Liberty and Equality as Water and Fire

 

 

liberte-egalite-fraternite-surveillance

A critical review of Francis Fukuyama‘s The End of History and The Last Man

World powers of every age have the tendency to imagine that nothing can go further than what they have created. It would have been impossible for a Renaissance man to imagine internet, or for a medieval king to think of public elections and even less of women voting. An “Ozymandias complex” (if it may be called that way) spreads through every Empire. How could Ramses II imagine that all that is left from his civilization is mummies behind glass in museums of far-away lands and destroyed sculptures in the middle of the dessert? How could Louis XIV grasp the idea of a common man walking through Versailles, taking photographs of his bed and having picnics on his gardens? Or how could a United States citizen ever dream that his country’s hegemony would ever end, and that he would have to learn Chinese if he wanted to have a slice of the pie in the world’s economy?

Nobody likes to imagine losing their power. Even though everything points to a consequent fall, a man in power always tends to close his eyes to it and think of Leibniz and his “we live in the best of all possible worlds” pet phrase. How easy it is to say those words when one is a courtesan for a German Duke or when working for the President’s administration of a First World Power.

Francis Fukuyama, as Leibniz four hundred years before him, has stated that “we live in the best of all possible worlds”. He has said that it is impossible to imagine a political and social ideology with fewer contradictions than the contemporary liberal democracy and capitalism. He has affirmed that we are stepping at “the End of History” because once the principles of liberty and equality have been announced on a piece of paper there is no need for further enhancements on man’s conception of society.  Again, it is easy to say this when one is eating a slice of the pie.

 

“Liberal societies were […] free from the “contradictions” that characterized earlier forms of social organization and would therefore bring the historical dialectic to a close”[1], says Fukuyama. But, even though liberal societies are free from “past contradictions”, is there not the possibility of new contradictions arising from it? The fundamental problem of Fukuyama’s line of argumentation is that he is stating a series of preconceptions as an actual fact. Because the twin principle of “liberty and equality” has been lodged in society’s head for the last couple of centuries, this does not necessarily mean that this is the highest achievement humanly possible. Can the twin principles of “liberty and equality” necessarily be the final goal for civilization to achieve? And if so, could these principles actually coexist harmonically in real life?

Criticisms from everywhere have fallen on Fukuyama’s thesis. There is not a point in his argumentation that has not been meticulously analyzed and dissected by both the Left and the Right. To answer the questions previously proposed, it is necessary to find where these criticisms converge and how can a possible solution be constructed from them. The principle of “equality” and its close linkage with the principle of “liberty” has been one of the most debated subjects in contemporary politics and, analyzing it deeply, this could prove to be a fundamental “contradiction” inside Fukuyama’s thesis.

From whatever point it is looked at, the principle of “equality” does not seem to fit in correctly with its so-called twin principle “liberty”. Be it because the liberal economy of contemporary society does not permit it to be truly fulfilled, as the criticisms from the Left state; or be it due to the fact that, in its ideal form, it would completely deny the possibility of actual “liberty”, as Nietzsche and the criticisms from the Right would proclaim. Even though these arguments against Fukuyama’s theory appear to point to opposite directions as to what should be changed in contemporary politics in order to achieve a better political establishment, where they do converge is in the fact that they are both pointing at Fukuyama’s “contradiction”: there is a fundamental flaw in the principle of “equality” as an essential cornerstone of today’s political and economic system, be it due to its implementation or to its disregard.

Following Nietzsche, the goal of “equality” would not be anything more that a preconception brought to contemporary society by the secularization of the Christian ideals and by the expansion of what he would call the “slavish morality”[2]. This “egalitarian contemporary social culture” cannot destroy de “master-slave bondage” as Fukuyama would state, because, still following Nietzsche, this would not mean that there are no more masters and no more slaves; it would simply mean the homogenization of a slave’s society. The principle of “equality” (“universal and reciprocal recognition”, as Fukuyama puts it) would then be put in question as one of the essential goals of political thought. Universal recognition would lead to its trivialization and devaluation; recognition in a slavish society is not fulfilling for the thymos, hence Hegel’s “struggle for recognition” would keep on going and man would keep on fighting for a recognition that can fulfill his megalothymia.

