The end is just the beginning

Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History remains an insightful and compelling book but only because its author seems so unconvinced by his central thesis.

I have reached the end of the End of History. Alright not the very end – I gave the end notes and the bibliography a miss. But I’ve now read the body of this controversial book.

It was first published in 1992 just after the crumbling of the Soviet bloc. Fukuyama saw this as a particularly dramatic example of a worldwide trend towards liberal democracy. He argued that this was not merely a series of historical events but the culmination of History (note the capital H). Like Marx, he thought societies had to pass through various stages of development. Where they differed was that Marx thought bourgeois society – with an elected government and a capitalist economy – was a transitional phase. By contrast, Fukuyama argued it was History’s endpoint.

What do you write after the End of History?

The grandeur of this thesis ensured it would be discussed mostly to be disparaged. He came to be seen as the intellectual exemplar of the triumphalism that afflicted America in the 1990s. So it was common for the authors of comment pieces to note that such-and-such events showed that despite Fukuyama’s prediction, history was still very much in progress.

It was in that way I first become aware of him. What spurred me to start reading his actual books was – like some many other aspects of my political evolution – the Iraq War. As an angry teenager, I’d naturally been against the invasion from the start. But I’d been unhappy with the prevailing reasoning of the anti-war movement. The notion that it was being fought to capture Iraq’s oil was clearly a feeble conspiracy theory. I also saw nothing inherently immoral about replacing a psychotic butcher with someone democratically elected. I just didn’t see this project working out like it was supposed to. And that was what Fukuyama expressed – albeit with far greater sophistication – in his book After the Neocons. To a European liberal in their 2000s, the neocons where uniquely sinister seeming cabal of right-wing thinkers. So reading the recantation of one of their number was tantalising. What I found in it was Fukuyama brutally highlighting a core discrepancy in the movement. Its roots lie in scepticism about the ability of government to tackle urban deprivation. Yet by the (W.) Bush years it had gone from arguing that the American state couldn’t tackle poverty in its own cities to believing that it could conjure liberal democracies into existence in the harsh thousands of miles from its borders.

This call for humility in foreign policy is still one that shapes my views today and it intrigued me enough that I began seeking out Fukuyama’s other books – though strangely not till now the End of History. I became particularly interested in an argument he makes in several works, but especially in 2004 book called Statebuilding, that we understate the importance of state capacity. In particular, we tend to focus on whether the state is small or large not on how effective that state is. The Danish state does far more than the American one but life in both is generally tolerable because both states can usually execute their functions. By contrast, in many developing countries the problem is that the state struggles with pretty much all its functions including even quite basic ones like security and public health.

I used a blend of ideas from After the Neocons and Statebuilding in my master’s thesis. Essentially I wound up using the British in India as a metaphor for the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. I looked at why despite the British attempting to replicate their own education system mass illiteracy persists in India more than a century after it was eliminated in the UK. My very Fukuyama-esque conclusion was that the colonial state lacked information, finances and an effective decision making structure. It therefore didn’t have the capacity to implement its supposed civilising mission.

Less Machiavelli, more Plato

I have taken this tour of Fukuyama’s later work and my interest in it so you can understand why reading the End of History was such a surprise. I’d read him as a man who writes from an empirical standpoint about the challenges – perhaps even the futility – of translating ones ideas into reality. But the book that made him famous was about the grandest of ideas.

There’s still an empirical component to the End of History. Fukuyama feels the need to establish that there is indeed a long run trend towards liberal democracy. And his arguments for why this is happening is partly economic. He suggests that the collapse of the Soviet Union was to some extent the ‘victory of the VCR’ – lest you had forgotten this book was published in the early 90s. But he doesn’t put that much weight on this aspect of his argument. He suspects that technocracies may actually be somewhat better suited to generating economic growth than democracies. And strikingly for someone who thinks bourgeois societies are the endpoint of History, he’s pretty contemptuous of a ‘bourgeois’ mentality focused simply on the satisfaction of personal desires. These practical matters aren’t the core of his argument.

Indeed, he writes more as a philosopher than a social scientist. And it’s not just any philosophy in which Fukuyama dabbles. Strikingly for someone often presented as an apologist for America, he rejects the defence of liberty offered by those Anglo-Saxon staples Hobbes and Locke and instead turns to the world of cryptic continental metaphysics.

