[Paleopsych] TLS: (John Gray) Francis Fukuyama: The sober compromise

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Francis Fukuyama: The sober compromise
The Times Literary Supplement, 96.5.10

    AFTER LIBERALISM. Immanuel Wallerstein. 277pp. New York: New Press.
    Paperback, $14.95. - 1 56584 304 5.

    Politics and culture at the close of the modern age. 203pp. Routledge.
    £19.99.- 0 415 12475 1.

    LIBERALISM AND COMMUNITY. Steven Kautz. 232pp. Ithaca, NY: Cornell
    University Press; distributed in the UK by Plymbridge. £23.50.- 0 8014
    2979 X

    Seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when serious systematic
    challenges to liberal democracy are few and far between, there has
    been a flood of writing on the death of liberalism as a political
    system. No one, for some reason, feels good about the post-Cold War
    world, and many are ready to proclaim a transition into something much
    worse than the world we knew before 1989. That this is the case is
    puzzling, and why it is so may teach us something about the
    present-day discontents with liberal societies.

    Immanuel Wallerstein rose to academic prominence by projecting the
    dependencia theory of the 1960s back in time to what he called "the
    long sixteenth century", creating in the process the academic
    sub-discipline of "world systems theory" that has lived on in academic
    history departments long after anyone in Latin America took
    dependencia theory seriously. Unlike most of Wallerstein's previous
    works, After Liberalism is an exercise in futurology. It is based,
    none the less, on his broader theories concerning the capitalist
    "world system" which developed about 400 years ago, a piece of
    meta-historical theorizing on a very grand scale.

    Wallerstein pulls off the remarkable feat of arguing that the collapse
    of Communism in 198991 was actually the collapse of liberalism. He
    does this by asserting that the three major ideologies of the era
    following the French Revolution conservatism, liberalism and socialism
    were in fact not distinct doctrines, but rather variants of the same
    basic theme. Leninism was not the opposite of Wilsonianism, but its
    avatar, a form of liberal-socialism that bought off the "dangerous
    classes" by promising their inclusion at the table of technological
    modernization. The collapse of existing Communist regimes after 1989
    was, in fact, a huge defeat for liberalism, because it ended the
    illusion that liberalism could exist in anything but a nakedly
    exploitative form.

    Wallerstein places the coming decades in the context of several
    historical cycles which nest inside one another, like a Russian
    matryoshka doll. The shortest is the Kondratieff cycle, whose "A"
    phase is characterized by a burst of productivity in the capitalist
    "core" regions, leading to the hegemony of one or another core
    capitalist power; the "B" phase, following after a generation or so,
    is one of hegemonic decline, as the technologies fuelling the "A"
    phase diffuse to other power centres. These Kondratieff cycles are
    contained within a larger cycle of liberal ideological hegemony, which
    according to Wallerstein extended over the two centuries from 1789 to
    1989. And the final cycle is that of the capitalist world-system as a
    whole, which began in the "long sixteenth century" and will end,
    eventually, some time in the second half of the twenty-first century.

    Encapsulating futurology in this kind of meta-historical theorizing
    makes it virtually invulnerable to refutation on the basis of
    empirical evidence. For example, Wallerstein makes a great deal of the
    fact that the early post-war period of American hegemony ended in the
    1970s, with the catching up of Japan and Germany and the various
    economic crises of that decade. However, economic growth resumed in
    the United States and many other parts of the world particularly Asia
    outside Japan by the late 1980s, and in the 1990s, the United States
    has steadily increased its lead over Japan and Europe, primarily as a
    result of its mastery of information-related technologies. This
    presents no problem to Wallerstein's view we may either be in an
    extended "B" phase of decline or at the beginning of a new "A" phase
    powered by new technological innovations that could extend the period
    of world economic growth well into the middle of the twenty-first
    century. Wallerstein is sure, however, that the capitalist
    world-system will collapse from its own internal contradictions when
    this possible new "A" phase exhausts itself in the second half of the
    next century long after Wallerstein and anyone who is likely to have
    read his books will have disappeared from view.

