Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Future or the End of History?

It would take a great deal of confidence, in these uncertain and changing times, to publish an article called "The Future of History." Yet, this is precisely what Francis Fukuyama has done in the Jan-Feb 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs.[1] It is a bold title since it not only places this article in the ideological path of his most famous work, “The End of History and the Last Man,” but it also suggests a fundamental departure from those ideas with which he is usually associated. History seen as a directional process with a past, a present and a future is a philosophical and historiographic concept. This article, though, is not really about the future of History, but more about the political future of the world, and in particular the Western world. Nevertheless, in order to understand this latest contribution and perhaps any article of Francis Fukuyama’s, it is necessary to understand what he meant by the “end of History.”

Anyone who is interested in the modern world should read “The End of History and the Last Man.” It is without a doubt one of the most influential political works of the last decades, even though it is based mostly on 19th century ideas. Indeed, since it is heavily endebted to Hegel and Nietzsche, “The End of History” can serve as a good introduction to these two highly influential thinkers. Both of them developed original ideas about the evolution of the individual’s place and consciousness in the modern society. The problem, however, is that Fukuyama’s interpretation of these ideas was sometimes doubtful, and this makes any subsequent analysis of current affairs through this prism also open to the same criticism. Perhaps the most important objection relates to the rosy and caricatural picture that he drew of the “liberal democracy.” However, before reviewing this point, it is necessary to first recall the main ideas.

Briefly, according to Hegel, History, seen as a process of continuous ideological and moral development, “ended” with Napoleon’s victory at Jena in 1806, because with it, the universal values of the Enlightenment had thereby spread to all advanced peoples of the earth. Fukuyama used this idea in order to propose that History in fact ended in 1991 after all major communist regimes had crumbled or changed: ideology was dead, “liberal democracy” represented the “end point of mankind's ideological evolution,'' according to Fukuyama. Underpinning this idea is the concept of “recognition” in the way Hegel saw this term.[2] The ancient and feudal societies were based on the Master and Slave dichotomy and have slowly disappeared over the last centuries. In the democratic era, more and more people have for the first time been able to satisfy their desire for dignity, for recognition – that human trait that Plato called thumos, or “spiritedness.”[3] Liberal democracy is, for Fukuyama, therefore unique: it is a system which has achieved democratic legitimacy by obtaining the recognition of its citizens. Conversely, the citizens of the “liberal democracy” have no longer any desire or reason to seriously confront each other or the state because society provides them with all necessary outlets for achieving recognition. Contrary to all previous societies, in the modern liberal democracy recognition can be obtained, for example, by achieving status through salaried work, by voting in fair elections, by succeeding in the capitalist business environment, or by becoming physically victorious in sports.

Before addressing the application of Hegelian "recognition" to modern society, it is necessary to look more closely at the term "liberal democracy." In reality, the societies that are called “liberal democracies” are often far from deserving the name. It is usually a euphemism for a very different political and economic reality. Most Western societies, not least the USA, have been characterised since approximately the 1940s, by a high degree of statism and rather than calling them “liberal democracies,” it may be more correct to say that they have implemented various versions of “state capitalism.” Neither from the point of view of classic liberalism nor from the point of view of a democratic ideal is it possible to say that those societies which are commonly called “liberal democracies” live up to the expectations inherent in these two words.

Yet, Fukuyama presented the “liberal democracy” as an almost flawless political system. Such thinking goes against all serious political philosophy, starting with Plato. In “The Republic,” the political system called “democracy”, or the rule of the people, was famously presented as just one of several possible systems and certainly not the best one. Further, it warned that democracy can easily degenerate into tyranny, not only because power corrupts, but because the masses are incapable of electing a just ruler. Paradoxically therefore, it is only by keeping in mind the imperfections of the democratic system that a certain acceptable level of democracy can be sustained. Thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill and George Santayana understood very well this fragile nature of democracy. It is important in the current discussion to remember Mill’s observation that even a democratically elected government can have complete legitimacy only in the eyes of the majority that elected it. Santayana said that constitutional democracy is not enough, in itself, to assure the survival of the democratic system; there must be an “instinct” of democracy in the people, that instinct which “assumes that, unless all those concerned keep a vigilant eye on the course of public business and frequently pronounce on its conduct, they will before long awake to the fact that they have been ignored and enslaved.”[4] Such precautions about the nature of democracy were conspicuously absent from Fukuyama’s major work. There are serious implications to such omissions; for democracy cannot be the end point of political struggle if inherent in the concept of democracy itself is the constant struggle to uphold it. Fukuyama was either ignorant of these aspects of the liberal democracy, or more likely, wilfully chose to be politically correct and not mention its dirtier sides.

