Fukuyama the Feminist?

The work of Francis Fukuyama is perhaps not the most obvious reading material to appear on a feminist bibliography. His pivotal role in the rise of neo-con thinking alone would make any academic feminist wary of touching his texts with a bargepole.  But such is the strange nature of my doctoral research that, nestled on my shelf between Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Gilbert and Gubar’s The Mad Woman in the Attic, are Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads. Regardless of your personal politics, his work is crucial reading if you’re exploring how modern concepts of masculinity shape our political landscape, even if it is unintentionally so.

Again, whatever your politics, Fukuyama is incredibly readable – which is perhaps half the charm of his world view. So it was no surprise that his ‘In Conversation’ session at the Southbank Centre (16th May) was fluent and assured.  Part of the ‘Great World Thinkers’ season, this was really an excuse for Fukuyama to give us an overview of his latest work, The Origins of Political Order, the first volume of which has just been released in the UK.  Situating himself in the space between anthropology and economics, Fukuyama’s ambitious project is to trace why different political economies emerge in different cultures – or to use his terms, to explain why democracy appears to flourish in the West and despotism and failed states litter the rest of the globe.

There was plenty in Fukuyama’s presentation to make lefties squirm in their seats. His conclusion, after a few weeks of studying with Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, that both men were ‘idiots’ was one such moment. I also found myself biting my lip with extra vehemence as his argument resorted to some unchanging, universal experience called ‘human nature.’

So why am I talking about Fukuyama’s latest project? What struck me, as he elaborated on the methodologies and subject matter his current research adopts, is precisely how much of his present strategy has already been articulated in feminist theory and thought.

For instance, he argued that much of his study resists the kind of ‘clash of civilisations’ thinking that his mentor Samuel Huntington has put forward. Instead of finding ‘flaws’ in a culture that leave it unable to achieve the dizzying heights of secular democracy, Fukuyama has drawn on anthropology to argue that different physical landscapes inevitably lead to different political and economic structures, as the demands of a people are shaped by their relationship with the land.

Similarly, Fukuyama  focused in the on how our ties to family and friends inevitably have a role to play in the forms our political systems take. Whilst nepotism has long been acknowledged as a big player on the political scene, Fukuyama has altered the terms ever so slightly. Rather than reducing it to a matter of greed and seed, he spoke of the desire to pass on our good fortune to our children, or indeed, the desire to do well specifically for our offspring. This means, in his terms, that a successful democracy runs counter to ‘human nature’, as the powerful have to resist the urge to pass on the goodies directly to their kids.

As members of the audience noted, Fukuyama’s analysis is not entirely new, and having not yet read The Origins of Political Order Vol. 1, I can’t safely say his presentation was utterly faithful to his work. What caught my attention, however, was how the concept of relationality seems to have entered Fukuyama’s attempt to differentiate himself from his neocon past. This relationality may still be a far cry from the kind of politics of the lived relation envisaged by people like Irigaray or Butler, and I have my doubts about how prominent a role women  will have in Fukuyama’s reading of familial love as a universal political force.  Nevertheless, can we take it as a positive sign that concepts such as our interaction with our environment and the importance of love are seen as key political and economic influences by a one-time champion of neo-conservatism?  Considering some of the ears that prick up at Fukuyama’s utterances, this could be a real chance to change the terms on the table.