    In the midst of this grand theorizing, Wallerstein manages to blow up
    events from his personal life into matters of world-historical
    importance. He notes, at one point, how bracing it was to have been
    among the student radicals who took over Columbia University in 1968.
    Virtually every chapter in this highly repetitive book refers to the
    "world revolution of 1968", whose significance the author puts on a
    par with the revolutions of 1848 indeed, they are of greater
    significance, since they revealed the bankruptcy of "liberal
    socialism" (ie, Communism) and led directly to the events of 1989.

    Wallerstein points to several real problems in the contemporary world:
    the ecological sustainability of economic growth, the severe strains
    that migration from the Third World will put on industrialized
    societies, and the threat to stability posed by "antisystematic"
    states on the periphery like Iran or Iraq, states that may be armed
    with nuclear weapons. Like many other observers, he worries about the
    tribalisms of a newly unstable post-Cold War world. But he wraps these
    real concerns in a neo-Marxist package that suggests that they are
    only the result of the 500-year-old "capitalist world system", and
    that there is another system out there that can produce wealth without
    exploitation, without inequality, without authority, without racial
    and ethnic animosity, without environmental damage. For him, no wealth
    can be created in the capitalist world-system without the exploitation
    of other human beings, as if Asia's phenomenal rise over the past two
    generations could only have come at the expense of Africa, or as if
    the $100 billion or so of new value created by the American software
    industry since 1990 was wrung from the sweat of poor inner-city

    John Gray, like Immanuel Wallerstein, declares that liberalism has
    exhausted itself and that the historical period of liberal hegemony
    ended with the end of the Cold War. His intellectual journey to this
    point starts from the Right rather than the Left, and raises much more
    serious issues than does Wallerstein's. But in the end, it is no more
    plausible than the various Kondratieff cycles of world-systems theory.

    Gray's argument is a familiar one, which was made much earlier by
    conservatives like Burke and de Maistre. The liberal Enlightenment
    project was based on the hope that religion, traditions, culture all
    of the organic glue of pre-liberal societies could be replaced by a
    political order based on universal reason, and that social order could
    emerge out of the interactions of rational, self-interested
    individuals. This hasn't worked: Neo-liberalism itself can now be seen
    as a self-undermining political project. Its political success
    depended upon cultural traditions, and constellations of interests,
    that neo-liberal policy was bound to dissipate. In adopting the
    neo-liberal programme of a permanent institutional revolution as their
    own, contemporary conservatives not only have abandoned any claim to
    be guardians of continuity in national life; they have at the same
    time linked their fortunes to a political project which all the
    evidence suggests is self-defeating.

    Gray begins with the reasonable premiss that societies are not simply
    based on a formal, mechanical social contract, but have cultural
    underpinnings; both self-government and markets will not work properly
    if self-interest is not leavened with virtue, or if rights are not
    balanced by duties. Liberal politics has the tendency, however, to
    slide ineluctably from tolerant pluralism to a militantly agnostic
    relativism. The best chapter in Enlightenment's Wake argues that
    toleration of cultural difference is not the same thing as the
    assertion of the inherent equality of all cultures. This is, indeed,
    the downfall of current multiculturalist policies in Britain and the
    United States, which end up being hostile to the dominant national
    cultural identity. Instead of learning about George Washington,
    American children are taught about Indian women peace activists in
    Guatemala or other such stories intended to advance the ideological
    agenda of particular groups. And now, according to Gray, Western
    liberalism is spreading this nihilistic doctrine throughout the globe
    through its claims to universalism.

    Gray's real hostility, however, is reserved for the capitalist
    economy. From being a strong supporter of Thatcherism in the early
    1980s, he now argues that the free market is the enemy of any form of
    settled community and is responsible for the decline of institutions
    across the board. "Shock therapy" and radical economic liberalization
    have undone the nations of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe,
    which are, as a result, turning towards nationalism rather than
    democracy. But the consequences of free markets are equally
    devastating for long-time democracies as well, and nowhere more so
    than in the United States, where both marketization and social decay
    are the most advanced of any industrialized nation. Globalization,
    GATT and the extension of the market to the remotest corners of the
    world are projects "as radically hubristic" as Soviet Communism, and
    even more threatening to the authentic cultural life lived by
    non-Western societies.

