A Better Sort of Political Philosophy?

I’m grateful to my friend Graham McAleer for his very informed and informative critical re-engagement with Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. It confirms my judgment at the time that Fukuyama was not going to be one of the thinkers I chose to follow in tracking developments in the post-Cold War period. He stayed too much within the parameters of modern thoughts and hopes, unwilling to step outside them to take their measure. To be a thoughtful modern, you can’t simply be a modern, intellectually speaking: you have to look back to classical sources to inform your thinking. Reducing thumos to the Hegelian desire for recognition won’t cut the mustard. Older categories such as Aristotle’s “man, the political animal” are still needed. Even among proponents of modern ideas, I found his (later) Johns Hopkins colleague Michael Mandelbaum more credible, because he was less theoretically ambitious and more realistic about the lay of the international scene. Admittedly, he had the advantage of another ten years of history.

Before both of them, however, was Raymond Aron’s analysis of the structure and dynamics of the international scene in The Dawn of Universal History (1960). This work had struck me as providing a much better rendering of the conjunction of the progressive dynamics of technical and commercial modernity with the persistent drama of politics in the unfolding of modern history. Individuals, regimes, and ideologies will continue to play their dramatic roles, argued the Thucydidean-inspired political analyst. Nothing in Fukuyama’s 1989 essay caused me to qualify significantly the Aronian analysis. Aron, the incisive reader of the nineteenth-century philosophies of history (Kant, Comte, Hegel, Marx), had studied history, economics, and politics too long and too well to be captive to their siren songs. While one could attempt, judiciously, to construct a “theory of international relations,” prudence remained the god of this lower world. This was the case domestically as well. Modern societies were composed of elements and values that did not necessarily cohere and that could only be prudently managed. His friend Bertrand de Jouvenel spoke of “the myth of the Solution.” These myths could be theoretical as well as practical.  Fukuyama’s argument that the Idea of liberal-capitalist modernity was unsurpassable fell into the genre of theoretical solutions. 

Aron’s student, Pierre Manent, developed his master’s thinking in ways I found much more convincing than the apologist of ideologically triumphant liberal modernity. This was because he was a better political philosopher, whose lodestars included the political nature of man, the intrinsic requirements of politics, and what he called the perduring “political condition of humanity.” In 2001, the concluding chapter of his tour de force of political philosophy, A World beyond Politics?, employed Hegel in ways more apt and credible than Fukuyama, to help analyze the achievements of contemporary western humanity, while also exposing what was defective and dangerous in the ideas of Humanity and History then invoked by progressive European elites and partisans of globalization. Manent critiqued the “illusions” of such elites concerning the imminent (and immanent) end of History, as well as “the Religion of Humanity” adopted and enforced by them. In so doing, he provided a framework for understanding Brexit, Matteo Salvini, and even Donald Trump decades later. Guided by false ideas of the two wholes mentioned above, elites sought to de-nationalize, and even de-democratize, democracy by reducing it to the empowerment of cosmopolitan individuals. This left out the other half of the democratic conception, human beings as citizens and as members of self-governing political bodies. Constantly belittled by their elite betters, it was predictable that denigrated citizens would push back. One looked in vain, however, for this set of possibilities in Fukuyama’s diagnosis of the post-Cold War democratic scene.

Fukuyama’s ideological focus on liberal democracy as a victorious “Idea” also didn’t allow him to adequately register the dawning democratic divide between western Europe and America in the post-Cold War period. Others, however, did. Robert Kagan’s “Power and Weakness” analyzed the stark contrast between “Europeans from Venus” and “Americans from Mars,” while before and after Kagan, James Ceaser and Mark Lilla deftly analyzed the fundamental contrast between a Europe devoted to the “fantasy” of depoliticization via denationalization and an America still proud of its national sovereignty. Here were real “ideological” differences in the house of democracy. A generic concept of “the universal homogenous state” was less-than-helpful in confronting them.

One could venture the thought that Fukuyama, the analyst and advocate of liberal modernity, was too wedded to the past and insufficiently aware of its lessons.

