Thursday 18 October 2018

The End of the End of History

History does a fine line in irony. When Francis Fukuyama suggested in his famous 1989 article, followed by The End of History and the Last Man in 1992 that history is coming to an end, it was destined to be a foolish boast, a proper hostage to fortune. And viewed from the perspective of the close of 2018 it sounds faintly absurd, a historical curio, one for the professional historians of ideas and connoisseurs of concepts that never went anywhere. Even Fukuyama himself has intimated this is the case. Yet the end of history was, for a time, very relevant. Even on the left.

Fukuyama's basic thesis wasn't that history as such had stopped. There were still people and events, dear boy, events, but that certain big political questions had been settled. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its client regimes in Eastern Europe coupled with the spread of free market capitalism and the wave of (liberal) democratisation suggested that the most optimal, most agreeable social and political forms - how we should organise our societies - had been achieved. Liberal democracy had seen off its fascist rivals in the 1940s, and come the late 80s the spectre of communism was unmasked as a feeble, broken system that could barely meet the basic needs of its citizens. History understood as competing visions of the good society was dead. As it was put on the sleeve of Fukuyama's book:
The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of human history.

Of course, even back then there was a certain audacity to Fukuyama's claim. If one was wedded to a particular teleological reading of Marx, i.e. history was unfolding according to a certain logic with an end point down the line, it was supposed to be communism understood as a super-advanced society of free producers that marked not the ending of history, but rather the cessation of our species pre-history. Only when a society is fully conscious of itself and in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all, a social arrangement permissive of individuality, creativity and new ways of being human can flourish without the bite of hierarchy, class and oppression can we say history has truly begun. Fukuyama's argument airily dismissed that and in rolled his tanks on communism's lawn not long after Chinese Stalinism let theirs loose on Tiananmen Square.

Fukuyama's was more than just simple assertion, there was some hokey philosophy underpinning his scheme. Namely that human history is a struggle for recognition as a human being, and by way of Hegel with a dashing of Nietzsche the liberal state is the end point, ideologically speaking, for this struggle for the humanity of humanity. Citizenship, the separation of powers, the law, private property, all give us a stake in society and enabled us to recognise ourselves in others. In the richest societies the middle class is the standard to aspire to. However, all is not well after history. Big risks for the "last men" of this period comes from ennui - if everything is sorted, what is to stop boredom from setting in and subsequent problems arising from thrill-seeking behaviours? Politics and market economics can capture this, but then there are the twin dangers of social stasis, and new social conflicts arising from bordeom, new oppressions, and begin the whole cycle of struggling for recognition back to the beginning.

One needn't subscribe to the liberal Hegelianism of Fukuyama's piece to accept his basic argument was on the money. A number of leftists agreed that the game was up and capitalism with liberal democratic characteristics was the only show in town. Of course, it was less the force of Fukuyama's rhetoric and more the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the repeat defeats of the workers' movements in the West, and the explosion of consumerism and attendant cultural fragmentation that read the rites. New Labour was one result of this end-ism, but it persisted well into recent times. In the context of UK politics, those who would be heirs to Blair have politics bounded by liberalism and capitalism. Even under Ed Miliband his pale version of social democracy was couched entirely in a 'variety of capitalisms' argument, and in crucial respects remained as committed to "economic calculation ... and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands" as his immediate forebears.

I read The End of History and the Last Man when I was an undergraduate. It was the Autumn before New Labour won its famous election victory and remember thinking, like many others, this really was the end and the best we could hope for were telegenic grins and stealing policies from the Tories. Though even then I understood enough about Marx and how class struggle works that nothing is forever, and what seems permanent at one moment reveals itself as transient in the fullness of time. In his New Statesman interview Fukuyama concedes that some inroads into private property is not only probable but desirable, but while discounting a return of communism (at least as he knew it) he does accept that Marx was right about capitalist crisis and its tendency to periodically slip into them. To give him some credit, he has noted the world has changed and has altered his views accordingly - which is more than can be said about some.

The truth of the matter is history is back. Authoritarian politics is on the rise around the world, liberalism is disarmed and in a state of collapse, Third Way politics is dead, and mainstream conservative parties are in trouble. But there is more at work than gloom and dystopia. Corbynism here. Bernie-ism over there. The rise of Melenchon in France, the example of Podemos in Spain, these are beginnings pointing to a rising international of new class forces. History then is offering a choice between reaction and hope, what is - with added brutality and nightmarish accoutrements - or what could be. The period Fukuyama described and hailed is gone, and it's not coming back. What comes next depends on the side you pick.


Speedy said...

But he was half-right in so much as concepts of systems and planning have been sacrificed to the self-policing market, upon which we in the global north rely for our prosperity, largely at the cost of those in the global south.

Post-9/11 Fukuyama was criticised for not having predicted Islamism, and this was indeed, perhaps, a foreshadowing of the existential crisis that he predicted - a reaction against consumerism and liberalism in general and the internal contradictions inherent in Islamic cultures in particular.

