Francis Fukuyama – a very Public Intellectual

Francis Fukuyama – a very Public Intellectual
Francis Fukuyama, director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, Rome, Italy, 02 December 2016. EPA/MAURIZIO BRAMBATTI

One of America’s leading public intellectuals, Francis Fukuyama, recently visited South Africa. His thoughts on identity and politics deserve a serious hearing in this country.

Public Intellectual: ‘An intellectual, often a noted specialist in a particular field, who has become well-known to the general public for a willingness to comment on current affairs.’ – Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition

The very idea of a public intellectual can sometimes seem like a contradiction in terms. Say the very word “intellectual” and many, perhaps most, people think about someone who is an aloof, donnish, ivory tower-resident, divorced from everyday concerns. An intellectual, then, is someone who puzzles over the mysteries of things far removed from the lives of normal people. By contrast, the very word “public” means someone actively engaged in the things of this world.

Bringing these two strands together, in the contemporary world, a public intellectual becomes someone who writes and discusses the big issues of the day – but does so through the lens of a deeper reading of economics, politics, history, literature, and philosophy – but in a way that makes the writing accessible to many more than would otherwise be the case for someone up in that ivory tower. Increasingly, too, someone who gets the label of being a public intellectual shows up on the Sunday news/talk shows or with Christiane Amanpour. More and more, they issue streams of tightly packaged thoughts via social media; or they dash off some quick, 500-word columns for some of the dozens of quick reaction news blogs issued by a whole smörgåsbord of think tanks, every day of the week.

A hundred and fifty years or so ago, in the America of the mid-19th century onwards, the people who were the country’s public intellectuals – largely schooled in literature and literary criticism, political affairs, philosophy, rhetoric, and the arts – found their publication homes, and thus their audiences, in the pages of new magazines of affairs that were beginning to flourish; journals published in Boston or New York such as The Atlantic, The North American Review and Harpers. By the 20th century, periodicals like Foreign Affairs began publishing scholarly-style but more popular articles for a larger readership.

Meanwhile, university departments in a growing number of schools across the US now were focusing on those newer disciplines of political science, economics, sociology, and international relations, were gaining increasing impact, especially through their use of those newfangled quantitative approaches. Unlike European nations like France or Britain, America’s crop of public intellectuals was not concentrated in the national capital.

Back in New York City, post-World War II, a new cohort of public intellectuals emerged, largely, first or second generation Jewish Americans such as Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glaser and Norman Podhoretz. (See James Atlas’ article). Many of these public intellectuals were educated in New York City’s great public, tuition-free university or at Columbia University (rather than in what were still the more cloistered, New England, WASP strongholds such as Harvard and Yale).

Their articles and arguments were often to be found in the generally leftist politics of journals like Dissent, The Partisan Review, The Nation, The New Republic and Commentary; and they were generally concerned with the confluence of political ideology and the humanities. Eventually, they became – many of them – the original neoconservatives, about whom it has been said, wryly, that the neoconservatives were former liberals who had been mugged by reality. Eventually, many of them began publishing in journals like The Public Interest or the newer, harder-edged Commentary and The Weekly Standard.

With this intellectual history in mind, it is intriguing to encounter one of the foremost of the 21st century public intellectuals, Francis Fukuyama, during his recent visit at the end of March to Johannesburg, as the guest of and speaker for the Centre for Development and Enterprise. Fukuyama is a very different type of writer-thinker than that previous generation of public intellectual.

He was educated as an undergraduate in the classics so that, as he said, he could read the Greek and Roman historians and philosophers in their original languages, and his writings are infused with references to those classical thinkers, as well as with some deep nods to more modern philosophers such as Frederick Nietzsche and Georg Hegel, as well as, inevitably, Karl Marx. While working towards his MA and PhD degrees, Fukuyama had also been well influenced by political scientists like Seymour Martin Lipset, but none more deeply, perhaps, than by Samuel P Huntington, while Fukuyama was at Harvard for his PhD.

