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The End of History and the Last Man, 30 Years On Frederick Harry Pitts

Festival of Ideas

Written by Frederick Harry Pitts

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Frederick Harry Pitts is a Lecturer in Work, Employment, Organisation and Public Policy at the University of Bristol. He is the author of A World Beyond Work? Labour, Money and the Capitalist State Between Crisis and Utopia (Emerald, 2021), Value (Polity, 2020), Corbynism: A Critical Approach (Emerald, 2018) and Critiquing Capitalism Today: New Ways to Read Marx (Palgrave 2017). He co-edits the Bristol University Press online magazine Futures of Work.

This article was written in advance of Francis Fukuyama’s Festival of Ideas event on Thursday 24 March 2022.

A recent front cover of Time magazine was emblazoned with the words ‘The Return of History’, accompanied by a photo of a Russian tank rolling ominously down a Ukrainian road. As frustrated Russian forces drop bombs on maternity wards in Mariupol, squeezing the horrors of war into abstract debates about history may generate more heat than light, and does nothing to help the people of Ukraine. Nonetheless, Vladimir Putin’s violent and illegal reinvasion of Ukraine has seen a flurry of announcements that history is once again in motion, having been called to an apparently premature end three decades ago by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Revanchist imperialism, fuelled by dreams of domination and ethnonationalist unity, has returned to the European continent, and nuclear-armed great power rivalry newly promises to cleave the world in two. These circumstances, suggest those pronouncing history’s return, restore the tumultuous conditions of hot and cold war that characterised the world prior to the apparent victory of liberal democracy and the global order it established. Indeed, at the time of writing, Fukuyama himself is the latest to join the chorus of voices speculating as to whether we are experiencing the ‘end of the end of history’.

With grim timing, last month marked 30 years since the publication of Fukuyama’s bestselling book The End of History and the Last Man. Expanding and clarifying a widely read article written whilst a researcher at RAND Corporation, in the book Fukuyama argued that history, rather than one bloody thing after another, represented a coherent process, driven by ideas and struggles progressing towards the achievement of an eventual purpose. The book, and the article it built upon, have since become notorious for having seen, first in the post-1945 liberal order and then in the post-1989 unipolar world, the gradual realisation of this ‘end of history’. Having exhausted all plausible or desirable systemic alternatives, post-war Western liberal democracy institutionalised, even if only in fits and starts, the ‘final form of human government’ based on the universal recognition of human dignity.

For a book widely read by world leaders and lauded in the enlightened bourgeois press, The End of History was heavy with the influence of the dense, challenging theories of the German idealist philosopher GWF Hegel. During the twentieth century, Hegel’s philosophy was associated with orthodox Marxism, which saw material forces, and not ideas, pushing history beyond liberal democracy towards a communist resolution. The Cold War witnessed this orthodoxy lock horns with the similarly deterministic understanding of social and political development offered by neoclassical economics, which also saw a kind of economic rationality driving human behaviour.

For Fukuyama, Hegel offered a different perspective on social and political conflict and change based on the understanding of an underlying logic at work in ideas developed through debate, expressed in struggles, and realised in institutions. In 1806, Hegel had purportedly finished writing his Phenomenology of Spirit to the sound of cannons as Napoleon’s armies advanced on Jena. Napoleon’s victory over the Prussian monarchy symbolised, for Hegel, the victory of ideas of liberty and equality initially unleashed in the French Revolution. Where for Hegel these forms of consciousness were realised in the rise of the modern state, Fukuyama saw their realisation in the consolidation of the post-war order that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Meanings and ends

Famously, Fukuyama was read as suggesting that the end of history was a fait accompli achieved in time and space. Any notion that history had ‘ended’ on these terms was always destined to be a hostage to fortune. Following the publication of Fukuyama’s book, critics raised several successive ‘ends’ to the ‘end of history’, understood as a reversible temporal event.

These various ‘ends’ are charted in The End of the End of History, an entertaining new book by Alex Hochuli, George Hoare and Philip Cunliffe. History was first said to have ‘returned’ with the 9/11 attacks and the wars against Islamist terror networks and their backers that followed in their wake. Then the 2008 financial crash apparently saw history restart again. Meanwhile, where the Arab Spring uprisings represented the continued struggle to realise the unfulfilled promise of human dignity, their tyrannical repression incubated a resurgent religious fanaticism epitomised in the apocalyptic Islamic State. However, jihad hardly represented a compelling ideological or organisational alternative to liberal democracy of the kind once represented by the Soviet Union.

