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Kojève’s idea of the end of history: a philosophical key to the European economic crisis

What I would like to argue is that this historical and existential process retraced by Kojève helps to clarify the origin and the genesis of the present, European and global, supremacy of economic processes over all other fields of human activity. 

In the present time of economic crisis European policy is supervised by banking and financial systems. The spread of 2008’s subprime loan crisis from the United States to Europe triggered a process of subordination of European democracy to the power, and to the weakness, of financial markets. Europe lies, in other words, in a state of financialization, and so of dissolution of democratic political policy.

My intent here is not to offer an economic analysis of this subject. Rather I will try to offer a philosophical key to this situation. We can find this key in a book from 1946 entitled Introduction to the reading of Hegel written by the Russian philosopher Alexandre Kojève, the most famous interpreter of the German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Before diving into a reading of this book and a discussion of Kojève’s philosophy of history, some episodes from Kojève’s biography may help to frame Kojève’s relevance to the contemporary European debate. While best known for his contributions to philosophy, Kojève’s greatest impact may have come from his engagement in French and by extension European politics. Kojeve’s first entrance onto the scene of political action was in a military role. The Russian philosopher, who had in 1926 settled in Paris and in 1937 received French citizenship, was in 1939 conscripted as a “fascicule blue”, a reserve soldier who could be called only in case of necessity. The army assigned him to the barracks of Rueil, a small town ten kilometres outside of Paris. In 1943, in the south of France, Kojève started to actively participate in the resistance by carrying out information gathering tasks. After the war Kojève took a post as a senior official of the French ministry of foreign commerce, where he showed his remarkable skills in international economic negotiations.  

Returning to his philosophical production, Kojève offered an intellectual contribution to the emerging idea of the European Union with his 1945 text entitled L’empire latin. Esquisse d’une doctrine de la politique française (La règle du jeu, no. 1, Paris: 1990, 89-123). In this text, Kojève analyses the geopolitical situation of France after the end of Second World War: France, Kojève writes, risks playing a secondary role with respect to an eventual German-Anglo-Saxon empire (protestant), on the one hand, and the Sovietic-Slavic empire (orthodox), on the other hand. What, Kojève asks, should France do, in the near future, in order to avoid this fall from power and influence? According to the philosopher France must once again examine and pose the question of the fundamental essence of its civilization and re-establish itself in its rightful place as the highest expression of Latin-Catholic civilization. To this end, France should constitute and lead a Latin-Catholic empire that would arise from a union between France, Spain and Italy. These three countries are joined by a linguistic relationship, a spiritual affinity and a religious identity: they, in effect, are utterly catholic, even when they define themselves as anticlerical.

The envisioned Latin empire would never be sufficiently strong to attack the other powers. So, it would be an empire without imperialist tendency, a pacific empire. On the other hand, it would be too powerful for other powers to consider attacking. Consequently, according to Kojeve’s conception, the Latin empire would offer a guarantee of peace for its members and for all western Europe. In other words, Kojève attributes to this possible empire the same scope for which in 1993 the European Union was born: the safeguarding of peace. By outlining this Latin empire, Kojève was reflecting on the cornerstones of the future European construction. Indeed, in imagining the economic structure of the Latin Empire, Kojève attributes to it many features which today are fundamental aspects of the European Union. The Latin Empire would have had a common economy and, so, a common market. Moreover it would unite the mining resources, establish a customs unity and define the same foreign and defence policy. Kojève’s Latin Empire, conceived to protect France’s power and dignity on the world stage, resembles in no small part the current structure and ideological underpinning of the European Union. Now we can come back to the Kojève’s afore-mentioned book, Introduction to the reading of Hegel.

This book, which was published at the same time as Kojève was laying out his idea of a Latin Empire, allows us to understand finance’s current supremacy over democratic sovereignty as the apex of an older process, which, according to Kojève was started by Napoleon’s victory at Jena: it has specifically to do with a movement by which human life returns to the animal level and consequently by which the economy achieves a dominant position among the other fields that structure society: education, art, religion, politics. Indeed a society like our present one that is fundamentally ruled by finance and credit is, even more fundamentally, consecrated to its economic ‒ and so private and biological ‒ cell.