In particular, he is influenced by Hegel. Fukuyama takes from the Prussian a version of History in which the human quest for recognition is primary. According to this narrative, initially those willing to risk their lives – and therefore to fight – subjugate their more pacific neighbours. The former class become masters, while the later become slaves. But both classes become dissatisfied because neither is getting the kind of recognition it craves. Slaves are not recognised at all and the recognition masters receive is that compelled from slaves rather than freely given by equals. Democracy provides a way out of this impasse. It makes us all masters and thereby recognises us all as equals.

What if we get bored without History?

I don’t find this notion all that convincing. In particular, I didn’t feel Fukuyama provides any real evidence that masters did in fact become dissatisfied with being recognised as superiors rather than equals. But what makes his book interesting is that he seems rather unconvinced himself.

He spends many pages meditating on Nietzsche’s critiques of Hegel. Essentially, the great iconoclast worried about the triumph of ‘slave ideologies’ like Christianity and liberalism, and felt that their demands for equality would lead to mediocrity. While Fukuyama rejects the ethical conclusions of this theory, he’s concerned by its political ramifications.

He worries democracy might actually undermine itself. It delivers us comfort, stability and equality. But what if there’s something in our souls that really craves the excitement of the struggle for supremacy?

We can’t easily dismiss this notion by looking at actually events. Russians seem happy enough to pay a big economic prize so they can once again see their country swaggering on the international stage. A certain section of the American electorate seems thrilled with Donald Trump’s critique of Obama’s foreign policy even though it often seems less focused on concrete results than with a gangster like fixation on whether America is being shown enough respect.

[As an aside at one point, Fukuyama argues one of the advantages capitalism has for a democracy is that many of the atavistic, egoistical and status seeking individuals who could cause havoc in politics instead become entrepreneurs. I’d therefore be fascinated to hear his views on Trump’s surprising rise].

And the following passage couldn’t help but make me think about current British politics:

Those students who temporarily took over Paris and brought down General de Gaulle had no “rational” reason to rebel, for they were for the most part pampered offspring of one of the freest and most prosperous societies on earth. But it was precisely the absence of struggle and sacrifice in their middle class lives that lead them to take to the streets and confront the police. While many were infatuated with unworkable fragments of ideas like Maoism, they had no particularly coherent vision of a better society. The substance of their protest was a matter of indifference; what they rejected was a society in which ideas had somehow become impossible.

That seems to me all too reminiscent of the Corbynites who seem to demand not results but self expression.

Maybe part of what has propelled the intense dissatisfaction with democratic politics is that in the end of History, it has come to seem mundane. It was perhaps easier to fight for democracy even with all its imperfections, when by doing so one was struggling against communism and fascism.

There is an alternative (and it scares me)

With that in mind, it’s worth considering the most common objection to Fukuyama’s thesis. Pretty much as soon as it was published people began pointing to such-and-such event – 9/11 and the rise of China are the most common ones – and saying that they show History is still in fact in progress.

Two things need saying in response to this line of argument. Firstly, Fukuyama is pretty explicit that his theory does not require all nations to become democracies in order to be true. There will be some that are too chaotic and divided for power to pass peacefully between groups following elections. Others will see it as a threat to their culture and reject it. In Fukuyama’s terms this is not History but history. History is the grand schema underlying the events that make up regular history.

He’d probably see someone like Robert Mugabe as deviating from the path of History rather than changing it. These democratic refusniks only begin to constitute a challenge to his theory if they coalesce into a coherent, potentially universalisable alternative like communism. It might have initially won power in Russia but its appeal could spread to groups as diverse as Cambridge professors and Laotian peasants. Very few of the autocratic governments that held power after 1989 had an ideology that appealed much outside their own circumstances.

The other point to note is that Fukuyama is a lot smarter than most of his critics. Indeed, it’s striking how often he predicts the events that supposedly contradict his theory.

Take this written almost a decade before 9/11:

“Islam has indeed defeated liberal democracy in many parts of the Islamic world, posing a grave threat to liberal practices even in countries where it has not achieved political power directly…however, it remains the case that this religion has virtually no appeal outside of areas that were culturally Islamic to start with”.

