Wednesday 22 May 2002


'I have not jumped off the modernity boat'

Francis Fukuyama talks about History after 11 September, human exceptionalism, Ritalin and Islam.

Having spent much of my youth campaigning against America’s military involvement in the Middle East and Latin America, it was slightly surreal to be sitting sipping coffee in a Soho teahouse with a former foreign policy adviser to the Reagan administration. Francis Fukuyama seems to have no qualms about openly defending the USA’s power to impose its will around the world.

Yet Fukuyama comes across less as a Hawk than as a genteel and very likeable man. And here we were discussing the impact of 11 September upon Fukuyama’s famous ‘End of History’ thesis, and putting the case for human exceptionalism.
Fukuyama proclaimed in 1989 that History (with a capital H) had ended, because ‘the major alternatives to liberal democracy had exhausted themselves’. But after 11 September, many argued that we were not at the end of History but were witnessing a ‘clash of civilisations’. Fukuyama was put under a lot of pressure to defend his thesis, but took some time to put his head above the parapet.

‘It was a serious challenge and I spent a lot of time trying to think through exactly how serious it was’, he says. ‘There was a group of radical Islamists who rejected Western values lock, stock and barrel, and did not want any part of modernisation. So it did suggest that the universality of Western values has certain limits.’

But ultimately, he was not persuaded to change his mind. ‘You have to ask yourself how strong this movement is, and to what extent it represents real alternatives. Within the Islamic world there is a major fight going on between the modern and fundamentalist versions of Islam, and the fundamentalist view is a minority view. In large parts of the Islamic world there is a desire to modernise and to accept the parts of Western civilisation that are necessary for that.’

In fact, argues Fukuyama, ‘Nobody wants to live under fundamentalist Muslim regimes’. This suggests that ‘there is a universal desire for freedom and certainly the consumerism that exists in the West’.

Fukuyama is right to warn against the current exaggeration of the threats that seem to be posed from without, to Western values and the Western way of life. There is no real clash of civilisations. Rather, as we have argued on spiked, modernity is corroding from within. While there is complete acceptance that there is no alternative to liberal democracy and the free market, today’s society is still deeply uneasy about itself and its own achievements.

Fukuyama would distance himself from the loss of faith in modernity. But much of his writing reflects the unease with which the future tends to be viewed.

Fukuyama has been characterised as nothing more than an apologist for capitalism -trumpeting its benefits and dressing it up as philosophy. He has also been labelled an apologist for American values. This latter accusation, he says, is ‘completely unfair’. ‘All along I have argued that there are a lot of different versions of liberal democracy and different ways to implement the market economy’, he says. ‘The Americans have one version and the Europeans another.’

Nor does Fukuyama seem to trumpet the benefits of capitalism. Although he sets out to counter the pessimism that currently exists about humanity’s achievements, and continually stressed to me that he had not given up on modernity, I was left with the sense that the future according to Fukuyama is ultimately quite bleak.

Fukuyama tells me that he never considered himself to be putting forward a particularly optimistic view in the first place. ‘The title of my book is The End of History and the Last Man. The last man part, drawing upon Nietzsche, shows the problems with liberal democracy’. Fukuyama does not adhere to Nietzsche’s profoundly pessimistic view of democracy, but he believes that Nietzsche can give us some insights.

According to Nietzsche, democracies - because they are built on the idea of equality - do not allow for the possibility of true human excellence. True creativity can arise only out of the desire to be recognised as better than others - that is, in societies that are built on the idea of inequality. Fukuyama argues in The End of History that ‘it is for this reason that the last man becomes concerned above all for his own personal health and safety, because it is uncontroversial…. For Americans, the health of their bodies - what they eat and drink, the exercise they get, the shape they are in - has become a far greater obsession than the moral questions that tormented their forebears’.

In this way, Fukuyama explains the narrowing of political life and the obsession with petty personal concerns as an inevitable outcome of liberal democracy. He argues that liberal democracies ‘leave this vast emptiness’. While I would take issue with the notion that there is something inevitable about the emptiness he describes, Fukuyama is touching on a very real problem of our times. His new book, Our Posthuman Future, expands on this through its discussion of ‘the medicalisation of society’ - the inclination to see personal and social problems in medical terms. 

