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Why history didn’t end

Why history didn’t end

Thirty years ago, the American political theorist Francis Fukuyama put forward the idea that history was coming to an end, converging on the kind of liberal capitalist democracy that emerged victorious from the Cold War. His lecture, article, and the ensuing book, caused a huge stir, becoming famous and infamous in equal measure. In his new long–read, Nick Spencer looks at what Fukuyama said (as opposed to what people thought he said), where he was right, why, ultimately, he was wrong, and why history didn’t (and won’t) come to an end.

1.      

Pity poor Francis Fukuyama. When dolphins play around Nelson’s column, the English Channel laps at Highgate Heath, and war–painted tribes battle for control of the Pennine Way, Fukuyama will be remembered as the man who declared that history ended in 1989.

He didn’t, of course, at least not in the way people usually interpret the words. But that, I guess, is the curse of a catchy phrase; the author is condemned for all eternity to a circle of hell in which he has to explain that what he really meant was…

Whatever he did mean, there seem fewer tasks less necessary today than explaining why history didn’t end in 1989. As democracies tremble, America segregates, China surges, Russia plots, and seas rise, few are predicting a post–historical future. Not for a long time has history felt so alive.

And yet, Fukuyama’s famous book, The End of History and the Last Man, not to mention his subsequent ones, was considerably more sophisticated and subtle than the popular view allows, and exploring what he said, why he said it, and how he was both right and wrong is not only a fascinating and a rewarding exercise in itself, but may even help us navigate our own choppy historical waters.

2.      

In 1989, the then 37–year–old political theorist, Francis Fukuyama was invited to deliver a lecture at the University of Chicago. This became an article in The National Interest which was then published as a book, confidently titled The End of History and the Last Man, in 1992.

The book argued against the “historical pessimism” that had overwhelmed the thinking classes in the 20th century. This cultural elite had long since abandoned the idea that there is such a thing as “Universal History”, an all–encompassing and unifying plot to history on which all nations and peoples would ultimately converge, an idea widely associated with the German philosopher Georg Hegel.

In contrast with these elites, and in line with Hegel who is the power behind his intellectual throne, Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy had not only vanquished all other ideologies but had thereby become the “final form of human government”. The collapse of conservative authoritarianism and of socialist central planning left only market capitalism – free economic activity and exchange based on private property and markets, enabled rather than controlled by state – and liberal democracy – the rule of law, human, civil, religious, and political rights, and some form of public representation and political accountability – standing. Not only was such liberal capitalism successful. As a system it could not be improved on. It was the terminus to which all the trains of history were heading.

The book attracted note and notoriety. Critics accused the author of confusing history with recent events. They claimed that he failed to take local, ethnic and religious loyalties into account. They heard in his argument simplistic western intellectual hegemony. The historian Keith Thomas, reviewing the book in the Observer, spoke for many when he said “many of his readers will recoil at the breath–taking ethnocentricity which can regard late twentieth–century America as the final culmination of human achievement.”

As the years went on, more critics piled on. Many claimed that the arguments of his former teacher Samuel Huntingdon – to the effect that history would henceforth be dominated by the clash of religious/ civilisational cultures, rather than coasting to a natural, liberal capitalist halt – were far more persuasive. Others claimed that his arguments were falsified by the rise of a singularly undemocratic China, and the resurgence of a faux–democratic Russia. Still others claimed that the events of 9/11 straightforwardly disproved his thesis. For a book and argument that were apparently so thoroughly and self–evidently wrong, a remarkable amount of ink was spilled showing why.

3.      

Much of the ink, and the ire, were no doubt provoked by Fukuyama’s tone, largely untroubled as it was by equivocation or self–doubt. “There is a fundamental process at work that dictates a common evolutionary pattern for all human societies”, he wrote early on in the book, emphases original. (48) “History was not a bind concatenation of events”, he opined a few pages, later, “but a meaningful whole in which human ideas concerning the nature of a just political and social order developed and played themselves out.” (51) There was a “march” of “Universal History”, albeit, he acknowledged, that “for the foreseeable future, the world will be divided between post–historical part, and a part that is still stuck in history”. (276) This was, theologically speaking, a fully–realised eschatology, a vision of the ultimate ends of humanity arrived at on earth, offered by someone who self–consciously “live[d] in the old age of mankind”. (306) Such predictions would be difficult to swallow at any time but in a book so very clearly borne of its own time, written to the backing track of the Berlin Wall crumbling and Soviet Union being dismantled, it sounded hubristic in the extreme.