    Gray begins with a series of reasonable premisses, for example, that
    contracts and rational self-interest cannot fully replace cultural
    norms and moral reciprocity in liberal societies. But he jumps from
    criticism of Western rationalism on the grounds that it cannot defend
    itself from relativism, to a weird Heideggerian embrace of that
    relativism. The liberal, rationalist tradition springing from the
    Enlightenment is not a noble experiment that sadly failed, but was
    wrong from the start. On the book's last page, he wagers that "another
    mode of thinking found in some varieties of poetry and mysticism, for
    example, can assert against the domination of the forms of thought
    [ie, rationalism] privileged by both science and philosophy in Western
    cultures". What is important is to have a culture any culture, it
    seems, as long as it is authentic and not tainted by Western
    rationalism and self-doubt. These cultures are not the "kinder,
    gentler" voluntary communities posited by communitarians; in many
    cases, they are the ascriptive national and ethnic identities into
    which many of the world's peoples divide themselves. In relation to
    them, the liberal West is deservedly in decline; what Westerners need
    to recognize is the "need to share the earth with radically different

    Like many contemporary critics of liberalism, Gray takes aim not at
    the actual liberal theory underlying contemporary societies, but a
    caricature of that theory, based in equal parts on John Rawls and
    modern neoclassical economics. By his account, liberal societies are
    built from isolated, atomized individuals who choose to enter civil
    society out of rational calculation, either to obtain justice or to
    advance their material well-being. If Gray had looked beyond Rawls and
    come to terms with the classical liberal philosophical tradition,
    including Locke, the American Founders, Adam Smith and Tocqueville, he
    would have had to acknowledge its awareness of modernity's necessary
    cultural underpinnings.

    Steven Kautz's Liberalism and Community is a useful antidote to this
    sterile post-Rawlsian debate. Kautz is fully aware of the "empty hole"
    at the heart of liberal societies: the fact that they encompass no
    overarching view of the human good, and therefore will never
    completely satisfy human ends. Liberalism came into being out of a
    sober recognition that there could be no ultimate agreement on human
    ends, and particularly no agreement on the nature of distributive
    justice. This is the fundamental problem at the heart of Rawls's
    Theory of Justice, since it assumes an egalitarian vision of
    distributive justice arising out of the "original position", without
    recognizing that liberal societies are in fact compromises between the
    few who are proponents of liberty and the many who are proponents of
    democracy. Classical liberalism was never about happiness, but rather
    about lowering the aim of politics to achieve peace and prosperity.
    The latter were the conditions for the pursuit of happiness, an
    endeavour that would have to take place outside the realm of politics.

    It is a fantasy to think that pre-liberal societies with strong
    cultures were some kind of moral paradise. Liberalism got its start in
    Wallerstein's "long sixteenth century", after all, because various
    sects of Protestants and Catholics spent the better part of that
    period slaughtering each other over questions related to final ends.
    Today, ethnicity has replaced religion as the chief cement of moral
    community in many parts of the world. The non-urbanized Serbs of
    Bosnia and Croatia today constitute a rather authentic cultural
    community, unparalysed by the atomizing acid of Western
    rational-self-doubt, and it's not a very pretty picture.

    There is indeed a great deal to be unhappy about in contemporary
    liberal societies. As Gray does not tire of reminding us, family life
    has all but broken down in many parts of America; streets are not
    safe, and American society keeps 1 per cent of its adult population
    behind bars. The problem that many recent "communitarian" thinkers,
    including Michael Walzer, Michael Sandel, Jean Betthke Elsthain and
    others, have been struggling with, is how to protect group life and
    the moral and social capital it entails, in the context of a broadly
    liberal society. Gray dismisses this school as "barely intelligible in
    any other context than that of their native America", but he needs to
    pay more attention.

    Gray doesn't take voluntary community seriously as an alternative to
    atomistic individualism. It is true that many of the real-world groups
    into which societies organize themselves are based on ascriptive
    factors like race, ethnicity, religious heritage and the like. This
    does not mean, however, that all forms of group life have to be based
    on irrational loyalties and non-voluntary attachments. The vast
    majority of the social groups making up the civil societies of
    contemporary developed democracies are voluntary, and many indeed find
    their origins in the capitalist market-place.