Bataille d'Iena by Horace Vernet (1806) Horace Vernet's Bataille d'Jena (1806), depicting Napoleon in front of his troops. Wikimedia/Public domain.Kojève’s Introduction to the reading of Hegel is a book of philosophy of history. More precisely it is a work devoted to the theme of the ‘end of history’. What does ‘end of history’ mean here? There is nothing apocalyptic in the answer. ‘End of history’ does not signify any cosmic catastrophe, any end of the universe, of the world that we live. Rather it defines that time in which European history realizes its potential or ‒ as we will see later ‒ it in fact consumes itself because it continues forward without aims or direction.

To arrive at an understanding of the ‘end of history’ we have to start with Kojève’s definition of the human being as time and desire. He proposes an equivalence: human-time-desire. Human existence is time. This time is not natural, cosmic time. Rather it is a historical time founded on the supremacy of the future. How should we understand the future, and subsequently its temporal supremacy?

The future is, in the proper sense, denial: it is an action nullifying the continuity of nature. Nature in itself never changes. It repeats eternally its cycle of generation and corruption. Nothing, from its own inside can interrupt it. Only an external factor could do this, and this factor is precisely the human projection toward the future. Indeed, the leap to the future is directed, more fundamentally, to what is not fixed in the nature. The future, indeed, goes toward the non-natural.

If the time of the future is, specifically, human time this future directed toward the non-natural coincides with human desire. The act of desiring, indeed, aims for something that does not exist, something that cannot be fixed in nature.  

Now, what desire understands as non-natural is other desiring humans; what the desiring human desires is other humans. More specifically, this desire specific to our human condition is desire of recognition from the other. Or better still, social/political recognition. Therefore, historical time and historical action commence with the human desire to be recognized as something more than a natural life concerned only with its sustenance as is the case in the biological stage. The internal aim of history, therefore, is universal, absolute recognition among human beings.

To get to the point, the historical process ends, reaches its own complete realization, when it offers to human beings the conditions of possibility for a mutual recognition of their freedom from the bond to biological life. For Hegel, this condition of possibility is realized by Napoleon’s victory at the battle of Jena (1806) in which Hegel sees the germ of the universal and homogeneous state, where the differences between slaves and masters are definitively cancelled. In other words, in this new form of the state, which Hegel saw in Napoleon’s Empire, each individual recognizes itself in the world, in which, therefore, absolute truth, identity, appears.  

Kojève offers this understanding of historical process in the famous note on post-history that he wrote in the appendix to the twelfth lesson of his Introduction to the reading of Hegel.  This note is composed of two parts: the first, smaller, written in the first edition of book (1946), the second, longer, added in the second edition of the same work (1948).

I will quote a passage from the note of second edition.

Observing what was taking place around me and reflecting on what had taken place in the world since the Battle of Jena, I understood that Hegel was right to see in this battle the end of History properly so-called. By the end of this battle the vanguard of humanity virtually attained the limit and the aim, that is, the end, of Man's historical evolution. What has happened since then was but an extension in space of the universal revolutionary force actualized in France by Robespierre-Napoleon (Kojève, Introduction to the reading of Hegel, 160).

So, by inaugurating the state where complete social and political recognition is possible, Napoleon’s victory in Jena affirms itself as the last authentic historical action. From that point on, there is no more room for any action that, from an historical point of view, could be defined as original. Every new political act is nothing more than an actualization of what is already potentially contained in Napoleon’s arrival at Jena: I am speaking here about the idea of universal freedom, human recognition among men as free human beings.    

For Kojève, the two World Wars play a key role in the spatial extension of the end of history: they transfer to the rest and peripheries of the world the result of the battle of Jena. Namely, they trigger a process of Europeanisation of the world. I quote again from the second edition of the same note. 

From the authentically historical point of view, the two World Wars with their retinue of large and small revolutions had only the effect of bringing the backward civilizations of the peripheral provinces into line with the most advanced European historical positions. If the Sovietization of Russia and the communization of China are anything more than or different from the democratization of imperial Germany […] it is only because the Sino-Soviet actualization of Robespierrian Bonapartism obliged post-Napoleonic Europe to speed up the elimination of the numerous more or less anachronistic sequels to its pre-revolutionary past.


