Francis Fukuyama Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Francis Fukuyama 1952-

American nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Fukuyama's career through 1999.

Social scientist Francis Fukuyama touched off a maelstrom of controversy with his provocative essay, “The End of History?,” published in the small-circulation journal The Public Interest in the summer of 1989. In this sixteen-page treatise that captured international attention, he proposed that the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe signaled the end of historical progress and the de facto victory of liberal democracy over all other forms of political ideology. Fukuyama's essay, revised and expanded in The End of History and the Last Man (1992), attracted an outpouring of critical commentary and debate in both academic and mainstream media circles. In subsequent works, Trust (1995) and The Great Disruption (1999), he similarly attempted to elucidate and anticipate the grand forces at work behind the major social, political, and economic developments in the contemporary world.

Biographical Information

Fukuyama was born in Chicago, Illinois, and raised in New York City by his Japanese parents. His father, Yoshio, was a Congregationalist minister and professor of religion. Fukuyama attended Cornell University, where he majored in classics and studied philosophy under professor Allan Bloom, author of the 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind. Graduating with a B.A. from Cornell in 1974, Fukuyama began graduate work in comparative literature under Paul de Man at Yale University, then spent six months in Paris where he visited the classrooms of preeminent literary theorists Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Dissatisfied with postmodern criticism, Fukuyama returned to the United States and shifted his interest to government and foreign policy. He enrolled at Harvard University and studied Soviet and Middle Eastern politics, earning a Ph.D. in political science in 1981. Fukuyama worked for the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California, until 1989, with a brief period in Washington, D.C., as a member of the policy planning staff under the Reagan Administration. In 1989 Fukuyama was named deputy director of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff, a position he held until 1990. After the 1989 publication of “The End of History?,” Fukuyama turned to full-time research, writing, and lecturing. He subsequently took a position as the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University. His The End of History and the Last Man won the Premio Capri International Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Critics Award in 1992. Fukuyama has authored many papers for the Rand Corporation and published numerous articles in both professional and popular periodicals. He married Laura Holmgren in 1986, with whom he shares several children.

Major Works

Fukuyama's reputation centers primarily upon the ideas presented in “The End of History?” In this essay, he attempts to establish a conceptual framework in which to view the end of the Cold War and dramatic liberal reforms in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China during the late-1980s. Drawing upon the historiographic perspective of nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel, Fukuyama suggests that “history,” viewed as a struggle between competing ideologies, has reached its terminus in liberal democracy. Hegel, as Fukuyama recalls, proclaimed that history had come to an end in 1806 with Napoleon's victory over the Prussian monarchy at the Battle of Jena, signaling the ascendancy of democratic ideals borne of the Enlightenment and French Revolution. Along these lines, Fukuyama asserts that the chief rivals to liberal democracy—Fascism and Communism—have run their course and ended in disrepute; Fascism was vanquished with the defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan during World War II, and Communism has been disaffirmed by recent political and economic concessions in the Soviet Union and China, and the reunification of Germany. Thus, as Fukuyama asserts, in the world of ideas, Western liberal democracy has emerged as the unchallenged victor over all other competing ideologies, with only religious fundamentalism and nationalism remaining as potent, though inferior, adversaries. Despite this apparent “triumph of the West,” Fukuyama notes that international conflict will by no means cease, but that future wars, uprisings, and regional disputes will pit “historical” factions (those who still cling to outmoded, discredited ideologies) against the “post-historical” embodiments of liberal democracy. From this perspective, Fukuyama contends that it is not necessarily important that all societies develop into healthy, prosperous liberal democracies, but that none seriously upholds the pretense that it can offer a superior, viable alternative to liberal democracy. Far from extolling this prospect, Fukuyama laments the passing of “history,” which he concludes will usher in “a very sad time.” In this post-historical era, Fukuyama notes, the excitement of revolutionary fervor and ideological possibility will give way to the sterile solving of economic, technological, and environmental problems, and the perpetual boredom of consumerism. Fukuyama does, however, hold out the hope that such interminable boredom will eventually give rise to the rebirth of “History.” In The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama defends and further elaborates his original thesis, again drawing upon the insights of Hegel as well as twentieth-century Hegel scholar Alexandre Kojève. Fukuyama identifies two principal “mechanisms” of historical change—man's effort to master nature through scientific progress and thymos, a Greek term adopted from Plato that refers to the individual's desire for recognition. Noting the universal Judeo-Christian moral code that undergirds democratic egalitarianism, Fukuyama attacks contemporary moral relativism and multiculturalism. The “last man,” a concept borrowed from nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, refers to the spiritless inheritors of modern liberal democracy who, in a world devoid of ideological causes, languish in self-satisfaction and mediocrity.

