Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man

The End of History and the Last ManThe End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For the good democrat, it’s an unpleasant fact: the best minds are often those least able to reconcile themselves to liberalism. We know the roll-call of great modern thinkers and artists, whether of the extreme right or the extreme left, who held liberalism in contempt and sought to build some utopia beyond it. Nietzsche and Shaw, Pound and Eliot, Yeats and Heidegger, Sartre and Lukács—allowing for the wide divergences among their perspectives, all condemned liberal civilization as an unheroic affair where cunning mediocrities lorded mere wealth and a spurious notion of universal equality over their moral or intellectual superiors. While the good democrat might be tempted to expel these fascist, theocratic, or totalitarian voices from the canon, the strongest version of liberalism might rather be the one that assimilates their critique and answers their challenge. Francis Fukuyama’s much-misunderstood 1992 book heralding the end of history attempts just this philosophical feat.

The book’s detractors deride its thesis as hubris-laden triumphalism. It was written after the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that crystallized into one iconic moment two decades when right-wing dictatorships and communist states fell across the world, from Chile and Argentina to Spain and Portugal to South Korea and South Africa. Most spectacular of all was the collapse of the Soviet Union, a regime that foreign-policy experts anticipated lasting into the 21st century.

Yet Fukuyama’s rather dry study in political science is less boisterous or boastful than readers might expect from its reputation. It sometimes reads, in fact, like an apologia for liberalism by a somewhat embarrassed acolyte, a thinker steeped in classical and modern traditions too sublime to leave him at ease in the philosophical company of such practical men as Hobbes and Locke.

Fukuyama knows—and explains at length—that one component of liberal democracy is a capitalist market driven by modern science’s ongoing development. This market system’s ability to deliver consumer goods to a broad middle class makes it almost irresistible to populations the world over, which is almost enough to account for their preferring it to buttoned-up clerical-military dictatorships on the right or ponderous and inefficient command economies on the left. Moreover, Fukuyama argues that our scientific knowledge is too developed and codified to be lost in any event short of world-ending catastrophe—that our papers are too well in order for the Dark Ages to come again. Liberal democracy in its consumer-society aspect is therefore the culmination of human history because it offers us a deal too good to ignore, a social contract we love security and abundance too much not to sign: prosperous societies for the price of limited government, free markets, and rule by expert technocrats. Fukuyama calls this motive for liberalism “the mechanism of desire”—those creaturely wants satisfied by modern science and modern markets.

“The mechanism of desire” is just what the anti-liberal traditions of right and left loathe about bourgeois society. Where is the honor, the glory, the struggle, the sacrifice in a regime set up solely to satisfy our animal desire to sleep and feed? Even allowing for the barbarity of Hitler and Stalin—not that the anti-liberals necessarily would make any such allowance—did we defeat them for this? For a society of trivial pleasures and base longings, a toy store inside a bordello? The good democrat dismisses the query as a fascist intellectual’s morbid obsession; but Fukuyama, who studied political philosophy under Allan Bloom and comparative literature under Barthes and Derrida before joining the RAND Corporation to offer his expertise to the Department of Defense, takes it seriously enough to offer a counter-genealogy for liberalism in which the serious reader of Plato and Nietzsche can take some pride.

Yes, part of liberalism derives from the desire that makes people want what only science and the social contract can give; this capitalist and free-market element is Anglo through and through, emerging from Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke. But our base desires can only explain so much; even Englishmen, surely, sometimes put their bare lives at risk for a higher principle, whether faith or honor, truth or justice. To explain what this other mainspring of human motivation might be, Fukuyama turns from England to Greece and Germany, to Plato and Hegel (or, as he allows, Hegel read through the influential lens of another political theorist turned political actor, Alexandre Kojève).

From the Greek philosopher’s tripartite division of the soul into a reasoning part, a spirited part, and a desiring part, Fukuyama plucks the middle term, thymos, a somewhat untranslatable word indicating essentially our need to assert ourselves socially. Hegel, modernity’s Plato, bases his entire philosophy on thymos when he posits the origin of human history in an allegorical conflict for prestige and mutual recognition between two primordial men. One, succumbing to his base desire to live even at the price of dishonor, surrenders to the other, an event that institutes social inequality, since the victor becomes a master and the vanquished a slave. Each gains a benefit from the relation and each loses something. Obviously, the slave loses his freedom and the master gains authority. But, because the slave is forced to work, he comes to understand our human productive capacity to transform nature, which the master, immured in his privilege, never learns; the master, meanwhile, takes no real pleasure in the slave’s service since there is no prestige in the deference of a man not his equal. This contradiction between what the slave enjoys despite his servitude and what the master lacks despite his command produces a new set of conflicts between the two until history ends in the synthesis of the master’s freedom wedded to the slave’s productivity: in short, a society where there are no slaves and every man is master to himself:

For Hegel, freedom was not just a psychological phenomenon, but the essence of what was distinctively human. In this sense, freedom and nature are diametrically opposed. Freedom does not mean the freedom to live in nature or according to nature; rather, freedom begins only where nature ends. Human freedom emerges only when man is able to transcend his natural, animal existence, and to create a new self for himself. The emblematic starting point for this process of self-creation is the struggle to the death for pure prestige.

