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WORLD | 27-03-2021 07:46

Francis Fukuyama: ‘There’s similarities between the populism of Trump and Kirchnerism’

US political scientist Francis Fukuyama – perhaps the most important intellectual of the last 50 years – on ‘The End of History,’ the coronavirus pandemic and populism.

Written in the late 1980s, Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History was the most powerful political and sociological document theorising about situations at that time – the fall of the Berlin Wall, the failure of the socialist experience, a new world order. 

With a thinking based on Hegel and not excluding reminiscences of Marx, Fukuyama – perhaps the most important intellectual of the last 50 years – reached the conclusion that liberal democracy was translating into reality the development of the highest human values. 

Today in 2021, with the coronavirus pandemic bringing every absolute idea into crisis, the political scientist sustains some essential convictions, while raising doubts over specific points.

 

Does it seem fair to you that your ideas are considered part of the theoretical and ideological baggage of neoliberalism?

No, I don’t think that’s correct but it depends on your definition of neoliberalism. I use the term “neoliberal” to denote a certain economic focus identified with the so-called ‘Chicago School,’ highly committed ideologically to the free market and opposed to state intervention, seeking to deregulate and privatise. This is a school of thought which became generalised and was particularly influential after the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher between 1979 and 1980, underlying the politics of the Washington Consensus. I never defended that set of policies in particular. A market economy is necessary –I don’t think there’s much alternative if you want to achieve sustained economic growth. Neoliberalism, according to my definition, is linked to a rigid ideological hostility to state action and that’s something I never joined.

Does the end of history imply the end of the welfare state?

The welfare state is necessary, I never opposed it. One of the tasks ahead of us is to expand the welfare state. In the United States we still do not have anything like a government system of universal and obligatory healthcare and that’s something desperately needed. You can argue about the sustainability of certain social programmes and the implications of higher tax levels for inflation, which are problems which may arise. But I believe in the idea that a modern democratic government has to provide its citizens with social protection and I don’t see how anybody could be opposed to that.

In this series of interviews, many intellectuals and thinkers – the anthropologist and feminist Rita Segato, the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez Reverte and the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy – have been using the word “end,” in reference to our civilisation or the Western world as we know it, all motivated by the pandemic. Is coronavirus the end of something? Do these ends represent some point of contact with your thinking?

The use of the word “end” in my book, The End of History, is often misunderstood – it’s used in the sense of objective or aim. The book addresses the questions: Where is history aiming in terms of the desirable development of a modern society and what form will society finally take? It does not allude to “end” in the sense of any conclusion. It’s not really the original Marxist or Hegelian use of the word, which is my theoretical framework. 

I don’t think that the current pandemic is the end of anything. Humanity has been subject to pandemics throughout its existence with humans and viruses evolving together. We’ve been through many pandemics before and human beings have adapted. You can already see this current pandemic coming to an end. The long-term effects of this situation may not be so great in many aspects.

You said in an interview that in The End of History and the Last Man you were already insinuating some questions related to the eruption of Donald Trump, using some of the underlying concepts which describe the current political movements based on identity. How did you arrive at that intuition of what seems to be happening 25 years later?

What I said in the last chapters of The End of History and the Last Man is that a successful liberal democracy cannot be sustainable for various reasons. Firstly, human beings are ambitious and the opportunities offered by our democracy are often not big enough to contain their ambition. That is the context in which I was referring to a possible Donald Trump, who was fantastically ambitious as a rising real-estate entrepreneur. And the question was if he would be satisfied with that or if he would want to move onto grander things. It turns out that he was not satisfied but also had political ambitions. We are seeing the consequences of that.

Another thing I spoke about towards the end of the book is whether peace and prosperity alone would be enough to satisfy human beings or if part of their psychology aspires to something more elevated, not just material aspirations – questions related to the idea of justice, to risks and dangers. One thing I said in the original draft was that if people could not fight for peace and justice, then they would fight against peace and justice because basically they would be bored. There would be the desire for more victories, for mountains to climb. In certain aspects, that describes the situation of many rich countries at the moment.

You said: “Poland or Hungary moving in that direction does not surprise me but that the United States should elect somebody like Trump is something I wouldn’t have predicted.” What was more surprising, Trump winning or Joe Biden?

The 2016 elections surprised everybody, including Donald Trump himself. The more recent ones were not so surprising because he did not have that excellent a track record in his four years. The system corrected itself. 

But the biggest problem, which is now much deeper, is that Americans live in two parallel universes of information. A significant percentage of Americans, for example, do not believe that the November 3 elections were free and fair, although they were. That’s a big problem for a democracy because if there is no agreement over such a basic fact as an election, the very idea of democracy is at stake. 

That was not foreseen. It’s one of the consequences of the rise of the Internet. Today we live in a media environment where the traditional sources of information are discredited. Anybody can publish whatever they like and they do. People really do not agree over the same basic facts nor how the world works.

