Liberalism and Its Discontents
by francis fukuyama
farrar, straus and giroux, 192 pages, $26
To the general public, Francis Fukuyama’s name is synonymous with the “end of history” thesis, which contends that since the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism, liberal democracy is the only ideology that has a universal appeal. His detractors often accuse him of triumphalism, but Fukuyama’s argument was more sophisticated than they realize. Liberal democracy, Fukuyama held, was the only regime that satisfied most of the perennial desires of human nature, although there would be delicate and difficult trade-offs. Yet, strangely enough, his new book contains passages that sound just like the caricature his detractors attacked. Fukuyama’s defense of liberal democracy has changed, and in ways that reveal a fundamental transformation of American liberalism itself. The nuanced account of human nature has vanished, swept up in the absolutization of an “inner self,” the recognition of which forms the core of the new liberalism. Yet the most astonishing aspect of the change is Fukuyama’s altered stance toward the revolution of unlimited technological progress. The elder Fukuyama disregards the brakes that his younger self was at pains to set up.
As the full title of his famous book—The End of History and the Last Man—indicated, the young Fukuyama was responding to Nietzsche’s accusation that the human type produced by democracy is the contemptible “Last Man.” A tepid hedonist, the Last Man has no longing for excellence and finds what is noble unintelligible. According to Nietzsche, democracy’s fatal flaw is not that it produces greater and greater inequalities, as the left thinks. Its fatal flaw is its drive toward equality: Democracy is synonymous with universally enforced mediocrity. Nietzsche’s argument drew from the tripartite division of the soul in Plato’s Republic. By closing off the human aspiration for greatness, egalitarian democracy may satisfy material desires, one part of the soul. It may even satisfy rationality, another part of the soul. But it fails to satisfy the thymotic or spirited part of the soul, which seeks excellence, honor, and glory. Men motivated by thymos will find democracy dissatisfying and revolt against it.
Fukuyama acknowledged the insights of Platonic psychology, but he drew a different conclusion. Liberal democracy was perfectly placed to satisfy all three parts of the soul: the rational part, because liberal democracy was founded on scientific enlightenment; the material, because the technological progress unleashed by science and accelerated by free-market capitalism made it possible to satisfy every material desire. As for thymotic desire, The End of History reinterpreted it as a quest for “recognition.” Borrowing from the left-Hegelian Alexandre Kojève, Fukuyama cast human history as a struggle for recognition among human beings. Liberal democracy brings this struggle to an end by ensuring the mutual and equal recognition of everyone by everyone. At the end of history, wars and conflicts would still happen, but they would be couched in the ideological language of liberal democracy, of mutual and equal recognition. NATO justified its military operations against Serbia by invoking the need to protect the human rights of ethnic minorities in Kosovo and ensure their democratic right to self-determination. Russia justified its military operations in Georgia and Ukraine as necessary to protect the human rights of Russian-speaking ethnic minorities and secure their democratic rights to self-determination.
Fukuyama’s apologia was a deft one. And he was never particularly pollyannish on the prospects of liberal democracy. His thinking revealed a perceptive, sometimes prescient assessment of liberalism’s defects, drawing on the work of Leo Strauss. Indeed, Fukuyama showed he had traveled in circles that read Strauss far more carefully than some “Straussians” did. The latter tended to take Strauss’s last word on modern liberal democracy to be its characterization as the archetypical “low but solid” regime, to be conserved—in the age of Trump, to be conserved at all costs. Yet Strauss also feared the consequences of the end of history. In “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero,” he suggested that as the universal and homogenous liberal-democratic state extended its dominion, ever fewer enclaves would exist wherein the pursuit of excellence and nobility was possible. Philosophy itself, which is neither “low” nor “solid,” would be endangered.
