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Endism: why 1989 was not the 'end of history'

"The very notion of an ‘end’ to history is pernicious… Democracy is deeply compromised."

Paul Hirst
20 November 2019
Francis Fukuyama talking to an audience in Tbilisi, Georgia, about what US foreign policy means to the world, November 4, 2019.
Francis Fukuyama talking to an audience in Tbilisi, Georgia, about what US foreign policy means to the world, November 4, 2019.
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Wikicommons/Melberg. Some rights reserved.

Exactly thirty years ago, as the Berlin wall came down and the Cold War ended, the London Review of Books published an essay on ‘Endism’ by Paul Hirst. In it he assaulted with what we can now see as superb foresight, the west’s celebration of the ‘End of History’. We reproduce Paul’s outstanding argument below.

The idea that history had culminated in the triumph of liberal capitalism and this had put to bed any need for serious opposition to its hegemony, was proposed in an article by Francis Fukuyama, who was then working as a researcher for the US State Department. The timing gave his claim enormous publicity. He summarised it saying:

"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such.... That is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

He turned the argument into a best-selling book and… well, the rest is history and not its termination. Fukuyama’s latest work in effect repudiates the thesis that made his name and confirms the counter-argument set out by Paul at the time.

We republish Paul’s essay here for three reasons. It is a really good read and a wonderful example of a well-crafted polemic that still stands as a salute, on this anniversary, to the welcome end of the Cold War and the illiberalism of the systems that it perpetuated. 

Second, he identifies in an exemplary way the defining problems with liberal market democracy that have characterised the last three decades: the thin inadequacy of democracy as we know it; its corruption and inequalities; its remoteness, environmental irresponsibility and profound complacency about the misery and poverty it engenders. Far from ending history, the need to challenge “the sovereignty of the market and the right of management to manage without check” and the need to “save the environment” was all the more important.

Third, we want to take the opportunity to salute Paul Hirst himself.  He was an important contributor to openDemocracy when it began. He set out why ‘globalisation’ was neither new nor likely to last. Then he died tragically young in 2003.  We published an extraordinary range of responses here, here and here revealing the range and quality of his influence, as well as a personal account of his death and a eulogy at his funeral by Anthony Barnett.

Anthony Barnett and Rosemary Bechler

Endism

By Paul Hirst

It is remarkable that an essay by a State Department official in the conservative quarterly the National Interest should provoke a storm of debate in the US and be syndicated by papers throughout the world. The burden of Francis Fukuyama’s argument is that we are witnessing the end of history. That end will not be as it has so often been imagined – either apocalypse or utopia. History, in the sense of fundamental ideological and political change, will cease with the worldwide triumph of Western liberalism. The blunt political message that the Cold War is over and the West has won is softened by suitably edifying references to high social theory. Much of his essay is taken up with a discussion of Hegel. Essays of this kind do not attract massive media attention because they make the right up-market references. Fukuyama has become news because he has caught a mood and because he has justified that mood by seizing upon a fundamental and novel fact.

The fact is that Western liberal democracy is now secure against effective political competitors in a way that it has never been since 1914. Into the 1980s Western liberals have feared the threat of powerful authoritarian regimes and political movements. That fact seems to me to be true, but we can explain and interpret it in other ways than Fukuyama’s. He implies that liberalism’s survival, its outlasting of its competitors, was because of its superiority as a political and economic system. Yet part of the power of the threat to liberalism was the weakness of liberals – especially in the 1930s. It is easy to forget how craven liberal regimes were when faced with the Fascist threat, how much they relied on the illiberal Soviet regime in defeating Nazism, and how far they tended to overrate the Soviet threat once the Cold War had set in.

In 1945 Fascism ceased to have a future and by 1950 Stalinism had no hope of seizing power in the West. Fascism’s credibility was destroyed by its failure in terms of its own values. The unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan forced upon the inhabitants of those countries the utter failure of their leaders. The first newsreels of Belsen destroyed any possible moral appeal Fascists might make out of the ruins of defeat. 1945 was not to be like 1918.

The Soviet Union ended the war as a victorious superpower, but its ideology rapidly ceased to have the capacity to move beyond the range of Russian tanks. Marxism-Leninism was destroyed politically in the West by the great post-war boom and by the exposure of Western publics to the truth about Stalin’s purges and the Gulags. However cautious Soviet policy might be in practice, it remained an external competitor. The Soviet Union continued to harbour the illusion that it was a superior social system to the West and that it would eventually triumph over it. Even Nikita Khrushchev threatened ‘we will bury you,’ by peaceful means.

