What is ‘The End of History?’
Francis Fukuyama’s famed essay ‘The End of History?’ argues that the ‘unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism … as the final form of human government’ means that history as we know it will cease to exist. His essay sets this out by first arguing that history is a struggle between ideologies, and then by demonstrating how liberal democracy (based on capitalism, electoral government and the rule of law) will emerge triumphant in this struggle.
For Fukuyama this is because liberal democracy is a perfect ideology – one without conflict within it which can be challenged. Therefore, when liberal democracy is universally recognised as a complete ideology, there will be no more of the conflict that is the driver of history.
Fukuyama shows history as an ideological struggle by linking ‘social organization’ (slave owning, theocratic, and democratic) with ‘stages of consciousness’ (the moral framework of society or ‘ideology’). He expresses this link by stating that ‘human history and the conflict that characterized it was based on the existence of “contradiction”. He supports this argument with what he calls ‘Hegelian idealism’ which argues that the ‘autonomous power of ideas’ is so great that it shapes society and so all history is rooted in a ‘prior state of consciousness’. The actions (political, economic, and social) of today’s society are rooted in the beliefs of individuals which are driven by the mode of thought dominant when the leading generation was younger. The idea that concepts underpin society means that the end of history can be defined as when ‘all prior contradictions are resolved and all human needs are satisfied’. After examining the 20th century, Fukuyama argues that the superiority of liberal democracy will ensure this resolution.
Using ideology to explain the 20th century
Fukuyama proves the superiority of liberal democracy by analysing the events of the 20th Century. Here, two competitors emerged to challenge liberal democracy, fascism and communism, yet ultimately both were discredited. The former through its defeat in war, then subsequently by the widespread revulsion at the horrors it had instigated, which annihilated it as a living ideology, and the latter with the abandonment of Marxism-Leninism by both Russia and China in the form of economic reforms. Fukuyama argues these are not due to the victory of the material (forms of consumerism and profit motive) over the ideal, but rather the slow defeat of ideas that led its leaders to peruse different policy. This aspect of Fukuyama’s analysis is key to understanding his predictions. Fukuyama is extremely cynical towards those who seek to analyse events through the prism of maximum economic gain, as, drawing on the works of Hegel and Weber, he argues material wealth means little without the philosophical framework which makes an individual and society value that wealth. The fact that we in the western world struggle to conceive of not valuing economic gain is not a sign that this is a universal impulse, but instead shows how deeply embedded we are into our societal framework.
The superiority of liberal democracy
An additional benefit of defining history like this is that, writing in 1989, Fukuyama can say that there is an irreversible trend towards liberal democracy, which seemed to occur in the last years of the 20th century itself. The most obvious counter-argument to Fukuyama’s theory is that other ideologies might emerge, as fascism and Marxism-Leninism did, to challenge liberal democracy. Fukuyama does recognise this as a possibility, but ultimately dismisses this critique, arguing, ‘it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretension of representing different and higher forms of human society.’
New ideologies might emerge, but as long as they do not present themselves as in direct competition with liberal democracy, we will still see an end to the political contest that is history. From the idealist perspective, Fukuyama states that the only intellectual challenges within liberal democracy stem from a lack of belonging to society. He argues that there are no remaining contradictions in liberal society which cannot be resolved, and that no other emerging ideology, such as religious fundamentalism or nationalism, can provide effective solutions to this sole challenge, while they themselves are riddled by their own contradictions. He dismisses theocracy by arguing that the ‘emptiness at the core of liberalism’ is caused by consumerism and cannot be resolved with religious fundamentalism.
The emergence of modern liberalism was a consequence of the fact that religious based societies failed to provide the ‘good life’. Fundamentalism has already been discredited, and its followers will inevitably have to recognise their ideology is a regression, not a progression. He also dismisses nationalism as an unviable ideology on the grounds that nationalists do not present an alternative agenda of their own – but rather are unhappy with their present form government, which is never full liberalism (mostly on account of ‘unrepresentative political system that they have not chosen’), and are ultimately doomed. It is for these reasons he believes that the systems of government which have now emerged across eastern Europe are unviable too.
Yet there is one elephant in the room – the Chinese model, sometimes referred to as ‘authoritarian capitalism’. This ideology has never truly been seen before in history, as no other society has managed to successfully decouple economic freedom from political freedom. In fact this is something which Fukuyama seems to suggest is impossible. However, boasting of lifting 850 million people from absolute poverty and claiming to be free of the disunity democracy brings, China is perhaps the challenge that Fukuyama did not see coming.
What is history?
The idea that ideology explains history provides the convenient ‘larger conceptual framework’ with which Fukuyama aimed to explain the events in the 20th century. While it is an interesting concept in helping to understand the evolution of politics on a macroscopic level, it portrays history as a study of power structures in society. However, this is not what history actually is. History is understanding the developments in society rather than studying the development of society. Whilst the latter suggests that history could end when society reaches an endpoint, the former emphasises that history is a continuous process of unpredictable change.
In history we study people and events not for the primary purpose of establishing in what way society is set up, but rather to assess what impact X had and how Y changed the way we live. This applies whether we assess statesmen like Churchill, people like Peter the Hermit or events such as the South Sea Bubble. It is natural that there will be a bias towards more powerful individuals and events which challenge the status quo in understanding and explaining how society has changed (history) as they have a greater impact on society. However, the impact they have on society is not predetermined by a set of common generational beliefs, but rather because they are individuals within society conducting their affairs.
Fukuyama’s closing remarks ‘the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal… will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands’ are in many ways perceptive of what has indeed happened, at least in the western world. But that is not because it is the end of history in Fukuyama’s sense, but rather that the society in which we live in today is continuing its advancement, aided by the innovation and ingenuity that is a fundamental part of the human struggle. In that sense, history will never end.