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.

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