In fairness, Fukuyama could strike a more emollient note. First, and where so much of the confusion and misdirected criticism originates, he never predicted that the cycles and epicycles that make up our daily news fare would come to a close. His ‘history’, as he found himself repeating ad nauseam in the following years, was history in the Hegelian sense, a “Universal History” in which all the sub–plots slowly straightened and united into one big unifying cultural, social and economic story. Events would continue as they always had done. It was history that would come to a rest.

He openly acknowledged that others had been there before him. Hegel had seen The End in the Napoleonic aftermath of the French Revolution. A century later, the Encyclopedia Britannica, so confident that civilisation had finally ousted barbarism, wrote under its entry for ‘torture’, “the whole subject is one of only historical interest as far as Europe is concerned.” Henry Kissinger remarked in the 1970s, “for the first time in our history, we face the stark reality that the challenge is unending.” (He was talking about Soviet Communism.) Humans had a habit of confusing what is now with what is forever or with what is meant to be. History had repeatedly come to an end.

Fukuyama acknowledged the bumps, bends and U–turns on the journey. It was quite possible for countries to regress economically or to implode morally as Argentina and Germany respectively did in the 20th century.  He also recognised that there were possible alternatives. The Middle East proved a stubborn exception to the link between economic development, education and democracy, albeit one explained by oil. He admitted that Islam offered a systematic and coherent alternative to his model, at least to Muslims.

Moreover, he admitted that his predictions were not going to come true any time soon. Communist authorities were as likely to be replaced by nationalist and military dictators, albeit in a localised and unsystematic way, as they were stable democratic governments. There was no reason to imagine that Uzbekistan or Tajikistan were going to transition to democratically–accountable stable liberal capitalism any time soon.

He could even envisage authoritarian alternatives, particularly in the Far East. If Asians convinced themselves that their success was due to their culture of deference and order rather than that of Western individualism and scepticism, he reasoned; if Western growth faltered and Eastern surged; and if the West continued to see progressive breakdown of basic social institutions like the family, while all the time treating Asians with distrust or hostility, then we could expect to see emerge in China “a systemic illiberal and non–democratic alternative combining technocratic economic rationalism with paternalistic authoritarianism.” (243)

All the caveats duly noted, his was a bold thesis. History was tilted. Resist and bounce back at they sometimes did, countries couldn’t but slide in a particular direction. Even non–democracies had taken to justifying themselves through the language and logic of ‘people’ and wealth. No–one was working for legal re–introduction of slavery. And few were campaigning for monarchies, aristocracies, theocracies, or fascist or communist dictatorships to replace liberal democracies. Were they?

4.      

There were two strands to Fukuyama’s argument. The first was empirical. Evidence – then – was on his side. The world’s output of goods and services had risen exponentially over the previous four decades. The number of people living in extreme poverty had fallen, as had the percentage of children dying in infancy. Many years later, Steven Pinker offered us a veritable symphony of such data in Enlightenment Now, but Fukuyama offered a hummable tune.

Political evidence looked as promising. The previous two decades had seen the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Portugal, Greece, Spain, Argentina, Turkey, Uruguay, the Philippines, South Korea, and the slow liberalisation of South Africa, not to mention the stunningly rapid and largely peaceful collapse of authoritarian dictatorships in Hungary, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, Russia, Ukraine, and the fall of various Marxist regimes in sub–Saharan Africa. Who wouldn’t feel a little light headed at this point?

The pattern continued, for a while. Freedom House recorded that between 1988 and 2005, the proportion of countries ranked as ‘Not Free’ fell by almost 14 per cent (from 37 to 23). Then things turned sour. The decade after the crash of 2008–09 saw the biggest contraction of the global economy since the Depression. Various economic indicators like GDP, household net worth, and unemployment did not recover their pre–crash levels, at least in Western democracies, for five or more years, and the crash left a legacy of a decade of lost growth, growing inequality, and huge levels of government and personal debt in its wake.

Not unconnected, measurements of political stability, freedom and accountability also fell. The 2018 Freedom in the World report from Freedom House recorded its thirteenth consecutive year of decline in global freedom. “The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century”, the report recognised, “but the pattern is consistent and ominous.”

Fukuyama’s arguments could (and can) accommodate all this, however. As we have seen, believing in Universal History did not mean believing in Universally Smooth and Predictable History. Political weather should not be confused with historical climate. To make an argument that history was grinding to a halt, you need more than a few happy looking data lines.