For Fukuyama, as for Hegel, liberal democratic society—where we each recognize one another as equals even as we all transform nature for our mutual benefit—is this synthesis and is therefore the rightful telos of humanity’s ideological development. In this story, there is enough sublime motivation, tragic irony, violent conflict, and epic pathos to satisfy those temperaments for which the Englishman’s fervorless social contract traduces the human spirit by reducing it to mere appetite, what Plato would have regarded as the least of its parts.

The only way liberal democracy can fall short of humanity’s final political synthesis is if it too harbors an inherent contradiction necessitating further conflict. Now Fukuyama brings another alarming Teuton onstage to consider this possibility—for didn’t Nietzsche say that liberal society produces the bathetic creature he labelled “the last man,” a cow-eyed consumer so lost in complacent satisfactions that he lacks any thymos at all? (Nietzsche’s contemporary heirs—ultra-right-wing online shitposters—have their own pungent labels for this archetype: the soyboy, for instance, or the bugman.) And doesn’t this last man at the end of history eventually become so disgusted with himself that he begins to long for an apocalypse of the sort that ended Europe’s long peace in 1914 when the citizens of the nations clamored for a cleansing war?

Fukuyama says yes to this dire possibility. As a solution he proposes that liberal society must allow illiberal pockets in private life—religion, sports, art, etc.—to drain humanity’s incorrigible thymos away from the political realm while still satisfying our urge to rise up and be recognized as not merely equal to but better than our neighbors in at least some arenas. To put it more coarsely than he does, we may need a little fascism in our poetry or our football games or our church services to keep fascism out of the government. It is a satisfyingly Hegelian conclusion, laden with the dialectician’s circuitous ironies: we will keep liberalism alive forever through regular transfusions of illiberalism into the body politic.

The argument is ingenious; the argument is tightly knit; the argument does not deserve to be ritually mocked every time something bad happens. “Hey Frank, did you see 9/11, the Great Recession, the populist and identity politics revolutions, the war in Ukraine—where’s your end of history now, dude?” But none of these events invalidates the argument. The argument allows for contingencies and reversals. Fukuyama even straightforwardly predicts both “the Great Awokening”—what he sees as a pathological overdevelopment of the quest for recognition on the basis of narrower and ever more spurious identity categories—and the rise of right-wing strongmen for whom equal recognition is not enough to satisfy their urge to conquer.

As an honorary work of Continental Philosophy, The End of History does not lend itself to positivist falsification. It’s not an argument about every little thing that happens but about the logic driving longterm tendencies. Like Hegel himself, Fukuyama resists brief quotation since his text is so closely woven, but consider the following claim:

What is emerging victorious, in other words, is not so much liberal practice, as the liberal idea. That is to say, for a very large part of the world, there is now no ideology with pretensions to universality that is in a position to challenge liberal democracy, and no universal principle of legitimacy other than the sover­eignty of the people. Monarchism in its various forms had been largely defeated by the beginning of this century. Fascism and communism, liberal democracy’s main competitors up till now, have both discredited themselves. If the Soviet Union (or its suc­cessor states) fails to democratize, if Peru or the Philippines re­ lapse into some form of authoritarianism, democracy will most likely have yielded to a colonel or bureaucrat who claims to speak in the name of the Russian, Peruvian, or Philippine people alone. Even non-democrats will have to speak the language of democracy in order to justify their deviation from the single universal standard.

Fukuyama does make a now-embarrassing aside where he mocks foreign-policy realists for (rightly) predicting that even a non-communist Russia will continue to be expansionist, but it’s still true that Putin claims to speak and act on behalf of his people. Is there really “an ideology with pretensions to universality” outside of liberalism today? Anything that can meet the following challenge?

[W]e cannot picture to ourselves a world that is essentially different from the present one, and at the same time better.

Communism remains dead in the west, with only social democracy as its successor. The obvious anti-liberals of the moment believe in nationalism or civilization-states (on the global right) or in race and indigeneity (on the nominal left), but these are neither universal nor novel.

Perhaps only the pandemic-era rise of a technocracy more invasive than previously imaginable challenges the end-of-history thesis (which Fukuyama seems to have acknowledged in a later, much less famous book that I didn’t read). In this social-credit-score dystopia, based on the “epidemiological view of society” praised by Benjamin Bratton and eminently adaptable to non-medical circumstances like war and environmental calamity, humanity is shorn at last of its world-making capacity hailed in Hegel’s paean to the productive slave-become-self-master. This new universal end to history ends us as well, since we will be nothing but inert organisms actuated by the algorithms of our masters. But this alternate terminus will be so much worse than Fukuyama’s—no more smug mockery of his hubris if it happens!—that we will wish he’d been right, a wish that proves him right with its implication that the new universal is only different from liberalism but not better. And so for now, history still reposes, however plagued by nightmares, at its logical conclusion.