Or this, written when China’s economy wasn’t even amongst the ten largest in the world:

if Asians become convinced that their success was due more to their own than to borrowed cultures, if economic growth in America and Europe falters relative to that in the Far East, if Western societies continue to experience the progressive breakdown of basic social institutions like the family, and if they treat Asia with distrust or hostility, then a systematic illiberal and undemocratic alternative combining technocratic economic rationalism with paternalistic authoritarianism may gain ground in the Far East.

He even fingers the late Singaporean premier Lee Kuan Yew as a potential ideological guru for this new model as he has proven to be.

Where I think Fukuyama goes wrong is in seeing both these cases as localised deviations. Islamism clearly is but this Confucian model appears to appeal to people with no Confucian heritage. For example, Rwanda’s Paul Kagmae seems to be using Singapore as an explicit model. Indeed, it appears to have even found advocates in the long established democracies of the west.

Ironically that might actually strengthen democracy in the places it’s been longest established. If we have to defend our system against a new rival then that might be just the kind of struggle needed to reanimate our enthusiasm for it.

Selling tea to the Indians

It is often assumed that Britain acquired its love of tea from India. In fact, it was the other way round.

Some stereotypes are true. Brits do indeed love tea. We drink three times as many cups of it as we do coffee. But even our enthusiasm for tea is outweighed by that of the Indians. They drink nearly nine times as much.

It’s therefore surprising that this infatuation has a rather short vintage. In Curry: a biography (which I reviewed here), the historian Lizzie Collingham observes that:

When the interpreter for the Chinese Embassy of Cheng Ho visited Bengal in 1406, he was surprised to note that the Bengalis offered betel nuts to their guests rather than tea. Coffee had been introduced into India by the Arabs, Persians and central Asians who found employment under the Mughals….For the most part, however, the … habit was confined to wealthy Muslims and did not spread to the rest of the population. As the chaplain Edward Terry noticed, Indians preferred water: ‘That most antient and innocent Drink of the World, Water, is the most common drink of East-India; it is far more pleasant and sweet than our water; and must needs be so, because in all hot Countries it is more rarified, better digested, and freed from its rawness by the heat of the Sunm and therefore in those parts of it is more desired of all that come thither.’ In northern India the villagers also drank buttermilk, a by-product of the Indian way of making ghee, by churning yoghurt (as opposed to the European method of churning cream). If they wanted something stronger, they drank arrack or toddy.

By contrast, tea has been popular in Britain since the late seventeenth century. The nation imported so much of it from China that the effects became macroeconomically destabilising. This led to efforts to wipe out the trade imbalance by selling the Chinese opium, a venture that culminated in the Chinese defeat in the Opium Wars – the injustice of which still colours Chinese views of the west today.

Another way of trying to solve this problem was to shift tea cultivation from China to British controlled India. And throughout the nineteenth century India became a more and more important tea grower. Collingham explains that between 1870 and 1900, China went from supplying 90% of the tea drunk in Britain to just 10%. The gap was filled very largely by India and Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka). This fostered such a close link between tea and India in the British mind that Thomas Lipton actually employed an Indian to stand in front of cafes as a form of advertisement.

But while India had become a substantial producer of tea, its population didn’t consume all that much of it. No less a figure than Gandhi observed that while some westernised Indians had begun drinking tea in imitation of the British, the practice was sufficiently rare that it could be passed over with only “the briefest notice”.

Collingham attributes the drastic reversal of this position, to the efforts of a trade body called the Indian Tea Association. It sent both European and Indian salesman around the country trying to persuade both consumers and wholesalers to buy more tea. However, these efforts only really gained momentum during World War I. The war resulted in economic hardship for Indians and the Tea Association persuaded factory bosses that providing tea breaks and samples was a way to mollify their workers.

Next, it:

….equipped small contractors with kettles and cups and packets of tea and sent them to work at the major railway junctions in the Punjab, the North-West frontier and Bengal…Although the European instructors took great care to guide the tea vendors in the correct way of making a cup of tea, they often ignored this advice and made tea their own way, with plenty of milk and lots of sugar. This milky, intensely sweet mixture appealed to north Indians who like buttermilk and yoghurt drinks (lassis). It was affordable and went well with the chapattis, spicy dry potatoes and biscuits sold by other station vendors, running alongside the carriage windows as the trains pulled into the station.