Fukuyama’s academic trajectory had taken him through a series of elite universities as well as some time at the State Department and the Rand Corporation, a Pentagon-supported think tank. And his first major public splash came in 1989 with the publication of the article, The End of History in Foreign Affairs magazine, followed by the release of an expanded, book-length treatment of his thesis three years later, adding the words “and the Last Man”. Those words had drawn on references in the prologue of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathrustra, with its depiction of the rejection of the ubermenschen off in the future, even as the original title also spoke to the idea that with the collapse of both Soviet state socialism and the USSR’s land empire across Eurasia, the last round of that Hegelian synthesis had now, finally, played itself out and there would be no more deeply philosophical or metaphysical conflicts in the future.

Governmentally regulated capitalism and the ideals (and, increasingly, the practice) of liberal democracy over tyranny and authoritarian economic determinism had decisively triumphed and were the future. Or to recycle a comment by Lincoln Steffens about an earlier new world, exactly 100 years earlier: “I have seen the future and it works.” The future looked less conflict-ridden, and inevitably more democratic and prosperous. Teleology, at least as far as the global political economy was concerned, was at its terminus.

As Andrew Pierre’s 1992 review in Foreign Affairs of Fukuyama’s new book had explained:

The most intriguing aspect of this best seller is that its author is a former official of the State Department’s policy planning staff, a RAND Corporation analyst and a Harvard Ph.D. in Soviet foreign policy. The causal relationship is not clear between this experience and the controversial thesis that liberal democracy as a system of government has emerged fully victorious over other philosophies such as fascism, communism and socialism. The notion that ‘history’ has reached its end with the emergence of liberal democracy owes much to the ideas of Hegel and, more particularly, an obscure French interpreter of his named Alexandre Kojeve.

But one wonders how this ‘feel good’ thesis is viewed in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where liberal democracies are often fragile at best and where basic human needs are not being met. Even in Western terms this provocative tract seems more attuned to the self-congratulatory 1980s than the problematic years ahead. Yet whatever one’s response, we are indebted to Fukuyama for such an ambitious work of political philosophy, more typical of the European intellectual tradition than our own, and look forward to his next thoughts-beyond the ‘last man.’ ”

While Fukuyama was not, himself, one of the more mindless, flag-waving, chest-thumping, banner-carrying, “We won, we won!” brigade, his essay and the book made such a splash with numerous political figures (even if they only read the pull quotes and back cover endorsements) that it became hard to avoid the triumphalism in public discourse among many politicians that drew much of its sustenance from Fukuyama’s writing.

Other books and articles followed, such as: Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity; and, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. But the article, and then the book, that swung the spotlight firmly back on Fukuyama was his 2018 work, Identity and the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. As John Ikenberry described it in Foreign Affairs,

In the decades since writing his famous essay ‘The End of History?,’ Fukuyama has explored an often forgotten yet critical dimension of liberal democracy: the desire for dignity. In an ideal world, citizens would ground their identity in their shared humanity. But now, people are seeking recognition in narrow identity groups, based on nationality, religion, sect, race, ethnicity, and gender. Identity politics has always existed, but leaders on the left and the right have exploited the fears created by economic and social upheavals to build political coalitions around particular groups and their demands for recognition.

For Fukuyama, this is the greatest threat to liberal democracy. He sees the politics of resentment being expressed by Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, and Viktor Orban in Hungary—and, in only slightly less overt ways, in established liberal democracies. As Fukuyama writes, a sense of nation is essential for liberal democracy, precisely because it speaks to the human desire for identity and respect. The challenge is to foster an inclusive and civic-minded nationalism that appeals to humanity’s most generous spirit. Great forces of history are arrayed against that endeavoUr, so leaders and people across the liberal democratic world must turn it into an active political project.”

This work has put Fukuyama firmly on a collision course with the new “identitarianism”, the harsh, rightist populism now gaining in strength and potency in America, in much of Europe, and in various other places, as well as, to some degree, the ever-more fissiparous-ness of the left, as each ethnic, religious, racial, or sexual identity grouping presses more strongly for recognition, rights and privilege within the political and social systems of nations like the US. Instead, Fukuyama has advocated the return to a broader national embrace of what he termed “creedism”, or an understanding and support of the broader ideas that make and bind a society together beyond those smaller divisions, such as through an educational system. Given the intense debates in South Africa about identity and politics, Fukuyama’s ideas should be examined thoughtfully for their relevance to circumstances here.

