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The end of history, or history all over again?

About the author
Anthony Pagden teaches history and political science at UCLA. He is the author of The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge University Press, 1987), The Uncertainties of Empire: Essays in Iberian and Ibero-American Intellectual History (Ashgate, 1994), European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism (Yale University Press, 1994), and Peoples and Empires (Random House, 2001). He is the editor of Facing Each Other:The World’s Perception of Europe and Europe’s Perception of the World (Ashgate, 2000) and The Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

The argument of Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man is not a new one. It is even older than Fukuyama allows. In 143 CE a Greek public orator named Aelius Aristides told the Roman emperor, Antoninus Pius, that Rome was the last of all the empires. "Now a clear and universal freedom from all fear has been granted both to the world and those who live in it"; history, he confidently predicated, had finally come to a happy and glorious end. The constitution of Rome represented the final, most perfect political form and would henceforth continue as it was uninterruptedly into the future.

As with all such claims, this too turned out to be false. The similarity with Fukuyama's celebrated thesis is not fortuitous. The values of the Roman world of the 2nd century were like the values of the Enlightenment, conceived as universal: the rule of law, citizenship based upon a common human identity, irrespective of race or creed. For the historical origins of modern secular liberal democracy lie not, as Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington suppose, in Christianity, but in what Christianity borrowed from the ancient world. And it was because the values and the kind of scientific inquires they made possible were ancient and secular in origin that it was, in the end, possible to detach them from Christian theology – and the church.

This article is part of an openDemocracy symposium on Francis Fukuyama's afterword in the second paperback edition of The End of History and the Last Man (Simon & Schuster, 2006)

For an overview of the debate click here

Also published:

Francis Fukuyama, "After the 'end of history'" (2 May 2006)

Danny Postel, "The 'end of history' revisited: Francis Fukuyama and his critics"
(2 May 2006)

Saskia Sassen, "A state of decay" (3 May 2006)

Talal Asad, "A single history?" (5 May 2006)

Here there is a marked difference between Christianity and Islam, the other great "civilisation" with which Huntington – but not Fukuyama – believes we are doomed to remain locked in perpetual conflict. For Islam has no obvious ancient secular past and what link it once had to the world of Greek science it has long since repudiated. There exist, that is, no resources within Islam itself to arrive at the same position the west has reached. Islamic states, if they wish to "modernise", have been able to do so only by importation, as Saudi Arabia and others have done, or by following western examples. This was something which the Ottomans came to understand at the end of the 18th century, which is one of the reasons why it was Turkey – the ancient enemy of Christendom and the very heart of the dar-al Islam – which was the first to become a modern and essentially European state.

I agree with Fukuyama that the values of the western Enlightenment are potentially universal. The question, however, is not really one of a universality of values: it is really a question of the potential universality of the forms of government to which they have given rise. Throughout human history in the west, from ancient Greece to the modern United States, there have only been three types of government, with some variations: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. What is meant by those terms has, clearly, varied greatly. Britain, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands are all liberal democracies disguised as monarchies. No ancient Greek or Roman would describe the United States as a democracy. Most modern democracies are in fact aristocracies with monarchical elements. The aristocrats are no longer hereditary; but they are the nevertheless the aristoi – the best or at any rate the most successful.

A fading liberal democracy?

In the light of this, it is tempting to see the history of the west – as Hegel and Marx did and as Fukuyama clearly does – as a steady progression from monarchy to aristocracy to democracy. And if that is the history of the world, then the final triumph of liberal democracy (if that is what has happened) might seem to be the end of history, or at any rate of that history. Certainly it is hard to imagine a return to say a "pure" monarchical state of the kind which existed in Russia under the Czars, or to an oligarchic monarchy of the kind Britain was during the 18th and much of the 19th century. It is still less likely that a new Mussolini or Hitler or Franco will again emerge, at least in the now liberal-democratic world.

But one possible consequence of the "end of history" argument is that democracy now having triumphed, some new, and as yet unimagined political form will in time replace it. Fukuyama thinks that the European Union might be the "house built as a home for the last man who would emerge at the end of history". I would like to think that he is right: that if there really will be a last man, the kind of society sketched out in the temporarily-stalled European constitution is broadly speaking as description of the world in which he – and crucially she – will live.

Anthony Pagden teaches history and political science at UCLA.

He is the author of The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge University Press, 1987), The Uncertainties of Empire: Essays in Iberian and Ibero-American Intellectual History (Ashgate, 1994), European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism (Yale University Press, 1994), and Peoples and Empires (Random House, 2001).

He is the editor of Facing Each Other:The World's Perception of Europe and Europe's Perception of the World (Ashgate, 2000) and The Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

The European Union is still something of an experiment. But it is clear that in many places in Europe the imaginative hold of the nation-state is fading, slowly, unsteadily but irrevocably. Yet the modern liberal-democratic state, in effect the invention of two post-revolutionary societies – France and the United States – is largely inseparable from the kind of national state which emerged after the end of the Napoleonic wars.

The question, then, is: in this new pluralistic world of multiple and shared sovereignties, in which the nation-state is no longer the framework for the realisation of Immanuel Kant's dream of a "cosmopolitan world order," will not liberal democracy as we know it not also fade?

The EU has frequently been accused of being "insufficiently accountable". There is, its critics often say, a "democratic deficit" at its centre. Viewed from the domestic political practices of most of the member-states, this is true. But is this really a deficit? Is it really deplorable? Or are we in fact witnessing the emergence of new kind of political form, something which is not monarchy, nor aristocracy nor democracy?

Democracy after the nation-state

Francis Fukuyama is surely right to characterise democracy as a conflict between liberty and equality (the Roman historian Sallust said much the same thing about the Roman republic; so too did Machiavelli.) He is probably right, too, to think that neither can exist without the other. But the institutions of modern liberal democracy as they are currently conceived may not necessarily be the way to perpetuate this into the future. There are, he believes, "insuperable obstacles" to the realisation of some form of global, or transnational democracy, because democracy as we now know it has always been based on "the existence of a genuine political community".

To European ears this sounds like well-meaning but overly pious Amercian communitarianism. Is there really any such thing as a "genuine political community" in any modern liberal democracy? Is not, in the end, the whole point of modern, as opposed to ancient democracy (as the French liberal Benjamin Constant pointed out at the beginning of the 19th century), that modern democracies have made it possible for private citizens to be just that – private? Communities may be necessary for some. But "political communities" sounds ominously like collective farms, Calvinist covenants and their like.

If in the end, however, Fukuyama turns out to be right, then it is likely to be the institutions of modern democracy that will have to give way to some newer kind of political organisation capable of sustaining what the ancients called "the best possible life" in a world without the nation-state. And History may, in fact, as History so often does, be about to begin all over again.


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