All of this Fukuyama absorbed and to some extent incorporated into his argument. Like Strauss, he emphasized that a society that disavowed thymos would abolish all that made civilization great. Thymos could be misused, but its proper use made all human creative endeavors possible. Although Fukuyama defended the idea of a universal, progressive history, he also—like Strauss—relied on the permanencies of human nature to serve as ballast, and, again like Strauss, assumed that these permanencies were resilient. Fukuyama also conceded that the liberal democratic solution to thymotic competition—a politics of universal recognition—wasn’t exactly the most ennobling civilizational picture. Something great would be lost. In this respect, Nietzsche was right.
The consolation was that the regime at the end of history would be more stable and more just than past regimes. Nevertheless, the permanence of thymos meant that the fear of becoming a last man would persist. This fear, Fukuyama wrote in a 1995 essay, “has the potential of restarting history once again.” Then he introduced another variable. This restarted history “will be much more terrible” than previous history, thanks to the extent of technological advancement: “Modern weapons cannot be uninvented.” In the 1990s and early 2000s, then, Fukuyama speculated about whether technological progress would eventually turn against the liberal political regime and the society required to sustain it, and against humanity itself.
In his concerns about technology, Fukuyama was again striking notes once sounded by Strauss. “Present-day tyranny,” Strauss wrote, “in contradistinction to classical tyranny, is based on the unlimited progress in the ‘conquest of nature’ which is made possible by modern science. . . . But the classics rejected this as ‘unnatural,’ i.e., as destructive of humanity.” The threat posed by technological thinking concerns more than investing the state with awesome new powers.
For Strauss was not concerned only with material annihilation. He was concerned also about the use of science to transform human nature. In an often-overlooked passage in “Restatement,” Strauss contemplates that for the universal and homogenous state to last, its rulers “must forbid every teaching, every suggestion, that there are politically relevant natural differences among men which cannot be abolished or neutralized by progressing scientific technology.” Biology becomes the science by which the regime committed to ensuring equality stands or falls. In a few, arresting lines, Strauss foresaw in the 1950s what many conservative critics of the universities in the 1980s and 1990s did not. It was not that liberal democratic political correctness would drown the humanities, only to splash in vain against the impregnable walls of the hard sciences. The ideology would change the definitions of the hard sciences to correspond to its tenets, then weaponize the epistemic authority of the sciences to advance its agenda. Liberal democracy thus repurposes the life sciences in order to engineer a new condition for humanity, one in which natural differences among men (and differences between men and women) do not exist.
Looking back at his earlier work, we can see that Fukuyama was concerned that technocracy—a new technological and economic framework designed to maximize personal freedom and equality—might weaken our moral capacities to make pro-liberal choices, disrupting and destroying the social capital necessary to sustain a liberal polity. He believed the sexual revolution had already done this damage, transforming our moral capacities and modifying the political regime in which we live. He outlined this destruction of social capital in The Great Disruption (1999). Feminists, he wrote, misunderstood the real consequences of the sexual revolution: Artificial contraception did not lower fertility rates (these had been in decline in the West since the nineteenth century) or reduce unwanted pregnancies (in the decades following the invention of the pill, the number of illegitimate births and abortions exploded). Rather, men were “liberated from norms requiring them to look after the women whom they had gotten pregnant.” Moreover, the widespread social assumption that women could and should work full-time weakened the norms of male responsibility that once had benefitted women.
Fukuyama concluded that
one of the greatest frauds perpetuated during the Great Disruption was the notion that the sexual revolution was gender-neutral, benefitting men and women equally, and that it somehow had a kinship with the feminist revolution. In fact, the sexual revolution served the interests of men, and in the end it put a sharp limit on the kinds of gains that women might otherwise have expected.
True, Fukuyama remained hopeful that human nature would reassert itself. The Great Disruption takes as its epigraph Horace’s celebrated remark, “You can throw Nature out with a pitchfork, but it always comes running back and will burst through your foolish contempt in triumph.” Just as the Victorians had stabilized their society in the wake of the Industrial Revolution—whose disruptions included increased crime, looser sexual morals, and family breakdown—so the twenty-first century would surely witness the emergence of a stabilizing ethic. The permanencies of human nature would ensure the resurgence of order and the recovery of social capital. As this ballast was restored, liberalism would reassert itself and confirm its superiority.
