Woodworking with Francis Fukuyama


Francis Fukuyama has a crack in his credenza. He has just noticed it running like a vein through the top of the sideboard, which takes pride of place in his rather bijou dining room. He is perturbed by this unexpected blight on what appears to be an otherwise flawless work that took him two years to complete. The bulky, reddish-brown piece is made of Monterey Cypress – the same, Seussian species that I can see from the kitchen window standing beyond the finely manicured back yard on the Monterey Peninsula in California. “I’ve got to do something about that,” he murmurs, rubbing his hand along the unseemly fissure; his distracted tone suggests that his mind is already busy on a solution. “I could put a butterfly mortise in there or something to hold it together,” he says. “But it’s actually not going to affect things.”
In 1992 Francis Fukuyama – Frank to his friends – became famous for his sensational debut, “The End of History and the Last Man”. In the book he argued that, with the end of the cold war, the world had witnessed “the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism”. Whereas Karl Marx envisioned history as heading inexorably towards communism, Fukuyama reckoned that its rational endpoint lay in liberal democracy. But like a crack running through an otherwise pristine piece of furniture, events since then have seemed to undermine his grand postulation.
Like a crack running through an otherwise pristine piece of furniture, events have seemed to undermine Fukuyama’s grand postulation
Some early critics saw his book as “jingoistic triumphalism”, a form of American exceptionalism masquerading as high theory. More recent rebuttals simply point to current affairs. In our age of resurgent populism, democratic decline and the rising hegemony of an authoritarian China, can anyone convincingly argue that humanity’s ideological endpoint remains settled? Now aged 67, Fukuyama’s answer remains a firm but polite yes. “I don’t see any alternative way of organising society that looks superior to liberal democracy,” he says, sizing up his woodworking tools.
Fukuyama is short with large ears and a wide, eggish forehead which tapers down to a tight, pointy chin. He has a slightly lazy eye and, when questioned, adopts a kind of benign scowl. Since “The End of History”, the political philosopher has published ten books on subjects ranging from identity politics to bioethics. He also teaches at Stanford University and is the co-founder of American Purpose, a new magazine that seeks to defend, promote and better understand, you guessed it, liberal democracy. I’m surprised he has time for carpentry. “Most of the stuff I make I intend to use,” he says, almost boastfully. “I don’t give it away. I don’t sell it.” Yet to call Fukuyama an amateur woodworker is to inadequately describe the exquisiteness of his craft.
He pursues his hobby when spending time at his country home in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a small city on the beach where everything is petite, with fairy-tale cottages squeezed together along twisting, sloping streets. Fukuyama and his wife Laura spend most of their time living in Palo Alto, home to Stanford, with their dog Ginger. Woodworking is for afternoons in the country, where a small garage is devoted to his tools and work bench.
He is keen to show it off. Several tools are of the deafening variety, their snaking power cords cluttering the floor, while others are antique, mirroring Fukuyama’s old-fashioned tastes in furniture design. He shows me his favourite, a jointer plane made in Alsace before the Franco-Prussian war some 150 years ago. “What’s amazing is that it’s still dead flat,” he says, rubbing its smooth bottom.
In his academic work, Fukuyama had eminent mentors – Allan Bloom, Samuel Huntington, Paul Wolfowitz – but in woodworking he is entirely self-taught. He finds it “satisfying to make something that’s tangible, that you can use. That’s not something I can say about my other activities, writing articles, books, things of that sort.”
Fukuyama, a third-generation Japanese-American, caught the carpentry bug when he was serving in the State Department in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. You can just imagine the bright young theorist, a few years out of Harvard, wandering the corridors of power in a pinstripe suit, rubbernecking at the antique furnishings in the secretary’s suite. “I always wanted to own some of them but could never afford it, so I just basically taught myself to make it on my own,” he says. Later, when he was living in Virginia, a walnut tree fell in his backyard: “So I cut it up with a chainsaw and I spent three years drying the lumber. I turned it into a pair of Pembroke tables. That was my most ambitious project.”
“I find it satisfying to make something that’s tangible, that you can use. That’s not something I can say about writing books”
Fukuyama learned woodworking in the same fashion as he learned Nietzsche, Hegel and Alexandre Kojève: by reading. One of these books, Thomas Moser’s “Windsor Chairmaking”, sits in his studio today, caked in sawdust atop his bulky European-style cabinetmaker’s workbench, which he built himself. Nearby sits a half-finished bow-back chair, the fifth of six.
To carve the chair’s spindles, Fukuyama constructed a shaving horse, another “very ancient tool” that vaguely resembles a wooden see-saw. Crouching into it, he notes that its usefulness ends with spindle-making. “I’ll probably throw the thing out once I finish this chair project,” he laughs, clamping a spindle into the vice and running a long blade downward into the wood, raining white curlicues into his lap.
