Book Review: Liberalism and its Discontents by Francis Fukuyama

Reviewed by Kanishk Shekhar

Book Title: Liberalism and its Discontents
Author: Francis Fukuyama
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd.

Book Review
In his seminal work, ‘The Revolt of The Masses’ Spanish thinker Jose Ortega Gasset warned that the arrival of mass democracy had led to the overflow of moral order & enlightened society.  This paved the way for autocratic rulers to come to the power by appealing to the narrow instincts of the masses. Two countries – UK & USA under Margret Thatcher & Ronald Regan respectively, witnessed a new ideology that sought to fuse laissez-faire economics with essentially conservative social philosophy. Both tried to dismantle the welfare state by promoting free market economics.

Liberalism and its discontents by Francis Fukuyama
Liberalism and its discontents by Francis Fukuyama

This neoliberal ideology proliferated across the world cutting across the liberal and autocratic states. But neoliberalism failed to address inequity and instead widened social cleavages which adversely impacted ordinary people everywhere in the world. Consequently, there has been a rise of far-right populist leaders on the one side and left-wing progressive movements on the other, which is now threatening liberalism itself. The principles of liberalism have been pushed to the extremes by both the Right & Left. This is the central theme of Fukuyama’s new book.

Fukuyama is best known as the author of ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, where he argued that liberalism is the end of history, as the fall of the Berlin wall & the end of the Cold war resulted in the world settling on liberal democracy. But the political situation of contemporary times is largely different from that of the early 90s.

Liberalism might still be the end of history, but the road isn’t smooth. This book is a sincere attempt by a committed liberal to contemplate upon the shortcomings of liberalism and come up with solutions. As a liberal democrat, Fukuyama champions the basic tenants of liberalism like rights, property ownership, equality, etc. He defends the State as it’s the State that provides public goods that markets by themselves cannot provide. He argues that individuals need protection, from those “adverse circumstances which are beyond control”.

The central theme of liberalism is full commitment to the individual & to construct a society where people can achieve fulfillment. It essentially remains a system that aims to govern diverse societies, through principles such as rule of law & equality. Giving primacy to the individual is the topmost priority of liberalism.

Fukuyama is apprehensive about the argument that the western world developed because it benefitted from imperialism, he quotes the success story of Southeast Asian countries in the late 20th century& goes to the extent of saying that Communist China witnessed its best economic growth when Deng Xiaoping embraced liberal policies like open coastal cities, replacement of central planning system, etc. 

However, Fukuyama overlooks some historical facts. France continued practicing its discriminatory policies long after the 1789 revolution that passionately advocated liberty, equality & fraternity. Similarly, in the US the Dread Scott case happened in 1857, where the Supreme Court held that a Negro, whose ancestors were imported, could not be an American citizen and therefore did not have standing to sue in federal court.

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This was 81 years after the announcement of the Declaration of Independence in the US, which still remains one of the most profound documents of liberalism. The same set of liberals who passionately champion equality; liberty and individual freedom have practiced discrimination with impunity for a long. When Fukuyama mentions European welfare attempts post-war to convey that liberal orders resulted in equitable development, he is overlooking the Great depression of 1929, a consequence of which called for a stronger interventionist State.

Liberalism continues to remain an important ideology that has shaped economic philosophy along with the governance model. But it has its own set of shortcomings and contradictions. Liberal theorists overlook it including Fukuyama. Nonetheless, as Europe is witnessing its most brutal war since 1945, this book raises relevant questions on liberalism where Fukuyama tries to find solutions. 

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