Power  /  Book Review

Last Man Standing

Francis Fukuyama pines for that old-time liberalism.
Francis Fukuyama

It is now thirty years since the publication of The End of History and the Last Man. One might say again that “something fundamental has happened in world history.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has remade the landscape of the inconceivable. Land wars, wars for territory and prestige, are back. The war in Ukraine also comes as a global pandemic has transformed government’s responsibility to the public. We are regularly subjected to pronouncements that neoliberalism is dead, that a deregulated state trusting in market imperatives no longer serves the public good.

The world has been remade again. Yet if there were reasons to be optimistic about democracy in 1989, there’s little of that now: instead, fears about the demise of liberal democracy are rampant—in Europe and in the United States as much as anywhere else. So, now, as white nationalism and necropolitics animates the U.S. Republican Party, as over one million Americans have died from the Covid-19 virus, and as climate change has wreaked unmitigated, irreversible damage to world stability—not to mention mass incarceration operating as the primary solution to unemployment and poverty—what ambitions demarcate our era, what paradigm will determine our new order? What is to be done, dear Francis?

The best Fukuyama can muster, as conveyed in his new book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, is to mount a “defense of classical liberalism.” He’s looking backward, at what went wrong. The right and the left have distorted liberalism, attacked its premises, eroded its value, he argues. The right let neoliberalism run amok, while the left took refuge in identity politics that destroyed “modes of discourse” that stimulate free thinking. As a result, he implies, the liberalism of the post-Cold War moment is waning. Après Francis, le déluge.

It turns out that Fukuyama doesn’t like what history’s end has wrought. Liberalism has been corrupted by bad actors on all sides who have lost faith in its tenets: free speech, universal tolerance, and human equality. Rampant consumerism has atomized public interactions and suffocated civic life. Only “a sense of moderation, both individual and communal” can restore faith in the promise liberalism seemed to offer three decades ago. We need to return to Cold War liberalism, to the principles of liberalism that made it an emancipating philosophy nearly a half-century ago. We have to turn back.