In his latest article, Fukuyama does admit that there are threats to liberal democracies, but for him these threats seem only to be exogenous and new, in the form of “globalisation” and “the further development of technology.” These difficulties are real, of course, but can only be properly understood within the context of the innate weaknesses of the liberal democracy. Indeed, almost all the political, economic and social problems of today’s Western societies stem from the ignorance or disregard on behalf of the masses of these fundamental recommendations regarding democracy. The people’s lack of democratic scepticism and of political education is leaving unchecked the slow growth of undemocratic tendencies in many liberal democracies. It is possible to mention, for instance, the farcical US electoral system; where two business parties alternate in power by conducting expensive charade-like campaigns, during which candidates hardly even try to appear independent. Democracy was always far from perfect in the US, but was further undermined with the now infamous Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision of 2010 which allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in political elections.[5] The situation in most other Western “democracies” is not much better. In Europe, it is standard procedure to circumvent the democratic process when the political and business establishment does not consider the people capable of making the “right” choice. This has often been the case with respect to the ratification of EU treatises, as well as, recently, when the Greek and Italian élites decided to change governments and implement radical economic reforms, with little regard for the will of the people.

To call an existing society a “liberal democracy” is to misrepresent and take for granted the level of liberty in this society. As Rousseau commenced The Social Contract; « l’homme est né libre, mais partout il est dans les fers ».[6] Liberty is always to some degree limited in society, since, as Hobbes observed, the social contract consists in giving up freedom for security. In this sense, taxation is also a form of state coercion but which is, if kept at “reasonable” levels, acceptable for most people. Liberal democracies often go further though; many of them are actively limiting individual freedoms by using the classic excuse of providing ever more protection, often against foreign “enemies.” In the USA, the so-called “War on Terror” has been used since 2001 as a pretext to curtail rights, and the latest National Defense Authorization Act now includes the possibility for indefinite military detention of US citizens without trial, also in the name of security.[7]

Fukuyama claimed, like many other mainstream political thinkers, that “liberal democracies” are fundamentally peaceful and tolerant. He says that “having supplied recognition, democracies tend to be peaceable and nonimperialist, and don't fight one another.” Yet, a quick survey of international events suggests that this is not the case: some of the most bellicose countries on earth are liberal democracies, as the recent military engagements of the United States, Israel or the UK show. The US and Israel have between them started or participated in scores of military conflicts in the last two decades. The number of casualties may today be smaller than before, but it would be naive to attribute this fact to an increase in empathy on behalf of political and military establishments. It is more likely related to the increase of the media coverage of conflicts and the evolution of weapons technology. Contrary to what Fukuyama believed then, a country’s military aggressiveness does not depend so much on its economic and political system per se, but more on its readiness, its interests and its capability to wage war. Thus, liberal democracies regularly get involved in military conflicts because they have significant economic and political interests to defend. For instance, as has been sometimes admitted, one of the main reasons the US has been waging war and building up military power in the Middle East for so long is the interest of controlling the world’s most important oil reserves.[8]

If liberal democracies do not attack each other it is because they have entered into the fold of US hegemony by aligning their economic and geopolitical interests with the only superpower. Integrated economies that are heavily dependent on trade with one another have also little interest in solving disputes by force, regardless of their political system. Conversely, it is precisely because of the importance of trade to the economies of almost all nations today, that modern conflicts are often waged on the economic rather than on the military level (as, for instance, the recent plan to ruin the Iranian economy by putting in place an embargo on Iranian oil exports[9]). It should be impossible to say, therefore, that liberal democracies only spread peace and tolerance; on the contrary, the actions of Western governments have shown that the competition for resources and the struggle for domination are alive and well, more than half a century after the establishment of the UN Charter. Fukuyama probably did not recognise this point because, apart from possible intellectual dishonesty, for him war was mainly the consequence of the desire for Hegelian recognition. Since, in his view, the liberal democracy satisfies the desire for recognition of all its citizens, it is a society that therefore does not engage in war, or at the very least, does not start it. The persistence of such a view is surprising considering the amount of evidence against it.

Further, Fukuyama assumed that liberal democracy “won” over ideological systems such as communism and fascism. From a literal point of view, such a statement seems simplistic and exagerated. A more truthful and precise way of putting it might be that, in the case of communism, the Soviet state failed largely due to internal economic collapse, which was partially brought about, not by something as abstract as the virtue of the liberal democratic ideal, but by something far more prosaic: the US military power resulting directly from state planning in Washington, using a defense budget of such size that it could only be generated by a capitalist system. Fascism, too, was not defeated militarily by liberal democracy since the victory over Germany in WWII would have been impossible without the sacrifice of the Soviet army on the Eastern front. More importantly, it is dangerous to believe that democracy can “defeat” fascism since, as was mentioned above, in the liberal democracy the erosion of democracy is a constant risk and the slide towards fascism is a constant temptation. For example, the corporatism, the indebtedness, and the war-mongering of the US government are obvious fascist traits, as John T. Flynn so clearly warned over half a century ago in “As We Go Marching.”

