By now, everybody knows that Francis Fukuyama got it wrong. When he declared, in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, that the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the Berlin Wall signalled the global triumph of liberal capitalism, he was at best overly optimistic. Even Fukuyama has been forced to walk back his thesis, notably in his 2018 volume Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, a book that Victoria journalist and foreign affairs expert Jonathan Manthorpe clearly has great admiration for.
To be fair, when Manthorpe invokes Fukuyama’s end-of-history theory, he adds a suitably ironic coda. When he made his pronouncement (which originally appeared in a 1989 essay in The National Interest), Fukuyama suggested that the only things that might prevent the unbridled victory of Western liberal democracy were religion and nationalism, neither of which appeared particularly likely.
By 2020, we have sufficient distance – and hindsight – to recognize just how powerful religion and nationalism can be in promoting forces of illiberalism and authoritarianism. So powerful, in fact, that they have allowed Manthorpe to publish a book with a distinctly anti-Fukuyama title. The notion that democracy needs to be restored implies, of course, that it has been supplanted or seriously degraded, which, while arguably not yet quite true, is at least a foreseeable contingency in much of the Western world.
And Manthorpe is good at sketching out the various body blows democracy has suffered in various societies – the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Europe – since the pivotal year of 1989. “This is going to be a fast gallop over heavy ground,” Manthorpe writes at the outset and, true to his word, in the span of about 300 pages, readers are treated to a recap of some of the most significant geopolitical shocks from the past two decades: the financial crisis of 2008–09; the rise of authoritarian governments in Hungary, Poland, and Russia (as well as China, whose economic ascension roughly coincided with its disavowal of Western liberal capitalism); the Brexit referendum in the U.K.; and the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency.
There is no doubt that Manthorpe’s diagnosis of incipient crises in several supposed liberal democracies (not excluding Canada) is accurate, as are his ideas about what is causing this. Staggering and increasing income inequality in the Western world is one of the paramount villains in Manthorpe’s view and he is especially good at detailing the resentments stoked by working classes around the globe after the crash of 2008 left millions homeless and jobless while big banks and billionaires were handed government bailouts and allowed to grow ever richer.
He is also unquestionably right about the media’s failure to accurately understand these resentments and the ways they led to discontent that manifested in Brexit and Trump. By chasing online clicks and advertising dollars, the media has stoked polarization and division in countries like the U.S. and Britain, while also creating a vacuum of reliable sources for information that has allowed bad actors like Breitbart, Fox News, and various internet trolls and disinformation sites to flourish.
Manthorpe provides a breathless flurry of data, but there is some evidence that the book was written at a similar white heat. Repetition abounds, especially in areas such as the explanation of U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic (and his own subsequent hospitalization) and the rise of the gilets jaunes movement in France. Here, Manthorpe also appears a bit disingenuous, focusing on the legitimate concerns of the country’s blue-collar workers while ignoring the co-option of the movement by various far-right racist and xenophobic groups for their own ends.
But the major flaw in the book is the absence of notes and bibliography. This is especially ironic in a book that spends some time critiquing the amount of misinformation that has been allowed to proliferate online and blaming a general lack of media rigour and consumer literacy for democracy’s ill health. By offering a dense, fact-heavy book but no opportunity for a reader to independently consult or verify the author’s sources, Manthorpe asks us to take a leap of faith his own analysis argues against. If he is correct – and he surely is – that democracy is under dire threat, it’s essential that those defending it not leave themselves open to accusations of doing the very thing they are decrying.