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Comments on Francis Fukuyama’s two seminal books: ‘The End of History & The Last Man’ and ‘Identity’

I recently finished reading Fukuyama’s two seminal books. They are essential reading for anyone wishing to get a deeper understanding of the advent and spread of democracy and the modern industrial economy globally. Not to mention the subsequent rise of identity politics and the likes of Trump and Brexit.

But while both give great insights, I was driven to comment here by some fundamental issues I have with them that I feel he fails to address. These differences have led me down a slightly divergent intellectual path and given me a different take on the state of the world and our current day crises, especially in Western society and politics.

The End of History & The Last Man‘ was written in a vastly different era, at the end of the Cold War, when Western civilisation and its democratic and capitalist values ruled mainstream thought. In the book, Fukuyama lays out a meticulous and carefully constructed argument, through socio-political, economic and philosophical parameters, that demonstrates that human civilisation’s natural inkling is always towards liberal democracy in tandem with a capitalist modern industrial state.

Fukuyama though, in my opinion is almost matter-of-fact about the beneficial and self-reinforcing link between the modern industrial complex and democracy. It is true that a democracy best serves the pluralistic and complex societal structures necessary for modern industrial economies to function. But Fukuyama speaks about the mutually beneficial relationship between captalism and democracy, as if it were a given, seeing them as simply self-reinforcing with no possible negative consequences of one upon the other.

And here lies the fundamental problem I have with his arguments.

For me, he fails to look at the possible negative side effects of the relationship between capitalism and democracy. And this ultimately can lead capitalist societies to undermine and erode democracy itself, with its eventual downfall a possible end result.

I am no socialist. I was brought up in the 80’s in London when the collective memory of the 4 day week and rubbish piling up in the streets, due to labour union strike action, were still raw. But I have in recent years – like many around me – begun to doubt the capitalist system as it is practiced in our modern world. Apart from the jaw-dropping inequalities it seems to naturally spawn that are dangerous in any society, I have also come to believe that capitalism fundamentally contributes to undermining democracy. All of which better explains the chaos we are witnessing today in modern day Western politics.

The effect capitalism has on education is a case in point.

I am basing the following argument on the inherent notion that without a broad level of knowledge, about the system of government and an intricate understanding of the socio-economic systems that effect our daily lives, it is hard to exercise one’s democratic right efficiently.

To put it bluntly, a typical uneducated voter often finds themselves at the mercy of the whim of every populist opinion and every bit of fake news they are exposed to. He or she naturally ends up unable to make an informed, balanced decision as to what is best for their own and their family’s personal welfare. Essentially poor education leads to an erosion of democracy.

In a capitalist system, public education usually suffers. This is because capitalism is attracted towards the ideological principle that public expenditure is undesirable, in so much as it crowds out far more efficient private investment instruments.

Disinvestment in the public education system usually occurs as a consequence. Inequality between the private and public education systems are therefore often exacerbated, undermining the education of the vast majority of people in a democracy who are invariably are priced out of private education.

A capitalist society also gravitates towards skill specialisation. There is no particular exponential monetary gain to be made from a broad intellectual standard of education. Rather a more focused knowledge base is preferential to getting ahead in life. For those who doubt this, all you have to do is look at the difference in lifetime earnings between those who undertook a BA in arts rather than say a BA in business, medicine or finance published in the Economist:

At the other end of the scale, why be educated if you will end up working in the service sector in a McDonald’s or Walmart?

Without a broad intellectual base, even those who are deemed ‘educated’ are to a lesser extent, also affected in making properly informed democratic choices.

In trying to explain the advent of today’s political landscape, Fukuyama is right when he asserts in ‘Identity‘ that a large fraction of humanity naturally prefers to coalesce around groups based on common identifying features.

But again he doesn’t address the fact that capitalism exacerbates differences between these groupings by allowing each one to separate and segregate itself from the other. In a capitalist society we choose to educate our children with others from the same group, and here are laid the seeds for separation in later life.

Apart from education, democracy is further undermined by capitalism in the way that capital is used to protect the specialist interests of the rich and powerful who crowd out access to lawmakers (in the form of lobbying groups, for example) to the detriment of the mass population. In such an environment, when the interests of the rich and powerful are re-inforced by a skewed democratic system, the disgruntled gen pop become far easier prey for populists and demagogues.

Capitalism also narrows, and even deforms, the motivations that make for healthy democratic choices. Choices that reinforce democracy and therefore a free and fair society based on strong and stable institutions. This state of play occurs because all democratic options available essentially become selfish economic decisions.

To take an extreme example, in a mild to medium economic downturn a general populace would be prepared to vote for a dictator if they were swayed by his relative economic arguments, even if it meant a severe erosion of democracy in that country. Individual democratic choices based solely and purely on personal economic desires, without a social dimension, can’t help but eat away at democracy as a whole.

The different paths taken by Tanzania and Kenya following independence are as a good an example of the impact capitalism can have on a democratic system of government.  Echoes of the wider problems we experience in Western society today.

Both countries started off from similar bases following independence in the
early 60’s. While Kenya took a capitalist road after independence, neighbouring
Tanzania embarked on a socialist agenda, one engendered in the pan-African
ideology of which Nyerere was one of the biggest proponents on the Continent.

Tanzania today is poorer as a direct consequence of those policies but it ended
up with less of a tribal problem than Kenya. Of course there are other factors that
contributed but the broad point stands.  The socialist ethos gave Tanzanians a sense of nationhood – something engendered in the word ‘ndugu’, the Swahili word for relative, that Tanzanians often use to greet one another.  To this day, if you ask the average Tanzanian what tribe they come from they will look at you quizzically and simply say ‘I’m Tanzanian’. 

Kenyans on the other hand, under Jomo Kenyatta, were thrust into a capitalist system.  And while it enriched the country making it the East African economic powerhouse it is today, it largely privileged certain tribal groups.  Riches came to those who essentially held power that they jealously guarded, and the mass population did not see as much benefit.  The economic system certainly exacerbated the identity politics of the country and lead to the tragic Kenyan Election Violence that killed close to 2000 people in 2008/9.  If you ask a typical Kenyan their nationality today, they will still mostly tell you their tribe first before country.

What is the way forward?

It is hard to say and I will leave it do better minds to postulate. But it is important to begin to have a more comprehensive understanding of the inherent failings of what is up to now the best system of resource allocation we have.   And away from the well-trodden arguments of inequality creation and its failure to deal with long-term social issues – the obvious one being global warming of course.

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