The thinker talks to Freddie Sayers about how populism is a matter of the soul
Since Aris Roussinos’s fantastic essay on UnHerd earlier this month, “Why Fukuyama was right all along,” I’ve been getting to know the much-misunderstood thinker’s writing.
It turns out that, far from the triumphalist credo of 1990s liberalism, The End of History is a disquieting, and prescient, sketch of what the liberal era would feel like, and how it would eventually go wrong. Much of Fukuyama’s writing since – from The Great Disruption (1999), through to his most recent book, Identity (2018) — has focused on the inadequacy of bland technocratic globalism. It’s not primarily an economic analysis: he describes how the part of the human soul (thymos) that seeks dignity and recognition of differences was suppressed by the global unanimity and so the populist waves of 2016 and beyond were inevitable.
And yet he remains highly critical of the populist governments that challenged that consensus, recently writing how the ejection of Donald Trump from office next week is the most important political event of the past two generations.
I wanted explore that tension, and had a fascinating and enjoyable discussion from his home in Stanford, California.
ON THE COMING ELECTION
It’s an extremely important that Biden wins this election. I think a resounding rejection of Trump and Trumpism is going to be necessary to heal the divisions and terrible problems that have emerged in this country as a result of the last four years.
ON A PRESIDENT BIDEN
If Democrats don’t take control of the Senate, Biden is going to face the same problems Obama faced in the last few years of his presidency where he can’t get anything done because the Republicans will try to resist everything legislatively. Even if he takes the Senate, he still won’t have the kind of majority needed to pass really difficult legislation. There’s also a big gap opening between the Left-wing of the Democrat party and centrists like Biden. That’s a fight that has been kept under wraps because everybody is so interested in getting Trump out of power.
ON THE SHORTCOMINGS OF GLOBALISM
As globalisation progressed many people did not see their situations improve. They lost jobs and men in traditional manufacturing jobs in relatively low skilled parts of the economy saw their jobs go to China. When you lose a job, it’s also a loss of status. When you have a job it’s a sign that society values you enough to pay you a certain salary. If you’re unemployed for a prolonged period, you feel worthless and it provokes an intense feeling of anger that someone is doing this to you and I feel this is one of the triggers for populism. It’s very easy to blame this on foreigners and immigrants who are taking this from you and the most important thing they’re taking is not resources but it’s also dignity.
ON THE SHORTCOMINGS OF THE EU
In a sense the EU succeeded a little too well. It was created because of all the bloody nationalism that consumed Europe for the first half of the twentieth century. It was designed to replace nationalistic aspiration with economic wellbeing, which it succeeded in doing. But that wasn’t sufficient to satisfy people’s aspirations because they really do want to be recognised for higher causes than job security.
ON THE SHORTCOMINGS OF TECHNOCRATIC LIBERALISM
The problem with old technocratic liberalism, is that it’s very heavily into what’s now called neoliberalism. That is to say, this very pro-market anti state ideology that grew up under Reagan and Thatcher that pushed both parties in the United States, and I would say in Britain as well, towards a kind of consensus on this very free market version of capitalism that had a lot of destructive effects. We need to rethink that in a really serious way.
This is something I’ve been trying to wrestle with: whether you can dethrone some of the ideas that have become so dominant — like the best outcome for everybody is just aggregate growth that privileges producers over consumers — there’s many things that I think need to be fundamentally rethought.
If you reconstruct a centrist, liberal politics — it wouldn’t be a return to the technocratic elites that brought you China going into the WTO and this massive out-flux of jobs. It would really be a really different set of economic policies. On the cultural front, it would involve a renewed defence of classical liberalism where we really want to protect diversity but we don’t want to use that protection to reduce the rights of people who don’t agree with a certain identitarian consensus.
