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Engaging but unconvincing
on 6 January 2013
The year is 1993. The Berlin wall has fallen. The West has won the Cold War. The West's ideology seems triumphant as Communism has been discredited around the world. In this heady political milieu, Francis Fukuyama posits that History has ended because it is directional and inexorably leads all people to choose the most rational form of government: liberal democracy. Twenty years on, Fukuyama's thesis seems questionable.
The End of History is based on the Hegelian conception of history as the unfolding of Spirit. History, defined by Hegel as the progress of mankind to higher levels of rationality and freedom, terminates in the achievement of full self-consciousness. Fukuyama argues that mankind seems to be making Hegelian progress for two reasons: economics and the need for self-recognition.
1. ECONOMICS. Modern economies need to be rationally organised. Plans need to be made and products produced using rational means. As such, reason and efficiency become the animating features of a modern economy. In the process, rational means of production undermine traditional sources of authority such as clan ties and religion.
2. SELF-RECOGNITION. Various interest groups in a modern country vie for power in order to be 'recognisd'. People, being social creatures, want to have their voices heard. The only system that guarantees that the voices of competing interest groups will indeed be heard is liberal democracy
So far, so good.
The End of History was written at the end of the Cold War when Russia was comatose and China had not yet emerged on the world stage. Fast forward twenty years and the story is different. China is the second-largest economy in the world and is emerging as a counter weight to the West. A resurgent Russia has weathered the debilitating storms of the post-Communist era. And both countries are decidedly not liberal democracies. According to Fukuyama, we were at the end of History in 1993. Apparently, Fukuyama missed something.
NO SYNTHESIS: THE POWERFUL AND RE-PACKAGED MILLENARIANISM
The main weakness in Fukuyama's thesis - and its underlying Hegelian foundation - is the notion that there is directionality in history; that History has a goal which will unfold by and by. This is not only a weakness, it is a dangerous notion because it glibly justifies the status quo.
In essence, Fukuyama's thesis is an ode to the victors of the Cold War; he seems to be saying, 'Why not pat ourselves on the back? Guess why we (the West) are dominant? Well, because we are the culmination of History; all of History has been leading us to this point.' Such thinking is intellectual cowardice since it does not examine power relationships. Instead, it papers over the real human misery that the powerful inflict on the less powerful. Afterall, if the powerful are only playing their part in the unfolding of a universal spirit of History, why should one question imperialism, colonisation, slavery and other shameful episodes through which the powerful have dispossessed the powerless (in the name of a greater good)?
While reading the book, Fukuyama's thesis - and indeed Hegel's - felt oddly familiar to me: I had heard it before in Sunday School. Fukuyama has repacked the millennial promises of a New Jerusalem (in the Book of Revelations) into a secular narrative and presented it as definitive History. It is not clear to me why there is rational directionality in history and why the end thereof should be 'Christian'. Fukuyama does not explain this well.
Are we are all destined to be liberal democrats (in the Western mould)? Fukuyama assumes that there is one way of coming to terms with modernity - the Western way. As such, he does not pay adequate attention to the traditions of non-Western cultures and how these cultures might embrace modernity on their own terms. Despite the considerable weaknesses of the book, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the End of History because it is very well-written and quite engaging. Yet, I was unconvinced by Fukuyama's arguments. My recommendation: Read the End of History because it is an influential and interesting book; however, be skeptical about its universalist secular eschatology.