5.      

Mercifully, Fukuyama had something more. Indeed, The Last Man was built on ideas rather more than it was on data.

Fukuyama argued that modern science was the engine of history. Science generated technology, which in turn generated military advantage, economic efficiency, the improvement of communication and transport, and so forth. These created advantages for some nations, but only temporarily, as knowledge and technology had a habit of spreading. In due course, the field levelled out, countries (or most of them) progressed and history crept forwards.

There was plenty of contingency in the process. It was hard to predict which countries modernised, when, at what pace, and to what effect. But it was also convergent. Countries ineluctably moved from families to tribes to villages to towns and cities. They moved from agriculture to industry, from illiteracy to education. They sought material comfort and economic efficiency. They might modernise in different ways and at different speeds, but modernise they did.

This was not, to repeat, a smooth process. Countries could slow down or slip back, and did. But it was essentially impossible for them to reject modern science and its economic and technological fruit wholesale and in perpetuity. Neither Tokugawa Japan of the 17th century, with its determined isolationism, nor post–war Burma, with its refusal to integrate into the globalising market, nor the apocalyptic conflagration of World War 2 resulted in permanent exclusion from modernity. No nation had successfully managed to steer itself back to the pre–Industrial, let alone the Iron, age.

Science and technology were necessary but not, however, sufficient. Countries aplenty had technologically and economically modernised without simultaneously embracing liberal democracy, a fact that Fukuyama fully recognised. He pointed out, in some detail, that thoroughly authoritarian states were perfectly capable of outperforming liberal democratic ones. Indeed, many had done in the post–war period. If such countries could beat the West at its own game, why was history heading toward liberal democracies, when autocracies could do just the job as well?

6.      

Fukuyama’s answer to this lay in his conception of the human. Indeed, the nature of ‘man’ is absolutely central to his argument. “We need a better theory of the human soul”, as he put it in Identity many years later. (11)

So used are we inhabitants of liberal democracies to reducing motivation to economic causes, he wrote in a sentiment that could have been lifted from a debate on national populism a generation later, “that we are frequently surprised to discover how totally non–economic most political life is.” (145) Humans, he reasoned, are social beings. Our self–worth and identity is “intimately connected with the values that other people place on [us]”. We are “fundamentally ‘other directed’”. (147)

Our need for recognition is the struggle that underlies dialectical process of history (according to Hegel, Fukuyama’s lode star). Humans want – we need – to be respected. We are possessed of what Plato called, thymos, ‘spiritedness’, “an innate human sense of justice”. It is the part of the soul wherein reside our emotions of pride, anger, shame, and the like. It is our sense of self–worth, that which drives us to seek the affirmation of others.

Sometimes, this tips over into what Fukuyama calls megalothymia – literally ‘great’ or ‘exaggerated’ thymos – meaning the desire to assert your thymos over others, to be recognised as superior to them. Sometimes it is the source of isothymia – from ‘the same’ or ‘similar’ thymos – another neologism meaning the desire to be recognised as the equal of others.

Herein lay the source of liberal capital democracies’ ultimate triumph, at least according to The Last Man. On the one hand, the human propensity to master others, our tendency to megalothymia, has been turned into economic struggle. We no longer fight each other into submission, but try to outcompete one another in trade and exchange.

On the other, the human need for recognition and respect is fulfilled by the structure and cultures of liberal democracies. Such states treat all citizens in a fair and equal manner, thereby providing an isothymia in a way that authoritarian states, which necessarily infantilise or degrade us, cannot. Democratic voice, rights, equal and fair treatment under the rule of law: these quintessential elements of a liberal democracy provide the thymotic recognition that humans crave. When denizens of authoritarian regimes see what recognition citizens of liberal ones are granted, they will naturally seek them for themselves. This was why thousands of people gathered in Tiananmen Square demanding political liberalisation and thousands of people didn’t gather in Trafalgar Square demanding political authoritarianism.

Thus, by a process of elimination, the liberal democratic capitalist regimes that emerged victorious in the early 1990s were the final word, not simply because they had emerged victorious there and then – because the data lines pointed in their direction – but because they were underpinned with an iron logic. How many people were voting for communism?

7.      

The answer is not many, of course. Indeed, thirty years after Fukuyama first put forward his thesis, tens of thousands took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest against the potential loss of political freedoms to the Chinese Communist Party.