ON HOW WE SHOULD NOT RETURN TO A PRE-TRUMP ORDER
A lot of these rebellions were driven by legitimate resentments that people have about the way that the old liberal — both national and international — order was structured. I don’t think that anyone wants to go back to the heyday of globalisation, where a company would outsource jobs for the tiniest efficiency advantage, even if it ended up screwing a lot of their workers. That’s something that needs to be rethought.
Similarly, the cultural imperialism of a lot of the elites is something that needs to be investigated. I think that people are more aware of that gap between elites and ordinary people than they were before the rise of Donald Trump. That’s all to the good.
I think a policy that would take into account these resentments would say: we like immigrants and the profit we make from them, we support diversity in itself, but the government ought to be in control, and able to make a decision on who gets to come into the country. That ought to satisfy the legitimate grievances of people who can see that the government is not in control, but it would not cater to forms of xenophobia prejudice that parts of the population expresses.
I can only explain the current Democratic stance on immigration as a result of interest group politics within the party. There are well organised pro-immigrant lobbies that are really opposed to stronger enforcement of immigration laws.
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF A NATIONAL IDENTITY
Every modern democracy needs a national identity. You have to be committed to membership in a national community that the nation still remains a basic building block of politics because that’s where the power is located. So the European Union doesn’t have an army, it doesn’t have police, power is still held at the nation state level. That’s a good thing. Nations can co-operate and delegate certain powers to transnational bodies but ultimately they are the basic democratic building blocks of modern politics and as long as that is true you need to have a national identity. But that identity cannot be based on a partial identity based on race or ethnicity or religion because our modern societies are too de facto diverse for that — so they have to be built around ideas.
Nation is important and you need to have loyalty that is to some extent irrational — you have to love the basic founding ideas of your political system for that system to really work— that’s what I think has been really missing on the Left. A lot of people on the Left have a universalist belief in equality and so it doesn’t stop at national borders. That’s fine but the fact of the matter is power really stops at national borders and therefore it’s important to think about power in those national terms.
ON WHAT IDENTITY POLITICS SHARES WITH WHITE NATIONALISM
In America, there has been a rise in overt white nationalism which I did not think would be possible after the Civil Rights era. This feeds off Left-wing identity politics. The Left has lost its connection to class. In the 20th century, the Left-wing agenda was all about the proletariat, which in nearly every European country was majority white. But that agenda has shifted over the last couple of generations: since the 1960s, inequality is not understood as a general class phenomenon but injustices that are done to specific groups.
This is something that gave me a lot of pushback in my last book Identity, because I said there is a connection between left and right wing forms of identity politics. I think this definition of injustice as predominantly being done to these specific groups that didn’t seem to include white people is a cause of resentment. You hear this a lot in the rhetoric of the left where’s there’s talk of structural racism and the intrinsic racism of whiteness as an inevitable accompaniment to simply the skin colour you’re born with, which is deeply offensive to white people who are not racist. So you have this interplay between Right and Left wing forms of identity politics which I think is very unhealthy for democracy.
ON RESISTING THE WOKE LEFT
I would say that my current position has moved reasonably far Left on economic issues. To tackle inequality you do need higher taxation on rich people, you need strengthening of social protections, including healthcare. Obamacare needs to be fixed. On cultural issues, I think I will be spending the next few years, if the Democrats win, fighting woke progressivism. I think that’s an area where things can easily get carried too far, in terms of restrictions on free speech. The people who believe that stuff do have anti-liberal tendencies.
ON WHAT TRUMP GOT RIGHT
There’s all sorts of things that I feel very badly that because Donald Trump has articulated something that I believe is basically true, it discredits that position and it becomes much harder to say it. For example, he talks about the importance of borders, and I actually do think borders are important. I think that critical race theory is very deeply flawed — and I’m really sorry that he launched this official attack on the teaching of critical race theory because now everybody on the Left side feels like they have to defend it because Trump has attacked it.
If that same position had been taken by someone that had much better credibility, that wasn’t associated with all these extremist positions, then you might have had a shift in the right direction. So I think it’s going to take a long time to undo that damage.