Francis Fukuyama photographed in Paris. Photo by Stephane Grangier/Corbis/Getty
Since Francis Fukuyama proclaimed ‘The End of History’ 25 years ago, he has been much maligned. His work now seems prophetic
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992). Rarely read but often denigrated, it might be the most maligned, unfairly dismissed and misunderstood book of the post-war era. Which is unfortunate for at least one reason: Fukuyama might have done a better job of predicting the political turmoil that engulfed Western democracies in 2016 – from Brexit, to Trump, to the Italian Referendum – than anybody else.
This should sound surprising. After all, Fukuyama’s name has for more than two decades been synonymous with a fin-de-siècle Western triumphalism. According to the conventional wisdom, he is supposed to have claimed that the collapse of the communist regimes in eastern Europe and the United States’ victory in the Cold War meant that liberal capitalist democracy was unambiguously the best form of human political organisation possible. To his popular critics – sometimes on the Right, but most especially on the Left – The End of History was thus a pseudo-intellectual justification for a hyper-liberal capitalist ideology, whose high-water mark was the disastrous administration of George W Bush. Fukuyama’s tagline – ‘the end of history’ – was seized upon by critics as proof that he was attempting to legitimate neoconservative hubris, cloaking a pernicious ideology with the façade of inevitability.
But (the conventional wisdom continues) hubris was soon followed by nemesis: the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent disaster of the Iraq War showed how wrong any triumphalist vision of liberal-capitalist world order was. Fukuyama took particularly heavy flak in this regard. Francis Wheen, in How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World (2004), was typical when he accused Fukuyama of being a shill for neo-con interests. In reply to the question ‘How do you get ahead by boldly making one of the worst predictions in social science?’ Wheen sniped: ‘If you are going to be wrong, be wrong as ostentatiously and extravagantly as possible.’ He claimed that Fukuyama ‘understood what was required to titillate the jaded palate of the chattering classes’ – and played on this for personal gain.
Yet all of this is incorrect. For a start, it is a gross misreading of The End of History to see it as any kind of triumphalism, let alone one subsequently disproved by the rise of radical Islam, or the stalling of capitalist democracies post-2008. It was also deeply unfair to Fukuyama himself. Although a public intellectual rather than a traditional academic, his infamous book displayed an erudition and depth of learning, combined with ambition and panache, that few tenured academics come close to. He might have been wrong, but he was never the dummy his critics made out.
To see this better, it’s worth elucidating the actual argument of The End of History. For a start, Fukuyama never suggested that events would somehow stop happening. Just like any other sane person, he believed that history (with a small h), the continuation of ordinary causal events, would go on as it always had. Elections would be held, sports matches would be won and lost, wars would break out, and so on. The interesting question for Fukuyama was about History (with a big H), a term that, for him, picked out a set of concerns about the deep structure of human social existence.
With regards to History, Fukuyama advanced a complex thesis about the way opposing forces play themselves out in social development. Here, he drew inspiration from the work of the German philosopher Georg Hegel, via the reinterpretations of the Russian émigré Alexandre Kojève. Hegel (and Kojève) proposed that History is a process by which contradictions in the ordering of societies work themselves out by eventually overcoming conflict, so as to move to a higher order of integration, where previous contradictions drop away because the underlying oppositions have been solved. The most famous instance of such a ‘dialectical’ view is Karl Marx’s (also made under Hegel’s influence): that the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would eventually move past their combative opposition, via a period of revolution against capitalism, into the harmony of communism.
In essence, big-H history was, for Fukuyama, an understanding of human development as a logical progression (or dialectical working out of contradictions), generating a grand-narrative of progress, in which each step forward sees the world becoming a more rational place. For Fukuyama, the long-run development of humanity was clearly discernible: from the Dark Ages, to the Renaissance, and then crucially the Enlightenment, with its inventions of secularism, egalitarianism and rational social organisation, paving the way in turn for democratic liberal capitalism. This was the cumulative, and thus far upward-curving, arc of human development…