And yet, in the same week, Vladimir Putin upset a hundred million Western liberals by declaring liberalism dead. Political trolling of the highest order as this may have been, it was hard to dismiss altogether. In the generation since Fukuyama took to the stage, and particularly in the last ten years, plenty of countries have veered from the true path towards liberal democratic capitalism.

According to the Economic Intelligence Unit’s 2018 Democracy Index, global measures of civil liberties, political culture, functioning of government, and electoral processes and pluralism have been on the slide for a decade, with only levels of political participation increasing over the same period. An economically resurgent China shows no signs of democratising. Russia has effectively handed its liberal democratic ticket back, still in mint condition. Authoritarianism is on the rise in Hungary, Thailand, Turkey, and Poland. The Arab Spring failed to turn Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, or Syria into liberal democracies, as many Western liberals hoped and dreamed it would. The shock of Trump, the surprise of Brexit, the amusing rise of Beppe Grillo in Italy, and the (literally) comic election of Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor and comedian, as President of Ukraine, shows how faint and fragile this path to democracy really was.

Fukuyama’s original thesis could just about accommodate this. The events of the early 21st century were, admittedly, not so much bumps in the road to liberal democratic utopia, as a series of massive roadblocks, around which history was being forced to negotiate a tortuous path, recalculating a new route on account of some persistent political roadworks. The very fact that Fukuyama’s argument did not ultimately depend on empirical evidence, meant that it could not be proved wrong by contrary evidence; only undermined.

And yet in that undermining, there was revealed a deeper flaw in his reasoning. At his most bullish, Fukuyama contended that liberal democracy was free from the internal contradictions that troubled other ideologies. Liberal democracy “replaced irrational desire to be recognised as greater than other with a rational desire to be recognised as equal.” It was “rational because it reconcile[d] these competing demands for recognition in the only mutually acceptable basis possible, that is, on the basis of the individual’s identity as a human being.” (201) “For the first time”, he wrote at his most bombastic, “human beings as a society are aware of their own true natures, and are able to fashion a political community that exists in conformity with those natures.” (202) And yet neither liberalism nor capitalism were or are anything like as ‘rational’, adept, self–correcting, or ultimately satisfying as Fukuyama imagined.

Capitalism has a habit of eating itself. Fukuyama got this, writing, towards the end of the book, “economic rationality… will erode many traditional features of sovereignty as it unifies markets and production”, without really registering how much of a problem this was for his argument. Traditional features of sovereignty are not only good at massaging our thymotic pride – attachment to nation, culture, monarchy, and the like are so much more deep rooted than liberal prophets ever realise – but they undergird the kind of trust that is ultimately essential to the successful functioning of a capitalist economy. As soon as a population no longer trusts its leaders to manage the economy for their benefit, the population will either disengage from the political system or look elsewhere for solutions. And there is no shortage of reasons to lose that trust. Entire industries are off–shored with impunity, with no feasible rescue or renewal plan in place, leaving whole communities eviscerated. Wages are depressed to such an extent that millions of working families need to rely on state hand–outs or high–cost, short–term credit from rapacious lenders just to survive. Economic inequality rises to such levels that the sheer unfairness of the system becomes impossible to ignore. Social mobility ossifies to the extent that work is no longer seen as a potential route to self–improvement or even mere comfort. Alternatives to capitalism, like socialism, let alone full–out communism, may not, in the long run, overwhelm capitalism, but that does not mean capitalism will not overwhelm itself. Undermining its requisite pre–political virtues like trust or solidarity, virtues that are so often tied up with the “traditional features of sovereignty”, capitalism saws through the branch on which it sits.

8.      

Much the same can be said of liberalism’s self–cannibalising tendencies. Fukuyama was not wrong in attributing to liberalism a significant respect for the individual, a recognition of the thymotic pride that is intrinsic to human identity, a recognition that is largely or entirely absent in more autocratic regimes. What he failed to acknowledge was that liberalism was also a very significant achievement, one that drew on resources of trust, patience, toleration, collaboration, and compromise that it all too often undermined.

Principles of representation, deliberation, toleration, political voice, legal equality, let alone fiscal redistribution might make sense in retrospect, once they are up and running and we –whoever ‘we’ may be – are all apparently benefitting from them. But they are fragile and sometimes counterintuitive structures in their construction. Such political virtues do not come naturally to our species.

