Monday, March 04, 2013

Fukuyama Beyond the End of History

With his The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Francis Fukuyama described a dawning socio-economic world-order in which all sources of real conflict had been transcended. His intention was never to suggest the scroll of human history was about to run out of length on which to write, only that what remained to be written would be trivial details. Once the Soviet Union fell and democratic capitalism, represented especially in its American form, was the only contestant left standing on the global stage, those grand narratives of 'us' against 'them'. the good guys against the bad guys, reached their resolution. And the rest: nothing more than the uninspiring lives of administrators, bureaucrats and pencil-pushers, aiming at ever increasing managerial efficiency.

Last year, in a special issue of Foreign Affairs, Fukuyama published a slight reassessment of the contemporary global situation titled 'The Future of History: Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?' His answer: not likely. A capitalist organization of the marketplace and a democratic form of government are not necessarily in step with each other. Based on legally entrenched rights to private property, capitalism aims at the rationalization of labour for the purpose of selling goods and services at a profit. Whereas democracy enables popular participation in the processes of government through a system of representative government, to which authority is ceded, usually for a fixed period of time. Every citizen of a democratic state stands as an equal to every other citizen before the law of the land. Before that standard, the economic rationalization of distinctions between employer and employee, producers and consumer, is not supposed to have purchase. 

Which is to say, democratic governments rarely behave according to canons of economic rationality; they also sincerely doubt, in theory at least, whether an intrinsic correlation exists between the amount of property and/or capital one possesses and one's fitness to govern. That's a good thing too. Economic self-interest does not equal democratic virtue. The circle cannot be squared. To make matters even more difficult, however, the sort of marketplace that capitalism thrives in is a finely honed legal reality presided over by democratic governments. Democracy carries its undoing around in its own breast, but a productive tension can be generated if the two are held in check. The business of government is not production; nor is the business of free enterprise government.

That is how things are supposed to look. The version of democratic capitalism that stared communism down in a global contest of nuclear wills came into being with the creation of the welfare state, which worked to mitigate the worst excesses of the market. Since the 1970s, however, the same middle class benefiting from the protections offered by the welfare state have tended to support more economically conservative forms of government. Reaganism on this side of the Atlantic and Thatcherism on that side heralded the dawn of what Samuel Huntington calls third wave of capitalism, in which inequities inherent in the system were magnified by access to technology.

Moreover, regulations were lifted on trading of currency and market activities, and governments began taking a lead role investing in private firms. The result, as Noam Chomsky pointed out in 1996, has been that 'the concept of capitalism and markets has disappeared as fully as the concept of democracy'. Both both capital and the power to make decisions abut capital have been transferred to the wealthy, which, as John Hodgeman pointed out on the Daily Show last week Thursday night, has meant TBTF is just the rich man's YOLO.* Increased civil freedoms has not necessarily followed from decreased amounts of market regulation. Wage stagnation and the rise of the influence 'special' interest groups over the processes of government are two obvious indicators of the direction socio-economic trends.

Fukuyama begins his article by questioning what happened to the political left. In the face of all these socio-economic challenges, only the right seems able to translate popular support into political traction; the Tea Party wields influence in the U.S. Congress, while the Occupy Movement withers and dies on the front steps. The right's basic economic mantra about the reduction of market regulation further exposes the popular base to the vicissitudes of the market makes populist support on the right all the more strange.

Though Fukuyama does not draw the connection, he provides the basis for an argument that the political left has let material prosperity distract it from perennial problems. Formerly animated by some variety of Marxism or socialism, the left was concerned with improving the material well-being of the economically disadvantaged. But the left has since thrived on postmodern obsessions with criticizing ideas of authority as such, which has ended by undoing its own actual claim to exercise authority on behalf of those it claims to champion. Ideas do not necessarily equal food on plates, roofes over heads, nor clothes on backs. They do not equal the regulation of goods and services, the maintenance of a civil infrastructure, or fair treatment in the workplace. All that remains for the left is identity politics, the right to be recognized, which only gets persons so far.

This has meant the left has run out of ideas by which to govern. When it controls the seats of power, it 'no longer aspire[s] to be more than custodians of a welfare state that was created decades ago'. Fukuyama elaborates:
That model is now exhausted: welfare states have become big, bureaucratic, and inflexible; they are often captured by the very organizations that administer them, through public-sector unions; and, most important, they are fiscally unsustainable given the aging of populations virtually everywhere in the developed world.
Fukuyama concludes the decline on the right is actually bad for all involved, since the right's faith in the market's ability to self-correct can never narrate the entire fabric of a society.

Without a countervailing narrative, monied elites are free to extol the virtues of a market economy, while chastising those members of society perceived as non-contributing (or non-productive) members. No one stands at the ready to point out obvious truths: what is called the market is actually a set of rules guiding economic interactions, more or less agreed upon, even if only tacitly, by all members of a society, which only functions when it is cultivated, watered, and yes, even pruned, every once and while. The so-called non-productivity of certain members will have less to do with individual failings than with systematic relations governing the flow of capital.

His conclusion: the left needs to learn how to dream big again. My take away: the left needs think once more about the material necessities of human existence; they need to think carefully, not about freedom, but about the limitations of bodily existence.

*For explicit definitions of TBTF and YOLO, follow the embedded links.

No comments: