“I heard it’s terrible,” said a young man in a Polo shirt and abbreviated Lacoste swimming trunks at a barbecue a couple weeks ago. He had noticed that I was holding the latest book by the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama. He had the deep tan and apathetic drawl of a top-tier lobbyist’s son; I had been told he recently quit a job at a right-wing think tank.
“‘Terrible?’ Seriously?” I flipped through a few pages to display my copious notes in the margins. “I mean, it’s not exactly a page-turner.” But “terrible”?
Maybe, I thought, the kid was mixing up his public intellectuals; perhaps he was confusing Mr. Fukuyama for the liberally coiffed Japanese nuclear physicist who had been so ubiquitous on the cable-news circuit in the weeks after the nuclear accident. In any case, I failed to inquire as to the origin of the withering assessment, and promptly forgot all about the exchange–until an editor asked what I was working on. Hadn’t he too heard similarly wretched things about the latest from Mr. Fukuyama? The conservative critic he’d assigned to review it had declared it “unreviewable”–whatever that meant.
I emailed a bona fide conservative pundit I know. Would three make a trend? He told me to call.
“Here’s the dirt on Fukuyama,” he said in a familiar conspiratorial tone, and dispensed with a halfhearted nugget about how Mr. Fukuyama had mentored a controversial Iranian lobbyist.
Bad word of mouth has dogged Mr. Fukuyama since “The End of History?,” the 1989 essay he expanded into an ambitious book of political theory a few years later. There he cribbed some hacked Hegelian theories on the nature of “history” from the French philosopher Alexandre Kojeve to illuminate the intellectual and cultural climate of a future free of the ideological battles that dominated the 20th century. (No one remembers details, though; he might as well go down in history as the guy who said history had ended 20 years ago.) Humans over the past few centuries had become accustomed to “history” denoting a linear trajectory, a forward-looking progression toward some more optimal condition, he observed; but whither the world that had more or less reached a consensus on the superiority of liberal democracy above all other systems?
Mr. Fukuyama’s outlook was fairly bleak. Man would turn inward, preoccupy himself with bourgeois pursuits like mountain climbing and accumulating possessions; the civilized world would inevitably be overrun by what Nietzsche termed “men without chests.” What had separated man from beast, enabling history to progress in the first place, was his capacity for abstraction. The penchant for abstractions that enabled all mankind’s technological innovations had also instilled in him a sense of purpose, a desire for the “recognition” of his peers so strong that many millions of men over the ages had proven themselves willing to die a violent death on behalf of what they perceived to be a nobler, transcendent good. With no more Soviets to fight, and no more noble ideological struggles to die for, man was in danger of losing this essential aspect, which had propelled human history (thymos was its name; though Mr. Fukuyama’s old thesis adviser at Harvard, Harvey Mansfield, has since simply dubbed it “manliness”), and devolving into a species resembling the rational, profit-maximizing Homo economicus of the worldview shared by Adam Smith and Alan Greenspan. Mr. Fukuyama saw evidence of this regression in the “earnest young people trooping off to law and business school who anxiously fill out their résumés in hopes of maintaining the lifestyles to which they believe themselves entitled” for whom “the liberal project of filling one’s life with material acquisitions and safe, sanctioned ambitions appears to have worked all too well.”
Indeed, by the time I read The End of History for the first time as a college freshman in 1996, the whole idea had been reduced to a cheap punch line. No one in my international relations seminar had much of an appetite for abstraction. Investment banks only cared about the grades you got in econ. Most of my fellow students wrote papers about the worldview espoused in Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, wherein the Harvard political scientist (a former mentor of Mr. Fukuyama) prophesied an epic showdown between the West and Big Islam. I don’t remember what I chose, but since it was quickly becoming clear my destiny was not on Wall Street, I dropped out not long afterward and moved back in with my parents in Virginia, which is how I came to experience a second coming of The End of History. Mr. Fukuyama was teaching graduate classes at George Mason University at the time; the cost was all of $430.
I was vaguely aware that Mr. Fukuyama identified himself as a “neoconservative,” but I didn’t understand the significance of the moniker–whatever it meant in 1999 paled next to the significance the label would take on in the years ahead–but among the things I have since learned about this peculiar academic tribe is that they are renowned for teaching classes with an infectious vigor that sometimes verges on religious conversion. Mr. Fukuyama had been trained by two of the movement’s foremost cult figures, Allan Bloom and Mr. Mansfield. I was overwhelmed and ill-informed and ripe for indoctrination, which is what I later half-suspected transpired that semester. I’d been spared any embarrassing phase as an evangelical Christian, Deadhead or Objectivist; my friends refused to believe Mr. End of History had not taken the opportunity to feed me a few poisonous ideas.
And so it was naturally somewhat gratifying over the decade that followed to find myself nodding vigorously along with my old professor whenever he chose to publicize his stance on a topic. In 2004 he became the first of the card-carrying neocons to break ranks and oppose the Iraq War; in 2006 he published a comprehensive history and critique of the neoconservative movement; in 2009 he skewered the economics profession at length in his journal The American Interest; earlier this year, he dedicated an issue to a series of essays exploring the emerging American plutocracy.
Concluding that the primary difference between American oligarchs and their Russian counterparts is that the former have convinced themselves, thanks to the help of “the entire edifice of modern neoclassical economics,” that through their greed they somehow benefit society, he dryly reminded readers that “scandalous as it may sound to the ears of Republicans schooled in Reaganomics, one critical measure of the health of a modern democracy is its ability to legitimately extract taxes from its own elites.”
He was not being glib: Much of his new book, The Origins of Political Order, is devoted to documenting the struggles of premodern states to draw up sustainable tax codes. Long before modernity and the spread of democracy, societies that failed to effectively tax their citizenry were the first to shrivel. Ultimately, of course, states have a tough time continuously collecting taxes unless they are performing their other duties–fending off invaders, mediating disputes, building infrastructure–with some degree of efficacy. Beginning with China around 500 B.C., Mr. Fukuyama attempts to trace the emergence of modern bureaucracies in various civilizations, making the case that strong, meritocratic political institutions are a prerequisite to sustainable economic modernization. It is not heady or thymos-tingling stuff, but that seems to be the point. Its formidable scope and diligence serves as a painstaking refutation of anyone who ever dismissed Mr. Fukuyama as an opportunist–and yet, since it delves comprehensively into the mass-market topic of Chinese exceptionalism, it inevitably risks dismissal on said terms. Many passages also tilt obliquely at the Tea Party. One can almost visualize an exasperated Mr. Fukuyama silencing another small-government fundamentalist squawking about slashing taxes on cable news as he writes certain passag es.
“Many parts of sub-Saharan Africa are a libertarian’s paradise,” he reminds readers in the first chapter. “The region as a whole is a low-tax utopia, with governments often unable to collect more than about 10 percent of GDP in taxes.” Later, he spends the bulk of a chapter dismantling the theories of Frederich von Hayek on the “spontaneous” emergence of rule of law and political institutions in 16th- and 17th- century Britain: “Hayek argues strongly against the idea that human societies self-consciously design institutions, something he traces to the hubris of post-Cartesian rationalism. … The weakness of Hayek’s argument is that human beings successfully design institutions all the time, at all levels of society.”
The mirth of Mr. Fukuyama’s more acerbic passages is absent from his person, however. Lecturing a packed audience last week at the Washington, D.C., bookstore Politics & Prose, he seemed stiff and rattled. Over coffee a few days later, he seemed to labor to keep his face from registering any detectable emotion, as if to impress upon me his impeccable consistency. Although he has not heard from Paul Wolfowitz in seven years, he seems loathe to embrace the role of career apostate, because fundamentally his views have not changed that much.
Perhaps the most significant departure in his new book is its de-emphasis of his beloved Greeks; Athens left civilization with much beauty and profundity, but as an empire, he argues, it wasn’t “scalable”; Chinese political institutions proved much more sophisticated and resilient His prolific output since his break with the neocons suggests his only foe to be the bipartisan cabal of lazy thought.
He worries that the U.S. is headed in the direction of ancien régime France–”our tax code looks a lot like theirs right now”–and said it was “still a mystery” to him why the financial crisis had brought Larry Summers out of semi-retirement but failed to bring about serious “soul-searching” on the part of the political establishment. He seemed bemused to find himself attacking a Democratic administration from the left, but emphasized that neither he nor “neocons” historically had ever identified with libertarian philosophy–well, except (in the cases of Irving Kristol and his son Bill’s Weekly Standard) for reasons of “convenience.”
Asked a few obligatory softball profile-material questions, Mr. Fukuyama grew exasperated. He said he did not remember specifically why he had initially enrolled in a comparative literature graduate program before quitting to study political science except that “it was trendy at the time.” Asked what books he was drawn to in adolescence, he replied, “I’m not sure you would find an interesting pattern there.”