The subsequent retreat from democracy and rise of authoritarianism/ reaction (Brexit) is a later expression of this existential angst. Marx would be right to identify the invisible hand of economics sitting behind this, but his solutions have been proven to fall flat.

With the centre moving to the right, the social democratic policies of JC, Sanders etc are seen as far left, but they are only modest adjustments to a global behemoth, whatever their personal views may be. As Boffy says - they are internationalists, yet with internationalism lies the problem - global capitalism is just too big for national parties, and the structures of global economics mitigate against nations cooperating (rather competing). The EU was created during the "fake" stability of the Cold War. Could it be now?

In a sense, the nationalists have got it right(er) in so much as they, perhaps albeit unconsciously, understand the fundamental issue, and their solution - not to destroy but sieze control of the EU is a sensible strategy. The trouble is they are exploiting real concerns for evil ends. But the left, by turning its nose up at the nation state, the existential anxieties of ordinary folk, etc, casts itself as part of the problem, not the solution, and leaves the field free, once again, to the right.

Dialectician1 said...

Yes, I agree with Speedy, above. The left needs to get to grips with, what Bannon et al call, 'economic nationalism'. The right have some justification for pointing out that the 'liberal elite' (managerialist, pragmatic, social democrats) fucked up. It was during their period of hegemonic pomp (on their shift) that the nation state became powerless to the demands of an under-regulated capitalism, leading to the 2008 financial crisis. What these pragmatic managerialists actually promised us was: sensible politics (what works) without old fashioned class prejudices (ideology) and the end to the era of boom and slump. In this classless future, we were all going to live a blissful life of endless consumerism......(the end of history?). What we ended up with was austerity, falling living standards, debt, precariousness and alienation. No wonder social democracy is a busted flush. Of course, no one believes them any more and nobody votes for them.

People today are frightened. They do not trust ‘ internationalism’ because it is code for more jobs going abroad (and cheap imported labour). Those bearing the brunt of the ten years of hardship following the crash are in no mood for looking outwards and are bemused by the war of words around ‘identity politics’. The left needs to return to the language of ‘class’, which is an international language. They need to explain the history of capitalism and the rise of the super rich. They need to junk those silly New Labour notions about meritocracy (equality of opportunity) and return to proper socialist values of equality of means. (Jobs, housing, schools, hospitals, transport etc)

As Bannon said, (paraphrase) while the liberal left continue to concentrate on identity politics, we will continue to win on the economy.

Kamo said...

Fukuyama's thesis was a study in hubris, but I think you read too much into current political events; to me they sit squarely within a standard deviation of the long-term norm. It's easy to get het up about right-wing populists in Western nations but they still fit squarely within the 'meta' of liberal democracy, market based approaches, and constitutional checks and balances. On the flip people who obsess over Corbyn's historic Wolfie Smith schtick should understand that's the stuff he did when he didn't think he had a serious political career, now he's got an actual shot at power pragmatism alone is slowly forcing him closer to the centre.

Lidl_Janus said...

The End of the End of History is fine. The Clash of the Clash of Civilisations, on the other hand, is getting pretty fucking aggravating,

Tmb said...

The 'End of History' imho, is just another one of those phrases that self regarding clever people quote to make themselves seem intellectual when they have nothing much to say. Similar to 'the world won't end with a bang but a whimper' or 'a butterfly's wing flap in the Amazon creates a hurricane somewhere else' and many other non sequiturs which take the place of in-depth debate and discussion. Why debate at length when some smart arse can say something clever sounding? It's the pseudo intellectual variation of the person leaving a Steven Hawking book on their coffee table. In 1899, the bloke who ran the patent office in America said that there was nothing left to be patented because everything had been invented. Ho hum.

The West is going through a crisis, and though some may think it is the end of history, the Indians, the Chinese, the Brazilians and many others will heartily disagree.

CCAAC said...

The history coming to an end theory was one that Marx subscribed to, or more to the point that history would reach a high point and then at some point thereafter fall off a cliff.

Fukuyama thesis is yet to be disproven actually, even if it does still seem foolish. But his end of history is history reaches a high point, which happens to be US style capitalism. Of course I would argue that US capitalism does not even represent the high point of our current world, I can think of loads of examples of places with better values than the US, for example, Sweden, Bolivia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Russia, North Korea, whats left of the Islamic state etc etc.

The end of the world we should be talking about is the one the Yvette Cooper loving centre left seem intent in making happen, namely their absurd Russophobia, culminating in Trumps decision to drop the INF treaty, you must be proud. As Trump says the liberals have gone wacko

The other end of the world is that which has been caused by Western values being spread to every corner of the globe (from Brazil to India, namely insatiable consumption and sod the consequences, the relentless search for money making opportunities.

Yes capitalism certainly does seem like the end point to me, the whole thing will be toast by the time any kind of socialism appears to be universal on the world stage.

The liberal twitterarti getting all hot and bothered by Russians, racism, homophobia etc seem to me like a million and one Nero’s, fiddling while everything burns.