Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Neocon Singularity: What To Do If You're "Left Behind"

For my money, there's really only one guy with the cajones to remain a seriously-received political writer who's also not afraid to deal with far-horizon issues like the destruction of human nature by bioengineering, and that's Francis Fukuyama. Overoptimistic, overblown, even a "douchebag" by the estimation of some of his students at Hopkins (as one told me), Fukuyama was a major contributor to the Reagan doctrine and a central (even founding) figure in the neoconservative movement. Because he's an academic rather than a politician, he doesn't have to engage in the team-player exercises that some of his confederates do, which is how, after the start of the Iraq War, he renounced neoconservatism and now endorses Barack Obama for president (more on that later). I was supposed to hear Fukuyama speak at the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco a couple years ago but he wrecked his motorcycle on the Beltway earlier that week, and the founder of Second Life filled in for him by talking about how flying genitalia avatars would revolutionize business and society. I skipped that one because I'd already read about it in Snow Crash and hoped in vain it would never come true.

Probably Fukuyama's most famous work is The End of History and the Last Man, which is where he earned the title of overoptimist. Writing at the immediate end of the Cold war, Fukuyama argued that the last two centuries have shown a natural progression of political systems toward democracy (1 for 1) and of economic systems toward market economies (1.6 out of 2). He argues that the two systems are fundamentally interlinked. He concludes that, with the defeat of the Soviet bloc, the trend toward democracy and therefore free markets will continue inexorably and indefinitely. It's here that we think of the naive but often interesting straight-line extrapolations we've seen elsewhere, in science fiction or in jokes: "Mrs. Smith, your son's fever has gone from 100 to 102 in 3 hours. Human flesh burns at 800 degrees. I'm afraid he will catch fire on November 18th at 7pm." Even if we can't articulate exactly why, it's a safe bet that the process underlying the phenomenon will break at some point, or be overtaken by another.

Science fiction, as a genre in the business of predicting things, has had its share of silly straight-line extrapolations, like the moving sidewalk and colonies on the moon by 1999. The best science fiction analogy to predictions like Fukuyama's is the currently trendy idea of the technological singularity, which results when the increasingly rapid pace of technological change one day becomes infinite, after which point we can't know what will happen. The geek rapture! Just like the fever example, the singularity rests on the naive assumption of a trend that can never become self-limiting or be interrupted by external phenomena. An automatically, inexorably liberal democratic world is Fukuyama's singularity - the neocon Rapture - and Fukuyama has been Left Behind, along with the rest of us.

Of course, I would certainly like human history to be on an unstoppable path toward more democracy and free markets, and the data from the last fifty years is encouraging (see chart in this article) but it's anything but clear that this trend is inevitable. This is not the first time that the European secular historical tradition, preoccupied with certain problems, has declared history to be at an end; people have been doing it since at least the early nineteenth century. Fukuyama's title is in part an explicit reference to these thinkers, but he thought in 1992 that this time it was different. And that's what everybody thought before, too.

Fukuyama amends his previous thesis in Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, another straight-line extrapolation which may be more interesting as a source of science fiction ideas than a political work; indeed, the central thesis (that history might not have ended since we can now alter human nature itself which history is dependent on) is so far out that I can't even really call it alarmist. As an aside, I just finished Thorstein Veblen's 1904 Theory of Business Enterprise, one of the conspicuous features of which was Veblen's concern about the profound future impact of the machine industry on human behavior and psychology. This struck me (and I'm sure most readers) as bizarre, if only because after a century, it's not obvious to us that there has been much impact.

In follow-ups to The End of History, Fukuyama would have attended better to his earlier book by exploring how the link between free markets and free democracies is not as clear as he thought it was; or, by explaining exactly how global Islamic extremism, Russia, and especially China are mere blips on the path to endless liberty, as he often claims. As it happens I agree with him that Islamic extremism is a dead end. But as it turns out, somehow people are still more worried about terrorism and autocracy than about biotechnology's threat to human nature.

It's easy to play Monday morning quarterback two decades on with books like this, and again I would stress that Fukuyama's vision of a world populated by liberal democracies is one we should all welcome. It's to what degree democracies can relax in the twenty-first century where most of us disagree. Fellow founding neocon Robert Kagan directly answered Fukuyama with The Return of History and the End of Dreams, which as you might guess recognizes that we have moved back into a multipolar world where autocracy is alive and well, especially in China and Russia. Kagan calls out the main mistake - the mistake that I and many market conservatives have made until recently - of assuming without question that market liberalization leads automatically to political liberalization. The example of the Soviet Union, over which we won an economic victory, did not test this assumption. The Soviet bloc's more rational leaders were forced into reform under the weight of sustaining a massive military without a massive economy. Perhaps any victory of one great power over another, tested as it must be repeatedly across decades and hemispheres, is necessarily an economic one. I don't know what German verb Kant used in his original statement that commerce leads to peace; perhaps a more accurate way of putting it would be that commerce often tends toward peace, but certainly doesn't make it inevitable. In Never At War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight Each Other, Spencer Weart points out how viciously the merchants of many of North Italy's medieval city states fought each other until those city states developed democratic governments. It seems that commerce tends toward peace only if it's between the citizens of democracies. I wish this were clear to the remaining market-and-country conservatives in the GOP who I look to for these kinds of hard decisions. Then, the U.S.'s China policy might aim to do something more than enriching American companies and Chinese manufacturing communes - to no benefit of Chinese citizens, or for that matter citizens of democracies in the long run. Maybe we might think about actually enforcing Jackson-Vanik occasionally. Indeed it's very difficult for the U.S. to put on a straight face when we try to pressure dictators about human rights, since we granted permanent most-favored nation status to China in 2000. Free markets do not necessarily translate into free governments. It's not automatic.

China's rise has surfaced this assumption and falsified it. Part of China's success lies in its actual concern for material progress, greater than it ever was in the Soviet Union. The rise of a smart autocracy that actually thinks in the long term and therefore makes internal material progress a priority is the phenomenon that interrupts the trend, just like the fever patient doesn't catch on fire because of the biochemical facts of life, or the technological singularity doesn't happen because of Microsoft. For all my polemics about China, Hu Jintao is not Robert Mugabe. China is actually trying to provide services and infrastructure to its people; even in Tibet they've built more bridges than the Tibetans ever did. Still - and here's the key - if you woke up tomorrow to find that Chinese troops had taken over your town, even if they sent someone to fix that pothole on your street that had been there for two years, even if they said you don't have to worry about environmental regulations anymore - how would you feel about that?

That said, China's major growth has been largely confined to coastal cities, and nationally per capita income is still lower than all but five Latin American countries (yes, they lag behind that Central American powerhouse Guatemala). Perhaps the more disturbing aspect of the rise of the twenty-first century autocracies is that their shallower ideological basis inevitably leads them back into good old-fashioned nationalism. Russia has slid back into a kind of post-ideological nationalist gangsterism, and the world began to see it in China leading up to the Olympics (supposedly one study commissioned by the Chinese Communist Party aimed to prove that Chinese were actually a different species than the rest of us - didn't Lenin talk about an internatioal brotherhood?) That nationalism is a part of the human nature Fukuyama took as a constant in The End of History; and human nature is a much less rational thing than the optimist Fukuyama credits it to be.

As promised, a word on Fukuyama's political evolution. I'm not so concerned about the political taxonomy of neocons and paleocons and paternalistic libertarianism. Having said that, it's interesting that somewhere in 2006 pundits gave up trying to put Bush into any of these categories (I've heard "movement conservative", and what the hell is that, and who else is in it with him? It's a political classification with one person in it.) In terms of conservative sub-movements, Bush's staff and campaign network appears like a hybrid of neocons (many of whom bailed out) and evangelicals. Neocons tend not to be very religious, as with the atheist Karl Rove - though this fact may at first be difficult to understand, if you think of Bush's power structure as a neocon-evangelical hybrid it makes more sense. Yes, the neocons may have been overambitious and abstract. On the other hand, unlike evangelicals, they could balance a checkbook and had an agenda beyond getting re-elected and protecting Americans from gay abortions, and in the essence of their foreign policy strategy and rationale, they were correct. The tragedy is that now we're faced with a failed legacy (which Fukuyama details in America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, which I haven't yet read) which discredits this strategy in the eyes of the electorate, and it's because of his continued discourse at this time that I find Fukuyama to be an interesting icon of the post-Bush evangelical-neocon split. He has deep roots in conservatism going back before his work with Reagan to his studies under Bloom, but as an academic he didn't have to play political games. This may be why he can openly voice his opposition to the Iraq War right in the Wall Street Journal, though I can't quite follow his reasoning since he signed the September 20 letter to Bush calling for an invasion of Iraq, which is exactly what Bush did. Perhaps Fukuyama was just backing away from a presidency increasingly dominated by evangelicals, or he was just gauging his political future and saw the ship sinking a little earlier than most conservatives. Or (what I expect he does in Crossroads) he takes issue with the details of policy implementation of the movement's ideas. Of course, Fukuyama isn't the only Reagan Republican who's left the fold; some, like Former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, even got elected to the Senate as a Democrat.

At any rate, Fukuyama's switch seems to be complete, because guess who he's endorsed for President in 2008?

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