Fukuyama acknowledged that technological change remained the most serious challenge to the “end of history” thesis. And once again, his nightmare scenario could almost have appeared in the pages of Leo Strauss, which raise the specter of a technological tyranny that abolishes the humanity of man. Strauss’s reflections on the political repurposing of biology are followed by a brief sketch of his ultimate fear. In the technological tyranny of the universal and homogenous state, the ruler will, “thanks to the conquest of nature . . . [have] practically unlimited means for ferreting out, and for extinguishing, the most modest efforts in the direction of thought.” The triumph of the universal and homogenous state entails “the end of philosophy on earth.” It also entails a permanent despotism, where politics involves, at best, political assassinations and palace revolutions. The logical implication of the use of science to control and manipulate nature is that science will come to control and manipulate human nature as well. If technology gives us the power to change human nature, then human nature cannot be relied upon to correct the social upheaval provoked by technological change. In that case, liberalism could not so easily—perhaps could never again—reassert itself.
Fukuyama expressed this anxiety most acutely in his 2002 book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, which warns of the emerging possibilities for extensive genetic engineering and drugs that could permanently alter human nature. Faced with these possibilities, liberal intellectuals of the time shrugged. Isn’t liberalism devoted to autonomy? And doesn’t the free human person have the right to modify himself? Wasn’t any other definition at best a religious hang-up and at worst a call for Christian theocracy? These were the years of George W. Bush and the newly formed President’s Council on Bioethics, after all—dark times for liberals watching secularization collapse.
Fukuyama opposed these liberals. Certainly, he wrote, many Christians were concerned by technologically informed efforts to redefine human nature. “To use biotechnology to engage in what another Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, called the ‘abolition of man’ is thus a violation of God’s will.” Yet Fukuyama went on to say that a careful reading of Lewis does not indicate that he “believed religion to be the only grounds on which one could understand the meaning of being human.” The point was to take seriously the philosophical resources Lewis and others offered. Throughout Our Posthuman Future, Fukuyama relied on the wisdom of the chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass, whose magnificent philosophical works draw from Aristotle to articulate the norms and guardrails necessary to ensure that biomedical advances remain in the service of human flourishing.
Fukuyama probably preferred to cite Kass rather than Lewis because Kass makes his arguments in secular terms. Nevertheless, sections of Fukuyama’s book imitate Lewis. In The Abolition of Man—a text that articulates the norms guiding technological progress and warns of the political and spiritual consequences of failing to do so—Lewis begins with something like Kass’s Aristotelian humanism. But in the third section, the argument becomes more theological. Lewis describes the temptation to jettison the moral order sustained by the natural law, Christianity, and the other great world religions as the desire for the power to remake the world and ourselves. This power, which would masquerade as freedom, really entailed obedience to our basest desires—what Lewis called “obedience to impulse.” We would thus surrender what was best about our humanity in a bid to control others:
It is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls.
The rhetoric of giving up our souls is not a mere flourish. Behind the desire to unleash technological progress, Lewis saw a world-historical battle taking place. In That Hideous Strength, the novelized version of The Abolition of Man, obedience to impulse ultimately takes the form of demonic possession.
Fukuyama didn’t go so far. And yet, Fukuyama’s debt to Lewis is great. First, Lewis was defending a Christian theological concept, as Strauss was not. Strauss worried that technological tyranny would eliminate philosophy; by abolishing the highest activity of man, it would thereby abolish man. But Strauss’s account presupposes a division of the human race into philosophers and non-philosophers; it presupposes natural inequality. Fukuyama worried that technological tyranny would eliminate equality—the highest moral expression of man, and one that Fukuyama, like Lewis, knew depended on Christianity. Whereas Strauss imagined a technological tyranny extirpating inequality, Fukuyama—like Lewis—imagined a technological tyranny extirpating equality. Second, like Lewis, Fukuyama was attentive to the larger geopolitical and world-historical conflicts. He contended that there were dark prospects ahead for the non-Western parts of the world that embraced technological progress while rejecting the cornerstone of the Christian moral order, its commitment to equality. Their projects would incite geopolitical struggles that would pose an existential threat to human equality. As Lewis put it, they would unlock the “power of some men to make other men what they please.”