Further campaigns took tea into India homes. Then another World War spread its influence even more widely as rural Indians were pulled into army units that were served by tea vans – supplied of course by the Indian Tea Association.

Collingham says of these marketing campaigns:

They were so successful at introducing tea into India that at the end of the twentieth century, the Indian population, which had barely touched a drop of tea in 1900, were drinking almost 70 per cent of their huge of 715,000 tons per year.

Tea is now a normal part of everyday life in India. The tea shop is a feature of every city, town and village. Often they are nothing more than ‘a tarpaulin or piece of bamboo matting stretch over four posts … [with] a table, a couple of rickety benches and a portable stove with the kettle permanently on’. Men gather round, standing or squatting on their haunches, sipping the hot tea. The tiny earthernware cups, in which the drink is served, lie smashed around the stalls. Everybody drinks tea in India nowadays, even the sadhus (holy men), the most orthodox of Brahmins and the very poor, who use it as a way of staving off hunger.

She goes on to suggest that this gradual revolution has had important social impacts. She posits that as a new element in the Indian diet, tea is less enmeshed in traditional taboos. It is therefore possible for people who would be prevented by barriers of caste and religion from eating together to share tea. It has therefore been a factor in the emergence of a more modern and democratic India.

The most interesting things I’ve read recently (11/10/2015)

Dennis Healey, Pope Francis and scrapping borders.

A fighting life (The Economist)

[Denis Healey’s] relations with the hard left had never been sweet. He detested those “Toytown Trots”, and as early as 1959 had warned the Labour Party not to “teach Socialist Sunday school” but to engage with the problems of the average worker—like the man in his constituency of Leeds South East, who brought him a jar of slugs to demonstrate how damp his kitchen was. (Such episodes easily moved him to tears.) In the shadow cabinet he strenuously opposed nationalisation for the sake of it, or kneejerk opposition to NATO and the Americans. He did not mind milking the rich, gleefully anticipating the “howls of anguish”—but only in order to make their taxes proportionate to those on the poor. In 1981, “by an eyebrow”, he defeated the left-wing Tony Benn for the deputy leadership of the party. He thereby saved it to govern another day—only to live long enough to see it fall again to leftist Sirens in 2015.

Of course Pope Francis met with Kim Davis. Jesus would have by Todd VanDerWeff (Vox)

….one of the hardest things to do in an era of political polarization is to accept that those whose viewpoints are diametrically opposed to yours are still human beings, who have fears and hopes and desires as surely as you do, and who are capable of both great and horrible things. It’s often tempting to slot our political opponents into boxes that define them as narrowly as we suspect they define us.

But the central idea of Christianity aims to be an end-around of all of that. It’s not about defining people within religious or political or even societal contexts. It’s about approaching them as fellow human beings, travelers on this planet who might spit in your face but still deserve grace and forgiveness. That’s an impossible idea to adhere to, which is what makes it such a powerful one. Regardless of where he falls on the marriage equality opinion spectrum, by meeting with both Cazal and Davis, Pope Francis is at least trying to live up to the standards he ostensibly represents.

The Case for Getting Rid of Borders—Completely by Alex Tabbarok (The Atlantic)

Not every place in the world is equally well-suited to mass economic activity. Nature’s bounty is divided unevenly. Variations in wealth and income created by these differences are magnified by governments that suppress entrepreneurship and promote religious intolerance, gender discrimination, or other bigotry. Closed borders compound these injustices, cementing inequality into place and sentencing their victims to a life of penury.

The overwhelming majority of would-be immigrants want little more than to make a better life for themselves and their families by moving to economic opportunity and participating in peaceful, voluntary trade. But lawmakers and heads of state quash these dreams with state-sanctioned violence—forced repatriation, involuntary detention, or worse—often while paying lip service to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Wage differences are a revealing metric of border discrimination. When a worker from a poorer country moves to a richer one, her wages might double, triple, or rise even tenfold. These extreme wage differences reflect restrictions as stifling as the laws that separated white and black South Africans at the height of Apartheid. Geographical differences in wages also signal opportunity—for financially empowering the migrants, of course, but also for increasing total world output. On the other side of discrimination lies untapped potential. Economists have estimated that a world of open borders would double world GDP.