It is a matter of public record that Mr. Fukuyama grew up in New York’s Stuyvesant Town, the son of a Presbyterian minister, and was introduced to the neoconservative movement by Bloom, his classics professor at Cornell, during his last semester teaching at the school. The year before Mr. Fukuyama arrived at the school, a black student group had staged an armed occupation of the economics department during Parents Weekend in a (successful) bid to force the university administration to start a black studies department; the enraged Bloom, likening the campus to Weimar Germany, wrote of the ordeal: “[T]he resemblance on all levels to the first stages of a totalitarian take-over are almost unbelievable.” It is worth noting that the black student leader of the occupation, Thomas Jones, would go on to become a high-ranking Citigroup executive with seats on the board of Freddie Mac, the New York Fed and the trustees of Cornell, but the mind-set of many of the era’s budding neocons would remain anchored in 1970 for decades afterward.
Mr. Fukuyama termed this period the “Great Disruption” in his 1999 book of the same name, by which point even the neocons had gotten over it, but for decades they nursed apocalyptic fears of the decay and disorder wrought by the social changes of the 1960s. With a few notable exceptions like the advancement of “fixing broken windows” policing, however, they chose to counteract the Disruption by indirect methods. Mostly, they sought national redemption through the defeat of communism abroad and moral relativism–or anyway, at the very least, political correctness–at home. Bloom’s 1988 best-selling lament on the deficiencies of campus life, The Closing of the American Mind, was typical of the genre, with its crotchety diatribes against feminists, minorities, feminists, “self-esteem,” feminists, capitalists, anti-capitalists and more improbably Mick Jagger, upon whom he lavishes two pages and whom he compares (somehow) to Napoleon–”in his act he was male and female, heterosexual and homosexual: unencumbered by modesty, he could enter everyone’s dreams, promising to do everything with everyone”–before lambasting Mr. Jagger for recording music that “ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of a liberal education.”
The success of Mr. Bloom’s manifesto led to fame, fortune and numerous academic conferences, one of which he invited his runner-up protégé Mr. Fukuyama–Mr. Wolfowitz, who famously spent hours every week talking strategy with his old mentor, famously came first–to address. The theme was the “decline of the West,” but by that point it seemed to Mr. Fukuyama, who then worked for Mr. Wolfowitz in the Reagan administration State Department, that the West was for the time being ascendant, thanks to the end of communism. Adopting his old mentor’s prejudices and recycling some of the texts cited in the book, Mr. Fukuyama concocted the “end of history” and “last man” ideas, landing Mr. Fukuyama a profile in The New York Times Magazine.
It is striking to read the two tracts together and watch Bloom’s semi-entertaining bombast be converted by his former student’s superior powers of synthesis into a coherent framework for understanding the unfolding scenario. Ultimately, Bloom’s semi-coherent obsessions and master syllabus were insufficient for grasping the consequences of America’s sudden ideological hegemony, but it is now obvious that the end of communism did, as Mr. Fukuyama predicted, unleash a bold new era of so-called “consensus,” and if it took two more decades to see the consequences of that ideological monopoly, it was the fault of the rational, timid, upside-maximizing, mountain-climbing, value-creating “men without chests” that had come to comprise our ruling elites.
In his autopsy report on the financial crisis I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, John Lanchester traces the structural weaknesses of modern financial markets to the fall of the Berlin Wall. In a more abstract vein, the leftist journalist David Sirota begins the final chapter of his new pop cultural history Back to the Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now–Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything by commending The End of History’s prescient declaration of “the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution”: “You now know there is ample proof to suggest Fukuyama was right, and the evidence just keeps coming.” Mr. Sirota concludes with a laundry list of recent moves toward further institutionalizing revisionist history in Texas public schools, doubling down on Reagan-esque corporate welfare schemes and otherwise hastening the institutional rot Mr. Fukuyama’s most recent book is meant to warn us about.
At Mr. Fukuyama’s Politics & Prose appearance last week, the 85-year-old Marxist philosopher and Georgetown professor Norman Birnbaum welcomed the reluctant apostate to the ranks of the disenfranchised. “I must give you respect, you always think in big terms,” he said during his turn at the microphone.
“And yet,” Mr. Birnbaum continued, “this city is filled with thousands of highly educated, credentialed professionals who attend our best higher-education institutions, and the results are far from sublime. The social sciences have been taken over by economics and we’ve replaced people with game theoretical models and regressions. The nation marches on like a drunk without orientation, and our elite is very unreflective. The higher up the bureaucratic ladder you go, the more knowledge is replaced with platitudes. People don’t know about real places anymore!”
“Oh, my students are always going to real places,” Mr. Fukuyama replied politely. Apparently a few of his Stanford undergraduates were in the audience. Somewhere the ghost of Allan Bloom was waiting for his turn to complain about the philistines he had to deal with every day.
“Well, congratulations,” Mr. Birnbaum concluded. “My students are simply awful.”