Fukuyama explains that ‘the therapeutic language has come to dominate our thinking about everything. People are no longer understood, in a fundamental way, to be responsible for their behaviour. Instead they are seen as victims of a whole variety of diseases and disorders and conditions that need to be medically treated’. From this standpoint, he is suspicious of many new medical developments.

‘That is exactly the problem with Ritalin’, he says. ‘There are undoubtedly cases where people have such severe ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] that it completely undermines their ability to function. On the other hand, there are plenty of other children who could be taught to take care of themselves through traditional forms of character-building. This medicalisation of problems tells you that, in fact, you are not responsible for your own behaviour. If you are suffering it is only because you haven’t been prescribed the right kind of medicine.’

Fukuyama is describing a social shift in the way we view ourselves and our fellow human beings. We are increasingly inclined towards a view of weak-willed and damaged individuals who cannot be held responsible for our own actions. Fukuyama explains these developments partly on the basis of ‘the last man’ - the inherent limitations of liberal democracy - but also as a result of neuropharmacological developments. The use of Ritalin and Prozac, he believes, should be a warning to us about the potentially dramatic changes to our very nature that the unrestrained development of biotechnology might effect.

There is more than an element of technological determinism in his argument here. Can the medicalisation of society really be explained in terms of the availability of drugs? Ritalin, for example, has been around since the 1940s, but has come into widespread use only recently. The problem seems to be less the availability of the drug than the fact that society has lost confidence in its ability to educate and discipline children. This unease about how to discipline children may take the form of over-prescribing Ritalin (as in the USA), or the form of teachers calling for more power to expel disruptive children (as in the UK).

We also need to ask how effective Ritalin is as a tool for social control. It may make children sit still for a little bit longer, but it does not change their very nature. Neither does Prozac. It may take the edge off depression - and dampen the extremes of emotion - but it does not fundamentally change our selves.

Fukuyama’s unease about scientific and technological developments indicates a deepening of his fears about society’s ability to use such advances for its own good. In The End of History, he argued that ‘the progressive conquest of nature’ has been ‘made possible with the development of the scientific method. Modern natural science establishes a uniform horizon of economic production possibilities. Technology makes possible the limitless accumulation of wealth, and thus the satisfaction of an ever-expanding set of human desires’.

Our Posthuman Future warns about the profound, and potentially terrible, consequences of the biotechnology revolution for our lives - and ultimately for liberal democracy. And this, he admits, challenges the very foundation of his end of history thesis.

‘If you go back to the argument I made in The End of History’, he says, ‘the reason you have History in the first place - in the Marxist-Hegelian sense - is that you had technological advance and the accumulation of scientific knowledge, which leads to a rise in economic production possibilities and then creates political institutions and other things that derive from that’. His current concerns about scientific and technological advance are, he explains, based on having a ‘much more anthropological interpretation of Hegel than Hegel himself. For true Hegelians the end of history comes when you have a completely rational system. The rationality, in a sense, is abstracted from what human beings are like or from human nature’.

The ‘true Hegelian’ view, he says, ‘didn’t seem to me to make a whole lot of sense. Instead, the only way that you could say you had reached the end of history was if, in some way, you had a set of institutions that - given the way human beings were, both naturally and as they construct themselves over historical time - end up stable and satisfy people as they really are. Compared to all the other alternative institutions - and ways of organising societies - liberal democracies and the free market seemed to be the most successful. But clearly, if you can change very deep human behaviours and aspirations, it opens up the possibility for different kinds of societies - and does undermine the possibility of an end of history’.

Fukuyama’s main concern is that ‘we will use these technologies to attempt to get the kind of social engineering tried by various utopian political movements over the past 200 years - which we largely gave up on. But now that we have better cognitive neuroscience, neuropharmacology, and down the road, genetic engineering, there are all sorts of new opportunities for trying to control behaviour and shape human beings along certain predetermined lines. I worry it will reopen this ambition again’.

‘It is not like the Cambodians sending people to re-education camps’, Fukuyama explains. ‘But when parents and teachers have a convenient way of medicalising what I believe in many cases is a more complex socialisation and education process, they will take that short cut. At the moment there is not a danger of state-sponsored eugenics, but you can easily imagine scenarios where that gets back on the agenda.’