It is notable that ideology remains quite strong in the country which is the most “Western” of all, not only in terms of geography but also in terms of outlook: the United States. The capability of this “liberal democracy” to perceive communism as a threat to be annihilated, for instance with the aggressive escalation of the Cold War by the Reagan administration – not by the Soviets  – , clearly suggests that the liberal democracy can also evolve, like the societies it attempts to vilify (sic), under the yoke of ideology. Expressions such as Reagan’s “Evil Empire” of the 1980s or Bush’s “Axis of Evil” of the 2000s, are typical of an ideological state. Such terms obviously do not belong in a society where, according to Fukuyama, ideology has disappeared and reason prevails. For example, only a non-rational and ideological form of thinking among a large part of US civilian and military institutions could explain $600billion of spending on “Homeland Security” since 2001.[10] The political culture of the United States is heavily tinged by what might be called an ideology of uniqueness: “American exceptionalism”. This ideology expresses itself for instance in the “Manifest Destiny” and in the Puritan vision of the “Shining City upon a Hill,” and has its basis in the ideal of the Lockean “American way of life” which, as the phrase implies, cannot be realised anywhere else than in the United States.

Furthermore, if the liberal democratic system were always non-ideological as initially Fukuyama believed, it could not have “won” against another political system because it could not even have defined such a political struggle. That is, it is implicit in the term itself that liberal democracies, like the USA, can be to some extent “ideological.” In his latest article, Fukuyama now seems to agree with this view of the liberal democracy as also ideological; he mentions “the hegemony of liberal democratic ideology”, apparently in contrast with his earlier position. After having hailed the non-ideological nature of Western society in “The End of History,” he now calls for the emergence of a new ideology that will propose new solutions to the problems that he has identified. Unfortunately, this new-found belief in an ideology of the liberal democracy now leads him to focus on the question of “how?” (i.e. which means?), instead of the arguably more fundamental question of “what?” (i.e. which problems?) to solve in the liberal democracy.

In reality, though ideology does persist in some liberal democractic societies, the West is largely non-ideological today. It is well known that in many Western nations the importance of ideology has strongly declined since the end of the Cold War. As a result, the political parties of the traditional right and left of the political spectrum have clustered around the centre so as to become almost indistinguishable from each other, and the political message has drowned in the promotion of personalities, thereby both limiting the real political choice of the voters and at the same time confusing them.[11] Ironically, it would seem therefore, that contrary to Fukuyama’s view, the decline of ideology in the West has brought along with it a decline of democracy. Further, considering this development, it seems far more appropriate to call the typical Western society by its non-ideological name, by referring to the redistributive nature of its economic system: the Welfare State. In his latest article, however, Fukuyama only sees welfare states as “big, bureaucratic and inflexible” and as products of ideological programmes of the left. A closer look at the most modern and successful welfare states though, such as the Nordic societies, shows that far from being based on rigid ideology, they are surviving splendidly, even in the current financial turmoil, thanks to their flexibility in adapting via reform and thanks to a utilitarian outlook that completely disregards ideology.

As was shown above, the liberal democracy is in many ways not fundamentally different from other, formally less democratic, political systems. The modern welfare state, though, is a far more unique society (though, in some cases, this term represents in fact just another side of the liberal democracy). In some welfare states there are no longer any major individual differences in pre-tax income, and classes have almost disappeared, not only economically but also socially. Progressive taxation and other social contributions have enabled a further reduction of socio-economic inequality.[12] Thus, on the one hand, in the welfare state significant individual distinction in the economic sphere is far more difficult than in other societies. On the other hand, thanks to the social safety net and the generous transfer payments, everyone can thrive in the welfare state, not only the fittest. Thus, it is more accurate to say that the welfare state - not the “liberal democracy” – comes closest to the state of society at the End of History, when the world would be one “universal and homogenous state”.[13] The unprecedent level of equality in the welfare state enables most members of this society to satisfy their desire for recognition for the first time.

With the advent of the modern welfare state, Hegelian recognition has been become generally available for all because the Master and Slave dichotomy has faded from society and has been made almost irrelevant. The citizens of the modern welfare state can be said to be Hegelian Slaves. Or, to be more precise, they are not Slaves any longer since there are no longer any Masters to whom they can be Slaves, but they have kept the Slave mentality. This mentality is expressed by three typical Slave traits of the modern welfare state: the importance of work specialisation, the obsession with physical security, and the faith in material progress. The welfare state will go to great lengths to make sure that as many “others” as possible are recognised because the Slave mentality implies the recognition of the “other”. Indeed, through the implementation of universal constitutional rights and equalitarian policies, in the welfare state it is possible to say that recognition has become almost generalised for the first time.[14] In the welfare state, a mutual recognition of all citizens comes as close as possible to being actually realised.

