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Fukuyama's crossroads: the poetics of location

About the author
David Scott teaches anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of Formations of Ritual (1994), Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality (Princeton University Press, 1999), Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Duke University Press, 2004), and is co-editor of Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and his Interlocutors (Stanford University Press, 2006). He is also the editor of the journal Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism.

The summer 1989 publication of Francis Fukuyama's essay "The End of History?" was a major event in neo-conservative circles. Indeed it is often said to mark the moment of ascendancy of a younger generation of neo-conservatives (around William Kristol's The National Interest) over an older generation (around Norman Podhoretz's Commentary).

When in 1992 the book-length elaboration appeared as The End of History and the Last Man, the movement seemed to have found the voice in which to realise its historical consciousness. But a curious and not always attended-to fact about the book in relation to the essay is that the question-mark had disappeared: the end of history was no longer a question worth asking. The essay sought (however rhetorically) to pose a question; to register a doubt; to provoke a line of inquiry. The book, by contrast, offered itself as a thesis supported and driven by the confident assertion of (foundationalist) claims about universal history.

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?" (May 2006)

Anthony Pagden, "The end of history, or history all over again?"
(May 2006)

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, "Politico-religious cults and the 'end of history'" (10 May 2006)

The 1989 essay preceded the collapse of the east-central European communist states by several months and retains some trace of the uncertainty about the coming future; the book followed the official dissolution of the Soviet Union. By the time it appeared an historical corner had been turned, and the way ahead was both clearer and more secure; the whole era of the cold war had effectively closed, and more or less exactly as the neocons had for years urged that it ought to, namely with the defeat of communism and the victory of liberal democracy. The End of History, in short, is a work of triumphal vindication.

Fukuyama, however, disavows this. In the new afterword he says that the characterisation of his book as "jingoistic triumphalism" of a distinctively American sort is a misapprehension. Indeed he seems hurt by the charge and invokes Alexandre Kojève in an attempt to underline the European provenance of his argument. "Anyone familiar with Kojève and the intellectual origins of his version of the end of history," he writes, "would understand that the European Union is a much fuller real-world embodiment of the concept than is the contemporary United States."

Perhaps "jingoistic" is an uncalled-for abuse; Fukuyama's tone is always even and reserved, and he never descends to anything so low as jingoism. But there are important senses in which the account he offers in The End of History of the arrow of universal history are decidedly both "triumphalist" (in historical sensibility) and "American" (in poetics of location). You only have to recall the book's closing passages and the How-the-West-was-Won narrative of the wagon-train of history to recognise this:

"Rather than a thousand shoots blossoming into as many different flowering plants, mankind will come to seem like a wagon train strung out along a road. Some wagons will be pulling into town sharply and crisply while others will be bivouacked back in the desert, or else stuck in ruts in the final pass over the mountains. Several wagons, attacked by Indians, will have been set aflame and abandoned along the way. There will be a few wagoneers who, stunned by the battle, will have lost their sense of direction and are temporarily heading in the wrong direction, while one or two of the wagons will get tired of the journey and decide to set up permanent camps at particular points back along the way. Others will have found alternative routes to the main road, though they will discover that to get through the final mountain range they must all use the same pass. But the great majority of wagons will be making the slow journey into town, and most will eventually arrive there …"

Democracy and history

The End of History is triumphalist in the old and familiar way in which 19th-century Whig histories famously were (and notably, and disturbingly, with "Indians" cast in the role of violent enemies of democratic modernity, as unapologetically ethnocentric). They tell just-so stories, teleologically emplotted narratives, meant to affirm or confirm, approve and commend, the privileged vantage of a particular order of social and political life. They are, in this sense, straightforwardly ideological. Concepts like "modernisation" and "democracy" are employed to applaud, not to engage; to measure, not to question.

It would be hopeless – to Fukuyama perhaps foolish – to ask whether "democracy" isn't today an "essentially contestable" concept, one that requires some critical conceptual-political sorting out to save it from merely being a cheerleader's anthem. Who decides what constitutes democracy's proper form and content? Who decides that democracy (however understood) is, to begin with, the only way of organising political society in the modern world? History? But whose history? One obvious answer (the one Fukuyama would seem to endorse) is: the imperial history of the modern west.

Fukuyama's disavowal of triumphalism is therefore less than convincing. It may be true that there is a "philosophical" difference between "Marxist" neocons like himself and "Leninist" ones like Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, and Robert Kagan: where the former think that history will naturally take its course, unfolding (in a "weakly deterministic" fashion) in the direction of liberal democracy, the latter believe that in a unipolar world America's moral mission demands a more interventionist foreign policy, one designed (unilaterally if necessary) to actively pursue "regime change" so as to ensure conformity to American interests.

But as it was for the real Marxists and Leninists the line between the merely "predictive" and the normatively and programmatically "prescriptive" is an always unsteady and very often leaky (if not opportunistic) one. Fukuyama's historicism didn't prevent him from being "hawkish," did it? After all, he signed on to the Project for the New American Century in June 1997 alongside more familiar hawks (Kristol, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Bennett, Libby, and others). And a good four years prior to 9/11, these self-styled Reaganites were urging that America's assumption of moral responsibility for global leadership entailed the construction and extension (coercively if necessary) of an international order friendly to its security, its prosperity, and its principles.

Fukuyama may disavow triumphalism; he may urge that his book merely points up the direction in which history is travelling. But how then to disentangle The End of History from the Project for the New American Century?

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