Francis Fukuyama’s essay on liberalism is both descriptive and diagnostic. It attempts to explain what liberalism is, before turning to the question of who is challenging it today. Fukuyama concludes that there is no alternative to liberalism—which does not mean that those on the right are not trying to replace it in some places around the world, while those on the left hope they get the chance to do so.
Fukuyama is oriented toward the right-wing challenge, which he stresses is on the march in Eastern Europe and India and reaching new prominence in the United States. But as a result, he frames his essay in ways that distort the liberal tradition and miscast today’s left-wing call to explore its far reaches.
Fukuyama sees liberalism as born in an attempt to pacify the early modern wars of religion by creating a public realm neutral enough with respect to the ends of life to permit coexistence (and commerce). For this reason, Thomas Hobbes is liberalism’s leading theorist (along with John Locke, in his defense of property).
But Fukuyama’s dating is too early, and his focus is off. We live in a golden age of scholarship on the origins of liberalism. As historians like Duncan Bell, Edmund Fawcett, Gregory Conti, Helena Rosenblatt, and William Selingerhelp us see, Fukuyama dramatically overstates the tolerationist origins of liberalism to the detriment of the dominant visions of liberals in the 19th century, when they actually began to call themselves liberals.
With greater space, I would challenge the idea that the dominant forms of liberalism in the period were as post-religious and universalistic as Fukuyama describes them: After all, for a long time the homelands of liberalism were Christian nations engaged in conquering the world. Here, let me just emphasize that, for some of liberalism’s leading thinkers after Hobbes and Locke—like Benjamin Constant, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville, whom Fukuyama doesn’t mention—liberalism was the last form of Christianity, or a successor religion for secular moderns, which prioritized human agency and creativity. It was anything but a device for “lowering the temperature” in order to avoid conflicts over the good life. Instead, its goal was to remake society to pursue a good life of a new kind.
Fukuyama alludes briefly, in passing, to a Continental liberal tradition that, he writes, emphasized “dignity.” But (apart from the fact that his argument and geography in this regard are historically iffy) he promptly folds this alternative into his narrative of the protection and privatization of human diversity. In fact, the authentic liberal thinkers of the 19th-century liberal tradition insisted on new types of difference and originality, as personal and collective goals. Fukuyama is attuned to the forces of inherited nationhood and religion, but few liberals in that period aimed merely at reconciliation of old forms of group membership; instead, they longed for new models. Of course, liberal societies never came anywhere near to committing wholeheartedly to such goals (or came near to being truly tolerant places, except by comparison). But the question is about what these liberals hoped to see—and what we have gotten instead.
As Fukuyama forthrightly acknowledges, liberalism hasn’t escaped the charge that, whatever the fears of its core thinkers about the threat of materialism, it has become a high-minded rationalization for commerce and the domination of civil societies by markets. He is right that we need to understand what he calls liberalism’s “tendency” to devolve into neoliberalism (without forgetting that, while 19th-century laissez-faire thinkers marginalized government power, neoliberals embraced it on a global scale to protect markets from democracy).
At stake is whether it is possible to save the 19th-century liberal project from its complacent and compromising alliance with the wrong economics. (In fairness, Mill, having once seen markets producing the conditions for originality, recognized that the plan wasn’t working and moved closer to socialism.) If liberalism’s core aim was to reclaim the politics of personal and collective meaning from outworn tradition, while skirting soulless materialism in the process, the results have fallen far short of perfect. And if liberalism has failed so badly in both the past and the present, is it plausible to think it can pivot now?
The question remains open, but a happy outcome would require a framing different from Fukuyama’s. Instead of carping about extremist illiberals, mainstream liberalism would have to own its failures. Instead of continuing to cast the Left as an extremism equal and opposite to the authoritarian or integralist Right, the current mainstream would have to begin to embrace the Left, abandoning the false reputation with which it has painted the Left as a means of postponing reflection on its own compromises and mistakes. At the same time, the Left would have to see more clearly its mission to liberate the liberal tradition from its contemporary leaders.
Fukuyama’s description of the Left, while careful and sober, diverges little from the conventional wisdom. He sees progressive theory as a grim vision of woke tyranny. But when it comes to the universities today, this story is mostly a dangerous slander, masking a defense of a liberalism bent on avoiding its own past mistakes. Beyond the university, the Left and Right are far less symmetrical than in Fukuyama’s portrait. If he cites no example of progressives actually shutting down a liberal society, it is far more because they lack the desire than the power to do so.
In fact, it is more accurate to see the contemporary Left across the world as finally setting out on a last rescue mission to save liberalism, an operation needed long before its current “crisis.” Progressives share Fukuyama’s sense of the blooming symptoms of a longstanding disease, but they have a different diagnosis and cure.
Their first goal is to take more seriously the fact that no one knows how to extricate liberalism from the economics that have haunted it. Fukuyama mentions the mid-20th-century parenthesis in which liberals built welfare states; but these were hardly perfect, and relied on circumstances that are unlikely to recur—nor should we want them to. No one should want to replicate the depression and war that were required to save liberals from the reputations they have earned as apologists for capitalism.
Then there are liberalism’s reactionary enemies, who long for domination and hierarchy rather than equality and novelty. In the face of our neoliberal hell, they offer regressive nationalism. Fukuyama criticizes them, however, without recognizing that his own definition of liberalism as protection of diversity in private neglects the politics of individual and collective meaning and purpose for public ends that liberals once sought. Perhaps only by revisiting and refashioning that politics for a new age can liberals find out whether their tradition deserves to endure.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe