Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Book Reviews

Getting Liberalism’s Attitude Back

Understanding liberalism as a culture not just a tidy set of axioms.

Charles Mathewes

Illustration by Lee Woodgate; Ikon Images.

Francis Fukuyama’s work is generally treated much the way pigeons treat statues: as something on which to deposit badly digested ideas, which are then left for others to clean up. His notoriety for the “End of History” thesis is based on a misreading of that phrase, not a real reading of his 1989 National Interest article “The End of History?” or his less sanguine 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. His subsequent work has received respectful public attention, but little scholarly engagement; he is treated more as a symptom than an intellect. Even with this book, the pattern of neglect-by-vague-praise continues: None of its many reviewers, for all their pretense at comprehension, noticed that his drive-by definition of “deontology” (“not linked to any ontology or substantive theory of human nature”) is totally wrong: Deontology comes from deon, a Greek word here meaning something like “duty” and refers to the study of ethics.

The slip-up is a little embarrassing, but it doesn’t really damage the book’s argument. Fukuyama, now at Stanford University, is a strong thinker. And his latest book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, is a remarkably fair-minded—one might say liberal-minded—exposition of liberalism’s current predicament. Certainly, unlike his magisterial two-volume Origins of Political Order (2011) and Political Order and Political Decay (2015), this slender volume is more frankly an advocate’s work than an analyst’s. But advocacy need not be distortion, and this work is the clearest brief account both of a broadly inclusive sense of liberalism and of some of the more interesting criticisms of it. In this Fukuyama follows earlier liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, Lionel Trilling, and Isaiah Berlin, who sought to understand their opponents, not simply condemn them. As Trilling himself put it in The Liberal Imagination, “[a] criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time,” so that liberalism might “be aware of the weak or wrong expressions of itself.”

Attempting to recognize and reckon with genuinely illiberal views—seeking to understand your opponents—is a rare and welcome exercise. It is also undertaken more by liberals than by anti-liberals, who find it convenient to meet liberalism with uncomplicated contempt than any attempt to understand it. In itself this is a strong argument in favor of liberalism. Whether Fukuyama’s own account of liberalism is entirely satisfactory is another matter.

For Fukuyama, the challenges besetting contemporary liberalism arise from within liberalism itself. In this he reaffirms his “End of History” thesis: There is no real alternative on offer. After all, he argues, during the last two centuries liberalism has successfully incorporated difference, fostered tremendous economic growth, and significantly reduced violence; no other system, he thinks, has done the same. But liberalism’s central accomplishments can become unbalanced—“doctrinaire” and “carried to extremes.” Both right and left, he thinks, generate “extremisms” of autonomy. On the right, neoliberal reductions of the human to Homo economicus ignore “that there are social goods other than consumer welfare.” On the left, the dogma that individuals have an absolute prerogative to self-assign every aspect of their identity leads many progressives to reject liberalism as a mask for the “real” interests of power, especially wealth, but now extended to include certain forms of identity, like whiteness.

Given this diagnosis of liberalism’s discontents as caused or embodied by its own extremisms, it follows that “the answer to these discontents isn’t to abandon liberalism as such, but to moderate it.” So Fukuyama defends (against the right’s radical libertarianism) the legitimacy of government, and (against the left) the essential value both of freedom of speech and also the legitimacy of norms in public life against radical individualism.

Here his advice is good, if somewhat bromidic: Government is valuable, not fundamentally a burden, though it should be devolved as much as possible, to encourage self-government. Autonomy is good but not the good, nor is it uncomplicatedly always good, for other values can limit or even override it. Freedom of speech must be safeguarded, but public speech in particular must also be regulated with regard to truthfulness. Public policy “should seek to equalize outcomes across the whole society, but they should be directed at fluid categories like class rather than fixed ones like race or ethnicity.” In short, liberal politics is complicated; it attempts to coordinate a series of disparate ends, counterbalancing each with the others, admitting that no one has yet found a magic formula to resolve all conflicts among them.

In general, Fukuyama affirms moderation as the crucial liberal value: It is “an artificial constraint on the inner self,” a virtue of “self-restraint, the deliberate effort not to seek the greatest emotion or the fullest accomplishment.” Such moderation is “the key to the revival—indeed, to the survival—of liberalism itself.” Liberalism is a disposition more than a philosophical doctrine. Consequently, Fukuyama underscores the importance not primarily of arguments but of sane attitudes and sound institutions as the best response against liberalism’s deformations. Liberalism’s institutional ecology, when healthy, has ample resources to resist ideological extremism. To repair those institutions, we must reacquire the dispositions that created and sustained them.

What can we say about his proposal? Certainly, the focus on institutions is astute. Too often liberalism is conveniently redescribed as a set of axioms (as in Raymond Geuss’s recent quasi-memoir, reviewed in the previous issue of this magazine), but it is really a culture. On the other hand, Fukuyama’s depiction of the discontents of liberalism strains toward a too-tidy symmetry. His analysis of what he calls populism is really about neoliberalism and racism, both on the right, and his diagnosis of progressivism is really about a few twittering professors and human resources administrators on the left. Who presents a deeper threat today? How you answer that question tells us much about how you see the world.

Furthermore, among liberal institutions, he says surprisingly little about education, about how persons are formed in liberal cultures. This is unfortunate. Many major liberals formulated theories of education—Locke, Jefferson, Mill, Dewey—and for good reason: Liberalism presumes individual agency and certain character traits that do not come easily or “naturally” to people, but which require explicit inculcation. This seems especially important today, in an age of growing expressive individualism, amplified and commodified by the surveillance capitalism of social media. One might argue that today’s characteristic liberal deformations derive from flawed educations—the right’s education based on jingoism and racial cluelessness, the left’s education that instills a weaponized therapeutic mindset; for both, an education in groupthink. Surely we can say something about how “moderation” could be produced by education. Fukuyama’s silence disappoints.

Similarly surprising is his silence on religion—the source of so many discontents, or the idiom in which those discontents are often formulated. Much of Fukuyama’s own training is in traditions of modern political philosophy for which religion is a major concern. (Furthermore, he himself is the son of a seminary professor: that is, a preacher’s kid.) He recognizes that liberalism has always grappled with the question of how to manage divergent religious convictions in pluralistic settings; indeed liberalism justifies itself to no small degree by claiming to host peoples’ diverse religious convictions in a manner respecting each while also enabling all with those diverse religious convictions to participate equally in self-rule. Whether it can actually do that is a matter of vigorous theoretical dispute and ongoing political contestation; again, Fukuyama’s silence disappoints.

This inattention to liberalism’s origins (in education) and ends (in religion) encourages his misdiagnosis of “extremism” and his dissatisfying prescription of moderation in response. Undoubtedly, moderation is undersold these days; we live in a world of rabid hyperbole. But I think we might better affirm not exactly moderation, but self-conscious ambivalence. This ambivalence captures the internal nature of liberalism’s discontents better than “moderation”. Just as the threat is not from outside liberalism, so our response ought to be native to it, and that response should not flat-footedly dilute or restrain our liberalism, but recognize that its energies are always contrapuntal and dialectic, moving in different directions, promoting tensions in our thinking and our longings, and we should not try to avoid these tensions, but confront them. This would have helped the book better echo its title’s Freudian allusion. In Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, the ambivalences innate to civilization generate tensions within the psyche that urge us toward profoundly destructive actions. Similarly, I suggest, with liberalism: We want to be liberal, but we also resent it. And those two impulses don’t “average out” in our souls; they uneasily coexist.

The origins of our ambivalences about liberalism lurk in several conceptual, and perhaps practical, incommensurabilities that are baked into the project. One is the famous abiding tension between equality and liberty: To what extent does our liberty threaten social equality? Typically, this comes down to a fight about privacy and private property. We can accept a wary affirmation of private property as (among other things) a pragmatic counterweight to the accretion of state power without ignoring, as Marx accused liberals of doing, how vast, metastasizing concentrations of private property (like corporations) become themselves political facts, beside and sometimes controlling the state, meriting direct political attention. This position does not resolve the struggle between liberty and equality; it expresses an ambivalence we have yet to settle, and perhaps never will.

A parallel ambivalence marks liberalism’s attitude toward difference. As Fukuyama says repeatedly, one of liberalism’s greatest strengths, and one of its self-proclaimed virtues, is its capacity for “peacefully managing diversity in pluralistic societies.” But things are a bit more complicated, more ambivalent, than that. Liberal political orders indeed emerged, in part, to host illiberal moral communities, but those orders also require illiberal moral communities to justify themselves. This is true even of religion. Religion’s challenge to liberalism is posed by the distinct kind of modern religion created in part by the “confessing state” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As sociologist Charles Tilly noted long ago, the story of liberalism is as much about the rise of modern states as about the fracturing of earlier harmonious moral orders. “Liberalism” is not a solution to some ahistorical problem of “primordial” religious intolerance; it’s profoundly naïve, as it were, to think that. Similarly, liberalism values and cultivates the individual—who is, by definition, distinct—but then confronts the challenge of managing the differences it has had no small share in producing. It is not quite fair to say that liberalism created the problems to which it provides the solutions, but it is codependent with those problems. Liberalism’s ambivalence, that is, should extend to liberalism itself.

That is not to say that liberalism has no distinctive insights about politics. As the great Swiss-French political thinker Benjamin Constant first pointed out two centuries ago, liberalism actually attempts something quite different from previous political visions: It affirms that explicit politics need not be the summum bonum of human existence. In a way this involves a kind of “moderation,” but of a very particular sort, in a very particular region of life—the realm of explicit political contestation. Here, liberalism needs to teach people both how to lose and how to win in politics, without winning or losing everything. At its best, it does this by diminishing the importance of politics and elevating realms of life beyond politics; for instance, it constructs a zone of individual privacy, a “prepolitical” interiority, and suggests that human flourishing might be found therein, fundamentally apart from one’s participation in the civic life of some political community. Liberalism thus recognizes the possibility of multiple forms of human flourishing, by refusing to say human flourishing can only be political.

Ambivalence may not sound as stable, or stabilizing, as moderation, but it is much more realistic. It offers a kind of psychological analogy to the Madisonian vision of a structural balance of powers. It also better recognizes the interminable condition of politics, captured in Reinhold Niebuhr’s definition of liberal democracy in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness as “a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems.”

Ambivalence also opens up liberalism to a broader community of who counts as a liberal. By contrast, in equating justice with fairness, Fukuyama’s vision is too Rawlsian. Many of liberalism’s present intellectual difficulties are due to its captivity in fundamentally scholastic and technical idioms in philosophy and legal discourse, which pragmatically sacrifice vision and depth for simple precision. I suspect that liberalism cannot be properly at home in technical discourses, which are usually smug, humorless, and deeply inhospitable to ambivalence and irony. (Free-ranging, ambivalent liberal ironists—Bernard Williams and Richard Rorty, for instance—sometimes use technical discourse, but are not captive to it.) Our deepest liberal guides are not the scholastic political theorists, but rather the more free-ranging midcentury liberals and their heirs, always somewhat skeptical of technique—thinkers such as Trilling, Ellison, Arendt, Aron, Niebuhr, Berlin, Charles Mills, Marilynne Robinson, and Zadie Smith.

Finally, recognizing a more ambivalent liberalism lets us acknowledge a more tragic dimension to liberalism. Without this recognition, liberalism may be too shallow, too brittle, failing to reckon with the rebarbative difficulty of the world—its real depths, its intractable challenges, the way reality stymies our best efforts at flourishing. The accusation here is that liberalism makes things too easy, too straightforward, too rational; appeals to moderation do not help here. What literary theorist Amanda Anderson calls “bleak liberalism” is, I think, deeply central to liberalism’s best versions. Yet this bleakness is due not to a partial apprehension of reality but to a more capacious one, a more ambivalent vision than any one-sided apprehensions can allow. Liberalism is partially pessimistic about the achievement of the full human good, urging us to be satisfied with the partial, reserved right; but that pessimism is in turn counterpointed by a powerful sense of the possibilities, always fragile, always reversible, that its inhabitants can realize. To the degree that Fukuyama’s appeal to moderation attempts to clip liberalism’s wings, it misses this, and in that way, it disappoints.