In a recently published debate between Fukuyama and Stacey Abrams (the black, female candidate for the Florida governorship last year who just missed winning her race), Abrams wrote:

Recent political upheavals have reinvigorated a long-running debate about the role of identity in American politics – and especially American elections. Electoral politics have long been a lagging indicator of social change,” and that “Fukuyama and other critics of identity politics contend that broad categories such as economic class contain multitudes and that all attention should focus on wide constructs rather than the substrates of inequality. But such arguments fail to acknowledge that some members of any particular economic class have advantages not enjoyed by others in their cohort.”

In response to such criticisms, Fukuyama could write that the responses to his article:

“… which contain a number of common themes, fundamentally miscast my thinking about identity politics. One reason for this might be that the article focuses more on the kind of identity politics characteristic of the contemporary progressive left, whereas the book from which the article was adapted, Identity, focuses more on my central concern: the recent rise of right-wing nationalist populism. This development threatens liberal democracy because populist leaders seek to use the legitimacy they gain from democratic elections to undermine liberal institutions such as courts, the media, and impartial bureaucracies. This has been happening in Hungary, Poland, and, above all, the United States. Populists’ distrust of ‘globalism’ also leads them to weaken the international institutions necessary to manage the liberal world order.

I concur with the commonplace judgment that the rise of populism has been triggered by globalisation and the consequent massive increase in inequality in many rich countries. But if the fundamental cause were merely economic, one would have expected to see left-wing populism everywhere; instead, since the 2008 financial crisis, parties on the left have been in decline, while the most energized new movements have been anti-immigrant groups, such as the far-right party Alternative for Germany and the populist coalition now governing Italy. In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, enough white working-class voters abandoned the Democratic Party to put Donald Trump over the top, capping a 40-year trend of shifting party loyalties. This means that there is something going on in the cultural realm that needs explaining, and that something is concern over identity.

The concept of ‘identity,’ as I use the term, builds on a universal aspect of the human psyche that Plato labelled thymos [how many contemporary political scientists reach back to Plato?], the demand for respect for one’s inner dignity. But there is a specifically modern expression of thymos that emerged after the Protestant Reformation and that values the inner self more highly than society’s laws, norms, and customs and insists that society change its own norms to give recognition to that inner self. The first major expression of modern identity politics was nineteenth-century European nationalism, when cultural groups began to demand recognition in the form of statehood. I believe that much of modern Islamism is similarly driven by identity confusion among Muslims in modernizing societies who feel neither Western nor traditional and see a particular form of politicized religion as a source of community and identity.

Liberal democracy cannot exist without a national identity that defines what citizens hold in common with one another. Given the de facto multiculturalism of contemporary democracies, that identity needs to be civic or creedal. That is, it needs to be based on liberal political ideas that are accessible to people of different cultural backgrounds rather than on fixed characteristics such as race, ethnicity, or religion. I thought that the United States had arrived at such a creedal identity in the wake of the civil rights movement, but that accomplishment is now being threatened by right-wing identitarians, led by Trump, who would like to drag Americans backward to identities based on ethnicity and religion.”

In his lecture at the CDE, Fukuyama had chosen to speak (listen to the full speech, it is worth it) about the role of government in development. In brief, defining the various recent global views about that interrelationship. His lecture covered, historically, the periods where the consensus was about the primacy of government, to the need to privatise state-owned enterprises, to the urgent need to focus on such sectors as health, and then to deal with governmental transparency and efficiency.

But Fukuyama concluded that we now seem to have entered a time when the consensus view about the relationship between government and growth is less certain than it has been since the modern post-war era, and that perhaps, given their obvious success in raising the economic circumstances of many millions, the models from East Asia – Japan, the four little tigers, and most recently China – have much to offer other nations, as long as they can resist the temptation to let governments plan their way into an all-encompassing developmental state in a dynamic world economy.

In thinking about Francis Fukuyama’s impact on contemporary politics, society and economics, I came across a moment of startling, unexpected familiarity in his biography. Fukuyama’s grandfather had left Japan for America to avoid being drafted to fight in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Surprisingly, the author’s grandfather had similarly fled Russia to come to America in that same period, to avoid travelling across Siberia in the Czar’s army by rail to fight the Japanese at Port Arthur – both men attracted by the possibilities of an America freed from the conflicts and national-tribal identities of the Old World. DM


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