To be fair, important elements were there in his text. He states, “International life for the part of the world [western Europe] that has reached the end of history is far more preoccupied with economics than with politics or strategy.” Being “far more preoccupied with economics than politics or strategy” would seem to be a prescription for sleepwalking through actual history, which is always political. Nor was it just economics that superseded politics and strategy, pacifist dreams did as well. According to Fukuyama, “Indeed, as our experiences in dealing with Europe on matters such as terrorism or Libya prove, they are much further gone than we down the road that denies the legitimacy of the use of force in international politics, even in self-defense.” One could hardly better limn the depoliticization of an entire region.  

The same year as Kagan’s and Ceaser’s analyses, John Fonte’s “Liberal Democracy versus Transnational Progressivism” appeared. In it, he took aim at the adequacy of Fukuyama’s championing of liberal democracy and market economies as modernity’s definitive form and achievement. Not so, said Fonte, who saw the rise of a fundamental challenger internal to modernity, what he called “transnational progressivism” (TP). In the name of group-identities of history construed in Manichean terms, and a “multiculturalism” that sought to put the white hegemon in his place, TP took dead aim at the liberal democratic capitalist order manifested in the nation-state. Today, it is the bane of our political existence, bidding fair to tyrannize under the banners of “identity politics” and “wokeness.” Having diagnosed it in 2002, Fonte won the palm for political prescience over Fukuyama.

In short, as McAleer suggests, The End of History is an expression and artifact of an attitude current in the aftermath of the collapse of communism that was insufficiently self-critical about the merits of the victor. A student of political philosophy with the Francophone Allan Bloom, he was surprisingly unaware of important discussions in France in the 1970s and 80s that raised the awkward question of affinities between modern democracy and modern totalitarianism. Claude LeFort’s work was perhaps the most well-known in this regard, but others joined in the investigation. Fukayama’s democratic triumphalism would have benefited from these more troubling analyses of the nature and logic of modern democracy.

Likewise, he did not incorporate the lessons of the great dissidents Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and Váçlav Havel in his analysis of the situation at the end of the Cold War. Instead of reading the dissidents, Fukuyama read (and spoke to) “the liberal Soviet intelligentsia.” Remarkably, they shared his analysis and views. Fukuyama writes,

From their writings and from my own personal contacts with them, there is no question in my mind that the liberal Soviet intelligentsia rallying around Gorbachev have arrived at the end-of-history view in a remarkably short time, due in no small measure to the contacts they have had since the Brezhnev era with the larger European civilization around them. This “New political thinking,” the general rubric for their views, describes a world dominated by economic concerns, in which there are no ideological grounds for major conflict between nations, and in which, consequently, the use of military force becomes less legitimate.

Here, liberal East joined liberal West in a shared Fukuyaman understanding of history’s end.

In contrast, Solzhenitsyn and Havel located the victorious West within a triangle of the free West, Soviet tyranny, and their common root, modern thought. While the dissidents clearly preferred the democratic West to the Communist East, they also saw the need to criticize central modern elements of victorious democracy, including a technological attitude applied indiscriminately to nature and to society. As McAleer points out, Fukuyama led off his justifying argument for modern capitalism and managerial liberal democracy with the benefits, promises, and inexorableness of modern natural science and technology. If he had read the dissidents, he would have learned to take up a more critical stance to them. The engineer Solzhenitsyn called them “an intricate trial of our free will,” while Havel’s “Politics and Conscience” critiqued a modern technological attitude that dehumanized its practitioners and leveled its objects. Here fundamental caution was available. It was not till later that Fukuyama learned to express deep concern about “our posthuman future” due to misguided technology.

More positively, in reading the dissidents Fukuyama would have encountered an alternative anthropology, one that emerged from the crucible of the communist experience. According to the dissidents, the communist episode had revealed the inadequacies of all modern anthropologies, Cartesian, Lockean, Marxist, and Hegelian. What was revealed was the reality of “the human person,” a being not just of “consciousness” but of “conscience,” irreducible to all systems, whether theoretical or practical.  The person so understood would be a predicate of what the late Peter Lawler called “postmodernism, rightly understood.” In its light, one could venture the thought that Fukuyama, the analyst and advocate of liberal modernity, was too wedded to the past and insufficiently aware of its lessons.