Why should I rely on someone with whom I have no personal connection to represent my views in public decision making? Why should I trust the manifesto promises of strangers or the processes of deliberation to be fair? Why should I tolerate those whose worldview is not only radically different from mine, but wholly antipathetic to it, to the point that I may deem them a threat to my way of life? Why should I listen to those whose vision for our shared future is so entirely different to mine as to be, as far as I am concerned, straightforwardly wrong? Why should I grant the same legal rights to someone whose commitment to our shared country I judge to be highly questionable? And so on and so forth.

That any nations have come up with convincing and widely held answers to these questions is little short of a miracle. The fact they have managed to do so rests heavily on certain ethical, cultural, religious, and national commitments that necessarily antedate the liberal democratic structures and processes that build on them. A political commitment to trust, patience, toleration, collaboration, and compromise requires significant moral muscle. At very least, it requires a sufficiently strong culture (or cultures) of solidarity that will legitimise these virtues and reassure me that if I exercise them, I won’t be proved a ‘sucker’ by ‘freeloaders’ who cheat the democratic system to get more from it.

The rub is that liberalism can inadvertently erode these virtues and cultures. Now, there is a danger here, namely that one underappreciates what liberalism has achieved in our desire to outline where it fails. Some contemporary criticisms of liberalism hardly stop short of the apocalyptic and while they are rhetorically fun, they condemn to death a system found guilty of comparatively minor crimes. I personally would prefer to live in a liberal society than any other.

Be that as it may, liberalism being better than the other ideologies that have been tried from time to time does not mean it is without fault or blemish, let alone a permanent, satisfactory conclusion to human history. The problem lies in its location of sovereignty and agency in the individual without paying due attention to the manner in which the individual and her agency is formed by interaction with others. To adapt a well–worn phrase, I am I because you are you. My personhood is forged in relationship, which not only forms my identity but also trains me in the virtues I need to make liberal democracy work.

Here is where the apocalyptic condemnations go wrong. If liberalism were as detrimental to personhood and virtue as some make it out to be, liberal democracies would have collapsed decades ago. They haven’t and it isn’t. However, by “actively encourag[ing] the full actualisation of the inner self” (Fukuyama’s words from Identity), and implicating the state as responsible for raising and nurturing that actualised self, liberalism elevates individual expectations to unrealistic heights, while simultaneously placing unsustainable weight on the state and draining the resources needed to maintain the high standards of liberal democracy. Liberalism’s turn to identity has rendered its political achievement all the tougher.

If I owe it to myself to chase my dreams and be whatever I want to be, as the citizens of liberal capitalist democracies are incessantly told, I naturally feel cheated when I run up against structures and compromises that tell me I must accept something less. Moreover, I don’t really see why I need to engage patiently and trustingly in the arduous and self–sacrificial task of collaboration and compromise that is liberal democratic politics.

9.      

The thumping irony is that Fukuyama gets all this. Indeed, his subsequent career might be seen as a thirty–year long qualification of his original thesis, beginning before the ink was dry on the page.

The Last Man and the End of History demonstrates a repeated awareness of the pre–political foundations on which liberal capitalism rests. Referencing Alexis de Tocqueville, that peculiar source of infectious sanity, Fukuyama registers that for democracy to work, citizens had to develop an “irrational pride” in their own democratic institutions. Citizenship requires “daily small acts of self–denial”. (323) Political self–government is not a natural instinct but rather one that is learned in and through mediating institutions, such as churches, political parties, private corporations, labour unions, civic associations, professional organisations, parent–teacher associations, and the like. Sustainably successful capitalist societies only succeeded “because of a fundamentally irrational and ‘pre–modern’ work ethic, which induces people to live ascetically and drive themselves through work.” (229) Time and again, the walls of liberal capitalism rest on deep, submerged pre–political foundations.

Moreover, on occasion, Fukuyama also showed an awareness of how liberal capitalism could eat into those pre–political foundations. Highly atomistic forms of economic liberalism that were based exclusively on allegedly rational desire could “become economically counterproductive at a certain point.” (233) The possibility of strong community life is attacked by pressures of the capitalist marketplace. Liberal principles could be destructive of the better forms of patriotism, which are necessary for the very survival of the community. Most fully, he wrote towards the end of the book that liberal societies were not self–sufficient:

“the community life on which they depend must ultimately come from a source different from liberalism itself… in the long run those liberal principles had a corrosive effect on the values predating liberalism necessary to sustain strong communities, and thereby on a liberal society’s ability to be self–sustaining.” (326–27)

This was a powerful critique of his own argument and it continued through later books. His book on Trust, published three years later, majored on its significance, indeed necessity for creating prosperity and warned what its absence risked. Early in the new century, he wrote a short book on Our Posthuman Future, arguing that humanity’s newfound ability to re–engineer the human, for good and ill, qualified the claim that history did in fact have an end.

