THINKERS OF THE NINETIES The soundbite was simple but, says Bryan Appleyard, there is more to this man than right-wing triumphalism
No 2: Francis

Fukuyama

'There is no other source of legitimacy in the modern world than liberal democracy'

CAREER: Francis Fukuyama was born in 1953 in Manhattan of Japanese parents. He studied classics and then comparative literature at Yale. He studied in Paris under Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida and then went to Harvard, where he specialised in Middle Eastern and Soviet politics. He worked for the Rand Corporation in California and then, for two years, was on the White House staff under Ronald Reagan. He has been deputy director of the State Department's planning staff. He has since returned to the Rand Corporation.

WORK: His essay "The End of History?" appeared in 1989 and was followed by the book The End of History and the Last Man in 1991. Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity was published this year.

LIFE: He is married and has a daughter.

CRITICS: His work has been attacked as American propaganda, a triumphalist celebration of victory in the Cold War. The End of History theory was dismissed by many as naive and Trust, his most recent book, as vague and contradictory. Michael Ignatieff damned Fukuyama's bland, long-winded style as being "like a fat man trying to get a glimpse of his shoes".

The end of the Cold War in 1989 was also the end of the defining struggle of the 20th century - the confrontation between democracy and totalitarianisms of the right and left. Fascism had been militarily defeated in 1945 and, 44 years later, communism was economically, politically and culturally overwhelmed.

On the one hand democracy had prevailed over the irrational, pre-modern racial and nationalist suprematicism that was fascism. On the other it had defeated in communism a rational, modernist ideology, a quasi-scientific approach to the organisation of society. Liberal democracy found itself, startled and uncertain, in the position of total victor.

But what did this mean? Was liberal democracy right or simply more effective? And was its victory permanent or merely temporary? In 1989 there appeared one extraordinary answer to these questions. We had reached the end of history.

Francis Fukuyama published his short essay "The End of History?" in the conservative Washington journal National Interest. Fukuyama was an obscure "policy wonk" associated with the Rand Corporation and the State Department. But almost at once he became one of the most debated thinkers in the world. Two years later he published a book-length version of the argument called The End of History and the Last Man. And this year he broadened his approach and significantly modified his argument with his book Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. He is now widely accepted as the most influential and certainly the most famous commentator on global political and economic conditions.

The huge impact of the original essay can, initially at least, be ascribed to the sensational title and the superb timing. The title gave an instant soundbite debating point and the timing meant that here was a philosophical message that was right on the nose of the nightly news. The Berlin Wall had once looked eternal, its destruction did indeed look like the end of history.

But there was more to it than that. For Fukuyama was not just topical, he was also good - good enough to have defined the central macro-political debates of the 1990s.

The intellectual starting point of his End of History argument was his revaluation of the philosophers Hegel and Nietzsche. Both had been partly discredited by their association with totalitarianism. Hegel was said to be the forerunner of communism and Nietzsche of fascism. As a result, certain vital elements of their thought had been effectively dismissed from respectable debate.

Fukuyama resurrected the Hegelian view that there is a direction to history. Communism had abused this idea by inventing a historical direction which, though Hegelian, was palpably not true. But Fukuyama argued that scientific knowledge, because it could not be lost, only accumulated, had introduced a definite direction, a movement towards ever higher technological capability. This movement has led, he argues, inexorably towards capitalism and liberal democracy. It was, for example, American micro-electronics that threatened to render obsolete the entire Soviet arsenal and thereby accelerated the fall of communism.

From Nietzsche came the idea of human aspiration as the pursuit of recognition. This was in contrast to the pursuit of survival and economic self-interest that had dominated Western thought since Hobbes and Locke. The First Man - a mythical figure at the beginning of the historical process - was not primarily seeking wealth, he was seeking affirmation of his identity and worth. Whereas the economic First Man will always compromise in the name of survival, the Nietzschean First Man will press forward towards recognition, driving the Hegelian process.

