Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pfaff on Fukuyama’s Origin of Political Order

The above article appears in the November 24th edition of the NYROB. It is a review by William Pfaff of Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order: from Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.

Pfaff doesn’t think much of Fukuyama or his book. He refers to both Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man with disapproval A biographical article at provides some insight into why he does so:

“In a long assessment of William Pfaff’s work and influence in The New York Review of Books (May 26, 2005 . . . Pankaj Mishra wrote ‘His broad-ranging intellectual and emotional sympathies distinguish him from most foreign policy commentators who tend to serve what they see, narrowly, as their national interest.’ Pfaff is also indifferent to, and often brusquely dismissive of, the modish theories that describe how and why dominoes fall, history ends, and civilizations clash....

“[In his book, The Bullet’s Song], a long essay on utopian violence, he reiterates his conviction that the idea of total and redemptive transformation of human society through political means is ‘the most influential myth of modern political society from 1789 to the present days.’ Pfaff is especially wary of its ‘naïve American version,’ which, ‘although rarely recognized as such, survives, consisting in the belief that generalizing American political principles and economic practices to the world at large will bring history (or at least historical progress) to its fulfillment.”

I have not been “dismissive” of Fukuyama’s and Huntington’s theses, but have been inclined to pit them against each other in the evaluation of current events and of future possibilities. If Fukuyama were indeed proposing a utopian future based on Liberal Democracy then I would agree with Pfaff, but I haven’t seen that in anything of Fukuyama’s thus far. Could that argument be in the book Pfaff reviews (which I have not yet read)? I doubt it. Fukuyama’s thesis is based upon Hegel’s as “interpreted” by Alexandre Kojeve. This thesis argues that the “end of history” will not be a Marxian one (who turned Hegel upside down) but Hegel’s (thus turning Hegel right-side up). Marxism is indeed Utopian but in all my reading of Fukuyama I have never seen any suggestion that Liberal Democracy, even as the “end of history” comprises a Utopia (unless Pfaff views the end of war as constituting a Utopia). Quite the contrary as his reference to “the last man” signifies.

Pfaff in his review writes “Fukuyama assumes that what Huntington called the ‘third wave of democratization’ has already largely taken place, since at the time he was writing this book the number of ‘democracies and market-oriented economies,’ forty-five at the start of the 1970s (according to Freedom House), had increased to some 120 – ‘more than 60 percent of the world’s independent states.’ Fukuyama therefore claims that liberal democracy is now ‘the default form of government.’ To increase that total and ensure the enlargement of a new democratic international order, it will be necessary to rescue ‘collapsed or unstable governments,’ the issue he says has most interested him as a Washington scholar and think-tank analyst. . .”

We see Pfaff’s “dismissiveness” when he writes “his interpretation of prehistory and history, despite his disclaimer, is close to what the British historian Herbert Butterfield in 1931 termed ‘the Whig interpretation of history,’ which is to say that the past has been a progressive process leading up to us. ‘Us’ is not only England and the United States but Denmark, Sweden, and other exemplary democracies.” The foundation for Fukuyama’s thesis is in Germany (Hegel) and France (Kojeve) not in the ideas Butterfield criticized.

I was surprised later in his review to see this criticism: “He acknowledges the influence of the Enlightenment’s conception and promotion of the rights of man and human equality, and the challenge of its humanist ideas to religion, which widely replaced religious with secular values. But he ignores the most important political consequences of this introduction of the possibility of an earthly utopia, which largely replaced religion’s teaching and that the afterlife was where men and women would find salvation.” Pfaff doesn’t sound here as though he read Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption, Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order. If he discusses these matters in The Great Disruption, is he guilty of ignoring them if he doesn’t repeat himself in The Origins of Political Order? Perhaps, if their absence comprises a logical inconsistency, but I am more incline to think the dismissive William Pfaff hasn’t read the former book.

Pfaff might be saying that if Fukuyama were more aware of myths about “an earthly utopia” he might have avoided creating such a myth of his own (a view that a wider reading of Fukuyama would disabuse him of), for further down Pfaff writes, “Post-Enlightenment secular theories of history, as generally recognized today, had the characteristics of substitute religions. Marxism-Leninism and National Socialism, the most important of them, were teleological and utopian. Marxism claimed to provide a comprehensive explanation of society’s existence and its foreordained outcome. It expected to transform the human condition, and, when achieved, to explain and justify all that had gone before.”

Pfaff spends most of the rest of his article arguing that there is no evidence that human nature has in any way improved since the beginning of recorded history. I agree with him here, but so does Fukuyama. Fukuyama treats human nature, at least in The Great Disruption as unimprovable. He begins that book with a quote from Horace, which translated reads “You can throw out Nature with a pitchfork, but it always comes running back and will burst through your foolish contempt in triumph.

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