The beginning of a history

Vinay Lal
24 May 2006

The origins of Francis Fukuyama's most prominent book, The End of History and the Last Man, lay in a journal article published under the title of "The End of History?" in summer 1989. In the new afterword to the book's second edition, Fukuyama asserts that he may not have been endorsing a "specifically American version of the end of the history", but the triumphalist note in which he had celebrated "the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism" was all too self-evident to most contemporary readers.

By the time The End of History and the Last Man appeared as a book in 1992 – without the interrogative in the title – the geopolitical world had been transformed: the Berlin wall had fallen, the Soviet Union had disintegrated, and the United States stood unopposed in the exercise of its military might after inflicting a crushing defeat on Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the Gulf war of January 2001. In addition, countries around the world were rapidly succumbing to the ideology of the free market.

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)

Stephen Holmes, "The logic of a blocked history"
(23 May 2006)

In such circumstances, Fukuyama's interest in advancing a reading of Hegel based specifically on the work of Alexandre Kojève, and his notion that the ideals of liberty and bourgeois democracy are best encountered in unfettered economic activity, make it easy to see how his argument might have been viewed as endorsing the idea that the universalisation of western liberal democracy "as the final form of human government" had something of an American inflection.

It is Fukuyama's submission that the "European project was in fact a house built as a home for the last man who would emerge at the end of history". Europeans, he suggests, dare to dream of transcending national sovereignty and are much less likely to invoke military solutions to political problems. The European opposition to the Iraq war launched in 2003 might appear to strengthen this impression. If The End of History displayed an amnesia about Europe's torrid adventures with colonialism, which no doubt furnish salubrious examples of "multiculturalism" and the transcendence of national sovereignty, it is perfectly apposite that Europe should now come across in Fukuyama's reading as something of a benign entity.

But from the point of view of those who come from the formerly colonised states of the global south, there is absolutely nothing to choose between the Europeans and the Americans. The eagerness with which British, French, German, and Italian businesses rushed to pick up contracts for Iraq's reconstruction tells its own tale of European self-aggrandisement and supineness; even more telling in this regard is the French incapacity, most recently on display in the widespread violence that rocked France in late 2005, to deal with their colonial past. How else should one interpret the arrogance and unrepentant conduct that were on display when on 23 February 2005 the French national assembly passed a law requiring schoolchildren to be taught "the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa"?

An insular reverence

One of the most remarkable aspects of western intellectual life, particularly in the Anglo-American world, is its extraordinary insularity. It is not at all uncommon to find public intellectuals on the left (for instance, Raymond Williams and Eric Hobsbawm) as much as those on the right (for instance, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Bernard Lewis, Ernest Gellner, and Fukuyama himself) purporting to write about human liberty, democracy, and the like while confining themselves entirely to the Judeo-Christian world and (increasingly, from necessity) Islam. It is almost always European events that furnish the bookmarks to historical inquiry in such narratives; colonialism seldom enters into their accounts.

Fukuyama shows virtually no awareness of some of the principal contours of contemporary intellectual discourse: the occlusion of the narrative of colonialism is mirrored in that of decolonisation, the definitive political experience for most of humankind in the 20th century. If violence filled the 20th century, it also provoked the most creative responses that history has witnessed, such as the forging of non-violent resistance as a mass movement at the hands of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

It is the same Gandhi who was a relentless critic of western modernity, and who could even aver of "western civilisation" that "it would be a good idea"; and it is the same King who unequivocally described the United States as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.

Does Fukuyama's thesis about the "end of history" have room for any of these nuances? And when he exaggeratedly states that the people voting with their feet are the best proof of the universal desire for increased standards of living that come about with "economic development", has he considered that millions of people have been sacrificed at the altar of "development"? No ideology has become more suspect among dissenting intellectuals than that of development: as Shiv Visvanathan put it cryptically in A Carnival for Science, "Soviets + electricity = genocide". Fukuyama, one hopes, will reconsider his uncritical reverence for development.

Vinay Lal is associate professor of history at UCLA. He is the author of Empire of Knowledge: Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy (University of Michigan Press, 2002), Of Cricket, Guinness, and Gandhi: Essays on Indian History and Culture (Penguin, 2003), The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (Oxford University Press, 2005). He is the co-editor of The Future of Knowledge & Culture: A Dictionary for the 21st Century
(Penguin, 2005)

Also by Vinay Lal in openDemocracy:

"The Tavistock Square Gandhi: 'war on terror' and non-violence"
(25 July 2005)

"Academic vigilantism" (23 January 2006)

A narrowing frame

I wish to end on an altogether different note. In the present prolific commentary on the nearly worldwide ascendancy of free-market ideology, the elimination of trade barriers, the globalisation of goods and services, and the universalisation of various forms of popular culture, what has seldom been noted is that nothing has been more effectively globalised than western knowledge systems and the categories that they have produced.

Paul Samuelson's economics textbook, first published in 1948 and since translated into forty-one languages, has been used widely in as many as 100 countries, running the full spectrum from western democracies to totalitarian states. Or, to take another example, whatever difficulties Americans might be encountering in foisting their ideas of freedom and democracy upon others, American-style business schools have proven to be immensely popular; indeed the American MBA is the most coveted degree around the world, even among those who, like Gujaratis, have been extraordinarily successful businessmen for well over a millennium.

As I have argued in my book The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India, few categories of knowledge have so forcibly inserted themselves into the modern sensibility as has "history". Interestingly, the numerous theoretical innovations of the previous three decades, such as deconstruction and postmodernism, never really posed any fundamental challenge to the idea of history. They put the dominant narratives of history into question, only to insert into their place the histories of marginalised people, subaltern histories, and "history from below".

The deleterious consequences of the ascendancy of historical thinking can be witnessed, for example, in Hindu nationalism's love affair with history, which led among other things to the destruction of a 16th century mosque that was viewed as an affront to Hindus, and in the attempted transformation of Hinduism, at the hands of history-besotted modernist Hindus, from a religion largely of mythos into a religion of history.

Our political and intellectual choices have similarly narrowed in nearly every domain of social, cultural, and intellectual life, but Fukuyama's relentlessly modernist framework of knowledge cannot allow for this recognition. While Fukuyama asserts "the end of history", one should say rather that we are at "the beginning of a history" - at the beginning of a time when, in the midst of seeming riches, apparently infinite choices, plurality of lifestyles, and the compression of time and space, our options for creative living, emancipation from the tired clichés of modernity, and most significantly for the expression of dissent have dramatically shrunk. How we shall cope with this history remains to be seen.

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