Is Recognition the missing piece of politics? A conversation with Francis Fukuyama

November 9, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Political Order and Political Decay

Getting Francis Fukuyama to endorse How Change Happens was one of the high points of publication – he’s been a hero of mine ever since I read (and reviewed) his magisterial history of the state (right). Last week I finally got to meet him, when I took up an invitation to speak to students and faculty at his Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at Stanford.

I was anxious as hell, so read his 1992 book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ on the plane over. This was based on a notorious 1989 essay, The End of History? Whenever you mention his name people who have never read anything he has written usually roll their eyes and say ‘you mean the end of history guy? Really?’ They are seriously losing out if they let that deter them from reading his work.

What struck me about the book was both how engaging it is (his writing is wonderful), but also how contemporary parts of it felt, a quarter of a century after publication. Not all of it though. ‘Liberal Democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures around the globe’ sounds very odd in these days of Trump, Brexit etc.

But the two forces he points to in order to justify that conclusion are worth thinking about. He portrays economics as driven by natural science, which is ‘cumulative and unidirectional’ and leads to the ‘progressive conquest of nature’.

The second force is ‘the struggle for recognition’. Plato in The Republic said there were three parts to the soul: desire, reason and recognition:

‘Desire induces men to seek things outside themselves, while reason or calculation shows them the best way to get them. But in addition, human beings seek recognition of their own worth…. The desire for recognition, and the accompanying emotions of anger, shame and pride, are parts of the human personality critical to political life. According to Hegel, they are what drives the whole historical process.

Recognition is the central problem of politics because it is the origin of tyranny, imperialism and the desire to dominate. But while it has a dark side, it cannot simply be abolished from political life, because it is simultaneously the psychological ground for political virtues like courage, public-spiritedness and justice.

But is the recognition available to citizens of contemporary liberal democracy completely satisfying? The long term future of liberal democracy, and the alternatives that may one day arise, depend above all on the answer to this question.’

Fast forward 25 years and we discussed some of the consequences of this in his Stanford office:

  • What is the populist tide (Trump, Brexit etc) if not a backlash of the unrecognized – people who feel devalued and excluded from the circles of power and recognition? Sure enough, Fukuyama has a book on the politics of identity coming out in the spring, which builds on the central importance of recognition.
  • Much of the debate on automation and the future of work looks only through an economic lens – eg the advocates of a universal basic income as a substitute for labour if automation wipes out (and fails to replace) a large proportion of paid jobs. But that doesn’t address the fact that many people (especially men) seek recognition through their work. Hand waving about replacing that with everyone learning to enjoy their leisure and spend time with their kids doesn’t sound very thought through, especially when it comes to what replaces traditionally male jobs like driving as a source of recognition.
  • Our widening understanding of poverty is only just starting to incorporate aspects of recognition like shame, but that is likely to expand.

Always exciting when you meet a guru, and they turn out to be every bit as amazing as you’d hoped. His students are pretty extraordinary too – chatted to a team of Ukrainian movers and shakers who have come to Stanford to try and incubate a change strategy for their country. They’re there as part of CDDRL’s ‘Leadership Academy for Development’, which sounds like a lot of fun.

After I presented the book, his comment was that issues such as power analysis and systems thinking apply in multiple fields so ‘why not generalize this?’ – i.e. get out of the aid and development ghetto into fields such as public policy or labour rights. My answer, that I wanted to draw on personal experience and so had to stick to my knitting, didn’t satisfy either of us and he offered an enticing carrot. If I can come up with some de-aidified materials (paper, podcast etc) he would ‘proselytize the hell out of them’. Tempting.