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The logic of a blocked history

About the author
Stephen Holmes teaches law and political science at New York University. He is the author of Benjamin Constant and the Making of Modern Liberalism (1984), The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (Harvard University Press, 1993), Passions and Constraint: The Theory of Liberal Democracy (Chicago University Press, 1995), and the co-author (with Cass Sunstein) of The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes (WW Norton, 1999).

Francis Fukuyama has, by sheer scholarly perseverance over the past decade, transformed himself into a wonderfully sensible commentator on public policy and world affairs. But spectacular success at the beginning of one's career is a life-sentence, and Fukuyama will never escape his reputation as the world-famous author of "The End of History?"

This 1989 essay purported to unveil the deep historical significance of the end of the cold war even before the Berlin wall was pulled down. Its title, admittedly, and that of the book, The End of History and the Last Man, that soon elaborated upon it, had a ring of plausibility, at least for a generation raised during the cold war. After all, the only history most people knew did seem to be coming to an end.

But the argument of both essay and book was more abstruse and more counterintuitive than this. Just as the fixed certainties of a bipolar world were dissolving and the future began to look wholly open-ended and unknowable, a fledgling scholar came along and announced that all large ideological conflicts had been resolved. History had a winner: western-style liberal democracy.

Stephen Holmes teaches law and political science at New York University

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)

David Scott, "Fukuyama's crossroads: the poetics of location" (12 May 2006)

Olivier Roy, "The end of history and the long march of secularization"
(16 May 2006)

Charles S Maeir, "The intoxications of history" (18 May 2006)

Rereading his 1989 essay in 2006, Fukuyama must wince at his young self's grandiose pronouncements about "the end point of mankind's ideological evolution" and "the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." But he now has a more politically timely reason to dissociate himself from such airy generalisations: they were hijacked and deployed by the Bush administration to support policies that Fukuyama now heartily condemns.

The United States's national security strategy of 2002, to dredge up an embarrassing example, begins thus: "The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom – and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise." The young Fukuyama may or may not have meant to endorse the thesis that there is, today, only "a single sustainable model for national success." But many of his readers, some of them raring to speed up history's "inevitable" development by force majeur, took him to imply just this.

The idea that human history has a plot and a climax (an "absolute moment") was incorporated into the official state ideology of the Soviet Union thanks to Karl Marx who, in turn, had adapted it from GWF Hegel. That is another reason why "The End of History?" is such a paradoxical and perplexing work. To help us understand the ignominious collapse of an oppressive political system that had invoked an intellectually discredited teleological picture of history to justify itself, Fukuyama invokes a similarly implausible teleological picture of history. Why?

The first model

The answer is surely personal, having to do with the teachers under whom he studied and the books he had absorbed at the time. Fukuyama was especially charmed by the writings of Alexandre Kojève, the Russian émigré philosopher and cult figure who had taught an influential seminar on Hegel in Paris in the 1930s. Trying to understand the end of the nerve-wracking cold-war standoff, Fukuyama apparently reached for the intellectual framework he knew best, namely Kojève's theory of the transition from hierarchical to egalitarian societies. Intellectually dazzling, this theory was, however, ill-suited to the task Fukuyama tried to foist upon it. For one thing, it implied that 1989 was not an earth-shattering event at all, but merely a footnote to 1806, when the force that Kojève called "Robespierre-Napoleon" defeated the Prussian army and prepared the way for the spread of Enlightenment ideals throughout the world.

To measure the distance Fukuyama has travelled over the past seventeen years, one need only consult the passage toward the end of his new afterword where he distinguishes his own "weak" determinism from Marx's "strong" version and adds that "statesmanship" remains "absolutely critical to the actual course of historical development." This is an unexceptionable claim, but one that jostles uncomfortably with his assertion in 1989 to the effect that there will be "no need for statesmen" in post-history because "what remains is primarily economic activity."

Similarly, his earlier prognosis that "(in) the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history" fails to corroborate his claim today that "I am not a prophet or a 'futurologist'." Speaking of recanted futurology, Fukuyama makes scant reference in his carefully reasoned afterword to the most poignant prediction of his earlier article and book.

Indeed, his emphasis now on "the optimistic evolutionary scenario laid out in 'The End of History'" obscures the flagrantly non-optimistic conclusion to the original works, namely that "The end of history will be a very sad time." It will be a sad time, to cite his book, because of "the banalization of life through modern consumerism." Their Manichaean struggles against Nazi and communist totalitarianisms had temporarily lifted Americans out of a bourgeois fixation on comfort and security and a joyless quest for joy. But the end of the cold war put a quietus to this ennobling struggle for freedom and justice and opened up the dreadful "prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history."

It would probably be best to follow Fukuyama's lead and pass over in silence this aspect of his earlier thinking. But his understandable wish to put it behind him helps explain, I believe, one of the more eye-catching passages in the afterword. Kojève employed the concept of "homogenisation" to describe the uniform consumer society toward which all history was purportedly tending. Fukuyama not only downplays this concept today, but argues the contrary: although modernisation leads to economic development certainly and to political democracy perhaps, "nobody wants cultural uniformity."

And he goes further, stating that "(we) live for the particular shared historical traditions, religious values, and other aspects of shared memory that constitutes the common life." This passage seems to reflect Fukuyama's current belief that, in modernised societies, multicultural identity politics can compensate somehow for bourgeois flattening and banality.

The last men

Herein lay a buried clue, I believe, to the continued relevance of The End of History and the Last Man to the post-9/11 world. Fukuyama now follows Olivier Roy in the suggestion that radical Islamic violence stems in part from the uprooting of old cultural traditions by the powerful winds of economic development. Cultural levelling (homogenisation) breeds alienation, and alienation breeds terror.

This logic is eminently debatable, no doubt, but it is also more interesting than jeremiads about the "boring" ne plus ultra of modernisation. Vital in this context is Fukuyama's earlier claim that "at the end of history it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society."

But what happens to young men who inhabit societies that have failed to become successfully liberal but who are simultaneously compelled to abandon all "ideological pretensions" that alternative paths to personal and national dignity might exist? Like all humans (according to Fukuyama), frustrated young Arab men crave "recognition". So how will they get the respect they desire if their societies' path to liberal democracy is blocked? The single surviving model of a successful society, they are authoritatively informed, is a western model that lies effectively beyond their reach. Would it be wholly surprising if this message (that all human value is measured by the success or failure of a nation to become a liberal democracy) ended up, in Arab lands, intensifying movements of nihilistic rage?

It is regrettable, pursuing this line of thought, that Fukuyama did not revisit one aspect of his earlier work that might have helped unlock the dark mystery of suicide terrorism. In the Hegelian framework, as the young Fukuyama explained, a slave is a slave because he fears risking his life. A classic example is the defeated soldier who, at the mercy of his victorious enemy on the field of battle, accepts enslavement in exchange for survival.

From this conceptualisation, it follows that there is only one way for a slave (or someone who is treated as a slave and worries that he may be one at heart) to prove to others and himself that he is not a slave: he must risk or sacrifice his life. This logic, designed to illuminate class conflict rather than the clash of civilisations, may reveal more about recent waves of suicide terrorism than the association of salvation with aggression found in various stray passages of the holy books of Islam.

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