Fukuyama’s conclusion was therefore close to Lewis’s. If we change human nature, we do not just abolish ourselves, we also abolish decent political regimes. There would be “malign consequences for liberal democracy and the nature of politics itself,” Fukuyama warned. A liberalism reduced to autonomous consent would be a feeble brake on the imperative to further technological progress. Humanity might have the occasional objection about state-imposed eugenic programs. But if individuals consented to genetic screening in IVF and eugenic abortion, objections would wither away, Fukuyama argued (as they indeed have). And what about the future? Fukuyama worried that the modern scientific enlightenment, at work in a liberal regime, would accelerate genetic engineering technologies, opening the way to superior and inferior races bred to particular tasks, just as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Yet liberals would cheer this on. Like the denizens of Brave New World, we would lack the intellectual resources to recognize that we were living in a dystopia.
Though Our Posthuman Future is short on solutions, it was prophetic about the kinds of social and political problems that were to emerge in subsequent decades. Fukuyama predicted that technological advances in human longevity would ensure the long dominance of the Boomer generation, despite the decline of their talents and their inability to stay abreast of rapid social and technological transformations. He saw that the therapeutic realm of medicine was expanding rapidly, employing drugs to conceal sexual difference. In today’s America, he wrote, “the two sexes are gently nudged toward that androgynous median personality, self-satisfied and socially compliant, that is the current politically correct outcome.” He anticipated the use of abortion to select for sex and other traits. Medicine would come under intense pressure to take as its purpose human enhancement, not healing.
Fukuyama foresaw a great deal: Most importantly, he recognized that more and more governments would issue agendas like this one:
We need to develop genetic engineering technologies and techniques to be able to write circuitry for cells and predictably program biology in the same way in which we write software and program computers; unlock the power of biological data, including through computing tools and artificial intelligence; and advance the science of scale-up production while reducing the obstacles for commercialization so that innovative technologies and products can reach markets faster.
Fukuyama was off the mark in one important respect, however. In Our Posthuman Future he imagined that modernizing countries in Asia, such as China, would be the first to embrace genetic engineering technologies. Their governments would promote these measures because they lacked the egalitarian ethos found in the West due to Christianity’s influence. Fukuyama failed to anticipate how quickly Christian culture would collapse in the West. The statement above is from President Biden’s executive order, issued on September 12, 2022.
The chatter of “scale-up” and “reducing the obstacles for commercialization” invites—as Fukuyama put it in Our Posthuman Future—“the pressure of powerful economic interests” to expand the therapeutic realm and encourage people “to medicalize as much of their behavior as possible.” Phrases such as “unlock the power of biological data” are calls to turn humans into commodities. As Mary Harrington has observed, the American government’s vision changes both medicine and our understanding of human nature. “In the new, transhumanist vision,” writes Harrington, “doctors are engineers” and “humans are a kind of meaty machine” that must be rebuilt so as to become permanently reliant on “ongoing biomedical intervention.” It is telling that, according to the larger thrust of the executive order, this rapid development of genetic engineering serves the goal of “equity,” ranking human beings according to their race, gender, and sexual orientation, then distributing benefits according to special status. The word “equality” does not appear in the document. Its authors have repudiated it, just as they have repudiated Christianity.
At first glance, Liberalism and Its Discontents appears to repeat the concerns of the younger Fukuyama. This new book, like its predecessors, criticizes the excessive individualism manifest in neoliberalism and laments the turn away from public-spirited civic nationalism. Fukuyama takes aim at the economic agenda of right-liberals, which accelerates the depletion of social capital. The younger Fukuyama warned that the right, despite its socially conservative base, embraced the language of “no limits” in the sphere of economics. This commitment led the right to become overly suspicious of the state and of laws regulating and organizing economic activity.
