The End of History and the Last Man - Francis Fukuyama - Review

In the summer of 1989, the American magazine the National Interest published an essay with the bold title ‘The End of History?’. Its author, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, announced that the great ideological battles between east and west were over, and that western liberal democracy had triumphed. With anti-communist protests sweeping across the former Soviet Union, the essay seemed apt to the status quo.  On the back of this success and popular acclaim, he published this volume three years later.

Fukuyama ignores the complex events and details of history and applies a philosophical approach to his work. The author states that only liberal democracy and the market economy have satisfactorily provided what Plato claimed to be necessary for contentment: the appetitive, the reasoning, and the inherent desire for recognition. Hegel’s concept of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is used to explain the course of history, with liberal democracy as the final synthesis according to Fukuyama. Marx, like Hegel, saw the world in a clash of evolving opposites, but while Marx predicted that the triumph of communism would lead to the withering away of the state, Fukuyama instead asserts that the universalism of liberal democracy marks the endpoint of history.

Due to the composition of the human psyche, no form of government will ever completely satisfy its subjects, and inevitable discontent will consistently lead to the fall of the established order. 

Liberal democracy may appear to be the only system of government to be compatible with desire for recognition (a truly Marxist society is omitted because it is only a concept).  However, the peace, equality and tolerance present in a modern liberal democracy, its very attributes capable of felling a despot, are also its fundamental weaknesses.  Democracies tend to settle disputes through diplomacy rather than war, yet a long period of peace will not strengthen the system, but will rather critically weaken it.   Hobbes acknowledges this notion, believing that man exists in a state of ‘perpetual war of every man against his neighbour’.  This inherent desire to wage a ‘war of every one against every one’, means that man’s nature is diametrically opposed to the freedom of a liberal state, as the need to fight will undermine liberalism’s foundations of peace and liberty.  Hegel applied this phenomenon to society and was accused of being a militarist, despite never glorifying the realities of war.  He simply acknowledged the transformation of men’s lives as a result of having fought for something much greater than themselves, and the momentous impact this will have on their conviction of the virtues of democracy.  In ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, Fukyama noted that ‘A liberal democracy that could fight a short and decisive war every generation or so to defend its own liberty and independence would be far healthier and more satisfied than one that experienced nothing but continuous peace’.  This statement is true because it is embedded within our consciousness to struggle for a just cause. In a world ‘filled up’ with liberal democracies, where there is no explicitly righteous cause such as a tyrant to overthrow, the people will struggle out of a boredom, and due to, megalothymia - a term coined by Francis Fukyama, to build on Plato’s belief of a region of the soul that drives the tyrannical ambition to be control others.  A democracy does not give any effective outlets for this primitive desire for dominion, only metaphorical battles such as business deals being likened to robberies, or the thrill of extreme sports can attempt to replace armed struggle as an outlet to this primeval aspect of the human condition.  Such psychology was the driving force behind futile uprisings such as the French Evenements of 1968.  In this revolt, students temporarily took over Paris and brought down General De Gaulle. Yet they lacked a reason to demonstrate; they were privileged members of an affluent and liberal society.  It was France’s very prosperity and freedom that they rebelled against, as it omitted vital struggle and sacrifice from their existence, and although they had vague fragments of ideologies like Maoism, they lacked a coherent vision of an improved French society.  This occurrence, combined with institutionalised corruption will periodically bring about democracy’s downfall.

The strength of Fukyama’s assertion of the connection between capitalism, democracy and liberalism, the cornerstone of his argument, has been shattered by the global economic downturn.  In the wake of the ‘credit crunch’ it is evident that prosperity is not the product of laissez-faire principles and the unstoppable extension of economic liberty.  However, as recognised by Thomas Picketty, free markets have only widened the disparity between rich and poor, and have reduced wages throughout the world.  In the countries worst affected by the recession – such as Greece and Hungary – voters have spurned the liberalism that Fukyama believed they would embrace with open arms.  Throughout the West, economic interventionism, nationalism, and even overt racism has exerted a greater allure to those casting their votes than the causes of freedom, deregulation, and equality before the law.  Fukyama’s Liberal capitalist democracy has not triumphed.  Conversely, the deficiencies of capitalism have turned democracy against liberalism.

These flaws of despotism and democracy mean that history cannot end with the establishment of a flawless system of government, as attractive as this quasi-religious concept appears. The course of history will be an inconclusive alternation between tyranny and liberty.  The events of this turbulent cycle will be recorded and archived as history, and as there is no climax to this cycle of governments, the events of each upheaval are equally important.  Recent developments have demonstrated that Francis Fukyama’s ‘end of history’ is a false concept, grounded in the fleeting aura of hope that emanated from the fall of Communism.  For a brief moment, when the Berlin wall tumbled and China’s Communist Party embraced the free market, it was possible to envisage a world order congregating on principles of Liberal democracy.  However, the three pivotal figures of today’s world order are Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, all of whom hark back to a time of historic nationalism or to an imperial past.  All speak a 19th Century language of Great Power interests that predates the post war dispensation.

As highlighted by recent affairs, we are in the midst of the periodic upheaval that is endemic to the human story. In my mind, it is evident that history is not a linear process of socio-cultural development, but is a turbulent sequence of occurrences that lack even the smallest degree of organisation.

Despite my strong disagreement with Fukuyama’s conception, I thought that the book was an impressive scholarly work, it was brilliantly written, compulsively readable and combined aspects of economics, religion and philosophy to argue his case.  I learnt much about the nature of history and philosophical theses from this work.

I rate this book 3/5, Not based on the his eloquence, but on his deeply flawed argument


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