On Fukuyama, Babones and Tingle

This review was first published in The Weekend Australian.

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Francis Fukuyama, Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition

Profile Books; $35; 218pp

Salvatore Babones, The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts

Polity; $17.99; 120pp

Laura Tingle, Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman

Quarterly Essay; $29.99; 139pp

Francis Fukuyama is annoyed. In the preface to Identity, he accuses his critics of misreading his thesis, first set out in 1989, that Western-style liberal democracy, combined with a market economy, represented the final stage in humanity’s socio-political evolution. He reminds us that his original essay ‘The End of History?’ contained a question-mark and that the book that followed it, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), was open about the problems that might befall liberal democracies in the future. He wasn’t describing a utopia. He was saying that this political and economic ensemble was the most ‘rational’ one available, and that no new Big Idea would emerge to challenge it in the way that communism had.

Fukuyama’s annoyance is partly justified. There were indeed many mischaracterisations of his argument, the most tendentious (or ignorant) of which took ‘history’ to mean important events, and then affected to use event X – a war, a terrorist attack, a recession – as evidence of the thesis’ falsity. But Fukuyama never claimed that important events would cease to occur. He was using ‘history’ in the Hegelian sense of the long-term evolution of human institutions. Of course there would be shocks and reversal, just not of the epochal kind.

Even accepting these points, however, it should be clear that the end-of-history thesis is ageing less well than its spritely author. The rise of China has dealt a mighty blow to the idea that capitalism and liberal democracy necessarily advance together, while the global wave of populism stems in part from a growing feeling that the two may even be antithetical: that globalisation and inequality make a mockery of the liberal nation state’s claim to be able to represent the people. From both within and without, the liberal ideal is coming under enormous pressure.

To attempt to defend the end-of-history thesis at such a time would be courageous, minister. But that is what Fukuyama does in Identity, albeit, paradoxically, through an analysis of liberal democracy’s key weakness: its failure to take seriously people’s need for ‘recognition’. It’s not that liberal, capitalist democracies are fraught with contradictions, he argues. It’s just that they need to recognise, and to make accommodations for, people’s desire for dignity.

As in The End of History and the Last Man Fukuyama takes Plato’s idea of thymos as the seat of this desire for recognition or dignity – a desire that cannot be met, he suggests, through higher living standards alone. That last point is crucial, for Fukuyama urges us to see the rise of populism less as a response to economic conditions than as a symptom of the need for a meaningful identity – something liberal democracies, with their legalistic approach to rights, do little to engender. In his view two separate facets of thymosmegalothymia and isothymia: the need to be recognised as superior and the need to be seen as equal to others – have ‘joined hands’ under populism. Thus populist leaders like Donald Trump sate their own desire for power by channelling the resentments of the relatively powerless.

Over 14 short chapters Fukuyama sketches the key developments that led us to this point. Whisking us from the Protestant Revolution to Romanticism and the Enlightenment, he suggests that as societies began to modernise dignity was extended from the few to the many, and that by the early nineteenth century ‘the politics of recognition and dignity’ took on two very different forms: universal recognition of individual rights of the kind that characterise liberal societies; and assertions of collective identity such as nationalism and politicised religion. It is the abstract and therefore unsatisfying character of the first set of rights, in Fukuyama’s view, that explains the appeals to nationalism etc. made by Trump and his ilk.  

The question is: Why is this happening now? And it’s here that Fukuyama’s philosophical idealism – i.e. his tendency to see political conflict as a battle of ideas as opposed to a battle for resources from which different ideas emerge – is found wanting. For surely it is the increasingly unfair and technocratic character of liberal democracy that is largely responsible for the populist wave. That contemporary populism tends to take the form of nationalism is hardly surprising when one considers how thoroughly globalisation has devastated industries in the US and elsewhere. Is the transfer of votes from the Democrats to the Republicans in the US Midwest about recognition, or the fact that voters in that part of the world have been ignored by successive governments? Is thymos, or jobs, the issue here?  

Fukuyama argues that if liberal democracies can get better at building dignity – through national service, EU citizenship, better assimilation of immigrants etc. – they can begin to overcome the populists. The idea that liberal, capitalist democracy may be failing on its own terms – i.e. economically and democratically – is not something he seriously contemplates. Were he to do so he would see that the identitarian character of much contemporary rightwing populism is related to the fact that those who have done best out of globalisation and the rise of the knowledge economy tend to be socially progressive in their views and increasingly intolerant of the kind of attitudes found in the so-called ‘flyover’ states. The British commentator David Goodhart has characterised the populist shock as a response to a ‘double liberalism’; the ‘centrist’ parties that dominated politics in the decades leading up to the GFC combined a broadly free-market economics with a progressive approach to cultural issues. As the losers in the free-market economy continue to get the rough end of the deal, cultural disagreements sharpen. Enter the tangerine demagogue, with his PC-busting rhetoric.