More significant for the likes of Hochuli and his co-authors are the set of political movements set in train by the long aftermath of the 2008 crisis. These eventually culminated in a serious internal challenge to liberal societies in 2016 with the election of Trump in the US and the Brexit referendum in the UK, as well as the left populism of Corbyn and Sanders. It is here that they, like others, date the real beginning of the ‘end of the end of history’ in which we are now told we find ourselves – whilst, it should be said, casting doubt on the existence of an alternative capable of taking its place.

As Paul Mason has noted, some of the schadenfreude meted out to Fukuyama and his thesis in the decades following The End of History has been ‘unjust’. Criticism has tended to caricature Fukuyama’s liberal Hegelianism as a simple statement of the permanence and perfection of free-market capitalism, when it was actually a deeper statement about the direction and purpose of history.

The ‘end’ of history, in Hegel’s sense, was not a terminus beyond which nothing more would ever happen but instead a purpose towards which human progress was always turned. The ‘end of history’, for Hegel as for Fukuyama, was the driver, and not the resolution, of the unfolding realisation of the ‘idea of freedom’ underpinning all social and political transformations. Whilst events would still occur, change would from then on only ever be a case of the completion of that idea of freedom where it was applied incompletely.

From Fukuyama’s perspective, at the outset of the nineties, the fulfilment of this idea of freedom in the likes of Russia and China was seen as inevitable. Whilst economic modernisation alone was insufficient to foster the growth of new political institutions, the new conditions of globalisation were seen as aiding extension of liberty and equality – including in the former USSR.

But in the eyes of many commentators, the ascendancy of authoritarianism in China and Russia provided a substantial challenge to Fukuyama’s argument that liberalism lacked a systemic alternative. As Gideon Rachman has observed, Fukuyama’s 1989 essay focused on the fall of the Berlin Wall rather than the contemporaneous violent repression of the reform movement at Tiananmen Square, and The End of History still saw the arc of progress bending favourably towards modernisation and liberalisation in China. This sort of optimism influenced Western openness to state-connected Chinese capital, but came unstuck as the Communist regime cracked down on human rights and oppressed the Uighur minority in Xinjiang.

As recent events testify, over this period Western democracies also failed to robustly challenge the military expansion of revanchist Russia into Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere. Today, Putin’s reinvasion of Ukraine provokes once again the familiar refrain that history is back. Some revel in the situation, welcoming the apparent unravelling of the unipolar world order. Others sensibly recoil from the obvious existential risks posed by a more unstable geopolitical picture.

The struggle for recognition

Despite the failures of the West to properly anticipate or prevent Putin’s expansionist ambitions, attempts to present recent events as a rebuke to Fukuyama’s thesis fall somewhat wide of the mark. In an excellent essay, Aris Roussinos notes how critics keen to pan the idea of the ‘end of history’ tend to stress the more exuberant aspects of Fukuyama’s argument whilst neglecting the very different prospectus offered in the second half of the book. Here, Fukuyama focuses on the various ways in which ‘those who remain dissatisfied will always have the potential to restart history’ – even though they may not always be successful in realising this potential.

Indeed, since the post-crisis ruptures of the past decade or so, Fukuyama has himself repeatedly pointed to tendencies and movements that prove any proposal of a temporal achievement of the ‘end of history’ would have been premature. Specifically, Fukuyama has emphasised the internal challenge posed to liberal democracy by identity politics. As outlined in the latter part of The End of History, what we now call ‘identity politics’ have been part and parcel of the struggles for freedom and recognition of equal human dignity that gave history its shape in the past. The quest to be recognised as free and equal before the law drove the struggles and movements that first developed and then later realised the ideas of liberty and equality. Today, some forms of progressive identity politics similarly demand the completion of the incomplete promise of liberal democracy through the extension of rights and recognition to all citizens. This runs with, rather than against, the grain of the end of history.

