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.

The best things I’ve read recently (19/08/15)

The fallacies of multi-taskers, Republican voters and Francis Fukuyama.

Multi-tasking: how to survive in the 21st century by Tim Harford

There is ample evidence in favour of the proposition that we should focus on one thing at a time. Consider a study led by David Strayer, a psychologist at the University of Utah. In 2006, Strayer and his colleagues used a high-fidelity driving simulator to compare the performance of drivers who were chatting on a mobile phone to drivers who had drunk enough alcohol to be at the legal blood-alcohol limit in the US. Chatting drivers didn’t adopt the aggressive, risk-taking style of drunk drivers but they were unsafe in other ways. They took much longer to respond to events outside the car, and they failed to notice a lot of the visual cues around them. Strayer’s infamous conclusion: driving while using a mobile phone is as dangerous as driving while drunk.

Less famous was Strayer’s finding that it made no difference whether the driver was using a handheld or hands-free phone. The problem with talking while driving is not a shortage of hands. It is a shortage of mental bandwidth.

Yet this discovery has made little impression either on public opinion or on the law. In the United Kingdom, for example, it is an offence to use a hand-held phone while driving but perfectly legal if the phone is used hands-free. We’re happy to acknowledge that we only have two hands but refuse to admit that we only have one brain.

Regicidal Republicans (the Economist)

…while Republican voters are exceedingly angry and mistrustful, their lynch-mob rage is selective. Mr Carson could hardly be less fiery (though he primly disapproves of many things), yet he is surging. And the same conservative activists who disbelieve the establishment on all fronts are startlingly willing to give outsider candidates like Mr Trump, Mr Carson or Ms Fiorina, the benefit of the doubt. So highly trusting are rank-and-file Republicans that—to the despair of pundits and fact-checkers—they shrug when Mr Trump refuses to provide any details about how he would handle foreign affairs, breezing that once he is president: “I will know more about the problems of this world”. Nor do they seem fussed to be told that Ms Fiorina’s time as a CEO was marked by massive job losses, after a bungled merger. A fourth anti-establishment candidate, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, seems able to tap into this mood of strangely extravagant trust, by playing up his credentials as a serial rebel and critic of party leaders in the Senate.

Republican primary voters are not in a revolutionary mood, then, but a regicidal one. They think their rulers are corrupt, inept and mendacious, if not actually treasonous. But they are at the same time ready to swoon before new rulers promising to fix America in an instant. The key credential required to earn that trust is a lack of experience. Will those outsiders disappoint their followers in their turn, triggering a still deeper loss of public trust? Probably. This is going to be a bumpy year.

It’s Still Not the End of History by Timothy Stanley and Alexander Lee (the Atlantic)

If liberalism is to survive and flourish, it has to be rescued from Fukuyama’s grasp and from the perils of historical determinism. It has to be defined and defended all over again. This of course raises the question of what liberalism actually is—and it’s notable that so many liberals skip this step in debate as though it was unimportant. In a recent issue of Foreign Policy dedicated exclusively to reevaluating Fukuyama’s legacy, the unresolved problem of “the liberal identity” was conspicuous by its absence. Article after article foundered in their attempts to defend liberal alternatives to populism or socialism precisely because they offered no satisfactory post-Fukuyama understanding of liberalism. But it is impossible to defend liberalism against its critics without making it clear precisely what it stands for. Skeptics can hardly be won over if liberals can’t tell them what they are being won over to or how it differs from the uninspiring mess created by Fukuyama and his continuators.

The wisest conservative


I don’t want Conservative Week to pass without me acknowledging that it’s not a tradition devoid of merit. In particular, I want to commend its most significant philosopher: Michael Oakeshott. A thinker with as much to say to the left as the right.

In his essay On Being Conservative, Oakeshott explained that he believed conservatism to be grounded in a preference for the known over the unknown. He argued that the key traits that followed from this were:

First, innovation entails certain loss and possible gain, therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial, rests with the would-be innovator. Secondly, he believes that the more closely an innovation resembles growth (that is, the more clearly it is intimated in and not merely imposed upon the situation) the less likely it is to result in a preponderance of loss. Thirdly, he thinks that the innovation which is a response to some specific defect, one designed to redress some specific disequilibrium, is more desirable than one which springs from a notion of a generally improved condition of human circumstances, and is far more desirable than one generated by a vision of perfection. Consequently, he prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite. Fourthly, he favors a slow rather than a rapid pace, and pauses to observe current consequences and make appropriate adjustments. And lastly, he believes the occasion to be important; and, other things being equal, he considers the most favourable occasion for innovation to be when the projected change is most likely to be limited to what is intended and least likely to be corrupted by undesired and unmanageable consequences.

So why does Oakeshott appeal to me? Part of the reason is doubtless that his vision of government is arguably more liberal than conservative:

The spring of this [conservative disposition]…in respect of governing and the instruments of government….is to be found in the acceptance of the current condition of human circumstances as I have described it: the propensity to make our own choices and find happiness in doing so, the variety of enterprises each pursued with passion, the diversity of beliefs each held with the conviction of its exclusive truth; the inventiveness, the changefulness and the absence of any large design; the excess, the over-activity and the informal compromise. And the office of government is not to impose other beliefs and activities upon its subjects, not to tutor or to educate them, not to make them better or happier in another way, not to direct them, to galvanize them into action, to lead them or to coordinate their activities so that no occasion of conflict shall occur; the office of government is merely to rule. This is a specific and limited activity, easily corrupted when it is combined with any other, and, in the circumstances, indispensable. The image of the ruler is the umpire whose business is to administer the rules of the game, or the chairman who governs the debate according to known rules but does not himself participate in it.

And it is true that his real identity might actually be an anti-utopian liberal like Isaiah Berlin. However, if he articulated liberal ideas, he did so within the Conservative tradition. He identified himself as such and is much more of a touchstone in Conservative circles than Liberal ones.

The real strength of his conservatism is that it is rooted in the present not the past. He’s warning about the drawbacks of dramatic change not extolling the benefits of a lost past. Therefore, his writings can cut against the right as much as the left.

In fact, it is principally as a critic of conservatives that I have come across Oakeshott. I first (unwittingly) imbibed his ideas through their reflection in Francis Fukuyama’s critique of the invasion of Iraq as a hopelessly utopian project, designed to produce change more rapid than any society could absorb. Then I started reading Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog. Sullivan wrote his PhD on Oakeshott and frequently used him to lash the Republican party. For Sullivan, the American Right is not about preserving but about destroying the New Deal and America’s tradition of tolerance.

While British conservatism is more Oakeshottian than its American counterpart, an Oakeshottian critique of it is still possible. The bungling mess that was Health and Social Care was a leap into the unknown that appeared to be less about ‘redressing some specific disequilibrium’ than a mania for change. Michael Gove often seems to be trying to drag education out of the present and into the past. And tearing Britain out of the European Union would be a disruptive change, whose proponents are nowhere near meeting ‘the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial.’

I find Oakeshott interesting because his brand of conservatism is not reactionary or counter-revolutionary. It allows space for gradual reform and therefore can be more pragmatic. Oakeshott is at pains to point out that he is advocating a ‘disposition’ rather than an ideology. Therefore, it provides a resource by for critiquing any ideology including those of conservative parties.