Now, however, we have to come back to Kojève’s note on post-history, in order to focus on an element left in suspense.

The disappearance of Man at the end of History is not a biological catastrophe. Man remains alive as an animal in harmony with Nature or given Being. (Kojève, Introduction to the reading of Hegel, 158).  


The definitive annihilation of Men properly so-called also means the definitive disappearance of human Discourse (Logos) in the strict sense. Animals of the species Homo sapiens would react by conditioned responses to vocal signals or sign "language," and thus their so-called "discourses" would be like what is supposed to be the "language" of bees. For this reason in these post-historical animals there would no longer be any [discursive] understanding of the World and of Self (Kojève, Introduction to the reading of Hegel, 160).  

We can see from this that the thesis about the end of history is not a triumphal one, but heralds the end of human being as previously defined and understood – beings strivings toward the future and toward mutual recognition. In place of historical humans the triumph of Europeanization has rendered humans beings like insects.  

Bataille d'Jena (1806), by Horace Vernet and Jacques François Swebach Bataille d'Jena (1806), by Horace Vernet and Jacques François Swebach. Wikimedia/Public domain.Historical time, as we have seen, aims to the future, to that which is not yet present. For this reason it proceeds by the nullification of the eternal presence, of the fixity of nature. When man accomplishes and brings to completion the historical act, his existence loses its orientation toward the not-yet-existing and falls into the same immobility of nature. 

In other words, when European history realizes –with respect to its potential ‒ absolute human freedom, Europe at the same time triggers a process by which man falls back into its prehistorical and so animal level, in which the concern for biological sustenance, and so the economic system, affirms itself as the dominant centre of the human life.

How can we explain this paradox? Why does the potential absolute manifestation of freedom coincide with the return of humanity to its animal level and, therefore, with the absolute denial of freedom? The answer lies in the fact that when humans achieve the potential total affirmation of freedom they cannot accomplish any authentic action because every action could be only the repetition of events by which the absolute realization of freedom was reached in the first place.

Now, if man stops authentically acting he also stops denying nature. Consequently he is absorbed into the natural space and so falls back to the prehistorical animal, and now economic, level.

This animalization of humanity extends itself to all the world and it reaches its extreme realization by the planetary affirmation of the American way of life which, according to Kojève, proposes the satisfaction of material needs and, so, the economic aspect, as the very centre of society. 

What I would like to argue is that this historical and existential process retraced by Kojève helps to clarify the origin and the genesis of the present, European and global, supremacy of economic processes over all other fields of human activity and, therefore, over public policy as well. Left with nowhere to go in the march toward freedom, Europe, and by extension the world, sinks back into a pre-human stage and sphere of existence, that of the economic writ large over all other spheres of activity. The present affirmation of the financial market as the centre of society can be understood as a new particular phase in the process of reducing human life to the animal, economic level. A process that was started, paradoxically, by achieving the potential for true political freedom and emancipation from the original biological level through the ideas of the French Revolution.

Now, the absolutization of finance coincides with what, more usually, we call neoliberal globalization. This phase of capitalism deals with the radicalized and planetized freedom of commercial exchange and movement (or mere relocation) of capital and work forces oriented to a level of increase of profit even greater than the previous steps of the global market and, more generally, of capitalism. In this way, the present phase of economic globalization puts the profit and, so, more fundamentally, the concern for mere economic-natural life, at the centre of human society. The financialization of the world economy is not only one feature of neoliberal globalization: it is, at the same time, the condition of possibility and the continuous effect of the dynamics of the global market. On the one hand, indeed, the financialization of the economy triggers the fluidification of capital that is necessary for its ever-faster transfer. On the other hand, the continuous movement of commercial relationships increases this process of the desubstantialization of the economy.  

By way of a conclusion, is it appropriate to ask if it is possible to find a way out from this situation? How can we exit from the absolutization of the financial system and, so, of biological life? Or, in other words, does the possibility of real human freedom still exist in the present historical phase? In my opinion, a possible exit lies in the understanding of the original conception of freedom on which the financial, global system essentially builds itself.

