Does history end?

I entered the Corpus Christi EP Thompsom esaay competition, unfortunately my effort was not placed. 

hroughout the ages, history’s properties have been fiercely contested; for some it is a scalar quality, an unstructured sequence of events occurring without direction or purpose. For others, such as Hegel, it is a vector force progressing towards a golden Messianic Age of universal peace and prosperity. Then again for others it is simply an advancement towards the long-anticipated apocalypse.  With varying interpretations of what constitutes history, there are also varying interpretations of where it ends.  To answer this question one must begin by defining history, an elusive concept in spite of the endeavours of such luminaries as Hegel, Aristotle and Marx.  Once defined, history’s logical endpoint becomes apparent.
The past and history are two fundamentally different quantities. History is a narrative about the past, but the two are not inherently entwined, as the same traces of the past can be read differently by various discursive practices, and there are different interpretative readings of historical events[1]. The past is non-existent.  It is entirely manifested in archives, or in the writings of other historians.  These sources do not ‘speak for themselves’, they speak for others, now dead and forever gone.  Sources may have voices, which suggest direction, prompt further questions and lead to further sources[2]. However, they lack volition: they come alive only when an historian choses to reanimate them.  Despite their best efforts, no historian can entirely raise the spectre of the past and recover the entirety of by-gone events because their quantity is limitless.
History is not an objective quality, it is skewed by the viewpoints of the historian and the conventions of the era they exist in.  George Orwell aptly summarises this in his dystopian novel ‘1984’; who controls the present controls the past[3].  All groups and classes construct histories for themselves in a manner that one might write an autobiography[4].  The working class will perceive the same past very differently to the bourgeoisie; for example, an historian also shares this bias, even subconsciously.  When historians practise historiography, they devise a thesis and collate traces of the past that lend credence to this notion. A historian also has pressures acting on them when constructing this narrative that were not exerted on their subjects in the past, such the deadline of the research, the market of the history (a depiction of the Haitian Revolution will be vastly different for European school children and an Afrocentric Caribbean students) or even domestic pressure about work-social life balance[5]. Due to the limitations of society and perception, there is a yawning chasm between the past and history.  My definition of history is that it is, therefore, an ever-shifting narrative constructed of aspects of the past selected by present-minded workers, according to the inherent agendas of their psyche, social standing, ideological positioning and their period of time.

Based on this definition, the course of history cannot possibly be halted by any the worldwide establishment of any means of government. Thinkers such as the socio-political scientist Francis Fukyama believe that liberal democracy is a mythical system, whose universalism will bring about the close of history.  He argues that democracy is entwined with fiscal prosperity as a state would have to accept some form of Capitalism to revel in affluence.  The protection of private property, a cornerstone to Capitalist wealth creation, means that adoption of Capitalism would invariably heighten demand for individual rights, and subsequently democracy.  Fukyama uses this argument to assert that democracy is the height of human socio-economic development, and although there may be fluctuations – the overthrow of democracies and their replacement by authoritarian regimes, these are entirely temporary and democracy will always return, just as there is no alternative to the resilient scientific method[6].  Based on this logic, all events that take place after the worldwide establishment of liberal democracy will be insignificant, as none can permanently reshape the system of government[7]. According to Fukyama, the democratisation of the world will mark the end of history, as human socio-cultural development has peaked.  However, in reality, this will not comprise the end of history as all means of government are inherently defective, and consequently the states of the World will be in constant upheaval due to the flaws of both democratic and autocratic government.

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.  Autocratic systems of government, such as monarchies or dictatorships do not fulfil the fundamental human desire for recognition, as established by Hegel.  They feel detached from the ruling regime, because they are recognised as statistics and not as individual human beings, as they lack an active role in administrating their nation.  This desire can be temporarily supressed if a dictatorial government has a popularly recognised right to rule[8], such as the Mandate of Heaven, or a pledge by the ruling military regime to rebuild the economy before ceding control to representatives of the people. A benevolent sovereign may appear as an exception to this rule, if he recognises his subjects by allowing them to revel in prosperity by distributing the state’s wealth. Lord Acton’s overly quoted  ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ aptly applies in this instance, as even a compassionate monarch will eventually become a despot because of the mechanism keeping them in power.  A regime is only able exercise control over the population if it commands the support of powerful groups in society, like the military, oligarchs and the police force.  This support is generally gained through bribes and other financial concessions, as the dictator’s inner circle is motivated purely by self-interest, rather than altruism.  They will therefore remove the current figurehead from power if another can provide them with more wealth, even if it means their populace lives in squalor[9]. Disillusionment with the fraudulent administration emanates from the integral corruption and distance of such a relationship between ruler and subjects.  Autocracies will successively be brought down by the Hegelian concept of recognition.

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’[10], 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[11].  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[12].  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’[13].  This statement is true because it is embedded within our consciousness to struggle for a just cause. In a world ‘filled up’[14] 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[15] - 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[16].  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[17].  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[18].  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[19].  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[20].
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. History will quite simply end with the absence of human historians to construct a chronicle of the past.   Time is a continuous process. It has no endpoint yet, as I have previously cited, there is a fundamental disparity between time and its partial portrayal by historiography.  The principle distinguishing factor is the presence of historians to select the aspects of the past worth enshrining in the pages of history.  Therefore, history will quite simply climax with the annihilation of the human race.
There are many theories of the nature of the catastrophe that will destroy both humanity and its interdependent history, ranging from the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarok to the Earth being consumed by the bloated sun in about five billion years.  It is impossible to determine the nature of the calamity, and to a certain extent it is irrelevant, as it is impossible for the entirety of Armageddon to be transcribed as history.  Although time will endure, history is a distinct quality and as it is interwoven with humanity - it is a narrative about the past.  Even in the theoretical implementation of Fukyama’s impossible universalism of liberal democracy, it will not comprise the termination of history; events will still occur and they will continue to be recorded until inevitable devastation renders humankind unable to practise historiography.

[1] Jenkins, K; ‘Rethinking History’; (New York; Routledge Classics, ’91) pg7
[2] Arnold, J; ‘History: A Very Short Introduction’; (New York; Oxford University Press) pg77
[3] Orwell, G; ‘1984’; (London; Secker and Warburg ‘49) pg44
[4] Jenkins, K; ‘Rethinking History’; (New York; Routledge Classics, ’91) pg22
[5] Jenkins, K; ‘Rethinking History’; (New York; Routledge Classics, ’91) pg27
[6] Fukyama, F; ‘The end of History and the Last Man’; (New York; Free Press, ’92) pg xiv
[7] Ibid pg45
[8] Fukyama, F; ‘The End of History and the Last man’; (New York; Free Press, ’92) pg16
[9] Bueno De Mesquita, B; ‘The Dictator’s Handbook’; (New York; Penguin Random House, ’11) pg17
[10] Hobbes, T; ‘Leviathan’; (New York; Penguin Books, 1981) pg128
[11] Fukyama, F; ‘The End of History and the Last Man’; (New York; Free Press, ’92) pg329
[12] Ibid pg330
[13] Fukyama, F; ‘The End of History and the Last Man’; (New York; Free Press, ’92) pg329
[14] Ibid; pg330
[15] Ibid pg182
[16] Ibid pg329
[17] Ibid pg330
[18] Ibid pg330
[19] Piketty, T; ‘Capital In the Twenty First Century’; (Cambridge Massachusetts; Belknap  Press 2013) pg256
[20]The gloom gets worse for Davos Man’; (Sunday Telegraph, London) 15.1.17 pgs 6-7


Popular Posts