Liberal democracy encompasses this drive and provides the climax of the historical process. Once communism had fallen, there was no competing source of legitimacy left in the world. Clearly history would go on in that ancient struggles had to be played out - as in former Yugoslavia - but history, in the sense of a conflict between big ideas, was over.

Fukuyama was attacked by many as being little more than a State Department propagandist, providing intellectual respectability for Republican and Tory triumphalism. But in his book-length version of the argument, it became clear that his message was not crudely optimistic. He believed there were significant human problems with the ending of history. Once the long struggle for recognition had ended, or, at least, been defused, what was there left to do? Would the Last Man be little more than a passive consumer, devoid of spiritual depth? Would he, as Nietzsche put it, be a "man with no chest"?

These doubts made the whole argument more convincing. The simple spectacle of the liberal democracies standing triumphantly at the end of history had conflicted with the West's own view of itself. Uncertain and riven with internal conflicts, the victorious nations did not, in 1989, necessarily feel victorious. To point out that the end of history might well be marked by a spiritual vacuum made human sense; it seemed to be observably true.

But the problem with the argument was that it tended to present the world as being relentlessy smoothed out into one featureless liberal democratic plain. Certainly one could say that this ideal had triumphed in the sense that it was globally perceived as the only possible form of political legitimacy. And certainly one could hope that the pattern of the last 200 years would continue - no two liberal democracies have ever gone to war. But there seemed to be huge local variations in what precisely the ideal meant and how effective it was in application. It made nations richer, but it made some richer than others. And the social costs of that wealth also seemed to vary enormously - from peaceful, low-crime Japan to violent, high-crime America.

In Trust, Fukuyama addressed these cultural variations. Success in the operation of capitalism could best be achieved by nations with high cultural assets, the most important of which was trust. An ability to extend trust throughout a society is essential for the building of the large corporate units of modern capitalism. America, Japan and Germany have high levels of trust; France, Italy and China low levels.

The importance of this argument is that it distances Fukuyama from straightforward free market conservatives. The free market, he accepts, is essential but only accounts for about 80 per cent of the story. The remaining 20 per cent is cultural, and trust lies at the centre of this cultural requirement. This new argument means that Fukuyama cannot simply be dismissed as a hard conservative triumphalist or as a crude deterministic propagandist for liberal democracy. He sees that, even if the broad systemic arguments are over, there are still huge variations and tensions to be understood.

But the peculiarity of Fukuyama as a thinker is that precise agreement or disagreement with his argument is not really the point. His long, baggy and blandly written books are more like environments or databases than conventional, linear expositions. In these mountains of analysis, local insights might prove to be more significant or persuasive than the general argument.

So, for example, one of the most important aspects of Trust is the way it detonates the myth that the Asian economic boom is based upon a mass of culturally homogenous nations. In fact, he shows that Asian states vary as much or more than Western. China is a chaotic, family-centred society, Japan is a disciplined, group-centred society, Korea lies somewhere between the two. And so on.

This may seem a simple and, to anybody who has visited the countries, obvious point. But it is one that is repeatedly missed in the crude arena of public debate. Fukuyama's gift is to see it, explain it and make it stick in the mind of the reader. Even his bland, infuriatingly characterless prose works to give an impression of quiet authority. Information is being imparted rather than a thesis advanced.

Fukuyama's importance lies, therefore, as much in his role as a kind of massively informed footnoter and inspirer of public debate as in his role as a pure thinker. In the latter role his ideas function as hugely ambitious suggestions or possibilities rather than as hard, polemical positions.

The most telling criticism of his work is that it is too neat, too bloodless. It is a vast synthesis of data rather than experience. When he writes of China, for example, you are given a cerebral understanding of the place, but not the smell. He makes perfect conference fodder. On the other hand, the highest praise is that he, more than anybody else, has defined the big macro-political questions of the day: where are we going, how did we get here and how did we, of all people, win?

Next week: Samuel Huntington.

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