In his edgy polemic The New Authoritarianism, Sydney-based academic Salvatore Babones sets out a very different view of the current upheaval. For Babones it is the fact that liberal democracies have been captured by a technocratic elite that explains the rise of Trump and Co. Forgetting that sovereignty resides with the people, this elite has used its influence to impose an essentially liberal vision that sets abstract rights over the wishes of the majority. Untempered by socialism or conservatism, liberal ideas have come to dominate, and indeed to destroy, democracy.

It’s true that liberal democracies, and liberals in particular, seem increasingly technocratic in character: both the Clinton campaign and the Remain campaign in the UK were big on policy wonkery and short on values. But it seems odd to focus so heavily on individual rights and the power that this new class of experts has to define and adjudicate them. In a section on liberalism in the courts, Babones notes that what US progressives have been unable to achieve at the ballot box they have attempted to achieve via the law. But why focus only on progressives, with their campaigns for abortion rights and gay marriage? What about those other (economic) liberals who have used the courts (including SCOTUS) to insulate big business from democratic control? The point is that these two kinds of liberalism have now combined into the ensemble identified by Goodhart. Those voting in the populists feel marginalised culturally and materially.

Babones’ tendency to exaggerate the progressive character of liberal technocracy is matched by his tendency to play down the ugliness of contemporary rightwing populism. He is right, I think, to reject the view that Trump is a dictator as hysterical, and right to imply that populism is an illiberal but democratic response to an increasingly undemocratic liberalism. But is he right to suggest that ‘populists appeal to the innate common sense of ordinary people’? Many of them appeal to racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Babones’ occasional attempts to save the likes of Trump and Viktor Orban from ‘liberal scorn’ strike me as misguided.

Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay Follow the Leader explores the populist upheaval, and recent events in Australian politics, through the lens of effective leadership. The QE is the third from Tingle’s pen, the first two – Great Expectations (2012) and Political Amnesia (2015) – having argued, respectively, that Australians have an unrealistic idea of how much change politicians can make and that modern politicians have partially lost the skill of governing effectively. Follow the Leader brings those two strands together, suggesting that both our expectations of leaders are too high and that many modern leaders lack the ability to bring the public along with them.

For Tingle the principal error we make when judging the effectiveness of political leaders is to confuse good leadership with what she terms a ‘crash or crash through mentality’. Paul Keating’s charming observation that ‘You have to bring the mob with you’ is the short version of this argument, though Tingle also blows the dust from Ronald Heifetz’s 1994 classic of leadership studies, Leadership without Easy Answers. Key to Heifetz’s argument, and to Tingle’s, is the example of President Lyndon Johnson, whose domestic breakthroughs on civil rights serve as a case study of how local knowledge, compromise, caution and facilitation are more likely to bring about real change than ‘strongman’-style conviction. That Johnson’s approach to domestic matters differed so markedly from his approach to Vietnam, where secrecy and obduracy dominated the decision-making process, amplifies the point.

There are good points made in Follow the Leader but its usefulness is limited by its author’s tendency to treat leadership as a discrete set of skills, as opposed to something that changes over time, according to historical and ideological context. Though Tingle notes in passing the ‘belated alarm that the world is not naturally tending to the Western democratic model than many smugly assumed had triumphed and become irresistible at the end of the Cold War’ (mentioning no names), and notes as well how the major parties no longer represent the labour/capital divide and so lack a firm political direction, she doesn’t examine how globalisation has undermined the capacity for action at the national level or the effects this has had on leadership in liberal democracies in particular. Nor does she examine how the liberal-conservative ensemble that has dominated rightwing parties for a century is now coming apart as a result of that same process, as conservatives revert to type in the face of (liberal) economic chaos. But this is as responsible as anything for the recent round of leadership spills.

It used to be that nation states could exercise significant control over markets. Now they float free in a global one, bumping up against each other like dumplings in a stew. Yes, political leaders have always been limited in what they can achieve; but this is more the case today than it was in the past, and Tingle’s analysis of why this is so strikes me as incomplete at best. It isn’t that we need a Keating to steer us in the right direction. It’s that the policies that Keating helped implement have put us in a rudderless boat. This, more than thymos and activist judges and an insufficient skill set, is what’s driving the current desire for a ‘strongman’.