Fukuyama's Recipe for the Poor Populist Left

02/09/2012 04:44 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2012

Francis Fukuyama has an essay at Foreign Affairs that is indubitably Fukuyama-esque. The subject is large -- liberal democracy, inequality and the middle class -- and it's spun forward into the future, where no hypothesis can immediately be tested. It is smooth, speculative, full of self-confident generalizations and studded with scholarly name dropping (Huntington, Sen, Zuboff). Fukuyama has become the new Peter Drucker, a prolific commentator who writes well and has mastered a kind of self-confident authority that seems to be built upon vast learning and great sense, which makes him able to discern the future. He aims to impress. Like Drucker, a Fukuyama essay often contains a number of provocative ideas that are, at the very least, worth pondering. And like the now-late sage of Claremont, Fukuyama, who is a senior fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, sweeps through history at 20,000 feet, identifying peaks and valleys and sites of local interest. And that's, of course, the problem: You're way up in the air, wondering what life is really like down there on the chaotic, messy, murky historical ground.

I am speaking of Drucker, by the way, in his role as a futurist, a sort of prophet of coming capitalism, not his exceedingly practical work on management. Fukuyama, on the other hand, is pretty exclusively an idea man, a secular intellectual prophet. His most famous idea, of course, is the post-Cold War notion of the end of history, in a post-communist world that, he argued, had attained a kind of political apotheosis, a final stage, an ultimate synthesis, in liberal democracy. OK, so his Hegelian culmination only lasted a few years before it began to come apart, if it had ever really existed. It was provocative. It made Fukuyama into a Big Thinker, not a bad career move. It also must be something of an annoying millstone: Someone at Foreign Affairs hung the headline "The Future of History" around this essay, a direct, slightly snarky if accurate reference to The End of History.

In fact, Fukuyama's big point here is one that implicitly refutes the end of history thesis: He wonders where the new populist left ideology will emerge, and what will it involve, to challenge the liberal democratic consensus. (Not that he tosses the end of history completely overboard: He gets to keep parts of the argument around by declaring that liberal democracy "is the default ideology around much of the world today." The Hegelian determinism, however, seems to have evaporated.) Let's face it; this is an interesting question, one that applies not just to liberal democracy, but to post-industrial capitalism and even to economics. What's the alternative to the prevailing, if floundering, orthodoxies? Discuss. And Fukuyama, always bent on impressing, does. Mostly what he does is what bright students everywhere do when confronted with a knotty essay exam: generalize and write a lot of context. Fukuyama is a writer of bold, primary colors. The left has "failed in the realm of ideas." The left has lost "the high ground on economic issues" to the libertarian right. The left, in short, needs an ideology. The populist left is a bunch of chumps compared to the Tea Party on the populist right.

One way to read a Fukuyama essay is to marvel at his ability to generalize, often about very basic ideas. Here are the openings of paragraphs three through seven. Paragraph three: "Social forces and conditions do not simply 'determine' ideologies, as Karl Marx once maintained, but ideas do not become powerful unless they speak to the concerns of large numbers of ordinary people." Well, yeah. But why is the first statement so tightly linked to the second?

Paragraph four: "Almost all powerful ideas that shaped human societies up until the past 300 years were religious in nature. ..." Hmm. Note that squirrelly "powerful." Define powerful.

Paragraph five: "As enunciated by classical thinkers such as Locke, Montesquieu and Mill, liberalism holds that the legitimacy of state authority derives from the state's ability to protect the individual rights of its citizens and that state power needs to be limited by adherence to law." What about Hobbes, Spinoza and Rousseau?

Paragraph six: "At first liberalism did not necessarily imply democracy." At least it's short, though he's applying a later definition of mass democracy to an earlier age; the Athenians (men, native born, no slaves) thought they were democrats.

Paragraph seven: "In Europe, the exclusion of the vast majority of the population from political power and the rise of an industrial working class paved the way for Marxism." Marxism as in Marx and Engels or the Soviet Union, which had serfs but very few working-class heroes in 1917? The revolutions of 1848 were more the uprising of the bourgeoisie than the proletariat. And only in the broadest sense was the 19th century after 1848 "a competition for the leadership of the democratic movement between communists ... and liberal democrats." That simplifies the complexity of the liberal democratic movement and inflates the role of the communists.

For all of that, the real problem here -- and perhaps with the end of history -- is that Fukuyama takes current concerns and preoccupations and extrapolates them into the future. We're still not absolutely certain why inequality occurred -- globalization, technology, economic development, sunspots -- but history does suggest to us that these large trends cannot be described by a straight-edged ruler on a sharp incline. At the very least, economic and market forces tend to move cyclically if unpredictably. So what ideas would Fukuyama suggest for the bankrupt populist left to save democracy and capitalism? Hell does he know. But he can suggest what's required. The ideas would have to be accepted by the right people. Somehow, the solutions, particularly to globalization, have to be attached to "nationalism as a strategy." They have to be "sophisticated" and "a synthesis of ideas from both left and right, detached from the agenda of marginalized groups that constitute the existing progressive movement. The ideology would be populist; the message would begin with a critique of the elites that allowed the benefit of the many to be sacrificed to that of the few, and a critique of money politics. ..." And so on.

Some of this is so obvious it's probably wrong, and some of this seems to come by reading yesterday's newspaper. Karl Marx developed his ideology by consulting a kind of intellectual recipe book? Fukuyama knows the ingredients of this new ideology, but not the dish itself? Ideas get whipped up in a bowl? The fact is, new ideas that may -- or may not -- develop any time soon may not contain all or any of those ingredients. They probably won't be defined as "right" or "left," which may well be their point. (What was National Socialism? Where does anarchism fit in?) Indeed, you can feel Fukuyama sliding toward a sentiment here shared by so many who believe they have the answer: that it's one that combines all the shining virtues of right-thinking people, like one-world government or technocracy or participatory democracy. (Justin Fox at the Harvard Business Review read Fukuyama's essay and suggested management consultant might have the answers -- shades of Drucker. Well, with a glance at corporate organization and governance, I doubt it.) The likelier possibility is that truly large and new ideas will come slouching out of breakdown, dysfunction or turmoil and, like the random path of true revolutions, there is no guarantee that they will be nice, clean and rational. Most of these ideas will fade; a few, perhaps not the obvious one (like Marxist communism), will survive, evolve and triumph. The text here is likelier to come from William Butler Yeats, I suspect, than the denizen of a sunny think tank like Fukuyama.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal magazine. .

This post was originally published here.