Liberalism and Its Discontents also addresses the excessive individualism of the left, the exaggerations of identity politics that look for systemic racism and patriarchy in every social interaction. This kind of activism implies that civil society is itself unjust, deepening “liberalism’s tendency to weaken other forms of communal engagement” and destabilizing civic virtues. The younger Fukuyama made similar arguments. He contended that the left’s individualist excesses undermined the social capital required to build high-trust societies, which are the societies that sustain liberal democracy.
Yet in other respects, Fukuyama has changed. His critique of the left has become much more muted. In the past, he criticized “innovations like bilingualism and multiculturalism,” which, instead of aiming to assimilate newcomers, decrease the stock of social capital by “erecting unnecessary cultural barriers.” These policies were, he said, part of a regrettable trend of recognizing an “ever-widening sphere of individual rights at the expense of community.” In Liberalism and Its Discontents, however, he attacks rightist figures such as Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule for challenging the “expanded realm of individual autonomy.”
It is odd that Fukuyama singles out Deneen and Vermeule. In the 1990s he had already made the arguments for which they are known today. Fukuyama argued then that the modern left’s embrace of personal autonomy and attacks on limits did not actually challenge capitalism. Instead, they intensified the most individualistic elements of capitalist culture that ravage civil society. That is in large part what has happened in the West since the 1960s. In May 1999, writing in The Atlantic, Fukuyama argued that “the culture of individualism, which in the laboratory and the marketplace leads to innovation and growth, spilled over into the realm of social norms, where it corroded virtually all forms of authority and weakened the bonds holding families, neighborhoods, and nations together.” The consequence of the triumph of personal autonomy has been “a rise in crime, broken families, parents’ failure to fulfill obligations to children, neighbors’ refusal to take responsibility for one another, and citizens’ opting out of public life.”
In these passages, the younger Fukuyama sounds more socially conservative than Patrick Deneen. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed—which tells a very different historical story than does Fukuyama’s work—stays away from such topics as premarital cohabitation and fertility rates, and does not call for a culture war. In The Great Disruption, by contrast, Fukuyama attacked the “popular notion that premarital cohabitation is good for marriage.” Unlike marriage, cohabitation correlates with “domestic aggression and social isolation.” And he raised the alarm over the collapse of fertility rates in Western countries, which would have “particularly disruptive social consequences.” Fukuyama urged that people must “renorm their society through discussion” and “argument.” This praise of deliberation reappears in Liberalism and Its Discontents. But in The Great Disruption, Fukuyama also called for the vigorous use of state power to shape social order, rebuilding lost social capital: “There is a clear sphere in which governments can act.” Fukuyama acknowledged that the state cannot do everything. Yet he argued that renorming society required waging explicit “culture wars” on behalf of the precepts derived from classical human nature.
But the elder Fukuyama has abandoned the classical human-nature framework that informed his earlier work. The shift can first be detected in Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (2018). In that book, he recast the struggle for recognition as a struggle for dignity. Although Fukuyama invokes human nature by drawing attention to aspects of evolutionary biology, his central claim is that “the basis of dignity” is an “inner self.” This term reappears in Liberalism and Its Discontents. According to Fukuyama, liberalism is a creed that rejects substantive ends. It manages pluralism and diversity while respecting the equal worth of all human beings. That worth, and what counts as respect, are determined by the “inner self.”
Singling out John Rawls, the earlier Fukuyama criticized theories of human rights that abandoned natural rights and the framework of human flourishing. They lacked “a substantive theory of human nature” and made “individual moral autonomy . . . the highest human good.” If autonomy of the mind was fundamental, the inner self could never be subject to scrutiny. Its ambitions remained unquestioned, even when it launched attacks on human nature with pernicious social and political consequences. One example Fukuyama used was David Reimer, who was raised (with the consent of his parents) as a girl in order to prove the gender constructivist theory of John Money. The experiment was a disaster, and Fukuyama bemoaned how Money was celebrated by establishment media for promoting the scientifically fraudulent claim that biological sex differences could be overcome by counter-education.
