Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Franci Fukuyama and the Future of Democracy

John Bedell

Francis Fukuyama got famous thirty years ago for writing an article and then book titled “The End of History.” His argment was not that nothing would happen in the future, but that the ideological conflicts that had dominated the modern era were effectively over. Liberal democracy had won the day, and its remaining rivals – Chinese authoritarianism, Islamic theocracy – were on the defensive, probably soon to disappear. Challenged by critics, Fukuyama standard response was, “Well, do you know anybody who favors a political system other than democracy?” Now Fukuyama has returned to the pages of Foreign Policy with an essay titled “The Future of History,” and I was curious enough to pay $2.95 for a copy. I found it interesting, but it won’t stir up the kind of controversy that the first piece did. It is too much like the conventional wisdom among thinking moderates.

Fukuyama begins from an interesting question: why hasn’t there been a stronger left-wing response to the global financial crisis?

Something strange is going on in the world today The global financial crisis that began in 2008 and the ongoing crisis of the euro are both products of the model of lightly regulated financial capitalism that emerged over the past three decades. Yet despite widespread anger at Wall Street bailouts, there has been no great upsurge of left-wing American populism in re­sponse. It is conceivable that the Occupy Wall Street movement will gain traction, but the most dynamic recent populist movement to date has been the right­wing Tea Party whose main target is the regulatory state that seeks to protect or­dinary people from financial speculators. Something similar is true in Europe as well, where the left is anemic and right-wing populist parties are on the move.
Indeed it is weird that the main political response to a severe recession that began on Wall Street has been a demand for budget cuts.
There are several reasons for this lack of left-wing mobilization, but chief among them is a failure in the realm of ideas. For the past generation, the ideological high ground on economic issues has been held by a libertarian right. The left has not been able to make a plausible case for an agenda other than a return to an unaffordable form of old-fashioned social democracy.
This is a point I return to often: conservatives know what conservative economic is, but what is progressive economics? Ever since socialism collapsed under the weight of bureaucratic bloat and government malfeasance, the left has been without a clear economic alternative to free market capitalism. A perfect illustration has been international trade, which has grown enormously in real terms and captured the intellectual debate. Trade has undoubtedly destroyed manufacturing jobs around the world, but even my most left-wing friends think of protectionism as something old fashioned and perhaps a bit embarrasing. Left of center governments have, of course, enacted many economic measures, and it is possible to identify a left-wing political program: high taxes, which are used to fund generous pensions, free education, free or subsidized health care, cheap public transportation, and so on; a minimum wage; environmental regulation; work safety regulations; and protections for labor unions. I am a supporter of this program, but even I find it hard to defend intellectually. A regulatory state must find a balance between freedom and fairness, between safety and productivity, between reasonable regulation and maddening red tape. It is, therefore, a muddle by designed, lacking the clarity of free markets or ownership for all. As a battle cry, “reasonable regulation” fails to inspire. It is also hard to find that balance, and hard to justify some regulations rather than others by any means except trying them and seeing what works.

Compare the Tea Party, which has supported a short, simple list of economic measures – lower taxes, less spending, less regulation – with Occupy Wall Street, which has the broad goal of increasing fairness but has refused to endorse any particular list of measures that might promote it. I worry about growing inequality, but I don’t know how to go about making our capitalist system more equal, and so far as I can see, nobody else know, either.

Fukuyama thinks the absence of a left-wing plan for fixing our economic woes is a bad thing, because he worries that the social and economic facts underlying worldwide democracy are threatened by global capitalism:

This absence of a plausible progressive counter­narrative is unhealthy, because competition is good for intellectual debate just as it is for economic activity. And serious intellectual debate is urgently needed, since the current form of globalized capitalism is eroding the middle-class social base on which liberal democracy rests. . . .

There is a broad correlation among eco­nomic growth, social change, and the hegemony of liberal democratic ideology in the world today. At the moment, no plausible rival ideology looms. But some very troubling economic and social trends, if they continue, will both threaten the stability of contemporary liberal democ­racies and dethrone democratic ideology as it is now understood. . . .

The sociologist Barrington Moore once flatly asserted, "No bourgeois, no democracy:" The Marxists didn't get their communist utopia because mature capi­talism generated middle-class societies, not working-class ones. But what if the further development of technology and globalization undermines the middle class and makes it impossible for more than a minority of citizens in an advanced society to achieve middle-class status? There are already abundant signs that such a phase of development has begun. Median incomes in the United States have been stagnating in real terms since the 1970s. . . . Americans may today benefit from cheap cell phones, inexpensive clothing, and Facebook, but they increasingly cannot afford their own homes, or health insurance, or comfortable pensions when they retire.
If it is true that only a middle class society can be a democracy, and the world economy is moving toward ever-increasing inequality, then what sort of politics might we have in the future? Fukuyama frets about the rise in right-wing populism, but how far could that realistically go? I think his old insight remains valid: no matter what happens in America and Europe, no ideology has any real appeal. The democratic countries will remain democracies. So, apparently, does Fukuyama, although he is worried enough to call for the creation of an “ideology of the future” to defend democracy in an increasingly unequal world.

In describing this future ideology, Fukuyama says that it would need to

Reassert the supremacy of democratic politics over economics and legitmate anew government as an expression of public interest.
But, he says, it could not simply defend the existing welfare state. Fukuyama says several times that our existing welfare and retirement arrangements are “unaffordable,” and he calls for a “redesign” of the whole public sector. I see these complaints all over, and I have no idea what they mean. This seems to be something moderate people say when they want to compete with libertarians in intellectual toughness. The American welfare state is “unaffordable” only because our taxes are so low; rescind the Bush tax cuts and our fiscal situation would not be bad at all. If particular programs really unaffordable – say, the retirement system in France – then those systems can be redesigned. Just as I see no real alternative to democracy, I see no alternative to the key parts of the welfare state: unemployment insurance, pensions, subsidized health care, and free primary education.

I am not sure if growing inequality has really frightened Fukuyama out of his cocky belief in a future dominated by democracy, or just made him a little nervous. Certainly rising inequality is something to be worried about, but I doubt it will destroy democracy.

January 18, 2012

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