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The intoxications of history

About the author
Charles S Maier teaches history at Harvard University. His books include In Search of Stability: Explorations in Historical Political Economy (Cambridge University Press, 1988), The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Harvard University Press, 1988), Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany (Princeton University Press, 1997), and Among Empires: American Ascendancy and its Predecessors (Harvard University Press, 2006).

There are conversions … and conversions. Saul was thrown from the saddle, blinded, dressed down by God and had to refashion his whole life. Vision returned only when he was prepared to take a new name and to champion the accessible message of love against the stern exclusivist covenant he had hitherto defended with prosecutorial zeal. Still, no pain no gain. No scary loss of sight, no realisation he had earlier been morally blind. Francis Fukuyama's conversion in America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy is a more conditional one. He has had to wipe the desert dust from his Ray-bans; he hasn't had to lose his sight.

Yes, he repents of the neo-conservative hubris that he once seemed to share (though happily without the machismo that infused so much of it) and which proposed a quick and easy war to demonstrate that America could plant democracy in hitherto arid and unpromising soil. He wants less cockiness, more recognition of the friction of war, more prudence, cooperation with allies and multilateral collaboration. Those of us who always deplored this war as reckless and unnecessary (and would still deplore it even if Iraq finally ends up a decent pluralist society) should be grateful. Genuinely so. Aristotelian prudence has replaced a Chicago cocktail of Nietzschean and neo-Platonic military utopianism.

But Fukuyama's underlying historical vision remains largely the same. In his substantial afterword to the reissue of The End of History and the Last Man he asks whether the rise of radical Islam should invalidate the fundamental optimism of his influential diagnoses now almost two decades old. He proposes that whereas Islamist terrorism has made the convergence of human societies around a tolerant democratic liberalism more difficult than envisaged, the trend is still underway: 9/11 for him did not mean the end of the end of history, but rather a temporary respite from the end of history.

Charles Maier teaches history at Harvard 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)

After the battle

The amended vision raises many new questions, and not just the older ones: if the end of history will be achieved by nation-states, then international rivalry can never come to an end; for, as Hegel suggested, it is agonistic contention that keeps these nation-states in being.

If the "heat death" of history is to come to pass by virtue of a widespread acceptance of democracy, then party conflict must remain – even, in some situations, to the point of civil war. Fukuyama believes that the atrocities of the 1990s and since do not validate the theory; they are evidently blips in the curve of progress, a sort of historical static. There is a question of when static overwhelms the message. Nonetheless, the rhetoric is so measured, the concept so apparently temperate – and attractive – that one would really like to believe in it.

The End of History was and remains a serious text and restated a coherent view: that because human societies the world over would increasingly become more developed, their members would aspire to satisfy their wants and needs and would settle on political liberalism as an optimal form that reconciled social and individual needs. The original breathtaking title, which Fukuyama carefully explained originally and now again, should not by itself invalidate the analysis. 1989 had eliminated the last major ideological idea that was in contention: Marxist-Leninist collectivism. In this sense there could be no great battles yet to come; and the major danger was the one that Nietzsche had feared as part of the triumph of bourgeois civilisation – that of a flaccid philistinism.

In his new afterword Fukuyama asserts that he still believes in this notion. "I think that there is an overall logic to historical evolution that explains why there should be increasing democracy around the world as our societies evolve." To be sure, the phrasing is cautious: "there should be more democracy at the end of the process than the beginning…" But if the trend describes what is most essential about history itself, Fukuyama is right that it must come to an end with the global completion of the process.

This was an analysis easy to caricature – every setback in the form of a Bosnia or a Rwanda could be cited as proof of its Panglossian triumphalism. But in fact Fukuyama's vision deserved better than this cheap dismissal. It is serious and compelling, not to be disproved because he was probably too optimistic about the stabilisation of the brief moment of "civil society" around 1989.

The essential of history

Still, there are two serious arguments to be made. The first, in no particular order, is the one that Isaiah Berlin's old argumentation suggests, namely that even within any civilisation (and not just between them) political ends must remain irreconcilable and not to be subsumed under liberal democracy. Ultimately, the mix may not be subject to a liberal trade-off; disagreements run too deep.

As a historian, not necessarily as an adherent, I personally think that the collectivist egalitarian tradition is rendered less obsolete by technological and material development than Fukuyama believes. Ultimately it rests on the discontents of conscience that afflict many of us (including that convert Saul). In a world where transcendental religious fundamentalisms run riot, let us not imagine secular religions will not also follow. We don't always live on smooth, concave felicity curves where experts calculate how much freedom can be traded for how much equality. People will be seized by visions – glance at Venezuela and Bolivia for the moment.

No quarrel that peoples can come to an agreement on democracy as the best form of government (with concomitant protection of religious pluralism and property rights); only with the notion that they will accept such a condition as more than a momentary equilibrium. The ancients and all those who followed empire had a different notion – namely that history was cyclical; institutions rose and fell whether for endogenous reasons or fortuna, that institutions decayed. Fukuyama believes – as have many since the Scottish Enlightenment – in some sort of linearity. But linearity cannot be guaranteed by the logical utility of the end-point, by the maximisation of happiness. Societies become more rational and tolerant (or should), but by living through time they are bound to self-destruct.

My second source of scepticism arises precisely from this very conviction that while history does not repeat itself, certain impulses recur cyclically, much as Albert O Hirschman has described between private and public in his book Shifting Involvements: Private Interest and Public Action. Opposed to the linear view – whether Christian or Marxist, smoothly developmental or punctuated by revelations and violent crises – is the classical Mediterranean notion of recurrence. Certainly not every ill must return: slavery as a generalised system of labour does lie behind us; American ascendancy need not collapse the way Rome did. Nonetheless, not every conflict can be transcended.

In the end it is not at all clear that the upward trend is the essential of history. While, happily, many people do yearn for the fruits of liberal democracy and economic development, they also want history as such. Few of us – and certainly few young adults – really want to be "the last man" as the historical universe gradually goes dark like some exhausted sun. Read Rainer Maria Rilke's invocation of the War God at the onset of the first world war.

History itself remains intoxicating; and that, I fear, undermines Fukuyama's vision. We may also aspire to reach a plateau, but a significant number of us live for the transcendent moments of self-dissolution into a larger cause. Calling the impulse romantic, "acting out", or juvenile psychodrama will not remove the longing. No one can say that Fukuyama is wrong. But history goes on for a long time. It still seems a bit early to say he's right.


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