Soviet power ceased to be a threat in this sense only in the mid-1980s. By then the legacy of failure from the Brezhnev years had become insupportable. Although reform had become inevitable, nothing guaranteed it would take the radical form inspired by Mikhail Gorbachev. Glasnost has liquidated a regime based on illusion and lies. Almost nobody in the Eastern bloc now believes that Soviet-style socialism can compete with the West in terms of economic performance. Almost nobody now believes that Marxism is a superior means of understanding and directing society. The Soviet Union is far from becoming a liberal state, but it has ceased to be a challenge to liberalism. With a Solidarity government in Poland and the rapid progress toward multi-party democracy in Hungary, the triumph of liberalism appears credible. Even the horror of Tiananmen Square has done little to shake the new confidence of the West. The prospects for a similar coup against reform in the Soviet Union seem less good. Even relatively conservative Western leaders and analysts are willing to base policy on the continuance of the reform programme.

The fact that Western liberals have suddenly found themselves secure in the mid-1980s has generated an immense feeling of relief. Intense cold war between nuclear-armed states was insupportable. We have all lived too long with the constant prospect of an immediate and horrible end to history. Fukuyama’s essay gives expression to this mood and provides it with a coherent rationale. His use of a neo-Hegelian philosophy of history serves to rationalise the fact that liberalism has survived its putative grave-diggers and that we have escaped the perils of the Second Cold War.

Fukuyama’s theme is also deeply congenial in the US, in that it both contradicts and yet follows swiftly upon the heels of another intellectual cause célèbre. The ‘endist’ thesis assures the USA that it faces no serious threats to its military predominance and that it will remain the leading power in a world economy dominated by free markets and free-trade policies. How refreshing this is when Paul Kennedy’s gloomy best-seller The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers dominated discussion in 1988. Kennedy’s thesis was that the USA was losing the economic and military capacity to act as the hegemon of the liberal world order. American power must pass as surely as British and Spanish power did. Fukuyama answers a book based on empirical historical analogies with an argument grounded on the philosophy of history, and chides Kennedy with economic determinism. The fate of states depends in Kennedy’s book on blind and material processes. Fukuyama believes that history is not deterministic: rather, historical outcomes are decided by the quality of the ideas that motivate human beings. Liberalism is an ideal that has triumphed, and it is central to the self-identity of America. Americans can, therefore, feel confident in the future whilst they hold to the ideals of democracy and the free market. No wonder ‘Endism’ has gone down so well: it has provided a sophisticated rationale for the commonplaces of American political life. But almost everything else in the essay is sheer chutzpa.

Consider first Fukuyama’s use of the philosophy of history. It is staggering to see the author of the thesis that history ends in the dominance of liberalism seeking to derive support from Hegel, even as he appears in Kojève’s interpretation. Hegel is notorious for his spirited critique of liberalism. He saw representative democracy as a disaster: as giving political expression to the antagonistic interests in civil society but without overcoming these antagonisms. Freedom properly so-called was more than mere individual will: it involved the transcendence of such immediate self-interest in a higher and more universal good. The pursuit of self-interest, which is central to classical economic and political liberalism, is powerfully criticised by Hegel. The result of such pure individualism cannot be a society: it is merely a collection of petty private purposes. Hegel was perfectly serious in defending, as a politically superior alternative to liberalism, a monarchical state with a system of corporate representation and a ‘universal class’ of civil servants to secure the good of the whole society. No attentive reader of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right could ever confuse the author with a liberal.

Hegel’s political theory is the view of a Prussian conservative who felt that the reforms after the defeat at Jena in 1806 had gone quite far enough. Hegel’s dialectic endows this politically timorous opinion with the force of world historical necessity: the Prussian monarchy is the highest current incarnation of the idea of freedom. Hegel’s dialectic should not be lightly dismissed, however. The concept of dialectic is powerful and its content a celebration of freedom. The dialectic is not really compatible with the concept of history as a ‘process with a beginning, a middle and an end’ – which is how Fukuyama sees Hegel. That view diminishes the dialectic to the level of vulgar historicism. In fact, dialectic is most consistent when it is conceived as a potentially infinite development toward higher and higher levels of self-consciousness and freedom. What presumption can stay the dialectic and pronounce history at an end? How can we know that a given state of affairs represents the realisation of the most complete freedom? Only by the philosopher making himself greater than the dialectic. Hegel’s Philosophy of History comes close to such vulgarity, but the whole of his philosophy speaks against it.

