The Voice of The Zeitgeist

Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014.

The End of History was the beginning of Fukuyama’s history as public philosopher of history. A quarter of a century ago, at the dusk of the Cold War, Fukuyama swooped down, owlishly, into the international intellectual scene with an article in National Interest magazine that captured the zeitgeist of 1989, it enticed and irritated. It captured the spirit of 1989 in suggesting that all the ideological alternatives to liberal democracy have exhausted themselves and ideological competition ended. Communism imploded; it disintegrated rather than was destroyed from outside. Fukuyama enticed not only victorious cold warriors, but also some former Marxists who needed faith, or at least a historical plan to orient themselves in time. Fukuyama’s End of History irritated those people who did not necessarily read his article but did not like 1989 either because they still longed for a different utopia, or because, as “third way” social democrats, they needed Communism to argue that the political “truth” lay in the middle, between the communist Left and liberal Right. Whether or not Fukuyama discovered the ideological meaning of history, there is no doubt that his article and the book that followed articulated the zeitgeist of 1989.

The first dozen years following the End of History unfolded according to plan. Dictatorships collapsed and were replaced by better or worse democracies. Only the Middle East stood out because it did not democratize. Then, the century ended on September 11. Two American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost American lives and a fortune, yet seem to have achieved very little. The worst economic recession since the 1930s seemed even more meaningless than painful. It was unintended and unforeseen. The pain it has caused, unlike the painful transformations of post-communist economies, has had no higher purpose which would have made it into a sacrifice. The social effects of new information and finance technologies have increased the gap between the rich and the poor in America and put pressure on the middle classes, whose incomes have stagnated for decades while they face higher education and health care costs, but also lower costs of Chinese manufactured goods. Since the middle classes have been the backbone of democracy, their decline has had dire political implications.

The rise of Putin, the Arab Spring’s cooling into a winter of discontent, and the economic and geopolitical rise of the still-authoritarian China seem to have reversed the global expansion of liberal democracy. Back at home, the American government seems better at waging wars abroad than at fixing problems at home. Reforms in immigration, the regulation of the banking and mortgages industries, taxation, pensions and health care are obviously necessary. The social contract that was created when life was shorter, birthrates higher, and economic growth faster needs to be revised. Yet, the White House and the opposition Republicans block each other and cannot agree on a compromise. Both parties are subject to pressures from lobbyists for entrenched special interests from trade unions to industrial sectors that benefit from the status quo. The American zeitgeist is staid.

Fukuyama has not changed his mind about the absence of alternatives to liberal democracy, dismissing Putin’s neo-imperialism and Arab Islamism as temporary side-effects of high energy prices. Fukuyama believes that China will have to introduce democratic accountability and rule of law as its middle classes grow in numbers. The real threat to democracy today, argues Fukuyama, is not from external ideological competition, but from internal decay. In 1989 Fukuyama was inspired by the teleological progressivism of Hegel and Kojeve. The current Fukuyama is closer to Vico and at times even Spengler. An evolutionary theory of history unites the old idealist Fukuyama with the current institutional Fukuyama: ideas and political institutions are subjected to historical variation and selection like biological species. They decay when they fail to adapt to changing environments. Some ecological niches dictate different adaptations, but there are also optimal solutions that are selected irrespective of path dependency, just like eyes and wings were selected several times in natural history. Such political homoplasies, evolutionary convergences, can be ideas like liberal democracy, or institutions like the modern state, rules of law and democratic accountability.

The universalism that considered democracy to be the spontaneous default regime for any society free to choose could not survive the disappointments of Afghanistan and Iraq. Fukuyama embraces now a historicism in the sense of understanding democracy in the historical and institutional contexts from which it has emerged. Fukuyama upholds an institutional development theory: before a polity can afford democracy, it has to develop a modern bureaucratic state and have the rule of law. Otherwise, it will be subjected to self-destructive clientelist corruption and decay. The modernization of the state happened often in reaction to military threats, forcing the upper classes to open up rather than maintain an inefficient patronage system. The rule of law emerged from transcendental and independent religions that curbed absolute monarchies, which explains its absence from China. Democratic accountability emerged from the estates of the upper classes which had to approve taxation. In the Whig tradition, Fukuyama praises the balance between the king and the nobility that was struck in England after the Glorious Revolution.

Unfortunately, not all of the three good things always go together historically. Fukuyama recommends to first modernize the state, then establish the rule of law, and only lastly democratize. His reason is that a country cannot enjoy high rates of economic growth without an effective government. It can develop without democratic accountability and even the rule of law, as in China. Democracy in Latin America and Africa did not lead to economic development because of the weaknesses of the states there. In Nigeria for example, the problem is not lack of democracy; but rent-collecting political elite facing a disunited mass of unorganized citizens without the institutions of state and rule of law. Latin American states have low capacities; they cannot even collect taxes and must resort to generating inflation as backdoor taxation. Extreme class inequalities have scared the elites from arming the masses to wage international wars and from nationalism to take hold. Armed conflicts have usually been internal to each country. Likewise, democracy has been insufficient in Ukraine and India. Ukraine squandered its achievements in the 2004 Orange Revolution by failing to end corruption and create an effective state. Despite democracy, India cannot rid itself of a criminal class of politicians, a clientelist state, or to solve infrastructure problems or offer rule of law in overworked courts.

Fukuyama reflects American disillusionment with attempting to democratize the world after Iraq and Afghanistan. Borrowing the Obama administration’s formulation, “good enough” for some countries may not include democracy. Authoritarian and even brutal state and nation building like in Indonesia and Nyerere’s Tanzania may be as good as could be expected and better than the alternatives.