Most substantially, and most impressively, he went on to write two volumes on Political Order and Political Decay, the latter of which analysed how seemingly stable and valued political institutions, like the state, rule of law, and processes of democratic representation, could come apart in liberal democratic hands. Ranging widely, but with the US clearly in mind, he illustrated how the stratospheric rise in lobbying over a generation, the extreme partisanship that has turned democracy into a ‘vetocracy’, and the slippage of the courts from being constraints on government to becoming alternative forms of government all amounted to an example of how a country that had self–evidently reached the end of history – indeed, which was the model of a post–historic society – teetered on the brink of political decay.

Most recently, and showing the greatest reservations with his original thesis, he published in 2018 a book on Identity. This drew on ideas from his first book but situated them in the hysterical political colosseum of the day, in which thymotic identity, the very thing that liberal democracy was supposed to have sublimated into isothymia, screamed for recognition and drowned out the gentler calls for political compromise and negotiation. Identity echoed some of the ideas in the first book – “democracies will not survive if citizens are not in some measure irrationally attached to the ideas of constitutional government and human equality through feelings of pride and patriotism” (131) – while expanding on them. Thus, the all–important pre–political foundations were elaborated. Successful liberal democracies required a shared belief in legitimacy of country’s political system, a shared narrative of country’s past, an official national language, some agreement on framing culture and values, and recognition of legitimacy of diversity in order to secure a satisfactory level of physical security, good government, economic development, and social security.

At heart, again, the problem was anthropological. Humans could not be satisfied by the private realm into which their values and identity were confined by liberalism. We are nothing like as rational or enlightened as we like to think ourselves. (As Fukuyama later remarked, when the Internet emerged in the 1990s, “many observers (myself included) believed that it would be an important force for promoting democratic values.” (179)) And, most pointedly, the limitless freedom of choice, so trumpeted by liberal capitalist democracies, did not emancipate. Indeed, and on the contrary, it fostered “an intense insecurity and alienation”, particularly if the “stable, shared moral horizon” that once informed, guided and constrained our choice, was replaced by “a cacophony of competing value systems”. “Most people” do not have “infinite depths of individuality that is theirs alone”, Fukuyama reasoned. Rather, “what they believe to be their true inner self is actually constituted by their relationships with other people, and by the norms and expectations that those others provide.” Without this grounding in and constraint by relationships, in the others, we are lost. People simply “do not know who their true self is.” (56)

10.  

Donald Trump made a single, walk–on appearance in The Last Man and the End of History. He was, as Fukuyama later put it, the example “of a fantastically ambitious individual whose desire for recognition has been safely channelled into a business (and later an entertainment) career.” Quite. The ascent of Trump, a man without obvious ideological commitment, political intelligence or moral depth to the most elevated political position in the world, and the vituperative fragmentation and decay that was simultaneously cause and effect of his elevation, underlines that, in spite of its more self–reflective and self–critical moments, at the final count Fukuyama’s original thesis was simply wrong.

But it was nothing like as crassly wrong as critics, even those who understood what kind of history he was predicting the end of, imagined. The Last Man and the End of History seems destined to be an intellectual whipping boy, a trig point of intellectual hubris, from which arrogant Westerners once thought they could survey the landscape of history, but upon which later generations would look at shake their heads in derision and pity. Fukuyama’s very own Ozymandius.

It deserves more than that. Hubristic as it was, it was more self–reflective, self–critical, perceptive, and sophisticated than its reputation allows. Moreover, wrong as its thesis ultimately was, it was far more interesting in the way it was wrong than any number of tomes on political history that state the obvious and claim to have found the philospher’s stone. And yet, in the final reckoning, it was wrong. The historical terminus into which Fukuyama could imagine the wagons of history pulling, in the book’s final pages, turned out to be just another set of junctions. History is noisily back on the move again.


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Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). Outside of Theos, Nick is Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion

Posted 7 August 2019

Capitalism, Democracy, Global Politics, History, Liberalism

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