Curry: a biography by Lizzie Collingham (review)

Come for the mouthwatering history. Stay for the meditation on how Britain and India have changed each other.

I’ve made a habit of reading for about twenty minutes before I go to bed. That made Lizzie Collingham’s ‘biography’ of Curry problematic for me. Her descriptions of sauces, samosas and other treats left me trying to sleep whilst uncomfortably hungry. This is a book as rich in flavour as the cuisine it describes.

Yet Collingham is also adept at using culinary anecdotes to evoke bigger stories. Take, for example, the passage below. On the surface it is discussing the discrepancy between Indian and British Indian food. But what it most vividly is communicating is the difficulty of cross cultural communication and that as a result being a migrant often means living in that chasm.

The majority of the population living in the South Asian subcontinent would not have recognised the food served [in British Indian restaurants) as Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. In the early 1960s Margeret Orr Deas took an Indian friend to a restaurant. He politely remarked that ‘we have very different food in India’ and in the following days worked his way along all the Indian restaurants on Westbourne Grove trying to find something that approximated the food that he was used to at home. Besides the inexperience of the cooks, and the need to take short cuts, there was also the problem of unadventurous British palates. ‘In those days garlic was not liked at all; even coriander was frowned on’. The cooks produced milder, creamier dishes with far less chilli and black pepper than would have been used in India. [The successful restaurateur] Haji Shirajul Islam  commented, ‘Of course the food is not like in [his Bengali home of] Syhlet – there we use all fresh things, fresh spices, that makes a lot of difference, and the meat and fish and everything, all fresh’. He never ate the curries prepared in his own restaurants preferring to cook for himself at home. On the other hand, for a generation of Indians growing up outside India, this food was as authentically Indian as the food they ate in their homes. Haji Shirajul Islam’s son even preferred his father’s restaurant curries. ‘When he goes to the restaurant he eats Madras – hot one…Me I always eat in the house. When I offer him food he eats it, but he says it’s not tasty like restaurant food, because he’s the other way round now’. For generations of British customers, and even second-generation Indians, are Indian food. In comparison, food cooked in an Indian home can seem disappointingly unfamiliar and lacking in restaurant tastes.

The complicated processes by which British and Indian influences are meshed is the book’s driving theme. True, there are a couple of early chapters that deal with period before the arrival of the East India Company’s corporate raiders. But it is with their rise that Curry finds its purpose and momentum.

And it is an important theme. Throughout the entire era of European imperialism, no colonial occupation lasted longer than the British rule of India. That led coloniser and colonised to have an unusually deep influence on each other. In my current home of Vietnam, it is often hard to detect any distinctively Gallic legacy of French rule. By contrast, in India everything from cricket and milky tea to parliamentary democracy show just how strong the British influence. And much to the surprise (and in many cases disgust) of the colonisers the homeland was changed by the colony. The prevalence of Indian food in Britain attests to the movement of millions of migrants from the subcontinent to the UK.

But observing this does not necessarily mean the two countries are converging. As curries have been adjusted for British tastes, so democracy has been adjusted to Indian conditions. The hum drum contests between Labour and the Conservatives would be hard to mistake for the uproarious battles between Congress, the BJP and numerous regional parties. Any Britain beholding Indian democracy must be awed by its scale and heartened by its survival in a society marked by widespread poverty and illiteracy. But they must also be alarmed at the large part violence and corruption still play in the process. As Collingham shows so well, the two nations have not only borrowed from each but adapted. It is not simply that British practices have appeared in India and Indian ones in Britain. Their relationship has involved plenty of creation.

In light of this, it is not surprising that Collingham eventually reaches a nuanced judgement regarding the output of an ‘Indian’ takeaway. She concludes it is not some kind of imposter. Rather she observes that there’s always been an incredible diversity within Indian cuisine. The subcontinent has larger population and landmass than Europe, and accordingly its food varies as much Yorkshire Pudding and Kebab. In the south there are largely vegetarian cuisines built around rice, while in the north meat and wheat play a large part. Given this Collingham suggests we should see British Indian food as one of these cuisines and recognise it an expansion of the world’s great culinary repertoire rather than a subversion of it.

As a Britain living away from my homeland and missing much of its food – and especially its ‘Indian’ food – I heartily agree.