Francis Fukuyama once proclaimed that history had ended. Now, 30 years later, he talks to Arun Kakar about what went wrong
In 1989, political scientist Francis Fukuyama announced the triumph of free-market liberal democracy. Thirty years later, things look very different. In his new book, Identity, he sets out how the rise of identity politics is transforming the world as we know it. Here he talks to Spear’s about identity, Trump, Putin and, yes, Brexit
Spear’s: Why does ‘identity’ – what you call the desire for recognition – threaten liberal democracy?
Fukuyama: What threatens liberal democracy is the shifting away from a universal recognition of citizens towards more particular forms of recognition – especially ones based on race, ethnicity or some other characteristic that you’re born with or that you don’t control and is not universally shared in your society.
After 1945, we created a liberal world order that tried to mitigate conflicts based on national ethnic identity, embodied in the European Union and other kinds of institutions that were meant to open the world up to trade and to the flow of people on the basis of their status as human beings.
That’s what’s being challenged right now. With the rise of populist nationalist parties, there is an assertion of national identities based on ethnicities again, hostility to immigrants, to outsiders and economic policies based on protectionism. It’s not a threat to ‘democracy’ if democracy simply means majorities for certain policies. It’s a threat more to the liberal order, which are protections through the rule of law, through constitutions that prevent abusive use of political power.
That’s what you’re seeing in Hungary, Poland, Turkey and, I’m afraid to say, in the United States. Here you’ve got a president that has focused on ‘America first’ and making ‘America great again’ at the expense of this liberal concept of what the country is and the American place in the global order.
What do you make of President Trump?
Trump is a very strange politician. He’s become more and more divisive. In a way that’s a strange electoral policy, because his core support that resonate with that ‘send them back’ message is not more than a third of the population at most. He’s only appealing to this base.
The problem is he has stimulated the left wing of the Democratic Party to shift to the left. It’s a natural reaction when you’ve got a pretty openly racist president – you’re going to rally around protection of racial minorities and that sort of thing.
The trick for the Democrats, especially given the electoral college system, is not to fall into that trap. That’s what Trump wants to happen, for the Democrats to move so far left that centrist voters say: ‘Well I don’t like Trump, but the Democrats are worse.’
How do liberals confront this populism?
The single biggest check to this kind of populism is an election. [Democrat House speaker] Nancy Pelosi in that respect has done an excellent job. She’s really the one that engineered the midterm election last November that brought a shift of 40 seats from Republican to Democrat.
The problem in the US is that the political parties have weakened, so the hierarchy within the parties no longer determines anything, and it’s this kind of crapshoot with the primaries.
What is your assessment of the new left-wing challenges to free markets?
A lot of it is justified. If you look at what’s happened, you went through this period that began with the rise of Reagan and Thatcher, in which we swung away from state-centred solutions towards free markets being the answer to virtually every problem. In some cases that went too far.
The most devastating mistake was in the financial sector. The experience of several big financial crises indicates that these markets are not self-regulating, that you do actually need a pretty strong government regulation in order to keep them in line.
The resulting inequality has spread across much of the developed world, and that needs recalibration. The trouble is the recalibration needs to be one that is fiscally sustainable, takes account of the need for incentives, and you don’t squash entrepreneurial activity and future investment. It has to be a shift that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Are you talking about measures like a wealth tax?
Progressive taxes are going to have to go up to some extent. Social spending is going to go up. In our country, Obama tried to correct the situation in which the US was the only rich country to not to have some kind of government-mandated universal health coverage. It’s ridiculous that it took until 2010 to do this. What do you make of recent criticism of elites? Any society is going to have elites.
Democratic systems with market economies have done best in periods when elites with money felt a sense of social responsibility. I think one of the problems with Reaganism and Thatcherism was it unleashed a kind of intellectual revolution that basically said it’s OK not to care about society, just worry about maximising your own narrow self-interest, trust that the market will take care of everything else.
We’ve had a lot of experience that indicates that that’s not true. Elites have to behave responsibly if you’re going to have political stability.
Vladimir Putin recently asserted that the ‘liberal idea’ was ‘obsolete’. What’s your take?
It’s just a silly view. Liberalism exists in order to deal with diversity in a society. The kind of diversity that the founders of modern liberalism we’re dealing with was religious diversity, because after the Protestant Reformation every country in Europe went through about a 150-year period of unsheathing violent social conflict over what religion would dominate.
Quite a lot of the ethno-nationalists want to turn the clock back to a moment when that diversity didn’t exist, which is not possible. Putin’s own regime accepts a certain basic liberal principle, so his critique is silly. It does not acknowledge the reason why liberalism arose and why it continues to be necessary.
What’s the worst-case short-to-medium outlook?
It’s possible to imagine all sorts of very bad outcomes. If national populist parties come to power in all the major countries in the world, that’s forum for conflict, like in the 20th century.
What’s more likely to happen first is economic nationalism spreads. You’re already seeing this, like between Japan and Korea, where people take a page out of Trump’s songbook and start protecting their own countries.
If everyone starts doing it, everybody ends up losing. We risk eroding the norms that stood behind open markets, and could cast us into a big global depression.
Where do you stand on Brexit?
The referendum was one of the biggest mistakes any politician has ever made. In a certain sense the crisis has strengthened the EU and improved its understanding of itself and its own solidarity. I think it is going to lead to a new disaster for Britain.
I mean, there may not be a Britain at the end of this whole crisis. Comparisons have been made between our prime minister Boris Johnson and Donald Trump… [Johnson] is similar in the sense that people are voting for him and kind of rolling the dice.
They know he’s willing to contemplate a hard Brexit, but they don’t know how he’s going to do this. He and Trump are really different characters. Although his father is quite rich, Trump does come out of a sort of working-class culture.
I don’t think he’s ever read a book in his life, he has these very working-class tastes in food. That’s not Boris Johnson.
Are there any leaders who strike you as the sort to move liberalism forward?
It’s hard to see a leader who’s both taking the right position and also being effective. You would have said Macron prior to all the troubles he’s gotten in. So I’ ll punt on that question. I’m not sure I see a shining example.
This article first appeared in issue 69 of Spear’s magazine, available on newsstands now. Click here to buy and subscribe.