By 'the end of history' Fukuyama means that humankind has found the ultimate form of governance and that the period of experimentation has come to an end. Hegel and Marx believed that the evolution of human societies would end when mankind had achieved a form of society that satisfies its deepest and most fundamental longings. For Hegel this was the liberal state while for Marx it was a communist society. Fukuyama believes that humanity will be led to liberal democracy.
The book is divided into five sections. Part I addresses the issue of universal history. As individuals we can be optimistic about the 20th century with its improving prospects of health and happiness but pessimistic at the slow progress towards liberal democracy. This 20th century pessimism is in contrast to the optimism of the 19th century marked by peace and improvements in material well being. Science was conquering disease and poverty and the spirit of 1776 and the French Revolution was spreading throughout the world. There was a feeling of accumulating knowledge, increasing wisdom and advancement from the lower to higher levels of intelligence and well being. Free trade was replacing empire building and it seemed that war would be economically irrational. But the 20th century started disastrously with thousands dying daily over a few yards of ground in World War I. Horrendous as this war turned out to be, it was only a foretaste of new forms of evil backed by modern technology and more sophisticated political organization. The ultimate evil of the holocaust emerged in a country with the most advanced industrial economy and one of the most cultured and well-educated populations in Europe, highlighting the need for technological progress to be accompanied by moral progress. Without moral progress, technology will be turned to evil purposes and mankind will be worse off than previously.
However, the author argues that during the second half of the 20th century the world got better and the final quarter of the century saw communism and authoritarian governments collapsing or undergoing severe crisis. In most cases reforms were not imposed from the outside but were due to an internal crisis of confidence that had infected the ruling elite. In Fukuyama's opinion liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration spanning the globe and this is his basis of optimism. After a millenium of experimentation and false starts humankind can at last see the light at the end of the tunnel and this is his rational for drawing our attention to the need to plan the next steps.
Part II uses natural science to explain the direction and coherence of history, based on the fact that technology confers a decisive military advantage and limitless wealth. The logic of natural science seems to dictate a move towards capitalism; the world's most developed countries are also its most successful democracies.
Part III introduces the concept of man's struggle for recognition. Only man can move beyond self-preservation for the sake of higher, abstract principles and goals. Much of human behavior can be explained as a combination of desire and reason, but Hegel maintains that self-esteem drives the whole historical process. When we are not recognized we feel anger; when we fall short of our own sense of worth we feel shame; and when we are correctly evaluated we feel pride. It is self-esteem that drives men into a battle to the death, creating masters of those willing to risk their lives and slaves of those who give in. But the relationship of lordship and bondage would ultimately fail because humanity is not complete. Lordship and bondage led to the French and American revolutions to be replaced by the principles of popular sovereignty, the rule of law and universal and reciprocal recognition. Adoption of these principles should ensure that every citizen recognizes the dignity and humanity of every other citizen. Dissatisfaction with the flawed recognition available in aristocratic societies caused revolutions while Communism is being superceded by liberal democracy primarily because it has a defective form of recognizing man's self-worth. Seeking recognition has been the central problem of politics for the past millenium; it was the origin of tyranny and the desire to dominate. The author warns us that communities must cater to the desire for recognition while protecting themselves from its destructive effects.
The deeper and more profound question concerns the goodness of liberal democracy itself and not only whether it will succeed against its rivals. The internal contradictions have already lead to such serious problems as drugs, homelessness, crime, environmental damage and consumerism. Part IV questions whether today's liberal democracy is completely satisfying because capitalism creates economic inequality and equal people are recognized unequally. In addition peace and prosperity leaves unsatisfied that part of us that seeks struggle, danger, risk and daring.
Part V: The Last Man brings us to the important part of the book which can be summed up by these sentences: "Common sense would indicate that liberal democracy has many advantages over its 20th-century rivals, fascism and communism, while loyalty to our inherited values and traditions would dictate unquestioning commitment to democracy. But the cause of liberal democracy is not necessarily best served by unthinking partisanship, and by the failure to address squarely democracy's failings. And it is obviously impossible to answer the question of whether history has come to an end without looking more deeply at the question of democracy and its discontents." Left to itself can liberal democracy be indefinitely self-sustaining, or will it collapse from internal rot much as communism has done? This is the part of the book which we must study carefully to ensure that never again will technology and sophisticated political systems be turned to evil purposes leaving mankind worse off than he was before.