THR Web Features   /   July 22, 2021

Finding Fukuyama’s Ends

Between aspirations and history.

Addis Goldman

( Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Reviewed here:

After the End of History: Conversations with Francis Fukuyama
Edited by Mathilde Fasting
Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2021.

The “end of history” is, if nothing else, a strong brand identity. Francis Fukuyama’s scholarly legacy is forever bound up in this enigmatic topos, which only continues to be profoundly, and surprisingly, relevant. Present geopolitical circumstances—rising authoritarianism, populism, nationalism, protectionism, and ethnocentrism—practically beg for renewed consideration of Fukuyama’s wager about the providential ascendance (perhaps, the teleological preeminence) of liberal democracy. Even if somewhat hackneyed, After the End of History: Conversations with Francis Fukuyama is a timely coda of sorts––perhaps, even, an apologia for his zeitgeist-defining speculations about the fate of world order and human government.

Organized as a series of fireside-chat-style interviews with Mathilde Fasting, a fellow at the Norwegian think tank CIVITA, After the End of History covers a lot of terrain, from Fukuyama’s disenchantment with poststructuralism as a graduate student in the 1970s to reflections on his many weighty volumes, including The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (2011). Each conversation is organized by thematic chapter headings, such as “How Does Human Nature Shape Society?” and “How Can We Make Liberal Democracies Thrive?”

There are far too many subjects covered in these pages to fully elaborate on—from J.G.A. Pocock’s reading of Machiavellian republicanism to COVID-19 and antitrust regulation—and this gives the odd impression that the book is a kind of memoir wrapped up in a series of TED talks, which is not altogether satisfying. Inevitably, perhaps, the last chapter is titled “The Future of History.” As Fukuyama soberly reflects: “Things obviously look much more pessimistic today than they did thirty years ago.”

Published in the Summer 1989 issue of The National Interest, Fukuyama’s influential essay “The End of History?” famously argued that the disintegration of the USSR signaled “the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” For Fukuyama, the demise of the Soviet Union testified to the “total exhaustion of viable systemic alternatives” to––and thus, the “unabashed victory”––of “economic and political liberalism.” In order to theoretically ground this claim, Fukuyama would draw heavily on Alexander Kojève’s mid-twentieth century reading of Hegel and especially his reception of the French Revolution.

To be sure, this is a well-worn, if not fraught, subject of scholarly inquiry. For some, Hegel is an aristocratic, anti-Enlightenment figure: a neo-Aristotelian critic of transcendental abstraction, aligned with Edmund Burke. For others, Hegel is an absolutist liberal: the existential philosopher-king of anerkennung, or recognition. For Karl Löwith, Hegel proffered nothing more than a “secularized eschatology.” Without wading too far into intractable debates about Hegelian historicism, to Fukuyama’s mind, Hegel felt that the revolution was a concrete instantiation of the principles of liberty and equality. Napoleon’s victory over the Prussian monarchy in the Battle of Jena in 1806 seemed to herald an “absolute moment,” an apotheosis wherein the philosophical demand for freedom found a kind of final (world-historical) political realization––perhaps, the end of history as such. In an echo of Jena (could Ronald Reagan be the Napoleon in this analogy?), the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989 corroborated Fukuyama’s teleological hunch, the implications of which he would fully elaborate in The End of History and the Last Man (1992).

Fukuyama’s wager provided crucial philosophical texture for accounts of the so-called “unipolar moment” of US hegemony in the 1990s: a consummation of Enlightenment Reason and American Exceptionalism. The international system would remain, in principle, anarchic, and “events” would still unfold. But the general feeling was that the US was top-dog, democracy was an irresistible force, markets were a panacea, and international conflict would be somewhat constrained to technocratic disputes over trade and economics. In his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, globalization cheerleader-in-chief Thomas Friedman enunciated his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” as a twist on Kant’s “perpetual peace.” If nothing else, it captured the optimistic view of the relationship between globalization and pacification: No two major powers with a McDonald’s would go to war again.

