What is ‘The End of History?’
Francis Fukuyama’s essay ‘The End of History?’ argues that history is coming to an end on account of the ‘unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism … as the final form of human government’. His essay sets this out by first arguing that history is a struggle between ideologies and then by demonstrating how there is no alternative to liberal democracy and nor is there any conflict within it which can be challenged, meaning that when liberal democracy is ubiquitously recognised as a complete ideology there will be no more conflict and hence history will cease to exist.
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’) and to express this link states 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’. By this he means that actions (political, economic, and social) in today’s society are rooted in the beliefs of individuals which are driven by dominant mode of thought when they were younger. The idea that concepts underpin society wholly means that the end of history can be defined as when ‘all prior contradictions are resolved and all human needs are satisfied’, which is done so by examining the 20th century and demonstrating how superiority of liberal democracy explains its ascendancy.
Using ideology to explain the 20th century
The idea that history is a conflict between ideologies enables Fukuyama to demonstrate that the end of history is nearer than it ever has been by arguing that the superiority of liberal democracy in the ‘realm of ideology’ is leading to its conquest in the material world. This is shown through the defeat of fascism and communism by liberal democracy, the only challenges to liberal democracy in the 20th century. The former through its defeat in war which destroyed it as a living ideology and the latter with the abandonment of Marxist-Leninism by both Russia and China in the form of economic reforms, which Fukuyama is careful to emphasis is not due to the victory of the material (forms of consumerism and profit motive) over the ideal, but rather the slow defeat of ideas which led its leaders to pursue a different policy.
What is history?
The idea that ideology explains history provides the convenient ‘larger conceptual framework’ which Fukuyama aimed to explain the events in the 20th century. While it is an interesting concept in helping to understand society, it portrays history as a class struggle or as a study of power structure 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 could suggest that history could end by society reaching an endpoint, the former suggests that history is a continuous process of human development.
In history we study people and events not for the primary purpose of establishing in what way is society is set up, but rather we ask: what impact did X have? How did Y change the way we live? This applies whether we assess statesmen like Churchill and events such as the industrial revolution or Peter the Hermit and the South Sea Bubble. It is natural that there will be a bias to 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, but 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 that “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 surprisingly accurate to what has indeed happened, at least in the western world. But this 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 better than ever due to the innovation and ingenuity of the past, which shall be continued into the future. So, in that sense, history will never end.