November 15, 2011


The Triumphalist: a review of The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution By Francis Fukuyama (John Gray, November 9, 2011, New Republic)

Ever since his original essay appeared, and was widely and witheringly criticized, Fukuyama has complained that his central idea has been wickedly caricatured. In the introduction to The End of History and the Last Man, he responded indignantly to critics who pointed out that history had not in fact stopped. When informed of Fukuyama's writings, Margaret Thatcher is reported to have exclaimed, "The end of history? The beginning of nonsense!" For Fukuyama, Thatcher was laboring under a misunderstanding. He had never claimed that historical events were grinding to a halt. It was "history understood as a single, coherent, evolutionary process" that had come to an end. Nor had he asserted that there would be no more historical conflicts--he had always accepted that there would be plenty. But one type of conflict has ended, he insists: with the triumph of liberal democracy, the conflict over what is the best form of government has been resolved definitively and finally. Charting the development of the state, the rule of law, and accountable government, his new book maintains that together they define a universal regime: "A successful modern liberal democracy combines all three sets of institutions in a stable balance." An idealized version of American government--this is the only regime that can be fully legitimate in modern conditions.

It is a grandiose assertion, which only re-states, in more specific terms, the end-of-history thesis to which Fukuyama claims never to have subscribed. History--the history of modern politics, at any rate--largely consists of conflicts about what is the best form of government. The ideological rivalry of the cold war is only one example among many such antagonisms. The French Revolution sparked a contest between two rival versions of democracy, the first a version of limited government and the second a vehicle for popular will. (From one point of view, the present regime in Iran can be seen as a popular theocracy of a kind whose outlines are sketched in the writings of Rousseau.) It is often conveniently forgotten, but there were many in the interwar years who viewed fascism and communism as legitimate alternatives to the failing regime of liberal capitalism--a position defended, with some qualifications, by James Burnham in 1941 in The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World.

At the start of the twenty-first century, meanwhile, Islamists claim to be advancing a political and social model that rivals Western modernity--an extremely disputable thesis given that so much in Islamist thinking has been shaped by Leninism, but one that will doubtless continue to be advanced. And while not claiming to be a universally applicable model, the post-Mao regime of state-managed capitalism in China is increasingly coming to be seen as a viable alternative to Western free markets. Unless one defines political legitimacy so that it means nothing other than liberal democracy, the best system of government remains as contested as it has ever been. Plainly, ideology has not ended.
The problem, obviously, with Mr. Gray's alternative defeatist view is that Islamists are competing within emerging liberal democracies, not offering an alternative, thereby accepting that their legitimacy requires not a religious imprimatur but a democratic one.  Meanwhile, the PRC and Islamicists--like the Taliban--demonstrate their lack of legitimacy because they cannot contest elections--they'd be rejected--and because they have to exercise such a high degree of control over their populations just to keep them in line. 

Posted by at November 15, 2011 6:23 AM

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