As an infinite process, dialectic makes some sense, but it is then divorced from any connection with concrete events. Once the dialectic has to be actualised in actual historical events it reveals its fundamental arbitrariness. How does one move from the idea to its incarnation? The answer is, of course, that the connection of the ideal and the actual is entirely at the mercy of the dialectician’s prejudices.

Surely what we can learn from Hegel’s dialectic and from the failures of the post-Hegelian philosophy of history is that the very notion of an ‘end’ to history is pernicious. If we suppose that human freedom and individuation have developed in history to higher levels, then what gives us the right to assume that the given state of affairs today is unsurpassable? There can be no ‘end’ to history in the most important sense Hegel gave to it – the striving for self-consciousness and freedom. If history is at an end, then so are we. It is at this point that Fukuyama makes use of Max Weber, and his deep historical pessimism. History is at an end in a radical disenchantment of human purposes.

Fukuyama has committed a similar error to Hegel’s and Marx’s. He has identified history with fundamental contradictions. History can only continue if there is a possibility of alternatives to liberal regimes: ‘Have we in fact reached the end of history? Are there, in other words, any fundamental “contradictions” in human life that cannot be resolved in the context of modern liberalism, that would be resolvable by an alternative political-economic structure?’ But why should we assume that the continuation of history depends on the existence of alternatives to liberalism and the possibility that they can supplant it in some new stage of development? Are there not ‘contradictions’ (in the sense of political issues) within liberalism capable of sustaining history (in the sense of large-scale tasks and changes) into the foreseeable future? Are liberal institutions capable of no development? Are there no major problems within liberal politics that are not capable of fuelling conflict and controversy worthy of being called history?

What is wrong with Fukuyama is his staggering complacency. History is over, because all problems can be settled by fully-developed liberal institutions that give us all the freedom we are ever likely to get. This is frankly as plausible as Hegel’s celebration of the Prussian state.

The record of liberalism after 1945 needs serious critical attention. Western Europe, the United States and Japan all offer ample evidence of the failings of liberal political institutions. Democracy may now be dominant, but it is also deeply compromised in its major heartlands. Our liberal-democratic polities offer low levels of accountability and citizen influence when measured against democratic ideals, rather than against ailing autocracies. Fascism and Stalinist Communism made the bare minimum of democratic accountability worthwhile. The chance to vote out the government is an inestimable benefit if one is faced by dictatorship. Once that threat is removed, then the minimalist defence of democracy will no longer do. We need a new standard of democratic accountability, one that enhances the rights and capacities for political influence of the largest number of citizens that is attainable. If the certainties of the Cold War have ended, then liberals have no right or excuse to be complacent.

The post-war governments of Italy and Japan have relied on systematic corruption as a tool for exercising and maintaining their power. In the USA Federal Government can hardly be considered as more than minimally democratic. President Bush was elected on the votes of about 20 per cent of the electorate, with massive abstentions of registered voters and a large number of citizens failing to register. Political office is an option only for the relatively wealthy. The rich and large business corporations have vastly disproportionate influence. In Britain we have an unjust and inequitable voting system that has preserved an extremely partisan government in office on a minority of the votes cast. British government is highly centralised and highly secretive. Britain lacks a written democratic constitution and the legal protection of the citizen’s rights by constitutional law.

Further democratisation of political institutions is a vital and current issue in many Western democracies. When representative democracy becomes little more than a choice of who shall govern, a plebiscite, and does little more than legitimate the powers of the governing party, then the idea of democracy is compromised. Hence the growth of movements seeking to assure greater accountability and the defence of citizen’s rights. The new movements for political reform, like Charter 88 in Britain, have been very successful precisely because of these failings. The issue of democratisation is moving towards the centre of the political agenda. A large part of the success of Green politics in Europe is due to the dissatisfaction with remote and bureaucratic agencies making decisions without reference to their consequences for ordinary citizens and in obsequious deference to influential business interests. The growing credibility of the Socialist Party in Japan is mainly due to the feeling that the Government is a closed and corrupt oligarchy directly in league with big business.

Many of these movements for political reform are radical, but they are not authoritarian. They aim at the diffusion and decentralisation of power and influence. They are dissatisfied with the outcomes of the unhealthily close link between big government and big business. Radicalism cannot now be so easily contained by the fear of Communism. The future of liberal democracy is likely to be one of conflict and change, not complacent celebration.

