Have we reached the end of history?

Francis Fukuyama’s words about democracy against today’s realities.

Devin Foley | December 9, 2015

Francis Fukuyama’s words about democracy against today’s realities.
Have we reached the end of history?

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama wrote the essay “The End of History?” for The National Interest, gaining international attention. He later turned the essay into a book. His essential thesis was that with the conclusion of the Cold War we have reached, “…the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Rather than attempt to speak for Fukuyama, let us read his own words:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. This is not to say that there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affairs's yearly summaries of international relations, for the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world. But there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run.”

It is a fascinating proposition to wonder if Western liberal democracy will be the reigning form of government from here until the end of the world. Shall we see no more of kings, oligarchs, or tyrants?

Fukuyama, admits that his perspective has a strong dose of Hegelian historicism to it:

“The notion of the end of history is not an original one. Its best known propagator was Karl Marx, who believed that the direction of historical development was a purposeful one determined by the interplay of material forces, and would come to an end only with the achievement of a communist utopia that would finally resolve all prior contradictions. But the concept of history as a dialectical process with a beginning, a middle, and an end was borrowed by Marx from his great German predecessor Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. … The notion that mankind has progresses through a series of primitive stages of consciousness on his path to the present, and that these stages corresponded to concrete forms of social organization, such as tribal, slave owning, theocratic, and finally democratic egalitarian societies, has become inseparable form the modern understanding of man.”

For Fukuyama, the historical dialectic ends in what we have today, with the pinnacle of human evolution being Western Europe:

“The state that emerges at the end of history is liberal insofar as it recognize and protects through a system of law man's universal right to freedom, and democratic insofar as it exists only with the consent of the governed. For Kojève, this so-called "universal homogenous state" found real-life embodiment in the countries of postwar Western Europe -- precisely those flabby, prosperous, self-satisfied, inward-looking, weak-willed states whose grandest project was nothing more heroic than the creation of the Common Market.”

But what challenges did Fukuyama see for Western liberal democracy? First, he saw fascism and communism as threats in the past. As to fascism, he believed:

“Fascism was destroyed as a living ideology by World War II.”

Oddly enough, he argues that America is actually the communist ideal:

“…the egalitarianism of modern America represents the essential achievement of the classless society envisioned by Marx. This is not to say that there are not rich people and poor people in the United States, or that the gap between them has not grown in recent years. But the root causes of economic inequality do not have to do with the underlying legal and social structure of our society…”

Communism and fascism are no longer seen as threats to Western liberal democracy, but two threats remain:

“If we admit for the moment that the fascist and communist challenges to liberalism are dead, are there any other ideological competitors left? Or put another way, are there contradictions in liberal society beyond that of class that are not resolvable? Two possibilities suggest themselves, those of religion and nationalism.”

With regard to religion, Fukuyama argued:

“In the contemporary world only Islam has offered a theocratic state as a political alternative to both liberalism and communism. But the doctrine has little appeal for non-Muslims, and it is hard to believe that the movement will take on any universal significance. Other less organized religious impulses have been successfully satisfied within the sphere of personal of personal life that is permitted in liberal societies.”

And as for nationalism, he had this to say:

“The other major ‘contradiction’ potentially unresolvable by liberalism is the one posed by nationalism and other forms of racial and ethnic consciousness. … Two cataclysmic world wars in this century have been spawned by the nationalism of the developed world in various guises, and if those passions have been muted to a certain extent in postwar Europe, they are still extremely powerful in the Third World. Nationalism has been a threat to liberalism historically in Germany, and continues to be one in isolated parts of ‘post-historical’ Europe life Northern Ireland. But it is not clear that nationalism represents an irreconcilable contradiction in the heart of liberalism.”

Interestingly, despite the victory of Western liberal democracy, Fukuyama doesn’t see this as necessarily all that great for the individual experience:

“The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual care taking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.”

Thousands of years ago, the Ancient Greeks laid out the various options for human governance such as monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorship, democracy, etc. Their view of history differed, though, from the idea that humanity is driving toward an “end of history”. For the Greeks, history was cyclical. Democracy had internal weakness, which lead to dictatorship, which had its own weaknesses and lead to the next stage, and so on.

Western liberal democracy has had a good run for several centuries, but is it the “end of history” or just another stage in the cycle of humanity? Furthermore, does Fukuyama admit more about humanity than he lets on in his essay, when he concludes that the end of history will be “a very sad time”?

It may be that for a while humanity is satisfied with the liberation provided to the individual that comes from Western liberal democracies, but in the end that very liberation proves to be its undoing as humanity longs not only for individual liberation, but also for the social bond and a sense of belonging to something greater than the self, a sense of meaning. Nationalism and religion just might make a stupendous return in slightly different forms. Currently, the news from around the world is hinting at that future. And, as any student of humanity should know, people are very rarely satisfied with what they have.

Finally, it is not unreasonable to believe that there is no “end of history” for man save for some total apocalypse. Instead, the cycle of history simply rolls on. 

Editor Note: Here's the full picture released for the upcoming X-Men movie. It seems fitting.

 



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