However, recognition is not perfect in this society either; there probably can never be “universal recognition”, even in the welfare state, and this is why it is impossible to say, as Fukuyama said, that the liberal democracy - is the “final form of human government.” As he hinted though, not everybody in this society is likely to be satisfied by the bland and general recognition that the welfare state provides; this is where Nietzsche’s distinction between the Superman and the Last Man becomes relevant. Some particular men and women are likely to try to find other means of satisfying their desire for recognition, for instance by engaging in different kinds of activities or perhaps simply by leaving this society. This reality is consistent with the conclusion above, namely that the liberal democracy is not the ultimate political system in the world; it is a society that is fundamentally incapable of satisfying the desire for recognition of all of its citizens.

Time has passed since the End of History was published. The last two decades have confirmed, if it was not clear earlier, that liberal democracy is not the panacea that Fukuyama made it out to be. The bloody Iraq war and the devastating financial crisis, to give two recent examples, both of which were started by the West, are probably very inconvenient for someone who has previously lavished such praise on the liberal democracy. Fukuyama is in a intellectually difficult position since he has been forced to make admissions while at the same time trying to make the current evolution of the world fit with his original views. A more accurate, and perhaps more candid, approach would be to state clearly that the economic and political conditions of the liberal democracy are far from perfect and can easily deteriorate, and that relatively authoritarian or more ill-managed societies can evidently also be successful in a wide range of areas. Fukuyama has had to acknowledge, at least implicitly, that liberal democracy is not, after all, the political system at the end of History; the title of his latest article makes this clear. History, of course, did not end either in 1806 or 1991, nor will it end until the world is controlled by a single government and social conflict has been eliminated for good. In other words, History will only end when the dream, or nightmare, of the Brave New World becomes reality.


[1] F. Fukuyama, The Future of History: Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?”, Foreign Affairs, January-February 2012, Volume 91, No. 1.

[2] Originally presented in G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Spirit, part B: Self-Consciousness, Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage. The concept of “recognition” of the “other” is the focal point of this reasoning, which was then restated in the twentieth century by A. Kojève (in Tyranny and Wisdom for instance). See for instance, L. Strauss, On Tyranny, Revised and Expanded Version, The University of Chicago Press, 2000. In F. Fukuyama, see The End of History and the Last Man, Chapters 16 and 17, Penguin Books, 1992.

[3] The human psyche could be assumed to be composed, as Plato said in The Republic (Book IV), of three fundamental parts. These parts are desire, reason and thumos (“spiritedness”), which can be described as man’s inherent urge to show his worth, to seek recognition and distinction, and his innate desire to be treated with dignity and respect. Thumos can be said to be a particular form of desire; one “whose object is not material but ideal.” (F. Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, p369, Penguin Books, 1992).

[4] G. Santayana, The Life of Reason, Chapter V: Democracy (1905 Edition).

[5] Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 08-205 (2010), 558 U.S. ––––, 130 S.Ct. 876 (January 21, 2010)

[6] “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”

[7] The Patriot Act, signed one month after 9/11, has dramatically reduced restrictions on law enforcement agencies' ability to search telephone, e-mail, medical, financial, and other records. Regarding the National Defense Authorization Act, the statement refers to sections 1021 and 1022 of the NDAA for fiscal year 2012, signed by the US President Obama on Dec 31st 2011.

[8] See for instance:
“Greenspan admits Iraq was about oil, as deaths put at 1.2m”, The Guardian, Sunday 16 September 2007.
“McCain tries to clarify Mideast oil remark”,

[9] To get a glimpse of the increasing economic difficulties of the Iranian people resulting from the economic warfare of the West, see for instance, “Iran’s Middle Class on Edge as World Presses In”, The New York Times, Feb 6th 2012.

[11] For a typical example, see for instance the French Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande’s interview with the Huffington Post in January 2012.

[12] The national Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality in a country, is now typically below 30 for the welfare states of Western Europe. See Eurostat ( The income equality in the Nordic welfare state, for instance, is such that differences even in pre-tax incomes for most professions are often found within a margin of only 15 percent around the average per capita income.

[13] Term used by Leo Strauss in the Strauss-Kojève correspondence, in Leo Strauss, On Tyranny (Revised and Expanded Version, The University of Chicago Press, 2000).

[14] As F. Fukuyama wrote, “The inherently unequal recognition of masters and slaves is replaced by universal and reciprocal recognition, where every citizen recognises the dignity and humanity of every other citizen, and where that dignity is recognised in turn by the state through the granting of rights.” F. Fukuyama, Introduction, The End of History and the Last Man.