Economic liberty by essence goes against the idea of an egalitarian society: “economic inequality brought about by capitalism ipso facto implies unequal recognition”[3]. If one wishes to establish an economy based on the principle of “liberty” which is the cornerstone of capitalism, one has to deal with the fact that an egalitarian society would be impossible. “Liberty”, in its economic sense, denies the possibility of “Equality”. So, how can they be called the “twin principles” that structure a liberal and democratic society if the implementation of one would automatically be in disregard for the other?

The fundaments of the liberal democracies seem to work with a double morale, as if having a doppelganger. The verge between its theory and its practice could be considered as big as that of communism. The paper says one thing and this somehow excuses what its actual implementation in real life would mean. Take the social basis of capitalism as an example: “Capitalism is a dynamic force which constantly attacks purely conventional social relationships, replacing inherited privilege with new stratifications based on skill and education”[4]. In theory this would mean that the old class structure is broken down by the new economic order because it allows the possibility for poor people to get rich and for rich people to lose their wealth. But, being realistic, who are the people who can actually have a good enough education to develop actual XXIst century skills? Well, only those who already have the wealth. Apart from an exceptional few, the poor and uneducated stay poor and uneducated and the rich and powerful keep their wealth and their position.

What is the difference, then, between today’s polarized society and the old class structures? That today the mass is granted rights. They stay poor, they stay sick and they stay uneducated, but they are granted the right to be rich (private property), the right to be healthy (social security) and the right to be cultivated (education). And this is what Fukuyama (and the whole democratic establishment) calls “equality”: that everyone has the same rights hence everyone has the same opportunities. It is not necessary to go very deep in the analysis of the last statement to realize how wrong it is. There is no use in having that beautiful list of rights (adding to it all those senseless rights developed in the last decades in the obsessive search for absolute equality in society) if the actual realization of those rights is not implemented for a great part of even First World populations. Equality does not come from everyone having the right to education and the right to social security; equality comes with everyone having education and having social security. Rights actually do not mean anything in practice; if not actually realized, they are nothing more than the Panem et circenses of liberal democracies.

Ironically, Fukuyama points out to this fundamental contradiction in his book, but somehow thinks that he is clearing himself from it by the mere action of stating it: “Thus the principle of equality may have been correctly established in America in 1776, it remains to be implemented fully for many Americans in the 1990’s”[5]. His whole thesis holds on the idea that, even though “equality” has not been fully achieved even in First World countries, the principles that proclaim it will eventually lead to its fulfillment, making liberal democracy throughout the world an irrevocable fact. But it seems that he forgets that, just a couple of paragraphs earlier, he says that: “postwar America had in effect achieved Marx’s “classless society” in these terms: not that all social inequality was eliminated, but that those barriers which remained were in some respect “necessary and ineradicable”, due to the nature of things rather than the will of man”[6].

He clears his name and contradictions by quoting Tocqueville and his idea of inequality as a “necessary and unavoidable consequence of some hidden law of Providence”[7]. This is almost as childish as saying that the world is what it is because God wanted it to be so. First of all, Tocqueville makes this remark in relation to inequality in an aristocratic nation, not in a democratic one; second of all, if one is certain that it is impossible to achieve “equality” in a liberal democracy, due to different cultures, the necessary division of labor and unequal “natural talents” as Fukuyama states, how then can one affirm it as a fundamental principle if its opposite is “necessary and ineradicable”?

 

A democratic system accepts the union of “liberty and equality”, but a capitalist economy would have to go against its core principle in order to achieve it. Then it could be said that the contradiction lies in the economic system and not in the political one, (Fukuyama tends to mix and divide these two depending on his will). An absolute welfare state or an ideal form of the Chinese version of capitalism could somehow solve the economic contradiction, but would then take to a political problem. All this leads back to the conclusion that there is a “necessary and ineradicable” tension between the twin principles of “Liberty and Equality” seeing democracy and capitalism as a whole. So, in order for liberal democracy to be considered as the end point of History there would have to be a stable balance between the two principles, situation that seems to be rather impossible. While “Liberty and Equality” keep on being humanity’s goal, History will not end because fulfilling both is a never-ending task.


[1] Fukuyama, F., The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, New York 2006, p. 64.

[2] Nietzsche, F., Más allá del bien y el mal, Editorial EDAF, Madrid 1985, aphorism 260.

[3] Fukuyama, F., Ibid., p. 289.

[4] Ibid., p. 290.

[5] Ibid.., p. 292.

[6] Ibid., p. 291.

[7] De Tocqueville, A., Democracy in America, (III, 5), University of Adelaide, Australia 2012.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/tocqueville/alexis/democracy/complete.html#book3.5

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