The theories of markets and globalization developed by the Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen can help us here. As we may understand by reading Development as Freedom, Sen explains that freedom as it is conceived by the liberal market - namely, as a planetarian extension of capitalist capability for ever-greater efficiency and return - is a transfiguration of a more fundamental human freedom: the freedom of choice, the freedom of choosing between alternatives. We could say that it deals, more specifically, with the human openness to a horizon, a range of possibilities, that elevates human existence from the bond to its mere biological, economic stage, in which it knows a sole alternative: living for life qua living for economic processes. Therefore, in the system of planetized and radicalized free exchange, the freedom to increase the result is essentially preceded and so limited by a fundamental freedom that contradicts the fixation of profit and the economic dimension as the centre of gravity of human society.

The freedom of the financial market has its essential roots in the freedom as choice among fundamental  human possibilities. In other words, the system of financial domination is essentially founded on a conception of freedom that offers the possibility to deactivate from inside the process of absorption into the biological search of return, of maximum profit. In order to better understand this fundamental freedom, we can continue following Sen’s analyses.

In his work, first of all in Development as Freedom, Sen thematizes the original human freedom as capability: this concept indicates the spectrum of essential human possibilities, fundamental rights, from which a person could choose and realize manners of living in which it recognizes value. Therefore, from this perspective the freedom for well-being, for quality of life is more important than the freedom for the accumulation of earnings.

Let me offer just a few examples of these fundamental possibilities: living in a town or in a State which safeguards the natural, ambient and cultural heritage; living in a country where there is a low crime rate, finding a job appropriate to one’s own expectation, having an easy access to communication.

Whoever is thinking of establishing an enterprise or investing in the tourism and cultural sectors would be encouraged if and only if these four fundamental possibilities, rights ‒ which are not guaranteed in every part of Europe ‒ were really respected.

So, the conception of freedom as the availability of fundamental rights and as capabilities of action from this horizon of possibilities can encourage economic development, but at the same time it can guarantee the affirmation of non-economic elements: justice, ethics, human dignity, self-esteem, etc. values that are emphasized as the result of a democratic process of selection.

In other words, claiming this idea of freedom could trigger successful economic development that would not be exclusively ruled by the maximization of profit, which often requires precisely the disregard of all other rights.

Sen considers this conception of freedom as a unit of measure that has to substitute for, or at least be integrated into the GNP in evaluating economic development. Still better, the affirmation of this idea of freedom removes the maximization of economic profit from its role of the final aim of development.

Therefore, by extension, this concept of freedom for well-being disowns the economy, the concern for the biological dimension of our lives (the satisfaction of perceived needs) as the unique hinge of society.

Today, the principal actors on the politic-economic scene seem to insist that the sole cure for financial crisis is growth and by extension, in whatever measures are necessary to increase it. In the political thinking that dominates the European political sphere, growth stands above all as the ultimate political aim.

Now, working toward a recovery of growth is in a limited sense a legitimate aim. However, the political discourse and actions that have their motive and ultimate aim in the increase of growth do no more than feed the absolutization of care for profit that has brought Europe to the current state of crisis together with the total financialization of society.

This is why anyone looking for a way out of the economic crisis and expressing dissent against the grip of financial power must have the courage to distinguish the principle aim of European policy from the much narrower focus on growth, which is at best a means and not an end in itself, and in doing so stake a claim to freedom as openness to a horizon of fundamental rights.

Consequently, European governance should have as its main focus actions realizing institutional reforms that guarantee respect for the fundamental rights that represent the real base for sustainable and human economic development. This is the way out of the so-called end of history which Kojève, one of the intellectual influences on the EU, describes.  

UWE- Social Science in the City logo Europe: the very idea, an openDemocracy editorial partnership supported by Social Science in the City, a public engagement initiative at the University of the West of England

About the author

Riccardo Paparusso is lecturer in the history of contemporary philosophy and history of phenomneology at Papal University St. Thomas Aquinas - Angelicum (Rome). He collaborates also with Jan Patocka Archive of Prague.

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