But in February, just months before the election, nobody would have believed that Joe Biden could be president.

I’m not so sure that so much anticipation is worth much. We’ve seen plenty of surprises in multiple elections. In February nobody was expecting a great pandemic either. That obviously had a huge impact on the way Americans voted and how they saw politics. I cannot emphasise that fact enough.

You said: “Most Republicans believe that the elections won by Joe Biden were fraudulent and this will be very noxious for democracy in the future. What will happen from here on will be difficult to forecast because it will depend on the course of the pandemic.” Will Joe Biden be able to implement his platform? What’s your opinion of the idea of a “green new deal”?

Biden opted for a more ambitious set of initiatives than many people were expecting with his stimulus bill which has just been approved by Congress. Without even being in final form, it has been approved by both Houses of Congress. It really constitutes a great stimulus, almost US$2 trillion, far more than any contribution during the financial crisis of 2008. 

Things could look very different by the end of 2021 with the pandemic largely over and people returning to restaurants, meetings and offices while schools reopen. It’s highly probable that the US economy will be growing very fast and creating many jobs. That alone could affect the perception of the Joe Biden presidency. For now, of course, nobody knows if that will really happen. Many things might happen – another wave of the virus or a mutation or some other interfering factor in that kind of scenario. But the possibilities clearly exist for a more positive result, as I’ve just suggested. 

In the 1990s many welfare state ideas were abandoned and many social democrats adopted what was called the “third way.” What is the political and ideological role of social democracy at present?

Some form of social democracy is needed to sustain a really democratic system. Left to themselves, market economies produce plenty of inequality. Something must be done (and by the state) to protect health and pensions. Protection against unemployment is required – if not, you will have a very unstable situation politically with many people vulnerable and annoyed. A welfare state is important. 

Much of what happened in the last three decades of the past century was an excessive expansion of certain social benefits. That is particularly true of Latin America, including Argentina, I think. These countries promised a high level of benefits. The question is not whether benefits ought to be granted but whether they are accessible and sustainable and whether there are sufficient fiscal revenues to maintain them. Many countries fell into overspending, accumulating too much debt. When a country occupies a relatively small part of the world economy, like Argentina, it cannot accumulate such a level of debt without very serious consequences for the exchange rate and inflation. That’s why it had to tighten its belt, as other countries also did in that period – certainly in Scandinavia. Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden are famous for having very extended welfare states and all those countries in this period discovered that they had to cut their taxes and also their social benefits or otherwise to orient the latter more precisely. They had also reached a point at which they really could not keep the promises made. 

That kind of adjustment is necessary. Being fiscally tidy need not imply any kind of ideological hostility towards the idea of a welfare state.

When interviewed within this same series, President Alberto Fernández defined himself as a social democrat but he reached power via a coalition with left-wing populism, as Kirchnerism defines itself. Is coexistence possible there? Is this a new form of the “third way”?

In the long run a coalition between populists and social democratic politicians may well be pretty difficult. That has to do with the nature of populism. Populist leaders habitually base their appeal on personality rather than policies or broad ideology. The appeal lies in the individual, something which applied to Hugo Chávez and Juan Perón. You can see in Juan Perón and other famous populists in Argentine history and in general throughout the world that this political style does not fit very well into coalitions based on power-sharing with negotiated results. That is something which could happen in a parliamentary democracy with a multiparty coalition but that’s not really the populist style. It would probably be pretty difficult to maintain that type of alliance during a prolonged period of time.

Did the handling of the health crisis in the United States surprise you? Was that an ideological response on the part of Donald Trump?

Yes, it did surprise me. I don’t think that the problem was ideological. Like many of the other things he did, it was not motivated by ideas but by a very limited vision of his own personal self-interest. He did not see the pandemic as a threat to the health of the American people but as a threat to his own re-election. Everything he did was directed to assuring his re-election. That’s why he was so interested in re-opening the economy long before it was safe. He did that against the advice of the entire public health community, people who really understood the nature of these epidemics. The result was that the entire health policy was very badly administered and provoked the deaths of many more people than necessary.

There are similar criticisms of Jair Bolsonaro’s management of the pandemic. Many people remark on the difference with what happened under the populist régime of Nicolás Maduro and Cuban socialism. Why should a right-wing populist perform so badly and those on the left not so much, over and above the logical doubts about the data in Venezuela and Cuba?

I don’t have a complete answer to that. There’s another populist who also performed very badly, namely Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico. He had a terrible track record handling the pandemic. Even though AMLO is a left-wing populist, he has many of the same characteristics as Bolsonaro – he does not believe in the health experts and tried to minimise the importance of the epidemic. 

Populists want to be popular. They don’t want to be the ones transmitting bad news. It’s very hard for them to say things like “We’re all in this together. We have a very serious problem. You must stay home, use face-masks and not send the children to school.” These are very unpopular things to communicate. That’s really one of the reasons why many populists ended up pushing the wrong policies to face up to the epidemic.

