What Francis Fukuyama gets wrong about liberalism
He fails to appreciate that Left-modernism has corrupted the ideology
In an insightful piece over at Foreign Affairs entitled ‘Liberalism Needs the Nation’, Francis Fukuyama argues that abstract universalist liberalism is too thin to compete with the Right-wing nationalism of a Le Pen, Trump or Putin, but that an inclusive, state-led form of nationhood can keep the populist wolf from the door. This is a point he made some weeks earlier in an interview with UnHerd, and as a political liberal, I share Fukuyama’s concern at the apparent erosion of procedural liberalism. I agree with him that liberal democracy can generally only operate at the nation-state level.
Yet Fukuyama’s account fails to peer beneath the hood of nationalism to acknowledge the importance of an often assimilative majority ethnicity in underpinning stable national identities. He also overlooks the post-1960s Left-modernist capture of national identity in the West, and its attendant corruption of liberalism.
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Fukuyama correctly observes that liberalism emerged after the 17th century Wars of Religion in Europe as a doctrine of toleration. To prevent people tearing each other apart over dogma, liberalism instills the idea of civil rights, backed by law, to ensure that differences are respected. Liberalism gained traction within the constitutions of nation-states which, in post-1945 Europe, had clear ethnic majorities. Indeed, classical liberal theory assumed a relatively homogeneous nation-state.
While post-1945 European nation-states were more ethnically homogeneous than those in much of the world, it remains the case that 70% of the world’s major countries have an ethnic or pan-ethnic (i.e. Hindu Indians, white Americans) majority, with many of the rest (such as Iran or Indonesia) containing dominant plurality groups of 40 to 50%, with only a handful, like Lebanon or Liberia, being deeply diverse.
While Fukuyama lauds the opening up of immigration in post-1960s Anglo settler societies, he fails to appreciate that, apart from the removal of racial bans, this was not a piece of neutral procedural liberalism. Instead, it represented an attempt by western states to privilege a Left-modernist ideal in which diversity is not just tolerated but actively promoted.
This subtle difference, between toleration and celebration, is in fact an enormous leap. Instead of sticking with the liberal principle of nations’ right to free association, with agnosticism about what form the nation might take or how it chooses new members, the new cosmopolitan-multicultural nationalism plumped for diversity and change over ethno-cultural continuity. This was rooted in earlier Left-modernist ideas of asymmetrical multiculturalism whereby established White Anglo-Protestant majorities were deemed boring and repressive compared to expressive, exotic and downtrodden ethnics (initially European immigrant groups).
In order to enforce this ‘thick’ vision of the good life, the cultural impact of immigration policy was ruled off-limits as a taboo topic. In Canada, the 1971 Multiculturalism Act enshrined Left-modernism in law, compelling the government to ‘promote’ and ‘enhance’ difference as well as the idea that the country’s 20% non-British and non-French minority was an ‘invaluable resource’. The country’s British and Protestant heritage was essentially banished from the official narrative. This was an agenda of transformation, not neutral liberalism.
Meanwhile, American liberalism started to move, after Lyndon Johnson’s Howard University speech of 1965, from an emphasis on equal civil rights to an ideological regime of enforcing equal outcomes: whether in the form of affirmative action or in the guise of the diversity industry, which boomed as early as the 1970s. The notion of an ethnic majority melting pot was ditched in favour of multiculturalism, diversity and, later, anti-whiteness.
Over time, the Left-modernist ethos has grown increasingly strident in elite western circles. Progressive illiberalism began with affirmative action in the 70s, cooked up political correctness and speech codes in the 90s, and metastasised into cancel culture and anti-whiteness in the 2010s.
Fukuyama is right that liberalism is under pressure. But he fails to appreciate that Left-modernism has corrupted liberalism, hijacked the national identity of western countries and undermined the ethnic majorities which lend stability to the national identities he values.
In other words, ‘citizen of nowhere child of migrants has ideological blinkers on’. You cannot have an effective liberal democracy without ethnic and cultural homogenity. Instead you get Lebanon with its sectarian chaos, Malaysia with massive scale state sponsored discrimination, or the U.S with political paralysis and growing inequality.
I’m not so sure if it’s about ethnic homogeneity, but cultural. What united the Angles and Saxons, an Early Americans wasn’t so much their shared race, but their shared religion.
When we do away with the things people worked very had at binding us together over, there isn’t much left.
