attached to them, in promoting or hindering these values.
Therefore, it can be said that this elegant, 192-page book has, overriding recent ideological attacks from both sides of the spectrum, emerged as a solid and driving defense of classical liberalism and is an absolute page-turner. The book has been written in extremely lucid and simple language with as little use of topic-specific jargon as possible, making it well suited to the needs of a general reader. If Mill was “a prophet of empty freedom”, Fukuyama is a “prophet of the modern liberal label”.
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