Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Thematic: Hope Itself

Gnosticism in Modernity, or Why History Refuses to End

Can liberal-democratic commitments survive the modern loss of significance?

Isaac Ariail Reed and Michael Weinman

Detail from an illustration by Aude Van Ryn.

With each new apocalyptic wave, a new syntax is created, and the breakdown of meaning in language makes people from the old age appear deranged to those of the new, and vice versa…. The old man is a dead body to the new man, a has-been, as the Russians call the émigrés, while the new man is deranged in the eyes of the old.

—Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology

If history ever indeed ended, it certainly became clear by 2016 that the end was over. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president were only the most emphatic instances of increasingly standard deviations from the conduct of establishment politics in the liberal democracies after the end of the Cold War. Formulating responses to this seismic shift, scholars and assorted members of the commentariat offered various interpretations—some appearing in these pages—of how and why the center could not hold, the unraveling of the Enlightenment project, the emergence of postsecularism and re-enchantment, and the insecurity of the liberal international order in the face of localism and particularist resistance. These accounts all shared the intuition that the exercise of basic rights, the commitment to free and fair elections, and the maintenance of vibrant civic cultures were politically precarious.

A touchstone for these analyses was, and still is, Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay “The End of History?” Published in The National Interest in 1989 and expanded into his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man (with the question mark conspicuously dropped and a reference to Nietzsche added), this statement on the triumph of the liberal-democratic-capitalist West is now widely viewed as representative of a certain improvidence in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. Although Fukuyama expressed “the most ambivalent feelings” about the “centuries of boredom” that would come with the end of history—an intuition that received fuller exploration in the book’s concluding chapter on the “last man”—the essay displayed a clear enthusiasm for liberal-democratic modernity and capitalism.11xFrancis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York, NY: Penguin, 1992), 18. That affirmation came through in Fukuyama’s careful attack on materialist determinism (refusing to reduce mankind to selfish impulses) and his manifest satisfaction at the demise of fascist and communist ideals worldwide.

The attack on materialist determinism made easy fodder for Marx-inflected critics who were unsurprised that Fukuyama underestimated the potential for human destruction bound up with the profit motive. Of more interest, though, was the emergent tendency to mark this essay as overconfident, and perhaps embarrassingly so. What does this adjective mean? And how should we think about this negative judgment of Fukuyama’s essay (and its influence) today?

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