History is having its revenge on Francis Fukuyama. In 1992, at the height of post-Cold War liberal exuberance, the American political theorist wrote in The End of History and the Last Man: “What we may be witnessing… is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Twenty-six years later, from the US to Russia, Turkey to Poland, and Hungary to Italy, an Illiberal International is advancing. Fukuyama’s new book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (his ninth) seeks to grapple with these forces. But when I met the 65-year-old Stanford academic at our offices in London, he was careful to emphasise the continuity in his thought. “What I said back then  is that one of the problems with modern democracy is that it provides peace and prosperity but people want more than that… liberal democracies don’t even try to define what a good life is, it’s left up to individuals, who feel alienated, without purpose, and that’s why joining these identity groups gives them some sense of community.”
His critics, he said, “probably didn’t read to the end of the actual book [The End of History], the Last Man part, which was really all about some of the potential threats to democracy.”
Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama was born in Chicago in 1952 (he now lives with his wife in California) to a Japanese-American father (Fukuyama’s paternal grandfather emigrated to the US in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese war) and a Japanese mother. He never learned his ancestral language and simply describes himself as American: “It just wasn’t fashionable to be ethnic when I was growing up.”
Fukuyama, who studied political philosophy under Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind, at Cornell University, initially identified with the neoconservative movement: he was mentored by Paul Wolfowitz while a government official during the Reagan-Bush years. But by late 2003, Fukuyama had recanted his support for the Iraq war, which he now regards as a defining error alongside financial deregulation and the euro’s inept creation. “These are all elite-driven policies that turned out to be pretty disastrous, there’s some reason for ordinary people to be upset.”
The End of History was a rebuke to Marxists who regarded communism as humanity’s final ideological stage. How, I asked Fukuyama, did he view the resurgence of the socialist left in the UK and the US? “It all depends on what you mean by socialism. Ownership of the means of production – except in areas where it’s clearly called for, like public utilities – I don’t think that’s going to work.
“If you mean redistributive programmes that try to redress this big imbalance in both incomes and wealth that has emerged then, yes, I think not only can it come back, it ought to come back. This extended period, which started with Reagan and Thatcher, in which a certain set of ideas about the benefits of unregulated markets took hold, in many ways it’s had a disastrous effect.
“In social equality, it’s led to a weakening of labour unions, of the bargaining power of ordinary workers, the rise of an oligarchic class almost everywhere that then exerts undue political power. In terms of the role of finance, if there’s anything we learned from the financial crisis it’s that you’ve got to regulate the sector like hell because they’ll make everyone else pay. That whole ideology became very deeply embedded within the Eurozone, the austerity that Germany imposed on southern Europe has been disastrous.”
Fukuyama added, to my surprise: “At this juncture, it seems to me that certain things Karl Marx said are turning out to be true. He talked about the crisis of overproduction… that workers would be impoverished and there would be insufficient demand.” Yet the only plausible systemic rival to liberal democracy, Fukuyama said, was not socialism but China’s state capitalist model. “The Chinese are arguing openly that it is a superior one because they can guarantee stability and economic growth over the long run in a way that democracy can’t… if in another 30 years, they’re bigger than the US, Chinese people are richer and the country is still holding together, I would say they’ve got a real argument.” But he cautioned that “the real test of the regime” would be how it fared in an economic crisis.
Fukuyama is troubled by the potential for a US-China war (“the Thucydides trap”, as Harvard academic Graham Allison has called the clash between an established power and a rising one). “I think people would be very foolish to rule that out, I can think of lots of scenarios by which such a war could start. I don’t think it would be a deliberate attack by one country on the other – like Germany invading Poland in 1939 – it’s more likely to come out of a local conflict over Taiwan, over North Korea, possibly a confrontation in the South China Sea that escalates.”
I met Fukuyama on a day the British government had once more failed to agree a Brexit deal with the EU. “Having a referendum in a country with a parliamentary system is really a big mistake,” he surmised. “There are good reasons for having representative government. If Cameron had stuck to that, we wouldn’t have this problem right now.”
For all this, Fukuyama warned liberals not to overcorrect and assume that illiberal democracy is the new end of history. “I think people should calm down a little bit.”
This article appears in the 17 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war