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How the 2016 election undermines Fukuyama's "end of history" argument

This presidential campaign is more than a shitshow, an authoritarian fit, or a clash between the identity politics of socially isolated white people and socially overstimulated snake people. It is also looking increasingly like a refutation of one of the more provocative and influential political science theories of the past 30 years: that on or around November 9, 1989, when the people of East Berlin peacefully threw off their Soviet-backed communist government and began to tear down the wall that had divided the city since 1961, History, with a capital H, ended.

If you took a certain kind of class in college, or still read a certain kind of intellectually ambitious political coverage, you remember the End of History. All but trademarked, the phrase comes from Francis Fukuyama's book of the same title, published in 1992 (and based on a 1989 essay in the neoconservative foreign policy journal The National Interest).  Fukuyama argued that the collapse of the Soviet empire revealed something much deeper than President Ronald Reagan's success bankrupting the Soviet Union with an arms race, or reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev's failure to control events. Rather, Fukuyama argued, these were events of philosophical significance.

According to Fukuyama, 20th-century history had been a three-way tournament among different visions of modern society. First was socialism, with the state in charge of economic life.

Second were nationalism and its cousin fascism, which celebrated a strong state but were defined by an exclusive identity at the center of national life — above all, the German volk.

Third was liberal democracy, which was defined by free elections, strong individual rights, and a capitalist economy.  Fukuyama argued that only liberal democracy, a.k.a. democratic capitalism, had succeeded in producing stable, prosperous societies, and so had proven itself the only desirable social form, the only way a people would ever choose to live.

Saying that history had ended didn't mean nothing more would ever happen, but that there was no more debate about how to organize a large, complex society. The fight that had shaken the world in the 20th century, from the struggle between right and left in European politics to the wars of postcolonial Asia and Africa, was now done. The German novelist Thomas Mann had summed up the 20th century's stakes when he wrote, "In our time, the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms." Now, Fukuyama argued, that fate was settled. The future would be like the present, only more so. We knew this, not just historically but philosophically.

The New York Times Magazine called Fukuyama's article "the hottest topic around." The president of the Council on Foreign Relations speculated that Fukuyama might be "laying the foundations of the Bush Doctrine."  (George H.W. Bush had taken office that January after eight years as Ronald Reagan's vice president.) Many commentators compared Fukuyama's argument to foreign policy eminence George Kennan's 1947 article — published in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym "X" — which laid out the doctrine of containment and did much to shape the next 30 years of Cold War thinking. Fukuyama seemed to have provided the frame for the world after the Cold War.

Of course, not everyone celebrated a young neoconservative's putative "Bush doctrine." The journalist Christopher Hitchens, then still on the left, called Fukuyama's argument "self-congratulation raised to the level of philosophy."  More systematic criticism followed from not-so-neo conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington, who argued that the Cold War's end would usher in a "clash of civilizations" across religious and national fissures.

When the World Trade Center collapsed into smoking rubble in September 2001, Fukuyama's critics pulled out their knives.  How could history be over when the world's most powerful country had just been attacked by a band of terrorists with ideological motives, whose worldview rested on a rejection of everything in democratic capitalism — people who hated our freedom, as President George W. Bush memorably put it? History, wrote tweedy conservative George Will, had returned from vacation. Fareed Zakaria, the centrist liberal, announced the end of the end of history.

All of this was unfair to Fukuyama, whose argument was not, "Nothing will ever happen again." The philosophical cast Fukuyama had given his thesis meant that a challenge would have to come in the form of deeper questions: Does democratic capitalism produce problems it can't solve, meaning that — by Fukuyama's own definition — it can't be a stable end to history? Are all the alternatives of the 20th century, and specifically the democratic socialist alternative, really out of the race?

As it happens, the current presidential campaign is pressing both of these questions anew. In a year when a man whose own party calls him a fascist is squarely leading the Republican primaries and a self-declared democratic socialist is leading an unexpectedly robust insurgency on the Democratic side, Fukuyama's argument is looking more and more tenuous. Maybe — for better or worse — questions thought to be closed are open again.

Fukuyama drew on several theoretical sources, most notably those of Max Weber, the great German sociologist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and G.W.F. Hegel, a philosopher who wrote a century earlier. Irving Kristol, who published "The End of History?" in the National Interest, joked that he was honored "to welcome Hegel to Washington."

The heart of Fukuyama's argument was that democratic capitalism — and no other system — satisfies two great human appetites. These appetites, in turn, are the engines of history and the arbiters of the success and failure of nations. The first was the drive for material progress.  Capitalism, Fukuyama argued, was the most powerful engine of economic growth: Only a market economy could allocate resources efficiently in a complex world to keep the fires of production and innovation burning. Although state-controlled economies could get through the relatively crude and stereotyped early stages of industrialization, they could never know enough, or be nimble enough, to coordinate the multifarious economies that came after.  Only the free market could do that.