Fukuyama perceives the real danger arising where identity politics produces a struggle for recognition of one group, people or nation as superior over others. Fukuyama suggested in The End of History that liberal democracy’s relativism and rationalism could leave it momentarily incapable of effectively channelling and mediating previously suppressed identity politics. Western liberal democracies have undoubtedly been weakened by the identitarian claims of national populists in recent times, and there are certainly affinities between its right-wing manifestations and the worldview informing the Putin regime in Russia, for example. The administrative and institutional malaise national populism caused in the UK, the US and Europe also distracted governments from confronting Putin’s aggression and transgression of norms in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.

However, an explanation for the alleged ‘end of the end of history’ focused on the internal dynamics of identity politics only gets us part of the way. Indeed, in some cases – as evidenced in recent attempts to blame Western ‘wokeness’ for the Russian war against Ukraine – it can provide a convenient alibi for the independent atavistic motivations and ambitions driving Russia’s criminal belligerence, and unintentionally resonates with the absurd depiction of Western decadence and deviancy that drives the justifications for war offered by Putin’s pet ideologues.

Last man standing

A deeper explanation of the roots of the current ‘return of history’ is provided in the second half of Fukuyama’s 1992 bestseller, which dissects the dissatisfaction and disenchantment of the ‘last man’ left standing at the realisation of the end of history. Contrary to the caricatures offered by his critics, here Fukuyama clearly articulates the possibility that the century after the close of the Cold War could well see the idea of freedom contested anew by empires, dictators and ‘unfulfilled nationalisms yearning for recognition’ – all of which are in some way evidenced in events today.

A liberal order based on universal recognition of human dignity would at first glance seem to permit little likelihood of imperialist war. The wars of the twentieth century, provoked first by the enthusiasm of Western imperial nations for conflict and then by the antisemitic fascism of Nazi Germany, led ‘not to the satisfaction of recognition, but to anonymous and objectless death’. To guard against the explosive and uncontrollable irrationality of racial supremacism and the authoritarian desire to dominate, post-war liberalism instituted a world society superficially organised around reason, material satisfaction and calculating self-preservation.

But, Fukuyama observed, the foundations of the ‘rational recognition’ liberal societies achieved, sometimes incompletely, themselves lay in persistent forms of ‘irrational recognition’ based on pride in different kinds of national, cultural and popular belonging. These foundations were gradually concealed as underpinning forms of irrational recognition were ‘constrained and sublimated’ through ‘a complex series of institutional arrangements’ based on the rule of law, human rights and the separation of powers at the national and international level. Fukuyama thought that this rationalisation of society could leave liberal democracy ill-equipped to defend itself against the resurgence of ‘irrational recognition’ in ‘an extreme and pathological form’, internally or externally. This resurgence would ultimately be satisfied, Fukuyama argued, not simply by means of ‘metaphorical wars and symbolic victories’, but by violent conflict and imperial conquest.

This conflict and conquest, Fukuyama foresaw, would pose irrational recognition based on the claim of a selective and unequal right to human dignity against the liberal system of rational recognition based on the claim of a universal and equal right to human dignity. Tyrants would once again invade neighbouring peoples in order to satisfy the demand for recognition of their superiority. This ‘desire to dominate’ lacks all limits because the search for recognition as superior to others is more satisfied the greater the number of countries or people coerced to comply. This insatiability means that ‘this process has no logical end point’ short of ‘world domination’ or the tyrant’s death.

This desire to dominate, bred of an unsatisfied sense of entitlement, exceeds the logics of normal economic rationality and the rules-based order, leading states to ‘immolate’ themselves and others ‘for the sake of national recognition’. Pessimistically seeing the seeds for such a revolt against ‘peace and prosperity’ springing from the beneficial character of the post-1989 liberal status quo itself, Fukuyama’s assessment was always that the liberalism that won the Cold War might face serious challenges. He perceived the potential for forces stimulated by the ‘boredom’ attached to ‘physical security and material plenty’ to try and ‘drag the world back into history’ through war.