No such denunciations exist in Liberalism and Its Discontents, which asserts that autonomy is “the most fundamental” of rights. Though Fukuyama provides some stock criticisms of the Rawlsian position, they belong to the “communitarian” critique of liberalism pioneered by other liberals, such as Michael Sandel and Michael Walzer. Ronald Beiner, a perceptive liberal analyst of these debates, has observed that these criticisms amount to “a more community-oriented version of liberalism, not a counter-doctrine to liberalism.” For this reason the communitarian challenge to Rawlsian liberalism failed to live up to its full radical potential and was absorbed into liberalism.
What this autonomy-based framework cannot absorb, however, is a principled objection to John Money’s position. If we should celebrate whatever the inner self demands, then all ways of life that emerge out of interior discernment are equally deserving of recognition. Biological realities such as sex differences obstruct whatever identity the inner self imagines. Medical technologies should endorse the identity of the inner self, engineering and reconstructing the human body to match the inner self. The political implications of this project are grave. If democracy depends on acknowledging the moral worth of the inner self, then in order to ensure democracy is not threatened we must approve without qualification whatever identity the inner self adopts. The upshot is a social consensus subject to infinite pliability. There will always be the possibility of someone somewhere whose inner self is at odds with dominant norms, an injustice that must be corrected by engineering the social consensus to turn censure into affirmation, neglect into recognition.
Fukuyama’s new framework cripples his capacity to reflect on the political and moral limits of technological progress, and on how technology relates to liberalism. That handicap manifests itself in what might have been the most intriguing part of Liberalism and Its Discontents, the chapter on technology, privacy, and freedom of speech. How is it, Fukuyama asks, that the misleading content widespread on social media is, despite its unreliability, so popular? Its popularity seems, he concludes, to result from “motivated reasoning”: the tendency of human beings to pick the reality they prefer. This kind of reasoning is in tension with liberalism, which depends upon “public reason” based on shared facts.
The younger Fukuyama might have grappled with a disquieting possibility: that the rise of divergent “realities” within the leading liberal democratic countries in the West suggests that liberalism’s success was never really founded on a scientific, rational Enlightenment culture. Rather, it depended on technological advances that created a particular media culture. This print culture had a high bar of entry; it required literary skill and erudition, which in turn ensured a certain homogeneity among the participants. They agreed on norms that resisted censorship and upheld rights to publish and speak. In short, the norms that produce a free-speech society are downstream of the invention of the newspaper. Yet technological change, notably the proliferation of television and the internet, created new media with a lower bar for entry; and in the quest for audience, entertainment, sensationalism, or fandom, its participants produce alternative cultural narratives that fracture the body politic. Old norms, including the norms of free speech, get tossed aside. Liberalism’s fate is tied up with a historically contingent print culture. As that print culture goes, so goes liberalism. This is why some conclude that to hold mass democracy together requires a strong, postliberal hand.
The elder Fukuyama, however, ignores such a troubling line of thought. Instead, he blames conservatives for ruining America. Liberalism and Its Discontents contends that right-wing ideology’s proliferation on the internet threatens “the foundations of liberal democracy.” (The internet behavior of the progressive left, he assures us, “does not threaten” these foundations.) Once, we were able to hold right-wing ideology in check; now, it’s much harder. The story he tells follows the script of today’s liberal establishment media:
Right-wing paranoia was always present in American politics, from the Red Scare of the 1920s to Joseph McCarthy in the 1940s, but such conspiracy theories were generally exiled. . . . [B]efore the internet, information was controlled by a small number of broadcast channels and newspapers. . . . [B]ut the internet has provided an unlimited number of channels for disinformation to spread.