As a conservative-leaning intellectual, Fukuyama has often gone against the grain. Though he helped to found the neo-conservative movement, in the early 2000s he enraged Republicans by denouncing both the “incomprehensible failure” of the Iraq war and the overreaching militarism of the Bush administration and its neo-con champions.
“What I felt very strongly was that the people who were advocating for the war had no idea how difficult it was going to be to actually turn Iraq into anything like a democracy and they weren’t prepared for it,” he says (Charles Krauthammer, a neo-con columnist, labelled Fukuyama’s dissent “breathtakingly incoherent”). That disillusionment sent him on a years-long investigation into state-building in which he “came to realise that we didn’t understand where basic institutions come from”.
Thus began Fukuyama’s voyage of discovery. For a job with the World Bank, he spent weeks travelling through Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands, conducting interviews with barefoot bureaucrats in thatched huts, hoping to work out why centuries of Western attempts at modernisation had failed. “The first takeaway is that foreigners can’t do it,” he found. “Institutions are heavily context-dependent and the only people that know the context adequately are people that live in that society.”
Melanesia left Fukuyama with a greater appreciation for the stubborn power of time-honoured cultural moorings. A similar ethos informs his woodworking tastes, which lie firmly in the past. Many of his pieces are Americanised versions of late 18th-century English designs: a Pembroke drop-leaf table, a miniature Hepplewhite chest, a federal demi-lune card table. They are graceful, refined, aristocratic works, high culture embodied in fine wood.


“I thought that the American voter could make mistakes in the short run, but they’d never really make a big mistake. And they did”
Ancient ideals play heavily in Fukuyama’s writings. Both his debut and “Identity”, his most recent book, centre on the Socratic concept of thymos, “the side of man that deliberately seeks out struggle and sacrifice, that tries to prove that the self is something better and higher than a fearful, needy, instinctual, physically determined animal,” he writes. “Not all men feel this pull, but for those who do, thymos cannot be satisfied by the knowledge that they are merely equal in worth to all other human beings.” Though Fukuyama sees liberal democracy as all but inevitable, his view of human nature stands in tension with it.
In his most famous work’s addendum, Fukuyama adopts Nietzsche’s concept of the Last Man, the creature who “emerges at the end of history”. The Last Man is the modern human, gelded by the “liberal project of filling one’s life with material acquisitions and safe, sanctioned ambitions”. If the rise of right-wing nationalism today does stem from the masses clamouring for more than just safety and material comfort, then Fukuyama, holed up in his studio in black trousers, black boots, a black t-shirt and a FitBit, seems like the very embodiment of the Last Man – perfectly content in his liberal, capitalist cocoon, tinkering away at fine wood in bliss between re-examinations of de Tocqueville.
Alongside books, Fukuyama credits a how-to show called “This Old House” with fuelling his early progress in carpentry. He watched it “religiously” in those years, after long days working at the State Department. But it irked Fukuyama that whatever the host did it was always perfect: “That’s just not the way anything works in the real world,” he says. “You’re always making mistakes and part of the skill of actually being a good woodworker is to know how to recover when you drill a hole in the wrong place or at the wrong angle.”
Fukuyama knows that it can be harder to recover mistakes in the body politic. He despises Trumpism and “some of the crackpots on the right”, and is anxious about the upcoming American election. “A Trump victory in my view would just be so disastrous on so many different levels, I really don’t even like to think about it,” he says. (The American president actually makes a cameo in “The End of History” as an exemplar of megalothymia, a word of his own coinage, referring to the need to feel superior.)
“I didn’t really have a theory of how we could go backwards. Clearly, we’ve been going backwards”
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 bruised Fukuyama’s confidence in the American project. “I sort of thought that the American voter could make mistakes in the short run, but they’d never really make a big mistake,” he says. “And they did.” The Republican Party’s near-complete capitulation further unnerved him: “If that’s possible, then it’s possible in a lot of other places also.”
Though Fukuyama acknowledges the “democratic recession” the world finds itself in, he remains cautiously optimistic that it’s only a speed bump – and maintains this self-assuredness despite incessant haranguing by internet trolls. “There’s a constant stream of people making fun of the idea of the end of history that don’t really know the meaning of it. Just look on my Instagram: ‘Oh, this is the end of woodworking,’” he groans (his account features his chairs more often than his children).
Much of Fukuyama’s recent scholarly work on state building and political decay has been, if not a revision of his famous claim, then a clarification of sorts. “I didn’t really have a theory of how we could go backwards,” he admits in his studio, surrounded by half-cut boards, chisels and hand saws. “Clearly, we’ve been going backwards.” On the road to the end of history, it seems, we may suffer a few splinters.
SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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