Machine geopolitics

What the Putin regime in Russia has wrought upon Ukraine these past weeks resembles precisely such an assault on peace and prosperity. Putin’s renewed invasion, much more maximalist in its aims and brutal in its methods than that launched in 2014, has produced perplexed attempts to explain the rationality or irrationality driving his decision-making. As I have critically surveyed elsewhere, for some on the so-called ‘anti-imperialist’ or allegedly ‘anti-war’ left, Putin’s actions are excused as a rational response to the Western posture in Europe, the latter in turn understood as an attempt to maintain military-economic hegemony by expanding eastwards and ‘encircling’ Russia. For others on the centre and right, meanwhile, Putin’s actions are interpreted as those of either a shrewd strategic genius or a singularly deranged individual gripped by fantasies and deep-seated psychological neuroses stemming from his personal humiliation in the decline and fall of the Soviet Union.

By giving us historical and philosophical context for unfolding events, Fukuyama’s 1992 book enables us to see that it is neither rational material and economic interests, nor sub-rational psychological flaws at the individual level, that provide the motivation for the revanchist, supremacist imperialism we see Russia wage today. Both orthodox Marxists on the left and their equally rationalist and determinist counterparts on the centre and right see conflict unfolding akin to the ‘mechanised interaction of a system of billiard balls’, as Fukuyama puts it. But The End of History suggests that it is instead an unpredictable ‘human desire for domination’, developed in specific social and historical contexts, that means imperialist expansion now reappears in revolt against democratic recognition and national self-determination.

In response, as the capacity of the UN to effectively superintend the rules-based order is once again called into question, EU and the NATO countries have stepped into the breach to provide lethal aid to Ukraine and slap Russia with a substantial sanctions package. The aim of the latter is to shift the internal political dynamic against Putin, stimulating popular revolt led by Russia’s suppressed democrats, or else a palace coup led by more rational actors within the ruling elite. There is also some hope that sanctions generate opportunities to offer Putin an ‘off-ramp’ of de-escalatory concessions and reliefs in future negotiations.

Whilst these measures are the least allies can do in the circumstances, what Fukuyama’s analysis in The End of History tells us is that war and peace concern more than the calculation of economic costs and benefits satisfied through reason and negotiation. In order to ensure that Russia fails and Ukraine wins as the first line of defence in a wider war on the idea of freedom itself, the democratic world will need to do more to support Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination. This may not only mean providing practical support, like the means for Ukraine to clear its skies – delayed, at the time of writing, by the mounting debacle of how NATO can transfer fighter jets across the border – but also, The End of History implies, the further promotion and institutionalisation, domestically and internationally, of the commitment to human dignity that underpinned the post-1945 order, consolidated with the end of the Cold War.

For Fukuyama, the Cold War was won because the post-1945 order could offer the most plausible realisation of the promise of rational recognition. It could only do so, however, on the basis of an ‘irrational democratic culture’ and ‘spontaneous civil society’ arising from ‘pre-liberal traditions’ associated with specific national contexts. This anchored liberal institutional life in an everyday cultural and moral commitment to human dignity that Fukuyama saw as potentially lacking following the consolidation of this system with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fukuyama warned how an economically rationalist focus on the satisfaction of material needs and self-preservation alone would leave liberal societies incapable of acting to promote and safeguard their ‘beliefs, values and way of life’. After the Soviet Union, Fukuyama thought, the ‘chief threat to democracy’ would become ‘our own confusion about what is at stake’, in particular where human rights and dignity were placed at risk.

Over the course of a decade of such confusion, Western countries let Putin’s crimes go effectively unchallenged in Ukraine, Syria and even on our own soil, leaving the rules-based order wither in the process. Russia’s increasingly flagrant aggression, and the shattering sacrifices of the Ukrainian people in the pursuit of their freedom, seem to have begun to clear this confusion.

Europe endless

The short- and long-term consequences of this new conflict strike some commentators as revealing the redundancy of the post-1989 historical consolidation of liberal democracy, the unravelling of the unipolar world order, and the irrelevancy of its underpinning philosophical promise.

However, contrary to his critics, Fukuyama follows Hegel in seeing the realisation of the ‘end of history’ represented in universal recognition as being quite compatible with the continued presence of conflict in and between societies. Indeed, he sees the threat of war and risk of death reminding peoples of their mutual interdependence, stopping societies sliding into a ‘soft and self-absorbed’ malaise.

Whilst on the ground and in the air, the war is being fought by brave Ukrainians, their ongoing struggle for popular sovereignty and self-determination seems to have shaken Western countries out of their own soft self-absorption and shown them what is really at stake. These stakes seem clear to Putin, as well – an unwillingness to countenance a Western-style liberal democracy blooming in what he perceives as his own backyard being one of the paranoid drivers of Russia’s aggression.

