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The End?

Mike Fuller reviews Fukuyama’s controversial book The End of History and the Last Man.

Here are three propositions about the world today: “The Cold War is over and America has won” (liberal democracy and capitalism having won the day); “the Cold War is over and nobody has won” (the Postmodernist thesis that the major ideologies and ‘grand narratives’ have all broken down); “the Cold War is over and Japan has won” (Japan streaking ahead to world economic supremacy while America and Russia were engaged in a long and expensive contest for the heavyweight crown).

Judging from the author’s name alone, you might expect Francis Fukuyama to support the third proposition; in fact, he supports the first. Because of the aura of Bush-style New World Orderliness that has already attached itself to the book’s reputation, Fukuyama is perhaps in danger of becoming one of those ‘politically incorrect’ authors whom most people have heard of and few have actually read. I think this would be a pity. While The End of History… may not represent quite the major milestone in political philosophy that its author hopes, it does illuminate the reader about the nature and problems of the contemporary world and it does make you think. Not bad credentials for any philosophy book?

Fukuyama begins by arguing, against what he sees as the prevalent pessimism and relativism which sees history as directionless, that there are two things which give history a definite direction. The first is what he calls “the logic of modern science”, which in alliance with technology and economics must inevitably shape the evolution of all societies. He admits that this is an economic interpretation of history in the tradition of Karl Marx, only of course Fukuyama’s economic interpretation points history in a very un-Marxist direction.

However, economic interpretations are insufficient, he continues. He therefore calls on Hegel and his interpreter Alexandre Kojève to illuminate us about the other great directional force in history: the ‘struggle for recognition.’ (Given Hegel’s undeniable tendencies towards political totalitarianism, Fukuyama’s liberal democratic reading of him might seem to some selective to the point of being downright quaint). Hegel’s importance, he says, is threefold: first, he showed that economic interpretations alone are insufficient to explain the direction of history; secondly, he correctly identified the ‘struggle for recognition’ as the ‘motor of history’; thirdly, through his famous master/slave dialectic, he illustrated how the historical struggle for recognition culminated in the religious ideals of freedom and equality before God in Christianity and in the political ideals of freedom and equality in the French Revolution.

Between them, then, the ‘logic of modern science’ and the ‘struggle for recognition’ point towards an ‘end of history’, i.e., a point at which the social organisation of humanity reaches a situation where things are found to be so ultimately satisfying that no one really wants to change them any more. This ultimately satisfying point is for Fukuyama liberal democracy in politics and liberalism (i.e., capitalism) in economics. As such, the ‘end of history’ has more or less arrived with the world-wide collapse of liberal democracy’s major competitor, Communism. Whatever problems liberal democracies still have (and Fukuyama admits they do have problems – “unemployment, pollution, drugs, crime, and the like,” Fukuyama, p.287) can in principle be resolved by fuller implementation of liberal democratic ideals themselves, i.e., freedom, equality, tolerance, rights, participatory government. (“Thus while the principle of equality may have been correctly established in America in 1776, it remains to be implemented fully for many Americans in the 1990s”, Fukuyama, p.292).

With liberal democracy-cum-capitalism, then, we reach the ‘end of history’. And with the ‘end of history’ comes the ‘last man’. At this point, Fukuyama introduces Nietzsche to provide a twist in the tail. The ‘last man’, the creature who emerges to populate this liberal-democraticcapitalist paradise, may have a purely Disneyland consciousness of insular, indolent consumerism (a “man without a chest”, as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra scornfully called him); or, he may get so thoroughly bored with all this peace and prosperity that he kicks up a ruckus and so starts the tragic ball of history rolling again out of sheer thymotic need for mischief and excitement. Both are real possibilities, suggests Fukuyama, and neither are very welcome.

Before directing a few critical shafts at Fukuyama’s central argument, I would like to sing his praises for some of his local analyses, as well as for his clear and readable style, mercifully free from jargon, and his broad scholarship in matters pertaining to politics, economics, history, and philosophy. Of his local analyses, I especially liked his discussion of nationalism, his analysis of the merits and flaws of centrally-planned economics in relation to different stages of economic development, his probing of the ‘dependency theory’ in Third World development, his questioning of Kissinger-style realism in international strategy, and his arguments concerning the incoherence of much talk about rights in a climate of pervasive relativism.

