Overrated: Francis Fukuyama

The man who proclaimed the end of history is now history himself

Daniel Johnson

(Illustration by Michael Daley)

There are two kinds of prophets: prophets of victory and prophets of defeat. As the carnage of the First World War abruptly ceased, Oswald Spengler transfigured the German defeat into a global catastrophe with his Der Untergang des Abendlandes. (The title was translated as The Decline of the West, but Untergang really means “downfall”.) As the West was winning the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama published his essay “The End of History” in the summer of 1989. It was followed in 1992 by his book The End of History and the Last Man, elevating the triumph of liberal democracy onto a grander, teleological level. Of these two 20th-century seers, which has proved more reliable?

A century after his magnum opus appeared, Spengler is still read and debated; by common consent, he is still worth reading. Who, though, now reads Fukuyama? Outside the academy, does anyone see him as a guide to the present, let alone the future? Fukuyama is a footnote to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The End of History man is now history himself.

Not that Fukuyama has been idle. His books now fill a sizeable shelf. He is a distinguished scholar, with a chair at Stanford and an enviable accumulation of accolades. He is the very model of a modern intellectual, omnipresent in the public sphere. But his hyperactivity cannot disguise the impression that he is constantly catching up with events. True prophets are usually without honour in their own lands. After failing as a school teacher, Spengler never had a proper job, let alone the academic kudos that now attaches to Fukuyama’s name.

Yet we still worry about Spengler’s question mark over the fate of Western civilisation — is it in decline and destined to fall? Fukuyama can’t even decide whether his thesis — that we have reached the end of history because liberal democracy has triumphed — should have a question mark or not. The original article in the journal The National Interest had one; the subsequent book did not. He has since reinstated it. Nobody else really cares.

After writing worthy tomes on everything from neoconservatism to biotechnology, Fukuyama has now settled on a new theme to explain our present discontents: identity. His new book has two titles, one for each side of the Atlantic. Here in the UK we have a book entitled Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition. But inside the dust jacket we find the American title: Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.

This titular indecision reflects another contrast: whereas Spengler’s concerns were genuinely universal, Fukuyama’s are lamentably parochial. He takes the current, often ephemeral preoccupations of the American elite and elevates them into global concerns. Identity politics, which is the US equivalent of what Europeans call multiculturalism, has long been the obsession of the Democrats, who have tried and failed to meet the challenge of Donald Trump with a rainbow coalition of minorities. Their misguided strategy is now coming under sustained criticism from liberal as well as conservative voices, notably Mark Lilla in his book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. Fukuyama has nothing to add to this critique.

What he does, however, is to broaden the notion of identity so much that it ceases to have any explanatory power. So for example he tries to explain the Trump phenomenon by reference to the supposed identity politics of white Americans. This is the “politics of resentment”, as opposed to the “demand for dignity” of, for example, the #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter movements. Fukuyama’s loaded terminology (“dignity” versus “resentment”) betrays his own identity as a tenured professor, the Californian son of Japanese immigrants, and a liberal Republican Never-Trumper. But Trump voters have equally complex and various identities, the most salient of which is probably their aspiration to get on in the world without big government getting in the way. As Lilla — unlike Fukuyama — understands, sometimes economic factors outweigh cultural ones.

Identity doesn’t explain everything. One of the weakest aspects of Fukuyama’s account of identity politics is his analysis of Islamism. To see religion as “a species of identity politics” risks the error of reductionism. Religion can only be fully understood in its own terms, i.e. theologically. The tectonic shifts in Islam that result in political demands, for example for the restoration of the Caliphate, cannot be made comprehensible by comparisons with more secular societies such as the United States.

At the Cheltenham Literary Festival, Fukuyama warned that our focus on identity would transform the West into the Middle East. He blames the Right more than the Left for its emergence. But the problem isn’t identity: it is Western civilisation turning against itself. It isn’t the patriots waving Union Jacks at the Last Night of the Proms who threaten to import the troubles of the Middle East — it is the Corbynistas waving Palestinian flags at the Labour Party Conference.

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