The second appetite was the appetite for "recognition": pride, dignity, a sense of belonging. Following Hegel, Fukuyama argued that most of human history had involved zero-sum answers to the search for recognition: Rulers lorded it over peasants, masters over slaves, men over women, chosen peoples over heathens. But democracy, for the first time, established mutual recognition: the respect of equals for equals.  Ideally, it also based recognition on universal traits — the individuality and rationality of a citizen — rather than an inherent exclusive quality like nationality or religion. Waxing Hegelian, Fukuyama argued that its potential universality made mutual recognition uniquely rational, and that its rationality made it more stable.

Fukuyama also argued that capitalism served the appetite for recognition. It brought people together as equals in principle — self-interested bargainers in the market with no preexisting duties to one another — rather than as, say, masters and slaves. It gave the state, and the capitalists, an interest in universal education and training, if only to make workers more productive. Everyone would flourish together, getting richer and feeling respected.

None of this meant that conflict would immediately disappear. Less rational forms of recognition, such as fundamentalism, might continue to flare up and do real damage. But according to Fukuyama, they would burn themselves out: Attempts to organize nations around such principles would leave their people poor and parochial and, most likely, hungry for the good life of democratic capitalism. They did not present charters for the future to compete with liberal democracy.

In reality, Fukuyama's argument actually gave a novel twist to what its audience already believed. The End of History crystallized much of the elite common sense of the late 1980s and early 1990s. There was, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously put it, "no alternative" to free market.  This was soon a point of postpartisan consensus as Bill Clinton in the US and Tony Blair in the UK brought their countries' respective center-left parties firmly into the ambit of market thinking and policy. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman served up an accessible version of Fukuyama's argument in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, arguing that the global economy presented "golden handcuffs": Only capital-friendly pro-market policies could survive the pressure of globalization, but those who adopted them would be richly rewarded in growth.

This self-confident optimism fell to the blows of the 2008 financial crisis, the Occupy eruption, and economist Thomas Piketty's revelation that inequality has been growing dramatically in income and wealth since the early 1970s.  And so the real questions about Fukuyama's thesis have opened up again. Does democratic capitalism make most people rich enough, and dignified enough, to qualify as the end of history? Or will it continue to produce principled challenges, the quests for alternatives that keep history in motion?

In the presidential primaries thus far, a fair plurality of voters have supported either a candidate who acts like a fascist or one who calls himself a democratic socialist. And both candidates, for all their basic differences, mobilize grievance against an economy they portray as rigged and inequitable, as well as political leaders who because of their weakness (Trump) or capture by financial interests (Sanders) have been unable or unwilling to make it work for most people. They speak to people who do not feel their material needs are met, who feel burdened, indebted, and insecure.

Trump, at least, also speaks to the hunger for recognition, addressing people who feel disrespected and displaced and promising them a stronger, nationalist, and (implicitly) racial affirmation than tepid liberal democracy offers. Sanders's line on recognition is the opposite, the classic democratic socialist response to liberal democracy: Respect for everyone is a great idea, but it won't be real until everyone enjoys economic security, non-humiliating work, and a kind of economic dignity that the precariousness and disruption of the market undermine.

The economic context of this new discontent is concentration of wealth and income among the very richest, and decades of stagnation for the working and middle classes and the poor. Behind those trends is the discovery that the widely shared growth and relatively equitable distribution of income and wealth across the North Atlantic between World War II and roughly 1973 was a historical anomaly.  According to Piketty's 200-year history of economic inequality, it was the only time, aside from the generalized catastrophe of war and depression, that capitalist economies have not produced compounding inequality.

That anomalous time made many ideas plausible that now seem strange. John Kenneth Galbraith, the influential Harvard economist and Kennedy adviser, argued that in "the affluent society," scarcity and unpleasant work should soon become things of the past. Lyndon Johnson echoed these ideas in his calls for a "Great Society," a program remembered for its war on poverty but whose other half was a utopia of leisured middle-class humanism.

The rosier visions of Great Society optimism passed with the crises of the 1970s, but the basic confidence that markets were working for everyone did not.  Even as the day-to-day experience of many workers called it into question, this point of optimism remained the premise of a bipartisan generation of politicians and policy intellectuals who, for three decades from the mid-1970s, pressed forward labor-market liberalization (also known as de-unionization), entitlement reform, and, perhaps most important, a global regime of increasingly open movement of goods and capital.

