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

November 9, 2017
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Getting Francis Fukuyama to endorse How Change Happens was one of the high points of publication – he’s been afukuyama 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.

EndOfHistoryRecognition 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.

6 comments

  1. “His comment was that issues such as power analysis and systems thinking apply in multiple fields so ‘why not generalize this?’”

    A most dangerous comment.

    Just ans any object cannot live outside the surrounding space, ideas cannot live outside their context. Generalizing can become a Procrustes bed.
    Much better to use comparative analysis better to understand the underlying rules and their diversity. Such an approach can highlight uncoming tipping points of complex systems.

  2. Thanks for this helpful piece Duncan. I confess I have at times been guilty of paying insufficient attention to Fukuyama’s work as I had been put off by the “end of history” pronouncement, so a nudge to further mend my ways is welcome!

    I was pretty surprised by your last para and thought I’d share my feedback. it seems to me that there’s already a hell of a lot of complexity, systems thinking, power-focused and adaptive approaches work in other spheres, and there has been for a long while.

    I’ve got a bunch of books next to my desk which are all about power and systems analysis in non aid and development spheres; you’ve probably read them, or reviewed them! And, having a close look in recent days at the MASSIVE agenda of the American Evaluation Association conference – “from learning to action” – going on in DC right now reinforced that point. http://www.evaluationconference.org/

    So I’d suggest – and this echoes a point that I’ve heard Ben Ramalingam make in relation to adaptive approaches – that the learning process needs to be two-way, with aid/development folks paying more attention to what’s going on beyond their silos. Those of us in the aid+development sphere who are enthusiastic about the potential of approaches that are about systems, politics, learning and adaptation should perhaps go a bit easy on the proselytizing and make sure that we listen and learn beyond our silos too. Note to self :-)

  3. I also find the remark about applying systems thinking and power analysis to other fields puzzling. One of the strengths of your book is that it enlarges the frame from “development practitioners” to “social activists”. True, near all examples are from your own territory, and your audience is largely going to be its fellow inhabitants. Maybe that clouded Mr. Fukuyama’s assessment? But conceptually? You quite explicitly address a much broader (potential) audience of changemakers. And Dani Rodrik clearly appreciated that given the foreword he wrote. I tend to agree with Alan that the development sector is hardly a an early adopter, and has maybe more to learn from others than to offer (yet).

  4. I chaired an event on political settlements recently at ODI, and my favourite comment from the audience was that we need to bring ego into our understanding of what makes people tick. Once you move out of a very institutionalist/economics view of actors being driven by interests and incentives, it opens the door for seeing them as we see people (not ‘actors’) in our own worlds – as complex beings driven by ego, recognition, sex, power etc.

    Would like to echo Alan’s point too – there’s all sorts of stuff going on outside the aid world that we should be better at engaging with. I’d love to see a lot more of what we do become truly comparative.

  5. Can you explain why aid is distinct from public policy and labour rights? Is how change happens different in the “aid” world than in any other world? Isn’t this the problem, that we’re treating it differently?

    1. Thanks Lesley, I think the point Francis was making was the opposite – that there are huge commonalities in HCH, but by basing nearly all the case studies on my own experience in the aid business, I risk putting off people who work in other sectors

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