    No one would deny that contemporary globalization poses a threat to
    the rootedness on which community life depends. But capitalism has
    been churning social relations for many generations now, and not only
    has it found a way of co-existing quite happily with community life,
    but the market was and continues to be responsible for a great deal of
    the socialization that is required to turn isolated individuals into
    members of organic communities. It was the capitalist market that
    disciplined peasants to the rhythms of industrial life, that created
    demands for universal education, that structured the professions and
    trade unions, and ultimately turned passive political objects into
    citizens on a grand scale. Many of today's most effective corporations
    are not those that dissolve the bonds of moral community, but those
    that build on man's natural sociability.

    Recognition that modern societies have necessary cultural
    underpinnings does not mean that we have to abandon reason or our
    powers of discrimination between healthy and pathological forms of
    attachment. Take the example of national identity. Gray argues, quite
    correctly, that nations are more than the sum of their political
    institutions; they also have shared cultures: "In the British case,
    vague but still powerful notions of fair play and give-and-take, of
    the necessity of compromise and of not imposing private convictions on
    others, are elements in what is left of the common culture, and they
    are essential if a liberal civil society is to survive in Britain."
    Yet one of the appealing features of British culture is that it has
    been relatively open to outsiders, and not inevitably based on blood
    or ethnicity. Certainly it is a virtue of French nationality that
    Leopold Senghor could be admitted to the Academie Francaise, an event
    scarcely conceivable in a more racialist culture like that of Germany.
    There is, then, a hierarchy of cultural forms dictated by rules of
    reason; Gray would presumably not be happy if British culture were
    replaced by a Pakistani or Jamaican sense of national identity, simply
    for the sake of having a strong culture.

    While Kautz's defence of the classical liberal tradition is welcome
    and refreshing, he needs to think carefully where exactly the
    boundaries between rational and irrational community are to be drawn
    in contemporary societies. For while classical liberalism is far more
    open to cultural considerations than its detractors suggest, there are
    a whole series of urgent questions where it provides relatively little
    guidance. How to define citizenship, the concessions that can be made
    to linguistic minorities in multi-ethnic societies, the elements of
    national culture that can be properly taught in schools, what forms of
    family life the law ought to legitimate these are the questions for
    which classical liberalism either has no answers, or where the answers
    are unsatisfactory. Take, for example, the family. Classical liberal
    theorists took family life for granted, because its forms were
    embedded in the cultures in which they lived; they could scarcely have
    imagined its breaking down to the extent it has in contemporary
    America. It is not surprising then that communitarians like Mary Ann
    Glendon or Jean Elshtain have had to look beyond liberalism in order
    to justify the family.

    At one point, John Gray takes a swipe at Leo Strauss, relegating him
    to one of those strands of thought understandable only in a
    provincially American context. Leaving aside the fact that Strauss's
    intellectual roots lay with Continental thinkers like Hermann Cohen
    and Edmund Husserl, and that his writings were never kindly received
    in the empiricist, Anglo-Saxon world where he eventually made his
    physical home, his primary preoccupation should be familiar to Gray.
    For Strauss, the central issue of our time was the so-called "crisis
    of modernity", the fact that Nietzsche and Heidegger had knocked the
    intellectual underpinnings away from Enlightenment rationalism. This
    concern with liberalism's intellectual nakedness is what drew him to
    that other great Continental European thinker of the mid-century,
    Alexandre Koj ve. Allan Bloom, Strauss's student, understood long
    before Gray the tendency of liberal tolerance to degenerate into
    relativism. Over the course of their lifetimes, these thinkers brought
    their considerable talents to bear trying to wrestle with this problem
    because it seemed to them critical to defend, on a philosophical
    level, the rational, decent, tolerant way of life created in Western
    societies. John Gray, dimly perceiving this same problem, has simply
    surrendered pre-emptively at the first sound of gunfire.

    Francis Fukuyama's most recent book is Trust, 1995.

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