Ukraine’s struggle for democratic self-determination is an example of the positive form Fukuyama sees assumed by what he calls ‘irrational recognition’. From this perspective, national political projects are not only compatible with liberalism but, as the revolutionary tumult of past centuries shows, often provide the springboard for the realisation of the idea of freedom. The End of History suggests that when stripped of exclusivity, national self-determination has itself acted as an effective vehicle for the search for ‘rational’ recognition. This combination of liberalism and nationalism was nowhere more profound than in the struggles of Central and Eastern European peoples to first throw off the shackles and vestiges of Soviet rule, and later seek membership of the EU and NATO. Their pursuit of an idea of freedom, Fukuyama writes, rendered them ‘the most free and therefore the most human of beings’.

In continuing this pursuit of what Fukuyama calls the ‘spirit of 1989’, the dogged, against-all-odds fight of Ukrainians for democracy, self-determination and membership of European and Atlantic institutions represents a clarifying contemporary clarion call to those comfortable in having achieved these things already. Rather than an end to the historical trend towards liberal democracy, the resistance against Putin’s attempted restoration of an imaginary ethnonational unity may well – at a tragic and avoidable human cost –  actually serve to show precisely the opposite. Liberal democracy still exerts a powerful attractive pull on those seeking freedom and recognition, and continues to repulse the tyrants whose rule it threatens most – including within Russia itself, where the state has violently repressed protestors who filled the streets against their government’s war.

It is an unfashionable conclusion, but, even in the limited sense in which Fukuyama was seen to have articulated the concept 30 years ago, this all goes to show that the emergence of this conflict does not in itself mean that the end of history is ‘over’, nor that history has ‘restarted’ in the way some may wish or imagine.

New cold war?

This does not mean that nothing will happen to challenge the status quo, however. It matters little to the fortunes of Ukrainians surviving and fighting on the frontline, for the whom the war is far from cold, but in time this conflict may well be fitted into the narrative of a ‘new cold war’ characterised by great power rivalry and geopolitical competition between democracy and autocracy.

The generational challenge to liberal democracy posed by Russia and China is unlikely to leave it unchanged, and Western countries may come to look rather different, politically and economically, than the liberal societies of the long post-1989 period. As I have considered elsewhere, the new era of contestation will accelerate existing tendencies towards a stronger developmental state, economic decoupling from systemic rivals and greater investment in the military-industrial complex.

This does not signal a ‘post-liberal’ paradigm shift away from the ‘end of history’, however. As Fukuyama argues, the construction of a more corporatist state on geopolitical grounds is strongly compatible with the kind of liberalism typified in the post-war ‘golden age’, the ‘possibility of war’ compelling ‘defensive modernisation’ through technological development, industrial coordination and productivity gains.

Indeed, some commentators, like Michael Lind, consider that the kind of capitalism necessitated by a ‘new cold war’ – whilst at great human cost and with the threat of nuclear annihilation – could replicate the positive aspects of that golden age, strengthening liberalism by extending ‘countervailing power’ across civil society and emboldening workers to bargain for better. Moreover, as Martin Hagglund outlines, radicals from Marx to MLK have sought to overcome the constraints liberal capitalism’s material inequalities place on the extension of the universal recognition of human dignity to all peoples, and that struggle will continue.

But as an unfinished and imperfect resting place for progress, liberal democracy ultimately lacks any convincing alternative as capable of fostering the potential for the satisfaction of the idea of freedom. In this respect, rather than Putin’s authoritarian desire to dominate, the desire for democracy that the concept of the ‘end of history’ describes still seems to represent the purpose, if not the terminus, of the human struggle for recognition – in Ukraine, and beyond.

There is nothing inevitable or pregiven about the realisation of this purpose – instead, it should be cautiously defended and advanced as a fragile historical achievement of humans rebelling against unfreedom. If the promise of this purpose is to be practically realised in the current context, the democracies of the EU and NATO will need to do all they can to help revolutionary Ukraine resist, repel and ultimately defeat Russia’s brutal ethnonationalist expansionism.

Image credit: Andriyko Podilnyk, Unsplash

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