Essay/Political Philosophy

The last hollow laugh

Since Francis Fukuyama proclaimed ‘The End of History’ 25 years ago, he has been much maligned. His work now seems prophetic

Paul Sagar

Francis Fukuyama photographed in Paris. Photo by Stephane Grangier/Corbis/Getty

Paul Sagar

is a junior research fellow in politics and international relations at King’s College at the University of Cambridge.

2,200 words

Edited by Nigel Warburton

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This year marks the 25th anniversary of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992). Rarely read but often denigrated, it might be the most maligned, unfairly dismissed and misunderstood book of the post-war era. Which is unfortunate for at least one reason: Fukuyama might have done a better job of predicting the political turmoil that engulfed Western democracies in 2016 – from Brexit, to Trump, to the Italian Referendum – than anybody else.

This should sound surprising. After all, Fukuyama’s name has for more than two decades been synonymous with a fin-de-siècle Western triumphalism. According to the conventional wisdom, he is supposed to have claimed that the collapse of the communist regimes in eastern Europe and the United States’ victory in the Cold War meant that liberal capitalist democracy was unambiguously the best form of human political organisation possible. To his popular critics – sometimes on the Right, but most especially on the Left – The End of History was thus a pseudo-intellectual justification for a hyper-liberal capitalist ideology, whose high-water mark was the disastrous administration of George W Bush. Fukuyama’s tagline – ‘the end of history’ – was seized upon by critics as proof that he was attempting to legitimate neoconservative hubris, cloaking a pernicious ideology with the façade of inevitability.

But (the conventional wisdom continues) hubris was soon followed by nemesis: the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent disaster of the Iraq War showed how wrong any triumphalist vision of liberal-capitalist world order was. Fukuyama took particularly heavy flak in this regard. Francis Wheen, in How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World (2004), was typical when he accused Fukuyama of being a shill for neo-con interests. In reply to the question ‘How do you get ahead by boldly making one of the worst predictions in social science?’ Wheen sniped: ‘If you are going to be wrong, be wrong as ostentatiously and extravagantly as possible.’ He claimed that Fukuyama ‘understood what was required to titillate the jaded palate of the chattering classes’ – and played on this for personal gain.

Yet all of this is incorrect. For a start, it is a gross misreading of The End of History to see it as any kind of triumphalism, let alone one subsequently disproved by the rise of radical Islam, or the stalling of capitalist democracies post-2008. It was also deeply unfair to Fukuyama himself. Although a public intellectual rather than a traditional academic, his infamous book displayed an erudition and depth of learning, combined with ambition and panache, that few tenured academics come close to. He might have been wrong, but he was never the dummy his critics made out.

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To see this better, it’s worth elucidating the actual argument of The End of History. For a start, Fukuyama never suggested that events would somehow stop happening. Just like any other sane person, he believed that history (with a small h), the continuation of ordinary causal events, would go on as it always had. Elections would be held, sports matches would be won and lost, wars would break out, and so on. The interesting question for Fukuyama was about History (with a big H), a term that, for him, picked out a set of concerns about the deep structure of human social existence.

With regards to History, Fukuyama advanced a complex thesis about the way opposing forces play themselves out in social development. Here, he drew inspiration from the work of the German philosopher Georg Hegel, via the reinterpretations of the Russian émigré Alexandre Kojève. Hegel (and Kojève) proposed that History is a process by which contradictions in the ordering of societies work themselves out by eventually overcoming conflict, so as to move to a higher order of integration, where previous contradictions drop away because the underlying oppositions have been solved. The most famous instance of such a ‘dialectical’ view is Karl Marx’s (also made under Hegel’s influence): that the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would eventually move past their combative opposition, via a period of revolution against capitalism, into the harmony of communism.

In essence, big-H history was, for Fukuyama, an understanding of human development as a logical progression (or dialectical working out of contradictions), generating a grand-narrative of progress, in which each step forward sees the world becoming a more rational place. For Fukuyama, the long-run development of humanity was clearly discernible: from the Dark Ages, to the Renaissance, and then crucially the Enlightenment, with its inventions of secularism, egalitarianism and rational social organisation, paving the way in turn for democratic liberal capitalism. This was the cumulative, and thus far upward-curving, arc of human development.

Fukuyama jettisoned Hegel’s implausible metaphysics, as well as Marx’s idea of ‘dialectical materialism’, as the proposed motor of historical synthesis. In their place, he suggested that the modern scientific method coupled with technological advancement, alongside market capitalism as a form of mass information-processing for the allocation of resources, could explain how humanity had successfully managed to develop – haltingly, but definitely – on an upward course of civilisational progress. The catch, however, was that we had now gone as far as it was possible to go. Liberal democratic capitalism was the final stage of Historical synthesis: no less inherently contradictory form of society was possible. So, while liberal democracy was by no means perfect, it was the best we were going to get. Big-H history was over, and we were now living in post-History. That was what Fukuyama meant by his infamous claim that History had ‘ended’.

To be sure, many critics see Fukuyama’s theory as no more plausible than Hegel’s metaphysics or Marx’s materialism. And his claim that Western liberal democratic capitalism represented the necessary end point of the grand Historical working-out of human existence – such that no society more desirable than the US of the 1990s was possible – strikes many as no more likely than Hegel’s notorious claim that the end of History was the 19th-century Prussian state (which just happened to pay his salary).

This is what had driven human beings to build cathedrals, achieve great works of art, found empires and political movements

But whether Fukuyama’s neo-Hegelianism is plausible is not the most interesting aspect of his thesis. For throughout his analysis, Fukuyama insisted on the centrality of thymos (the Greek for ‘spiritedness’), or recognition, to human psychology: what Thomas Hobbes called pride, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau labelled amour propre. This denotes the need to be liked and respected by other people, and to have that recognition outwardly affirmed – if necessary, extracting it by force. Some human beings, Fukuyama thought, are always going to be inherently competitive and greedy for recognition. Some will therefore always vie to be thought of as the best – and others will resent them for that, and vie back. This has the potential to cause a lot of trouble. Human beings demand respect, and if they don’t feel that they are getting it, they break things – and people – in response.

It was this psychological feature of people, Fukuyama claimed, that guaranteed that although we might have reached the end of History, there was nothing to be triumphalist about. Just because humans could do no better than liberal capitalist democracy – could progress to no form of society that contained fewer inherent conflicts and contradictions – it didn’t mean that the unruly and competitive populations of such societies would sit still and be content with that. Late capitalist modernity might be the highest civilisational point we could achieve, because it contained the fewest contradictions. But there was strong reason to suspect that we’d slide off the top, back into History, down into something worse.

This was because, Fukuyama thought, human beings didn’t just exhibit thymos, but also what he termed ‘megalothymia’: a desire not just for respect and proportionate recognition, but a need to disproportionately dominate over others in ostentatious and spectacular ways. Megalothymia was by no means always or necessarily a bad thing: it was what had driven human beings to build cathedrals, achieve great works of art, found empires and political movements, and generally help push the direction of History forwards. But if not channelled to appropriate ends it could quickly turn vicious, finding an outlet in the domination and oppression of others.

What was remarkable about liberal capitalist democracy, Fukuyama thought, was that it had managed to put a lid on the more destructive expressions of megalothymia, encouraging citizens to direct such energies into socially harmless expressions, such as mountaineering or competitive sports. Which might sound like a pleasant conclusion. Except, Fukuyama thought, that a sanguine response failed to see the hidden dangers lurking in the end of History.

The second half of Fukuyama’s title, The Last Man, was a direct reference to the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that, although modern society with its emphasis on truth and transparency had ‘killed God’ (the future of Western politics was egalitarian and secular), it had nothing to replace Him with. The vast majority of modern human beings would now be small-minded, stunted, pathetic creatures, possessing no sense of how to achieve greatness, only of how to accrue petty comforts and easy pleasures in a materialistic, self-obsessed world. In other words, if megalothymia went out of human life, so would greatness. Only base mediocrity would remain.

Fukuyama combined Nietzsche’s idea of the last man with his own diagnosis of underlying human psychology. His prognosis was that the outlook for post-History Western society was not good. It was possible that the last men at the end of History might sink down into a brutish contentment with material comforts, rather like dogs lying around in the afternoon sun (this was what Kojève predicted). But they might well go the other way. There was every chance that the last men (and women) would be deeply discontented with their historically unprecedented ease and luxury, because it failed to feed megalothymia. If the last men went this way, they would become bored by what Fukuyama called ‘masterless slavery – the life of rational consumption’. The spread of egalitarian values that went along with secular democratic politics would open up spaces of severe resentment – especially, we might now postulate, among those who had lost their traditional places at the top of social hierarchies, and felt cheated of the recognition that they believed they were owed. (Sound familiar?)

‘Modern thought raises no barriers to a future nihilistic war against liberal democracy on the part of those brought up in its bosom’

Fukuyama predicted that such restlessness and resentment would eventually need a political outlet – and when it came, it would be explosive. The anti-capitalist Left, however, was a busted flush. Communism was now a known fraud and failure, and post-Historical people driven by megalothymia would have no truck with its egalitarian pretensions, or its nakedly tyrannical realities. Far more threatening to the stability of liberal capitalist societies would be the emergence of demagogic strongmen from the fascistic Right, cynically feeding narrow self-interest and popular discontent, preying on human impulses for mastery and domination that the hollow comforts of consumer capitalism could not hope to appease.

Fukuyama was here looking to a future that still lies beyond our present (although we might be taking the first steps towards it). His was a grim warning that if overly recognition-thirsty individuals lived in a world ‘characterised by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy’. More starkly: ‘Modern thought raises no barriers to a future nihilistic war against liberal democracy on the part of those brought up in its bosom.’

Triumphalism this most certainly was not. To be sure, Fukuyama’s vision of how History could be undone does not predict the detailed dynamics of the tumultuous year that was 2016, or of post-9/11 global politics more generally. (He says little about China in relation to US hegemony, for example, while displaying a characteristically early 1990s preoccupation with Japan.) Nonetheless, he perhaps has a better claim than anybody else to have seen the unrest of 2016 coming, and where the events set in motion during that dramatic year might yet end up taking us. While his recent public interventions have not explicitly returned to his themes of the early 1990s – emphasising instead the rise of class as refracted through national identities and educational opportunity – it is nonetheless Fukuyama, and not his many vocal critics, who now looks entitled to a last hollow laugh.

One final thing. In describing the shallow celebrity culture, the essential emptiness, of the habitat of the last man, Fukuyama had a particular example in mind. He went to the same individual for illustration when looking for an archetype of megalothymia – who else but ‘a developer like Donald Trump’. Fukuyama didn’t predict that it would be that very individual who would crash through the comforts of the end of History, turning the certainties of the post-Historical world upside down. But he got closer than most.   

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