In Trust, Fukuyama examines the relationship between culture, social behavior, and economics, particularly the importance of trust as essential “social capital” that determines the level of economic activity between individuals and groups. According to Fukuyama, high levels of social trust permit the organization of large, multilevel corporations and economies of scale, as evident in prosperous countries such as the United States, Germany, and Japan. However, in nations such as China, Italy, and France, where trust is either insular, provincial, or weakly linked to the state, the ability to expand beyond small, family-owned businesses into the global marketplace is hampered. Fukuyama also asserts that increasing mistrust breeds corresponding increases in crime, litigation, and corruption. In the United States, Fukuyama observes, declining rates of participation in voluntary associations indicate a weakening of social commitment in general, and thus an erosion of valuable social capital that is difficult to replenish and without which society suffers detrimental effects. Fukuyama takes up this subject in The Great Disruption, in which he trains his focus on the deterioration of morality and civic values in America and other developed countries between the 1960s and 1990s. His analysis, supplemented with much statistical data and graphs, suggests that the troubling vices—such as divorce, illegitimacy, sexual promiscuity, violent crime, and drug abuse—that have eroded social capital are indicative of a rise of selfish individualism and a lack of regard for traditional authority. Such rampant amorality, Fukuyama notes, is historically cyclical and typical of periods of great economic change—in the present case, the move from a post-industrial to an information society. Fukuyama suggests that the women's liberation movement, though ultimately a positive force of social transformation, was also a major source of the “disruption.” Drawing upon research in anthropology, evolutionary biology, game theory, psychology, and moral philosophy, Fukuyama contends that humans by nature tend to self-organize and self-regulate in beneficial ways, leading to his optimistic conclusion that a new era of spontaneous, popular reform is on the horizon, a period during which people will likely demand higher standards of morality and responsibility among themselves, others, and institutions.

Critical Reception

Fukuyama's “End of History” thesis attracted heated controversy among a wide range of historians, journalists, and social observers, prompting a flurry of published responses, rejoinders, and editorial commentaries that continued to appear in periodicals and newspapers even several years after the essay's first appearance and the publication of its book-length elaboration. While most critics either refuted or dismissed Fukuyama's contention that human consciousness had evolved to its highest form in liberal democracy and that historical progress had ceased, many found his ideas compelling and erudite, particularly among those on the political right. The fact that this obscure article—written by a then-little-known foreign policy analyst and heavily-laden with complex Hegelian philosophy—captured so much attention was itself a source of wonder among critics. Many reviewers note that Fukuyama's essay and book The End of History and the Last Man reflect the heady mood and uncertainty immediately following the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War. Fukuyama's critics, on both the left and right side of the political spectrum, leveled strong objections to his lack of concern for persistent warfare, political oppression, genocide, and fundamentalist insurgence throughout the world—all evidence, according to such critics, that history is alive and well. On the reputation of his “End of History” publications, Trust and The Great Disruption received much critical interest, though far less controversy. Many reviewers praised Fukuyama's impressive grasp of world history and sociology in these works, and welcomed his ambitious effort to distill the grand significance of contemporary social and economic trends. However, others found his comprehensive approach unconvincing and overly deterministic, undermined in many cases by the overwhelming scope of his subject and Fukuyama's tendency to refute his own assertions with contradictory qualifications and omissions. Yet, despite the limitations of Fukuyama's wide-angle worldview and criticism stemming from his neoconservative political perspective, he is respected as an subtle intellectual and engaging social commentator.