In your book Identity, you explain that the 1970-2005 period was “witness to what Samuel Huntington called the ‘third wave’ of democratisation since the number of countries who could be classified as elective democracies rose from approximately 35 to over 110. In this period, liberal democracy became the predetermined form of government for a great part of the world, at least as an aspiration, if not in practice.” Could the pandemic mark the end of this process, a return to the 1980s before this process of democratisation could take wing?

It’s possible that we are at a very dangerous turning-point in the struggle for global democracy. Freedom House, which issues an annual report, Freedom in the World, has noted a diminished measure of global freedom for the 15th year running with a steeper decline due to the pandemic. There are many world leaders who use the pandemic as an excuse to boost their authority – Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, etc. Pandemics are opportunities for the more authoritarian governments. Coronavirus has also checked protests against governments because people do not feel safe going out in big crowds in urban areas. That’s worrying. There has been a military coup in Myanmar, the arrest of Alekséi Navalny in Russia, the extension of the security law in Hong Kong in early 2020. Many really bad things have happened. 

For sure what comes next could be different – there is a lot of repressed anger over the way various authoritarian governments have managed the pandemic until now. It’s possible that once things go back to being more normal, much of this anger will again manifest itself in the form of protest. Even during the pandemic we saw many protests – in Sudan, Algeria, Armenia. This happened in many parts of the world where the people were highly mobilised against corrupt and/or incompetent governments. I hope that the end of the pandemic is also a turning-point and that the pressure on the people relaxes a bit, permitting a more honest expression of the opinions of the citizenry.

You said: “The agenda of the 20th century is passing from being a struggle over economic issues to one more based on identity. That’s a worrying movement in which politicians use their democratic legitimacy to attack the liberal parts of the system such as the Constitution and the institutions.” In an interview, the Spanish deputy [of Argentine origin] Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo said that the struggle against the identity movement is “part of a cultural battle against the moral superiority of the left.” Is the identity agenda left-wing or ideological?

There are dangerous identity movements both on the left and on the right. Your quote complains about progressive or leftist identity movements in the United States, feminism, racial justice or LGBT rights, leading to the phenomenon of political correctness and the cancellation culture. People have used the power of the Internet to silence people they don’t like. 

But there is also a right-wing form of identity politics represented by Donald Trump. It’s not an economic problem that’s being pushed, it’s a certain kind of social conservative identity which makes people loyal to him and the current Republican Party. The Republican Party used to be a party backing low taxes, de-regulation and other economic policy issues. Now it’s become a party based more on the traditional US identity. Identity is something which can be used and abused by both sides of the political spectrum.

Can the individual psychology of politicians, their narcissistic traits, be a problem for democracy?

One of the things which we are currently learning is that people are not rational in the traditional sense. Economists in particular think that people are rational in the sense that they have preferences, observe the world and draw conclusions as to how it works before proceeding to act on the basis of elaborated theories. But the action commences with their preferences as to what they want to happen. They do not try to find out how the world works but how they can manipulate things to produce the results they want. That leads to a lack of reality which affects politics in its essence. 

Just to show one concrete case of this, many Republicans wanted Donald Trump to win, something which did not happen. There is plenty of credible evidence that he lost the election in key states. But their desire to see him win was so powerful that they were ready to take any fragment of evidence as the truth, regardless of how little credibility it had. That’s testimony to how people in reality are not so rational about politics or other issues in which they are emotionally involved with the result.

In Argentina, Cambiemos, the political force headed by Mauricio Macri, came to power defending the free market and globalisation. Many people thought he would be “the slayer of populism.” Nevertheless, in the short time he was in power inflation and, above all, poverty grew and Kirchnerism won again in the next elections. Why does liberalism sometimes not deliver popular welfare?

I really don’t have a good answer for that. The right policies for Argentina to follow in that period occurred in a pretty complex reality and probably should not have been determined by too ideological a vision, whether populist or free market. But honestly, I do not know enough about the specific decisions taken to explain the failure or why things unfolded the way they did.

You said: “Latin American populism has been very negative. Populists believe that they are the incarnation of the direct representation of the people. They don’t want other institutions, such as the courts or the media, to be obstacles to their direct power, which is why they do everything possible to undermine those institutions when they do not serve their interests, as happened in Argentina with the Indec statistics bureau concealing the high inflation at that time.” Do you see similarities between the Kirchner couple and Donald Trump?

There are many similarities. As president, Trump attacked any institution which did not support him – the FBI, the intelligence community, the Justice Department and even the Weather Bureau, the latter because they did not back his forecast that there would be a hurricane in Alabama. There is a great degree of similarity between that and Kirchnerism.

 

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Jorge Fontevecchia

Jorge Fontevecchia

Cofundador de Editorial Perfil - CEO de Perfil Network.

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