A state of decay

Saskia Sassen
2 May 2006

Francis Fukuyama's afterword to the second paperback edition of The End of History and the Last Man is in most ways a welcome postscript to his original argument of seventeen years ago. Fukuyama dismisses critiques that started from a flawed or flatly incorrect understanding of his thesis, but he recognises that some of the critiques deserve to be addressed, either because his original statement was unclear or, albeit rarer, because he has revised his own views as history has moved on.

I find most of his responses persuasive. I am, as well, pleased by his critique of the United States war on Iraq. The presumptions of its planners and the associated post-war disasters, and the unwillingness to consider the failures of just about all eighteen US attempts at modern nation-building since the late 1800s. These critical observations from a major neo-conservative thinker demand courage and carry weight.

I have one major objection, however: Fukuyama's handling of liberal democracy. Unlike his deliberative disposition towards some of the major changes of the last few years, when it comes to liberal democracy it is as if time stopped and no new history been made.

This article is part of an openDemocracy symposium on Francis Fukuyama's afterword in the second paperback edition of The End of History and the Last Man (Simon & Schuster, 2006)

For an overview of the debate click here

Also published:

Francis Fukuyama, "After the 'end of history'" (2 May 2006)

Danny Postel, "The 'end of history' revisited: Francis Fukuyama and his critics"
(2 May 2006)

Fukuyama reminds us that when he originally wrote about democracy as the final stage of history, he was thinking of the nation-state, and that he had not envisioned a global democracy developing through the extension of international law. In his discussion of these issues he brings together a variety of dynamics, including a democratic deficit occasioned by globalisation and weakened states, as well as the growing chasm between Europe and the United States vis-à-vis the nation-state. He sees the US as being quite happy with the whole notion of the nation-state and its power politics, while Europeans see the nation-state as problematic, preferring that soft power and legal norms replace military force in the international arena. Fukuyama does not accept the argument for liberal democracy that transcends the nation-state.

Fukuyama also responds to criticism over his alleged failure to provide a theory of politics as partly autonomous from economic development. Fukuyama now argues that we need to recognise the possibility of political decay, and hence that economic development will not automatically bring about liberal states.

What he leaves out of his analysis, however, is the possibility of decay inside the liberal state itself – and the attendant consequences of such decay for his larger argument. Fukuyama does not interrogate the internal character of the liberal state, specifically in the United States. Although he criticises the Bush administration for launching the wrong war and failing to plan post-war reconstruction in Iraq, and recognises the decay in states in some of the world's less-developed regions, he misses the opportunity to apply the same judgment closer to home.

Inside, not outside

The argument on this theme of decay deserves more space than is possible here, and thus I can only refer the interested (or sceptical) reader to my forthcoming book Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages. In brief, however, two propositions are central to the case.

The first is that this decay in the liberal-democratic state cannot simply be viewed as a function of the democratic deficit brought on by external forces. A focus on external forces – in turn, globalisation and terrorism – is the most common method of explaining the increasingly evident deficit in liberal democracies.

There are consequences to such an interpretation. A focus on external forces keeps us from examining the possibility that the state is not simply responding but is also potentially producing the democratic deficit. My own research on globalisation over the last decade and a half has explored to what extent the global also gets constituted inside the national rather than just coming "from the outside". The state apparatus is one of the key sites for this sub-national constitution of the global.

Another consequence of the focus on external forces is that it misses the reality of global cities, which override the duality of national and global as mutually-exclusive institutional fields.

This emphasis on the external as the culprit in creating a democratic deficit can block understanding of the depth and type of transformation taking place within the liberal state. In the case of the United States, we need to raise the possibility that the Bush administration's extreme conduct in certain domains is not simply a function of external pressure and hence an anomaly in the routine functioning of the liberal state, but is in an important sense the new face of the liberal state. In this light, terrorist threats and the war on Iraq may actually camouflage this deeper, interior transformation.

Saskia Sassen is professor in the department of sociology at the University of Chicago and at the London School of Economics. Her latest book is Territory, Authority, and Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press, 2006), based on a five-year project on governance and accountability in a global economy

Also by Saskia Sassen in openDemocracy:

"A universal harm: making criminals of migrants"
(August 2003)

"Fear and camouflage: the end of the liberal state?" (December 2005) – part of openDemocracy's worldwide symposium, "What does 2006 have in store?"

"Free speech in the frontier-zone"
(February 2006)

The second proposition in the argument about decay is the timeframe. The foundational changes inside the liberal state began in the 1980s. I insist on this longer context – which includes both Democratic and Republican administrations in the US. What is different about the Bush administration is that these changes have entered the political domain, whereas under Ronald Reagan, George Bush senior, and Bill Clinton they were largely limited to economic and technical realms. The importance of this is that once changes enter the political domain they are, at least partly, more easily seen and understood by citizens than the technicalities of economic deregulation in financial markets, telecommunications and other sectors in the 1980s and 1990s.

My own reading of this history suggests a serious neglect of the extent to which decisions taken by the Reagan administration hollowed out Congress and thereby produced a profound asymmetry between the legislative and the executive branches. Far more attention has been paid to deregulation's effect on the rise of private authority than to the move away from the activist Congress of the 1960s and 1970s that curtailed the power of the executive and enhanced the rights of citizens.

Congress slows down politics and makes it relatively more public than executive-branch politics. The hollowing-out of Congress also has the effect of shifting both law-making functions and some of the disciplining of the executive to the judiciary. It is not that such shifts have not happened before, but their specific meanings and effects in this particular phase need to be recognised.

While I find much that is admirable in Fukuyama's responses to his critics in this new afterword, his overlooking of the decay inside the liberal state is a problem. This matters insofar as much of his approach hinges on the centrality of liberal democracy as an organising dynamic. How do such transformations endogenous to the liberal state, and not simply produced by external forces, unsettle his argument?

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