In short, the economic and ideological determinism of the post–Cold War period held that liberal internationalism and geoeconomics had transcended geopolitics, political ideology, and geography; market liberalization was producing political liberalization. As Fukuyama triumphantly put it: “At the end of history there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy.” Skeptical theorist’s such as Jacques Rancière, Slavoj Žižek, Bruno Latour, and Chantal Mouffe have since argued that the 1990s saw the emergence of a kind of “post-political” moment: a vision of a world managed by experts and largely devoid of “the political” in the Schmittian sense of the word.  

It is a standard quip that September 11, 2001, marked “the end of the end of history” and the triumph of Samuel Huntington’s thesis about a clash of civilizations. After all, Fukuyama ended his canonical essay by writing: “Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.” Naturally, this is a version of something Hegel writes, as a swipe against Kant, in the Philosophy of Right: “Just as the blowing of the winds preserves the sea from the foulness which would be the result of a prolonged calm, so also corruption in nations would be the product of prolonged, let alone ‘perpetual’ peace.” As it turns out, Fukuyama would only have to wait a dozen years or so for “history to get started once again.”

With hindsight, this sequence of events is nearly tragi-comic. The UN designated 2000 as the International Year for the Culture of Peace. In 2001, the world would be introduced to a distinct Culture of War––that is, the “global war on terror.” In the same year, China would be admitted to the World Trade Organization, setting in motion the greatest shift in the global balance of power since the end of World War II. With the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Fukuyama’s teleological wager would be deployed as an ideological cudgel: the “imminent universalization” of Western liberal democracy would be secured at the point of the counterterrorist’s sword. Cue “Operation Iraqi Freedom” led by a “Coalition of the Willing.” The rest is…History.

Fast forward to 2008, Robert Kagan released The Return of History and the End of Dreams, which identified a dark cloud of great power conflict gathering on the horizon. A dozen or so years later, the tragic language of great power politics has seized the US foreign policy establishment. We are in a “multipolar moment” characterized by “inter-state strategic competition.” The postWorld War II liberal world order remains in an identity crisis. The exponential forces of complex interdependence and hyperglobalization are hard to identify and impossible to disaggregate. In the words of Robert Kaplan, our planet is newly “claustrophobic.”

In our time, “Socialism with Chinese characteristics,” or the “China Model,” is seen as a mixed rebuke of Fukuyama’s hunch. Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia, notes that at some point in the late-1990s, “China resolved that no, it could create its own history, and their own ‘end of history’ won’t be defined by the West.” Today, it is a standard one-liner to suggest that China “survived the end of the history.” The hybrid nature of Chinese political economy, governance, and statecraft belies the Marxian notion that the so-called “contradictions” endemic to a political-social system inevitably lead to entropy and disintegration. The jury is still out here. (China has many internal problems and faces a unified chorus of international rivals eager to check its supposed bid for global hegemony.) But the “rising” nation combines Marxism-Leninism, Schmittian-statism, meritocracy, liberal internationalism, Confucian idealism, and hyper-capitalism in order to operate a neo-authoritarian wealth creation machine. One thing is clear: The Chinese middle-class demand for liberty and equality has not won out over the power wielded by party elites. On the contrary, many argue that the US and China are engaged in a “new Cold War”––a prognosis that pits two “systemic alternatives” against each other: “techno-democracy” versus “techno-autocracy” in the language of the Biden administration.

It seems History has not been so forgiving to Fukuyama. In 1993, Jacques Derrida, taking cues from Löwith, chided Fukuyama’s writings as part of a chiliastic project rooted in “essentially a Christian eschatology.” In other words, Fukuyama is the philosophical godfather of a postCold War neoconservatism aimed at killing off Marx for good and rooted in right-wing cultural anxieties about the communist Left. At the end of After the End of History, Fukuyama issues a kind of apology concerning the two things his legacy is most bound up in: “Politically, for me, the early 2000s saw two really big failures. One was the Iraq War and the other was the global financial crisis, both of which were the products of certain conservative ideas.”