A very good point. Quite often in the UK the aversion of some towards antithetical cultures is charcterised as racism. The people so accused are often more racially diverse and integrated than their accuser. And that’s because those who do the accusing assume that any expressed antipathy toward a minority is because of race and not culture.
This also explains why the usual accusers see a country beset by overt racism and the rest of us see a pretty racially blind country which has issues with certain cultural beliefs and lifestyles.
Yes. Values, beliefs, mores etc are the guts of culture. I think it is the value sets that bind as these are encoded in traditions, symbolic performances and in institutions.
Cultural homogeneity yes. US is divided by culture not ethnicity
But of course no one EVER wants to look at the empirical proof, evidence and statistics of fact, there for all to see, that across the globe different ” ethnicities” do not have differences in their performance and success in terms of stability, democracy, freedoms, and financial, industrial, and commercial league tables, in academe, medical science, art, or any other sphere of performance? Why is this completely ignored?
” do” as opposed to ” do not” addendum and errata
This is an enormously important article, offering a number of points vital to the reversal of “woke”. First, we should “acknowledge the importance of an often assimilative majority ethnicity in underpinning stable national identities.”
Second, we should recall that “classical liberal theory assumed a relatively homogeneous nation-state.” which means accepting Liberalism as the refinement of an established culture with no desire to break it and an interest in sustaining it.
We should note that the “difference, between toleration and celebration, is in fact an enormous leap.” Indeed, we should recognise “celebration” as the opposite of tolerance and the obverse of repression, now manifest in western society as compelled speech. We should also see that current public ethics involve a subtle “persecution of the old majority” implicit in “Left-modernist ideas of asymmetrical multiculturalism whereby established White Anglo-Protestant majorities were deemed boring and repressive compared to expressive, exotic and downtrodden ethnics…” and realise the oppression with which such persecutions always begin is already present, as in Canada’s “1971 Multiculturalism Act” which “enshrined Left-modernism in law, compelling the government to ‘promote’ and ‘enhance’ difference.”
We should likewise accept that as a result of this corruption of Liberalism we have seen a move “from an emphasis on equal civil rights to an ideological regime of enforcing equal outcomes.”
Finally, we should wake up to the progress of this sinister movement, as described by Mr Kaufman: “Progressive illiberalism began with affirmative action in the 70s, cooked up political correctness and speech codes in the 90s, and metastasised into cancel culture and anti-whiteness in the 2010s.”
And we should ask ourselves: where will it go next? “Anti-whiteness” is an openly race-baiting doctrine, and the history of such hatreds is ugly.
It’s worth pointing out that, In the States at least, the majority culture (across ethnicities) barely exists anymore. It’s been replaced by “getting and spending”; just a construct of commercial interests. So the newer minority cultures seem more “real” because they are.
“The world is too much with us, late and soon / Getting and spending we lay waste our powers. / Little we see in nature that is ours…”
How nice to see Wordsworth so properly alluded to!
I’ve been commenting for years on the misuse/transformation of the term ‘diversity’. Diverse used to be a simple description of healthy human difference. But in the hands of the postmodern left it’s become an aspiration – ‘diversity is our strength’, a nonsense mantra which excludes diversity of opinion. ‘Diverse’ is etymologically related to ‘divide’. Why would anyone want to dilute and therefore weaken a stable population unless the objective is destruction.
“Why would anyone want to dilute and therefore weaken a stable population unless the objective is destruction(?).”
Because, quite simply, they are Marxists. Or more accurately, critical theorists who have carried the torch of the cultural Marxism of the Fabian Society in the UK and the Frankfurt School in the US. The call-to-arms of this movement is “aufheben der kultur,” or the abolishment of culture. The objective is to tear down the existing cultural hegemonic structure and replace it with a counter hegemony that will usher in a utopian world in which humankind awakens to new socialist sensibilities and an idealized system of perfect justice and equity. But until the existing “oppressive” structures are completely dismantled, true socialism cannot emerge.
Someone has been reading their Lindsay?
Aufheben is a very tricksy rhetorical technique of demoralisation, corrosion and destruction.
This post fundamentally misunderstands the nature of Fabianism in the U.K.: essentially, a demand by educated professionals to exercise power in pursuit of (assumed-to-be) rational, planned objectives. Early Fabians tended to be elitist (and sometimes eugenicists) but were NOT Marxists, and certainly not cultural Marxists. Even the late adulation of Stalin by the Webbs and by Bernard Shaw was to do with their desire for planning and order, and owed virtually nothing to his Marxism. Post WW2 the Fabian Society became a bastion of the Social Democratic, anti-Marxist wing of Labour intellectuals.