I put it to Fukuyama that the depth of his unease about scientific and technological advance does, in fact, undermine his earlier defence of modernity. ‘No’, he insists. ‘Some have argued that everybody now wants to get off the modernity boat, and that I was just choosing a later one. I don’t think that is right. If you wanted to control certain technological developments - such as nuclear weapons for instance - it would not mean that you had given up on modernity, would it? In fact you would be using the tools of modernity to try to make modernity not self-destruct. So I don’t feel I am getting off the boat at all.’ 

Fukuyama argues, in The End of History, that ‘the ability of technology to better human life is critically dependent on a parallel moral progress in man’: and he claims that he still has faith in that moral progress. ‘I think there is a good chance that we will not misuse these new forms of technology. But I think that does depend on people being aware that it can be misused: being sensitive to that and creating the right sort of institutions to ensure that that doesn’t happen.’

Despite Fukuyama’s self-professed belief in modernity and moral progress, his concerns about scientific and technological advance seem to go deeper than simply being sensitive to the potential for misuse. He is uncomfortable about the consequences of basic medical advance - for example, increased longevity. ‘Medical technology offers us in many cases a devil’s bargain: longer life, but with reduced mental capacity; freedom from depression, together with freedom from creativity or spirit.’ Yet if medical advances can improve longevity, why does Fukuyama assume that it cannot also improve the quality of life - and find a cure for degenerative diseases?

‘You can, of course, have very happy scenarios’, concedes Fukuyama. ‘But just think about the effect of doubling life span. Even if we don’t have a period of debility, you are going to have a negative externality - something that would be individually rational, but socially undesirable. The effects increased life expectancy would have on natural generational turnover, and therefore the ability of societies to adapt to changed circumstances, is problematic.’

He elaborates on this point by arguing that ‘generational turnover is one of the bases on which societies innovate and adapt. Politics goes in generational cycles because it is not possible to get people to radically shift their views once they’ve passed a certain age. If you do have life extension under these positive assumptions, you still have to deal with the obsolete human capital’.

Fukuyama expresses a striking lack of confidence in society’s capacity to adapt to demographic changes. There is no reason why society should not be able to adapt to further increases in our lifespan. The element of demographic determinism in his arguments comes through particularly clearly in his discussion, in Our Posthuman Future, of the impact of an ageing female population in the North and a younger male population in the South - a point that has been picked up and ridiculed by many reviewers. Does he not regret including those examples?

‘I think the demographic predictions are the easiest ones to make’, he says, ‘because it is factually the case that in every European country and in the USA the proportion of the electorate that is in that group has grown very substantially. That is not that speculative’. The effect of these demographic changes upon politics is, he says, more complicated - ‘but I do think that depopulation in the developed world is going to be a basic factor shaping politics in Europe, with all these recent backlash movements against immigration. That will get worse before it gets better, because, according to basic population trends, there is no way that European societies can get along without importing substantial numbers of mostly Muslim workers. Managing those kinds of cultural conflicts is going to be a clear challenge to every society’.

Fukuyama’s ambivalence towards the future contrasts sharply with his attack, in The End of History, upon the historical pessimism that shapes current thinking. His proclamations that the present stage of human development represented an advance on all previous ones, and that important achievements had been made through the development of human civilisation, were more upbeat than the theories posed by many of his contemporaries.

He may be less optimistic now, but Fukuyama retains an uncompromising belief in human exceptionality. In the chapter on ‘Being human’ in Our Posthuman Future, he writes: ‘Human beings are free to shape their own behaviour because they are cultural animals capable of self-modification.’ Many people use examples from ethology (the study of animal behaviour) and in particular primatology (the study of primates) ‘not just to support the idea of animal rights but to denigrate human claims of uniqueness and special status’. But Fukuyama defends the idea of human uniqueness, arguing that speciesism is ‘not necessarily an ignorant and self-serving prejudice on the part of human beings, but a belief about human dignity that can be defended on the basis of an empirically grounded view of human specificity’.

‘It is not sufficient to argue that some other animals are conscious, or have culture, or have language’, he says. ‘[F]or their consciousness does not combine human reason, human language, human moral choice and human emotions in ways that are capable of producing human politics, human art or human religion. All the non-human precursors of these human traits that existed in evolutionary history, and all of the material causes and preconditions for their emergence, collectively add up to much less than the human whole.’

To me, this was the most refreshing section of Our Posthuman Future. We parted holding very different views about the possibilities the future holds, but agreeing on one key point: the importance of appreciating human exceptionalism.

First published by spiked