Joshua Black reviews Francis Fukuyama’s Liberalism and its Discontents (Profile; 2022).
It is particularly timely to be reading and thinking about contemporary liberalism. The United States Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade, the re-emergence of high inflation, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have given liberal intellectuals pause for thought. Against this backdrop, Francis Fukuyama’s Liberalism and its Discontents is an unambiguous (though not unqualified) defence of liberalism, written in the wake of the Trump Presidency and its conflagration in January 2021. Dismayed by the multiple threats to liberalism’s dwindling ascendancy, Fukuyama strives to show that this European philosophy remains ‘superior to the illiberal alternatives’ on offer (p. xiii).
Fukuyama succinctly discusses liberalism’s evolution and, more significantly, the critiques most commonly arrayed against it. The argument is clear enough. Liberal ideology is best understood, he suggests, as a ‘way of regulating violence’, a philosophy in defence of ‘basic human dignity’ and ‘autonomy’, and when implemented, a stimulus for ‘economic growth’ (p. 5). Neoliberalism, with its demonization of the state and its privileging of private property above all else, is a perversion of liberalism ‘carried to extremes’ (p. 27). But the real threats to liberalism are from left-wing and right-wing forms of rebellion. Modern left-wing identity politics, with its emphasis on shared experiences and collective struggle, brings with it a plethora of valid complaints against classical liberalism which are then also ‘carried to unsupportable extremes’ (p. 85). Attacks on democracy and diversity from ‘populists’ and ‘ethno-nationalists’ (p. 142) are clearly the ‘more immediate and political’ threats (p. xi).
None of this, Fukuyama suggests, is liberalism’s own fault. Yes, the creed historically failed to live up to its own universal humanist ideals, privileged a Eurocentric version of individuality above other metaphysical frameworks, and was too quick to see free association where others saw coercion or inequity. But for Fukuyama, these critiques fall short of exposing ‘how the doctrine is wrong in essence’, relying instead on ‘guilt by association’ and failing to recognise the progress that has already been made in response to those shortcomings (p. 76). There are no better alternatives to liberal democracy, he concludes, so malcontents ought to ‘accept the fact of demographic diversity’ (p. 145), embrace the ‘primacy of individual rights over the rights of cultural groups’ (p. 150), and revive an ancient Greek ‘emphasis on moderation’ in political culture (p. 154).
Praise must be given to Fukuyama for having dealt seriously with several major criticisms of modern liberalism in so succinct a fashion, without surrendering all nuance. At each turn, there are important qualifiers and caveats that prevent the author from seeming too dogged in his defence of liberalism. He is perhaps too quick to reject postmodern critiques of liberal , which leads to an exaggerated fear of ‘identity politics’ as an opponent of liberalism, but he is unquestionably sympathetic to the aspirations of marginalized groups for recognition and ‘universal human equality’ (p. 98). More importantly, he is careful to prevent any false equivalence between identity politics and conservative aggression or violence. The spectre of the right-wing nationalist clearly haunts this apologia.
The criticisms one might make of this book relate chiefly to its organisation and its scope, and many such criticisms are inherently unfair to the author. The form must shape the content, and given that Liberalism and its Discontents is intended for the broadest possible audience – one just as likely to include the airport book buyer as the committed student of politics, philosophy or history – trade-offs are necessarily struck in relation to detail and comprehensiveness. Fukuyama makes clear that this is no ‘history of liberal thought’ (p. xi), but all the same, there was arguably room to revisit some of the key thinkers in the liberal tradition. There are block quotes from contemporaries such as John Rawls, Carole Pateman, Adrian Vermeule and others, but only passing references to key writers such as John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and the critical replies that came from writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft. Perhaps not unreasonably, the book is less interested in liberalism itself than in its , but the former might have been more expansively fleshed out in the opening chapter.
Further, the ‘short apologia’ genre demands confidence and certainty where a different study would demand deeper critique. Fukuyama’s liberalism is defined by its major historical justifications, chiefly that it ensured freedom from violence, personal autonomy, and economic prosperity. But liberalism was never solely about these things (which Fukuyama acknowledges intermittently throughout), and nor did its leading proponents agree with one another (nor even themselves) on what it actually meant in practice. As Helena Rosenblatt has shown, French liberals in the 1830s fundamentally ‘disagreed about what constituted an economic policy’, and their British counterparts were equally inconsistent on questions of state intervention and personal autonomy, arguing ‘for one kind of intervention one day and another the next’. Moreover, as Marian Sawer and Stuart Macintyre explained, the doctrine developed different modalities in different spaces. Drawing inspiration from the writings and teachings of T. H. Green, D. G. Ritchie, Francis Anderson and the like, Australian ‘new liberals’ or ‘social liberals’ contended that the state’s role was that of an ‘ethical mission’ to ensure citizens’ ‘capacity for self-development’ Midway through his discussion, Fukuyama does explore the issue of ‘self-actualization’ as a liberal ambition (p. 60), but given its importance to the doctrine, it demanded some earlier treatment.
Conceptually, the chief issue in Liberalism and its Discontents is the enduring reliance on a left-right political spectrum in order to understand peoples’ motivations and philosophies. As with his earlier works, Fukuyama sees liberalism here as a centrist position surrounded by potentially dangerous deviations on either wing of the spectrum. That language is perhaps useful for the general reader, but hardly the most productive way of understanding either liberalism or its critics. Tim Rowse argued some years ago that Australian liberalism, for example, was characterised by an innate ‘flexibility’, equally amenable to conservative and capital interests as well as left-wing and working-class politics. Modern liberalism can and should encompass more than an unapologetic ‘Third Way’ centrism.
 Helena Rosenblatt, The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), p. 107, p. 110.
 Marian Sawer, An Ethical State: Social Liberalism in Australia (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2003), p. 11; See also Stuart Macintyre, A Colonial Liberalism: The Lost World of Three Victorian Missionaries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
 Tim Rowse, Australian Liberalism and National Character (Melbourne: Kibble Books, 1978), p. 10, p. 9.