Bristol Festival of Ideas: Francis Fukuyama, Bristol University

Have you ever said something you instantly wanted to take back? You do wonder if political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, ever wonders just that, when he thinks back to his generation defining postulation that the fall of Communism in 1989 marked “The End of History”. politicalorderpoliticaldecay Indeed, while his assertion 25 years ago – that western liberal democracy had triumphed over all other contenders – was undoubtedly a career defining move for the Chicago native, it has also proved to be something of a millstone – marking him as a kind of pseudo poster boy for globalization/the neoliberal right and the target of much criticism. In some ways it is in response to these critics that Fukuyama has felt the need to elaborate on his ideas by adding structural and historical context to his arguments. So it is, in his 2011 work ‘The Origins of Political Order’ and 2014 follow-up ‘Political Order and Political Decay’, that he chronicles global political development from prehistory to the present and details exactly why it is some states possess the right, or wrong, kinds of democracy. His rallying cry for the drive to modern nation state stability is the desire for developing nations to “get to Denmark” – ‘Denmark’ being an emblematic model of political/social order in his eyes.  What makes ‘Denmark’ (i.e. liberal democracy) a bastion of governmental constancy is the strength of, what Fukuyama terms, its “three institutions”: political accountability; a strong, effective state; and the rule of law. Through the appropriate combination of these checks and balances, liberal democracies succeed in starving off corruption and offering a true meritocracy.
“I do believe that the underlying idea remains essentially correct, but I also now understand many things about the nature of political development that I saw less clearly during the heady days of 1989.” – Francis Fukuyama, 2014
Fukuyama is a evangelist when it comes to nation state democracy (you could well imagine his ideal dinner party consisting of 19th century sages like Otto von Bismarck and Georg Hegel) but is also keen to emphasise that while he still maintains liberal democracy is the most stable form of government, he does now acknowledge its future is cloudy – although this is because of its own internal problems (such as unrepresentative/powerful lobbyists on Capitol Hill), not competition from any external opponent.
“2014 has not been a great year for world order” – Francis Fukuyama, 2014
Although clearly no xenophobe, Fukuyama is emphatically a patriot and often references his homeland to illustrate the interaction of democracy and state building. Up through the 19th century, he notes, the United States had a weak, corrupt and patrimonial state. From the end of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century, however, the American state was transformed into a strong and effective independent actor, first by the Progressives and then by the New Deal. berlin wallYet if the United States illustrates how democratic states can develop, he also concedes that it illustrates how they can decline. Over the past few decades, American political development has gone into reverse, Fukuyama says, as its state has become weaker, less efficient and more corrupt. One cause is growing economic inequality and concentration of wealth, which has allowed elites to purchase immense political power and manipulate the system to further their own interests. Another cause is the permeability of American political institutions to interest groups, allowing an array of factions that “are collectively unrepresentative of the public as a whole” to exercise disproportionate influence on government. The result is a vicious cycle in which the American state deals poorly with major challenges, which reinforces the public’s distrust of the state, which leads to the state’s being starved of resources and authority, which leads to even poorer performance.
“…elites have screwed us…” – Francis Fukuyama, 2014
Fukuyama thus leaves the audience with a depressing paradox. Liberal democracy remains the best system for dealing with the challenges of modernity, and there is little reason to believe that Chinese, Russian or Islamist alternatives can provide the diverse range of economic, social and political goods that all humans crave. But unless liberal democracies can somehow manage to reform themselves and combat institutional decay, history will end not with a bang but with a resounding whimper. Check out more from the fabulous  Festival of ideas here. By Kevin McGough