Concerning his central argument, the initially simplest criticism might be to say that Fukuyama begs the whole question concerning liberal democracy’s superiority as a political system in much the same way as Marxists will often do with the Marxist system. That is to say, some Marxists were (still are?) prone to say that Marxism could not be refuted by the imperfections (or even collapse) of actual political systems calling themselves Marxist (such as Leninism or Stalinism) simply because these systems were not “true Marxism” or were “not Marxist enough.” Marxism is thus rendered immune from critical falsification and left to hang ideally – if rather uselessly – in the utopian clouds. Does not Fukuyama run the risk of adopting much the same defensive ploy with liberal democracy? That is, any imperfections (or even collapses) of existing social systems calling themselves liberal democracies can be dismissed by saying that the systems in question were not “true liberal democracies” or were “not being liberal and democratic enough.”

It seems to me that if Fukuyama is to avoid this simple charge, then he has to somehow demonstrate that liberal democracy as a political system, even if it has problems, can, unlike all other systems, resolve its problems within the terms of its own principles, without those problems growing so acute that they turn into actual contradictions that cannot be resolved within the system of liberal democracy and so lead to its collapse. And this is exactly what he sets out to do: to show that the problems to which liberal democracies are prone are resolvable within its own system of principles, but that the problems attaching to other systems like authoritarian monarchy or Marxism cannot be resolved within their own systems, and hence represent ‘inner contradictions’ which lead to that system’s collapse and/or defeat by a better system, more satisfying to human needs.

However, it’s none too clear that Fukuyama does effectively demonstrate this. He certainly recognises the basic criticisms of liberal democracy from both the Left and the Right, and sets them out candidly:-

“The attack from the Left would maintain that the promise of universal, reciprocal recognition remains essentially unfulfilled in liberal societies … economic inequality brought about by capitalism ipso facto implies unequal recognition. The attack from the Right would argue that the problem with liberal society is not the inadequate universality of recognition, but the goal of equal recognition itself. The latter is problematic because human beings are inherently unequal : to treat them as equal is not to affirm but to deny their humanity.” (Fukuyama, p.289)

A little further on, we come across the most telling phrases in the whole book, which seem to be Fukuyama’s answers to critics of liberal democracy:-

“The fact that major social inequalities will remain even in the most perfect of liberal societies means that there will be a continuing tension between the twin principles of liberty and equality upon which such societies are based … Every effort to give the disadvantaged ‘equal dignity’ will mean the abridgement of the freedom or rights of other people, all the more so when the sources of disadvantage lie deep within the social structure … There is no fixed or neutral point at which liberty and equality come into balance, nor any way of optimising both simultaneously…

The Marxist project sought to promote an extreme form of social equality at the expense of liberty … the major arguments concern not the principles of liberal society, but the precise point at which the proper trade-off between liberty and equality should come.” (Fukuyama, pp.292-294)

Surely Fukuyama is doing here the very thing that his whole project was seeking to avoid? He is admitting that liberal democracy is prone to ‘inner contradiction’ at the very heart of its two most cherished principles: liberty and equality can never be harmonised satisfactorily within the system of liberal democracy. I can’t see what else he is saying in the above quote.

It is for this reason that I said at the outset that his book hardly represents a milestone in political theory. He totally ignores that line in political theory (stemming from Rousseau via a non-selective reading of Hegel to Marx) which makes Fraternity the “natural point at which liberty and equality come into balance”, “optimising both simultaneously.”

Of course, it is still open to Fukuyama to argue that whatever fancy footwork the inclusion of Fraternity into the picture achieves in theory, it just don’t work in practice. This is clearly what he feels:-

“The Chinese Communists or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia could try to eliminate the division between city and countryside, or between physical and intellectual labour, but only at the cost of stripping all people of the most minimal rights.” (Fukuyama, p.293)

So does he finally leave us with a paraphrase of Winston Churchill’s one-liner? Liberal democracy is a lousy form of government, but all the rest are in practice still worse?

The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama, published by Hamish Hamilton at £10.99 for the paperback.

© Mike Fuller 1993

Mike Fuller lectures in philosophy at Bolton Institute of Higher Education and is the author of Truth, Value and Justification (Avebury).

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