Clientelism is an early form of democracy especially in poor countries, like Greece and Southern Italy. In the United States, a coalition of anti-populist WASPs, commercial middle classes who needed efficient state, and educated middle classes who wanted federal jobs, generated a fully meritocratic civil service only with the New Deal. Fukuyama is wary that this achievement is being reversed today. Elites with special interests and advantages in resources, information, mobilization and organization target the state and generate “repatrimonialization.” The American government is too weak and ineffective also because the judiciary usurped the executive authorities. Courts do not enforce laws but make policy without coherence or consideration of time constraint and budgetary limits. Fukuyama perceives a vicious circle when low trust in government creates demands for judicial oversight that makes government even less effective and more congressional oversight that leads to more incoherence and rigid and uninnovative government. Fukuyama believes there is too much rule of law and democracy and not enough bureaucratic executive autonomy in the United States.

Fukuyama concedes that an effective bureaucracy can be too autonomous in authoritarian states, as in Prussia, Germany and Imperial Japan. I do not think that the post-World War II economic “miracles” in Germany and Japan were worth the catastrophe that those bureaucracies unleased on their nations and the world in the previous half century. Corrupt Latin American regimes unleashed less death and destruction. The economic growth in Europe and Japan after the war also owed much to American military rule, albeit through indigenous bureaucracies.

Fukuyama brings often examples from European countries (as opposed to the European Union) for the kind of stronger state bureaucracy he would like to see in the U.S. But the characterization of contemporary European civil services as autonomous and technocratic is inaccurate. Germany and Austria for example have elaborate clientelist political networks working through their civil services, which makes historical sense given that after their defeat in the Second World War, liberal ideologies could not mobilize post-Nazi voters. For example, German universities, unlike American universities, are within the domain of political patronage. Some universities “belong” to the Social Democrats (e.g. The University of Hamburg) and others to the Christian-Democrats (e.g. Munich). In Austria, political patronage goes all the way down to the appointment of school teachers.

European autonomous bureaucracies can themselves be of special interest, as public choice theory predicted. This is particularly obvious when they make the kind of mistake that generates public hearings and resignations in Washington. Without transparency, civil servants in countries like France and the United Kingdom close ranks, do not admit any mistake and do not accept responsibility for decisions that seem to come from nowhere. The result of this lack of democratic accountability is a loss of trust. This lack of trust is manifested in European risk perceptions of new technologies, advocated by their industrial and bureaucratic elites for their effects on economic competitiveness. The “precautionary principle” that is now part of French law considers all new technologies dangerous until proven otherwise. The result of bureaucratic autonomy and popular distrust has been technological backwardness especially in energy and biotechnology in comparison to the United States.

Like Plato, Fukuyama believes that elite of highly qualified and well educated administrators, “professionals with graduate degrees from internationally recognized schools,” should rule. Democracy and even the rule of law can come later. Fukuyama would isolate the civil service career track, as in some European countries, prohibiting lateral transfers from outside to ensure autonomy. However, as Plato recognized, the Achilles heel of such a regime is the choice of the best educated. If the meritocratic state is defined by hiring the graduates of the most prestigious universities, corruption does not disappear, it merely shifts its focus from the bureaucracy to the universities. Fukuyama naively praises China for basing university admission on entrance exams, unlike in much of continental Europe. In fact, entrance exams can be a lucrative source of income for the academics who can sell them. It is possible to write questions on entrance exams in unspecific language or on obscure topics, so that only students who paid for the answers could possibly know the correct answers. Further corruption takes place in the process of graduation, so that students and parents who pay or provide other favors to powerful academics have an unfair advantage. With plagiarized publications, fee-based publications, and corrupt promotions, elite prestigious universities can be Potemkin villages just like any authoritarian bureaucracy. European universities with open admission can be meritocratic if rigorous exams are administered at the end of the first year and select out those who fail them. Since first year performance is the best predictor of second year performance, this system may be both fairer and more reliable than entrance exams.

The limited extent to which American civil servants are graduates of elite universities reflects the greed of the graduates who prefer more lucrative job in finance and business. Though more meritocratic than in other countries, American elite universities skew admissions in favor of the children of alumni and donors, use a variety of social non-merit-based criteria for selecting the entrance class, and graduation is often too easy, affected by the global disease of grade inflation and pressure to avoid student attrition. Empowering the civil service will not solve these problems.

Fukuyama recognizes the weakness in his position, “the bad emperor problem”: what if the state-building authoritarian power resembles Mao rather than Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew. The only remedy is systemic curbing of the power of the state via more rule of law and democratization. We are then back to where Fukuyama started in the kind of Socratic aporia that ends Plato’s early dialogs.

In favoring the modern state over democracy and the rule of law, Fukuyama appears to face a chicken and egg, or rather a goose and golden egg, problem: why should the state come first, when the modern state can be dangerous in ways that democracy and the rule of law cannot possibly be? Why is corruption worse than world wars? Fukuyama would answer: long term economic growth. But even if this conclusion is more than anecdotic, more than the coincidental result of the combination of American occupation and relatively cooperative authoritarian bureaucracies, Fukuyama needs to make a case for the ultimate value of economic development. Competing values can be security (for social-democrats) or liberty (for libertarians). Fukuyama’s emphasis on economic growth is understandable, considering the prolonged effects of the global economic recession. The Americans now pay much more attention to economics than before 2007. For example, the emphasis among historians on cultural history before 2007 is now shifting towards economic history. The prism of the present is perpetually present in historiography; there is no timeless historical perspective. Like the End of History, Fukuyama’s current work is indispensable for understanding the zeitgeist of its age.

Aviezer Tucker

is the author of The Legacies of Totalitarianism (Cambridge University Press 2015), A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography (Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) and The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence: From Patocka to Havel (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2000).

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