Everyone knew that some sectors, even some regions, would take a hit from these changes. But, at least from the time that the first Clinton administration muscled through the North American Free Trade Agreement over union opposition, everyone respectable agreed that market making was in everyone's long-term interest. After all, economic theory taught that open markets produced the greatest total wealth. It was a matter of faith, more or less, that the distribution of that wealth would be remain as tolerably equitable as it had been in the 1950s and '60s.

This was the world in which Fukuyama debuted his philosophical defense of democratic capitalism as history's sole and sufficient answer to human needs. The optimism was already perhaps a bit strained by circumstances, but only in a way that made the imprimatur of erudition especially welcome.

Now, in a different world, Fukuyama's philosophical optimism is more strained than ever.  It is under pressure in austerity-riven Europe — the continent Fukuyama identified as the paradigm of a post-historical society — as fascist and quasi-fascist parties clash with a resurgent left. It is under pressure in the American heartland, where Michigan voters have just thrown their primary support to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Are these challenges from left and right real?  Or are they symbolic, emotional, and vestigial? For Fukuyama's thesis to be tested, this is the real question.

If Trump's politics are fascist, they are a fascism of gesture (presumably a crass one).  He does not propose a new relationship between the state and industry, and it seems unlikely that he has any idea of the nationalist corporatism that Hitler and Mussolini respectively established.

But the spirit of his campaign is contempt for liberal and democratic norms and procedures, direct appeal to the mobilized passions of "real" Americans, a nearly violent disregard for the interests and dignity of "outsiders" (religious or national), and the injection of personal force into the heart of governing.

The presidency he promises is totally personal, brutally direct, unconstrained by anything but the need to win. His economic promises, such as they are, amount to a kind of piratical mercantilism: He will wrest wealth from weaker peoples and share it among the volk at home.

If this is mainly a rejection of liberal compromises — an emotional politics otherwise defined by what it negates — well, that may be all that fascism ever was. Neo-Nazis are not interested in reestablishing the special place of the Volkswagen Corporation.  The bare fact that American political and economic life has produced enough sense of abandonment, broken promises, and outrage to inspire a movement that wants to break it and see what can replace it is reason enough to fear that history is not over, even if progress might be. The rise of an American quasi-fascism, or proto-fascism, or whatever it makes sense to call Trump, is not evidence that strongman mass politics is somehow an alternative to the version of capitalist democracy that was consolidated in the 1990s — but it is evidence that an economy that produces inequality and insecurity, increases the social distance between elites and everyone else, and translates money fairly directly into political influence will breed its own destabilizing challenges.

The Sanders campaign is quite a different thing. But it, too, has the peculiar quality that its style is more evidently radical than its substance. Sanders's embrace of the term "socialist," which was anathema for many decades even in the Democratic Party, announces that his New Deal/Great Society liberalism (more public investment, more social provision, a secular language of solidarity) comes in the spirit of radicalism. It is meant to point away from how we have been living.

Toward what, though? By Fukuyama's standard, history has ended unless there is an alternative. The rediscovery of socialism as a label, attitude, and beginning of a program has sometimes resembled a musician relearning an instrument after a stroke. The notes are eerily familiar and unfamiliar at once. A pattern comes, and then, after an instant of recognition, fades again. We have a good idea of what 21st-century socialism looks like in the pages of Jacobin and other hyper-articulate vehicles of the new radicalism (where what it means is often excited debate over both goals and strategies — and often more at the level of "race and/or class" or "utopia of leisure or of labor" than what exactly to do with the Department of Labor). We know much less about what it means for the growing numbers of young voters who claim the label, or the people at Sanders rallies who cheer it.

Fascism is the feverish nightmare of liberal democracy: the worship of power and mobilization for their own sake, contempt for facts and procedures, the wish to remake the world by will. Democratic socialism is liberal democracy's perennial ethical shadow. It has always begun from doubts that point toward radical aims. What is the value of equal freedom to spend a hundred million dollars on the candidate of your choice, or equal freedom to camp beneath a bridge? What is the value of elections when the economy's vicissitudes toss aside jobs, towns, and industries with the implacable force of natural disaster? How much are equal civil rights worth when you can be humiliated at work, or when economic inequality is both acute and inherited?

It takes more to make a democracy than Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis allowed, and his democratic capitalism will continue to generate its own opposition, because it leaves both material needs and the appetite for recognition unsatisfied.

Nothing that has happened in this election means there is a viable alternative to the 1990s version of democratic capitalism. There is no assurance that a surge toward an alternative would be anything but destructive — especially with the Trump forces in the mix.  But history is frightening precisely because it is uncertain.  What is clear is that we no longer live in a time inclined to accept that its frustrations and disappointments are simply the side effects of the best of all possible worlds, let alone to celebrate a philosophical argument to that effect. This time, the end of history is really over, even if there is no knowing what will replace it.

Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature.


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