Fukuyama’s dates are wrong, as a glance at Wikipedia will show. Yet the central problem is more severe. The younger Fukuyama, mindful of older generations’ losing sight of the meaning of technological change, is gone. The elder Fukuyama displays the typical Boomer nostalgia for a corporate media order that can no longer survive. Deep down, Fukuyama must know that there is no going back to a country dominated by a few broadcast channels and newspapers. All he can do is repeat the clichés about norms of discourse, dialogue, and civility. He is satisfied with broad exhortation: “We need to restore liberalism’s normative framework.” It would be more interesting to argue in favor of shutting down the right-wing internet as a national security threat. If the right-wing internet really does threaten “the foundations of liberal democracy,” then it is essential to endorse creative partnerships between the state and society, between the FBI and social media giants. But beyond abstract references to free speech, all Fukuyama offers are the same halfhearted reassurances Boomers offer about Millennials who are attracted to socialism: Reality will intervene, eventually. He does not reflect on how the ways of life made possible by technology can permanently transform our politics—in this case, the way in which online identities sustained by social media have become a contagion transforming our political and social reality. Instead, Fukuyama concludes with a dorky Matrix reference. “We can swallow the wrong color pill, but eventually we will wake up from the dream.”
The book ends with passages of Whiggish prose of the kind falsely attributed to the younger Fukuyama. The liberal project now stretches all the way back to Pericles’s Funeral Oration. It culminates in the celebration of an American global culture spanning “jazz and Hollywood to hip-hop, Silicon Valley and the internet, over the decades that it welcomed refugees from closed societies.” Statements like these indicate that Fukuyama has stopped reading Strauss, who mocked efforts to trace modern liberalism to the Greeks and thought the open-versus-closed-society framing was at best incoherent and at worst nihilistic. But the more insidious rejection of Strauss’s insights lies in Fukuyama’s embrace of unlimited technological progress. “It is precisely a liberal society’s ability to incubate innovation, technology, culture, and sustainable growth that will determine the geopolitics of the future,” Fukuyama declares. Liberalism will confront China by being more creative and more productive, not by tapping into the West’s religious and philosophical traditions to recover an understanding of human nature that entails limits. There is no sign of the Fukuyama who wondered, in Our Posthuman Future, whether the absence of Christian ethical restraints in East Asian governments raised the danger that they would see technological progress in transhumanist terms.
Today’s Fukuyama may still have some reservations about transhumanism and its present manifestation, transgenderism. In the final paragraphs of Liberalism and Its Discontents, he writes that though liberals must defend autonomy, they must also recognize physical limits and “the real world.” Yet his discussion is exceptionally oblique. We’re not to worry, he suggests: These issues do not represent real problems. “It is not clear that most people want to be liberated from their own natures.” In Our Posthuman Future, the younger Fukuyama attacked much the same stance: “This argument, I believe, greatly underestimates human ambition and fails to appreciate the radical ways in which people in the past have sought to overcome their own natures.” Fukuyama was surely right the first time. From college students taking Adderall to Boomers taking testosterone supplements and undergoing plastic surgery, from the pill to IVF, from breast binding to surgical castration, we live in a society that has embraced the technological promise that we can overleap the limits of our humanity.
Fukuyama appears to be studiously averting his eyes from the catastrophic consequences of redefining man as a self-creating being. The liberalism the young Fukuyama hoped to check has become all-powerful. It is now far too risky to invoke classical human nature or stress the normative implications of biological permanencies. To do so would be to challenge the authority of the “inner self,” and the revolutionary machine of technological change that runs in service of it. This is the ideological foundation of the American regime and of the geopolitical order Fukuyama endorses.
Today’s leftism may talk in old terms, but it desires neither equality nor justice. It is the slave of the inner self and the puppet of unlimited technological progress. Older liberals such as Fukuyama are unsettled by the regime that results. Yet they are unwilling to grapple with the philosophical and theological problems the new regime poses. Their solution is to turn “liberalism” into an ersatz centrism that gently regrets the excesses of the left while policing the right with great vigor. So, as the transhumanist machine accelerates, liberal centrists like Fukuyama are reduced to pious celebrations of creativity, innovation, and technological progress. They collaborate in the construction of the dystopia their younger selves feared would come to pass. That’s what American liberalism has become. It presides over the abolition of man.
Nathan Pinkoski is Visiting Faculty Fellow at the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida.