Sunday, October 8, 2017

Francis Fukuyama on the meaning of life

INTERVIEW* The liberal democracy creates prosperity and peace. But there is more to human existence than just money and security, and liberal democracy cannot deliver that. We must do so ourselves - and it's not going well. The American political thinker Francis Fukuyama gives some suggestions on why.

By Lars Andreassen, Egå Ungdoms-Højskole, and Andreas Harbsmeier, Editor at Højskolebladet **

We know him for something completely different. But Francis Fukuyama’s, one of the most prominent intellectuals of the last 30 years, home of Palto Alto, California, is filled with all sorts of tools. Here he spends time – when he is not out and traveling or teaching at the university – making, among other things, reproductions of antique wooden furniture, which, according to his own opinion, he would otherwise not be able to afford.

Now he sits in a bright room at Aarhus University in Denmark talking about the big questions of human existence and the basic conditions of life. His voice subdued and sentences eloquent. He prefers to sit with his back against the big floor to ceiling window, where the early summer sun shines sharply, so he can see who he is talking to.

"My dad wanted to build model ships. But he couldn't do it while he was working so he waited until he retired at the age of 65. I always thought it was a pity to wait. I might as well enjoy it right away if it doesn’t get in the way of the things I have to do to take care of my work – so why not?" He asks rhetorically and smiles.

He rejects that there is a direct link between his intellectual work and his love for woodwork – or one of the other hobbies he spends time on.
"But it's very satisfying to create something you can touch and use. I enjoy doing it. I think that everyone likes to create something with their hands – something that can be used," Fukuyama explains, while we inform him that there seem to be a tendency in Denmark – especially at the folk schools – to explore artisanal skills and create stuff that can be immediately put to use. 

Few other things give him more satisfaction than building this furniture. But he feels a bit lonely in his artisanal interests. A few years ago, he wanted sell some of his electrical tools, but couldn’t even find someone to pass them on to for free. "People were too busy updating their iPhones."

In one of his earlier books, Fukuyama quoted the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) saying that labor is the essence of being human.

"People express their freedom – essence – through their ability to mold and transform the world and make it a place they can live. Work has the role of being a source of value and a source of human recognition and dignity," Fukuyama explains, moving from the concrete to the general condition of human life.

The work must, of course, satisfy human basic biological needs, but it must also satisfy the human pride and need for recognition, thymos, as Fukuyama calls it with a concept borrowed from Platon.

"People would also want to be recognized to excel, to do better than others. It is the origin of both envy and competition. The ancient aristocratic understanding of dignity had to do with putting one’s life at stake in battle. In the context of democratization, we’ve move from war-based ethics to ethics where dignity is supposed to be an inherent trait in everyone. Everybody works, but not everyone is a warrior."

The equality in citizens is an essential feature of the liberal society – the mark of democracy - but equality in liberal democracies also means a narrow space for the thymotic desires to be fulfilled. That is, the urge to be recognized as better than others.

Aarhus University, May 2017

The defect in the core of liberalism

Back in 1989 the today 64 years old American with Japanese roots had a regular intellectual world hit with the idea of the end of history. Fukuyama then looked back at the two hot world wars and one cold and found that nationalism, fascism, nazism and socialism all had failed in their efforts to bring prosperity, freedom and peace to the people of the world. Only liberal democracy remained. History was over – in the realm of ideas, that is.

However, Fukuyama wrote at that time that there is a defect in the core of liberalism. It contains no predetermined meaning, no directions to what is right and what is wrong. Each individual is his own master in the liberal society, totally unbound and left to his own judgements, which, Fukuyama warned, may also prove to be the greatest threat to freedom and peace.

Fukuyama points out that there is no longer anything to fight for in the liberal democracy, at least nothing that can seriously evoke a feeling of pride within us. Liberalism, so to speak, is empty – without the completeness that traditionally accompanies religious communities. Freedom has won, prosperity as well, and to a degree so that even self-satisfaction at the end of a good day's work is endangered. Thus, it thwarts thymotic desires in modern western society. Boredom and existential emptiness knock on the door and threaten to restart history. Maybe it already have.

"I think there is a correlation between political tumult and the lack of existential guidance in liberalism. What the liberal democracy promises you is peace and prosperity – basically. It is a political system that can resolve conflicts without the use of violence. It is an economic system that produces a lot of material prosperity, so people want to live in that kind of society. But when they are in it, it appears to them that there is more in life than just peace and prosperity. They want struggle and they want recognition and other things. And it creates frictions in liberal societies," Fukuyama says, referring to many of the negative movements that are taking place right now.

"Some people turn to religion, other people against endless desires. Or they turn to other forms of competition that do not really satisfy them. I think it might be Donald Trump's problem. He does not know when to stop. "

Denmark is one of the most equal countries in the world – perhaps the most equal. In The End of History you worry about equality as a threat to stability.

"There are a number of threats right now because the development of global capitalism has caused a number of economic inequalities. There are oligarchs in any society - extremely wealthy people who use their wealth to gain political power in ways that ordinary people do not have access to. And then we also have a problem with people who are not working because of automation and technological development. Many people's jobs disappear at high speed. And if their dignity is linked to their ability to work, it's a real problem because they then have no source of pride and dignity in their lives."

How about the elections in Holland and France [where populist parties didn’t succed to the degree expected or feared]. Would you interpret them in the sense that it is now occuring to people that democracy is not something we can take for granted. It's not just something we can count on. Perhaps we may even transcend our personal life and find something worthwhile in the struggle to preserve democracy – maybe a thymotic struggle?

"I hope that's what's happening. People have found out that there is a real threat to democracy from within. They mobilize to defend. This is happening at least in the United States. Many young people did not even vote for the latest elections. But suddenly, with Trump as elected, they have realized that it may make a difference," Fukuyama says, and move a little back in the chair.

"In Europe, there are many problems with unemployment, especially among young people, but in many respects Europeans have forgotten the reason why the EU was created. They wanted to avoid war. They wanted to create a foundation for prosperity. And they did. But now, the European population take it for granted. It is especially striking to witness excatly that in Eastern Europe as the generation that grew up after the fall of communism is coming to power. They do not remember any of the great ideological matches so they assume that they live in a democracy and that they do not have to fight for it. Part of the problem is that people underestimate the value of democracy just as soon as they get it."

The meaning of life

While Trump according to Fukuyama does not know where to stop, the opposite is true for many young people in Denmark. They really don’t know where to start. They are sucked into this meaningless void in the midst of the liberal society's abundance of material goods and opportunities. They seem to struggle to find out how to get into life, find purpose and meaning. Where should they look?

"Earlier, religion gave that kind of meaning to people - or the ideological struggle, which nowaday, however, is largely absent too. We live in secular societies where people no longer believe in any transcendental purpose. People do not think there is an utopia they can fight for. We almost inhabit utopia," Fukuyama says, but people do not realize it. There are other possibilities which he wants to point out:

"Even if Denmark or the United States or another developed democracy is peaceful and prosperous, it does not mean there are no injustices in other parts of the world. Once I led an international development program in my teaching where people went to poor countries to help them with development. Such activities complement many young people's idealism," he says. Something like that of course could resonate with most Danish folkschool students.

"Another obvious purpose could be just to make money. It is not a particularly rewarding thing to do, but there is a group of people who see it as their challenge to become richer than others. It's a empty life, but it's better than using your time to gather weapons and rule other people with violence," says Fukuyama.

His third example is from a completely different domain. "If you are looking at extreme sports, it is fascinating", he says with a suggestive smile, "to see how many people, who for example are trying to climb Mount Everest. There are many approaches you can take in the seach for meaning. Much of it is also empty, but it is one of the problems that arise when we leave all thoughts of a transcendent purpose of life," says Fukuyama, looking out at the University's Park.

In your book Our Post-Human Future (2002), you notice that we tend to try to make the existence less complex - and reduce human life to a matter of well-being. And if we struggle then we struggle to avoid personal suffering and pain.

"It's difficult to argue for it, but I think that being human is also about dealing with suffering and disease. No one wants more suffering and death, but in a sense, the greatest human virtues come out of the struggle to overcome those things. We admire people who risk their lives for the community - even if they are killed. Because they strive for something higher than their own lives. I think that much modern biomedicine tries to pretend that suffering and death can be overcome on a permanent basis. And I think it will make us less human in the end."

A potential dehumanizer

In Denmark it is often argued by people with liberalist views that the welfare state pacifies people and thus prevents them from searching and creating their own meaning in life.

"It's a typical objection in the US toward the welfare state that it relieves people from personal responsibility. But it is imperative that the Government can take over from time to time, because much of what happens to people is not a result of their own choices. They cannot take responsibility if the entire industry in which they are engaged collapses because of foreign competition. The state has a certain obligation to step in and help them with for instance education. But you can come in a situation where, if you do not feel that you have any responsibility for your own life you become less of a human."

Is it fair then to say that the welfare state might lead to dehumanizing?

"Yes, it is. The problem is that no welfare state is rich enough to satisfy everyone's basic needs. There is a lot of debate about the need for universal income because of the technological development and as a consequence of that there will not be enough meaningful work left. This is a big problem because, as I said, people's dignity depends on their ability to work and that they are paid to make something useful to society. If you just get a paycheck from the government, you will not spend your time creating something creative and beautiful. You'll just feel bad about yourself."

There are some people in Denmark who live on social benefits and seem to accept a life with entertainment and consumption, who do not seem to have an internal drive towards creativity and enterprise. The lack of internal drive also seems to apply to some young people. How do we inspire and motivate those people?

"What you are doing is important. You work with young people. You must teach them that work is meaningful and has an intrinsic value. The Folk High Schools sound like an excellent institution."

* The interview was published in Danish in Højskolebladet #4 /June/ 2017 /pp. 18-24
** Thanks to Chase Doctor for help with the translation.

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