With respect to the Iraq War, the argument usually goes that the end of history thesis offered a dubious meta-historical pretext for a post9/11 US foreign policy of messianic interventionism, or, rather, extra-legal unilateralism masquerading as liberal internationalism. Even sober Realist scholars of international relations, such as John Mearsheimer, sensed in Fukuyama’s writings a triumphalist green light for the pursuit of “liberal hegemony” as US grand strategy ad infinitum. This is a popular, and likely warranted, indictment. Yet to this charge, Fukuyama maintains (with aloof scholarly aplomb) that “The notion that American power could be used to reshape the Middle East was at complete variance with neoconservative arguments about the limits of state power.” In 2006, with the publication America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, Fukuyama broke with his neoconservative brethren, but he is still, to some degree, guilty by association.

On the subject of financial crises and economics, the claim is often made that the end of history thesis provided pernicious fodder for all things neoliberalism and an ideological justification for the gospel of Pareto efficiency and the triumph of free-market fundamentalism. It is no coincidence that the term “Washington Consensus” was first used by economist John Williamson in 1989. With hindsight, Fukuyama sees the obvious connection between, say, WTO-style trade liberalization and anti-globalist populism, or financial deregulation and Steve Bannon-style protectionism. However, Fukuyama has a convenient retort to these charges: “Right from the beginning I said that the European Union [European social democracy] would represent more of the true end of history than the United States.” The reader can either see this as a dog ate my homework kind of excuse, or a genuine revision to Fukuyama’s reputation as the meta-theoretician of Reaganomics and Thatcherism.

Fukuyama’s latest book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, takes up in a chapter called “Is Identity Politics a Question of Thymos?” a familiar quasi-Marxist reading of our cultural political situation. In line with scholars such as Mark Lilla, Fukuyama sees the efflorescence of identity politics as a symptom of class antagonism and the desire for human dignity. Fukuyama enlists Plato’s notion of thymos (recognition) in order to understand the politics of grievance and ressentiment, with respect to either Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, or the “Make America Great Again” crowd.

Many critics pushback here. Either Fukuyama is transitively responsible for the excesses of globalization and so he should sit this one out, or he is explaining away legitimate cultural grievances by resorting to the politics of class. There is truth in both positions. Nevertheless, we might give Fukuyama credit for an earlier insight. Most people do not emphasize the second half of The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama’s “Last Man” is a familiar figure in Frankfurt School-style accounts of social alienation and civic-minded accounts of social atomization (think of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone). Drawing mostly on Nietzsche and Max Weber, Fukuyama’s 1992 book anticipates the critique of neoliberalism by identifying the forces of cultural malaise and disenchantment associated with late capitalism and technocracy.

A charitable reader will likely conclude that we have imputed far too much historicist dogmatism to Fukuyama. He is not simply equivalent to Alexis De Tocqueville, who, in his more zealous moments, felt that the “attempt to check democracy would be…to resist the will of God.” After all, in his 1989 essay, Fukuyama writes: “what we may be witnessing…is the end of history as such.” Perhaps Fukuyama is not an eschatological prophet at all, but, rather, a figure steeped in the tragic view of eternal recurrence. Either way, any good Hegelian knows that nothing is over. Fukuyama welcomes criticism; a cottage industry has sustained his relevance for decades. Most critics either overdetermine the teleological dimensions of Fukuyama’s wager, or succumb to parochial appraisals of the complex consequences of globalization. Or, the notion of “the end of history” is simply so grand and provocative that it endures as a kind of theoretical piñata.

In the end, we would do well to keep in mind something that Mathilde Fasting notes halfway through the book: “The End of History is a normative statement, not an empirical condition.” If anything, this is the sensible version of what Fukuyama intended to say: Western liberal democracy (rather, European social democracy) is something worth aspiring to––an optimal destiny, not an imminent fate.