‘Diversity is not always, nor obviously, a ‘strength’. Everyday we can observe that it is not.
Obvious to the man on the Clapham omnibus but not obvious to left wing intellectuals
Oh no – don’t let them off the hook. They know full well the evil that they do.
Excellent article, but does miss one of the reasons for the enforced ‘diversity’ from abroad, as well as some of the differences that opened up among groups that were previously ethnically different but considered themselves culturally the same: the infiltration of the liberal movement by progressives/Marxists. Exploiting divisions within a society has long been their MO for how to gain power. Over time, when it failed as an independent movement in some places (like the US) they gradually insinuated themselves in the ‘liberal’ parties of various countries (Dems in US, Labour in UK, etc). Among the ideas they have encouraged is that immigrants should not assimilate to their culture, and to try to break off people who were already in the culture and make them see themselves differently–think the work they have done in Scotland in the UK, or among blacks in the US. The progressives have not yet succeeded, of course: Scotland still voted to stay, blacks are still more conservative than the population at large and least likely to support progressive ideology. But the progressives have created a lot of noise around these differences and have indeed increased the number of people who really no longer consider themselves part of the country at large. And they control enough of the media and major government institutions to create the image that their views are widely held and inevitable.
This is hardly only a thing Marxist/socialist proponents do in the West. The Arab nationalist socialist movement that Nassar started gained so much of its unity by making Israel an object of hate. The Ba’ath party of Syria (also nationalist socialist) took off by uniting minorities against the majority in exchange for power. The Ba’ath of Iraq were similar, but started out essentially as a Tikrit mafia who gained control of major instruments of government, then got the backing of the minority Sunnis to ensure they had a loyal power base. First in North Vietnam, then in what had been the Republic of Vietnam after they conquered it, the socialists exploited ethnic and social differences among the peoples of the region. In South America more than a few socialists have used how much or how little Native American they are to rally people to their side by turning them against those parts of the population that are different.
What I’m saying: this is not a new technique for socialists/progressives. It is not something they only do in the West, and in fact it has not yet harmed the West nearly as bad as it has other places where they have held power. But it is something to be resisted. The good thing about the West is that we are still, nominally, democratic. So don’t vote for anyone who holds socialist/progressive leanings unless you think turning society against itself is a good idea. This is part and parcel of their ideology. Some of them may not talk about it much on the campaign, but they will support it if elected. The chaos it creates among the people of a country creates a greater demand for a stronger government, with less debate and political opposition, plus more authority. This is the goal of their ideology and has been since the mid-1800s. Using immigration as a weapon by encouraging the new arrivals to remain different is simply one technique that they have been using increasingly because it works better than some of their other ideas in Western countries.
I no longer call myself a liberal, because it’s meaning has changed so much over my adult lifetime.
Very good article! Thanks!
I have the same “yes, but” reaction I had to Fukuyama’s rather shallow piece. I do not subscribe to the ethnicity argument, even if it were possible to properly define ethnicity. We have ethnically homogenous states with deep social/political divisions, e.g. Northern Ireland or Belgium, and on the other hand linguistically and religiously diverse polities which move along quite smoothly, as e.g. Switzerland.
As some here have already pointed out, culture is more important than ethnicity.
I believe there has to be a strong societal commitment to core beliefs, and a political leadership and societal elite that unify rather than divide, that view those disagreeing as loyal opposition rather than deviants. There is a middle line to tread between tolerating diversity and enforcing commonality.
The internet has completely changed peoples ” views” aka brainwashed knee jerk submission to ” ideas”, and so comparisons with times passim, without taking this Orwellian prole screen into consideration, along with exponential decline in average education levels in the US and UK, is worse than ” odious” as the old quip goes.
Very illuminating piece. And thanks for the terminology – I have long been unimpressed by the tags ‘leftist’ and ‘liberal’ attached to today’s counter-cultural movements. They are not leftist in any sense of society-wide collectivism and cannot be as long as their agendas involve the imposition of rules from the top without any debate or scrutiny. And they cannot possibly be ‘liberal’ if their response to any criticism of their actions is to smear their interlocutor as ‘racist, bigot, transphobe etc etc’. ‘Progressive illiberalism’ just about covers it for me; it should be used more!.
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