Fukuyama’s view embodies the common sense of the American establishment, a conventional wisdom that assumes economic and political liberalism to be inextricably tied together. The victory of liberalism is held to be due in a large part to the economic success of the free market and the high standards of living and consumer durables it is able to deliver. The success of economic liberalism is taken for granted and is reinforced by the failures of the command economies of Eastern Europe. Economic liberalism, however, is not the inevitable concomitant and bulwark of liberal democracy. Unrestrained economic liberalism poses a very real threat to political democracy, because it permits the growth of grossly unequal influence by privileged economic actors, the major business corporations. The unregulated free market does not guarantee economic equality; it does not empower the ordinary worker, small owner or trader, as economic liberal apologetics claim it does. On the contrary, it permits uncontrolled concentration of economic activity in the hands of large firms, and it leaves these firms in the hands of unaccountable top management. A society cannot be democratic in which power over the most vital areas of life is beyond public control. Shareholders’ control of corporations is largely a fiction and their employees and consumers have little or no direct say in the affairs of the companies.

Moreover, it is something of an illusion to suppose that free markets and unregulated corporations ‘deliver the goods’. The two countries that have followed the economic liberals’ prescriptions most closely in recent years, Britain and the USA, have suffered the greatest de-industrialisation, have lower GDP per capita than other more successful manufacturing countries, and have growing problems with their balance of payments.

Only from the Olympian detachment of the State Department could one propose the following:

But surely, the class issue has actually been successfully resolved in the West ...the egalitarianism of modern America represents the essential achievement of the classless society envisioned by Marx. This is not to say that there are not rich people and poor people in the United States, or that the gap between them has not grown in recent years. But the root causes of economic inequality do not have to do with the underlying structure of our society, which remains fundamentally egalitarian and mildly redistributionist ...

This comes close to telling us we live in the best of all possible worlds. Fukuyama thinks he can explain away the co-existence of wealth with poverty in the United States. He has the gall to blame the poor: inequality and poverty are due to ‘the cultural and social characteristics of the groups that make it up, which are in turn the historical legacy of pre-modern conditions’. Black poverty is due to slavery, a pre-modern and pre-capitalist institution. Slavery was, arguably, neither pre-modern nor pre-liberal, but either way, it cannot carry the burden of poverty in modern America. Are all the poor and the homeless the descendants of slaves?

This kind of indifference in the face of misery and want has its price too. The US, like Britain, has failed to adopt interventionist policies to develop the skills of the whole of its population. Creating an underclass may offer a pool of cheap labour, but it also imposes a burden of low aspirations and low productivity sectors of the economy corresponding to them. A democratic state cannot write off a large part of its population as if they don’t matter. A state that does this is willing to write off many other things too, including the future. It is no wonder that the USA and Britain have not only failed to address inequality: they have also failed to address the need to sustain long-term investment in manufacturing. Ultimately one pays for such complacent ‘short-termism’.

The day of reckoning is not some apocalyptic future. It is happening now. The most successful industrial economies in the modern world – Japan and West Germany, Northern Italy and Sweden – have not favoured an economic free-for-all. They have in contrast pursued strategies of economic co-ordination, regional regulation, and co-operation between industry, labour and the state. In Italy and Japan, particularly at the regional level, such strategies have helped to compensate for the failings of their national political systems. Britain and the US have set their face against such strategies, failing to see the economic benefits of a more collaborative political culture and prizing, above all, the sovereignty of the market and the right of management to manage without check.

Fukuyama supposes the free market and the command economy to be polar opposites and ignores what may lie in between. In fact, the economically successful Western democracies have tended to pursue a middle way in which the market is regulated, in which co-ordination takes place but not by means of centralised planning – rather by the active consultation of the major organised social interests. The result is an economy far removed from a free-for-all, an economy in which the enhancement of the influence of social groups through consultation offers a route to greater democratic accountability.

Fukuyama’s complacency is coupled with a diminished view of what liberalism can offer. Idealistic striving and ideological conflict ‘will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands’. This is not only to assume liberalism is complete: it is to belittle the problems that face us in dealing with the world outside the sphere of affluent consumerism. Will the battle to save the environment require no struggle, no idealism, no danger? Tell that to Greenpeace. Will the hungry masses outside the liberal consumerist world have nothing more to hope for from us than crumbs of foreign aid? Perhaps Mr Fukuyama might consider what is implied in Kant’s principle that we should treat all other human beings as ends and not as means.

History is not at an end because there are major new ideals. A revitalised democratic Europe is one; the defence of our world environment is another; and, as an essential part of that cause, so is the challenge of creating a world in which all can enjoy a decent standard of life and have democratic self-government. If history is the struggle for freedom, then its end has been well and truly postponed.

Paul Hirst
Paul Hirst | All rights reserved.

This essay was published originally in the London Review of Books, Vol.11, No.22. on November 23, 1989.

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