Thursday, August 16, 2007

Reading :: The End of History and the Last Man

The End of History and the Last Man
by Francis Fukuyama

Imagine you're at a cocktail party. You don't really know anyone, but you're interested in mingling, so you approach a knot of people deep in conversation. One man is talking to the others, who look skeptical. "Really," he tells them. "The sun will always rise in the east and set in the west."

Surprised that they are so skeptical, you can't help jumping into the conversation. "He's right," you say quickly, and the man shoots a grateful glance your way. You're about to explain how the earth rotates around the sun, when the man concludes triumphantly: "For the Lord Apollo would never turn around his chariot! He will always journey across the sky from east to west!" The others look at you contemptuously and as they disperse, one says, "Oh great, another sun worshipper."

That's how I felt reading Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man. The conclusion sounds like it could possibly be reasonable -- and certainly seems attractive, as I discuss below -- but it is supported by a series of arguments and premises about which I am skeptical.

Before we get to that conclusion and the argument that supports it, let's review Francis Fukuyama himself. He is a philosopher and political economist at Johns Hopkins University and had been considered neoconservative through the first couple of years of this century, although he withdrew his support for the Iraq was in 2003. One of his theses, put forth in The End of History, was heavily used in neoconservative arguments for transforming Iraq into a democracy: the thesis that democracies tended not to war against other democracies.

That thesis is part of the overall argument Fukuyama makes. Essentially, Fukuyama's thesis follows that of Hegel and Marx, in outline if not in detail:
Both Hegel and Marx believed that the evolution of human societies was not open-ended, but would end when mankind had achieved a form of society that satisfied its deepest and most fundamental longings. Both thinkers thus posited an "end of history": for Hegel this was the liberal state, while for Marx it was a communist society. This did not mean that the natural cycle of birth, life, and death would end, that important events would no longer happen, or that newspapers reporting them would cease to be published. It meant, rather, that there would be no further progress in the development of underlying principles and institutions, because all of the really big questions had been settled. (p.xii)

Fukuyama, who draws heavily on Hegel's dialectic and, in later chapters, on Nietzsche, posits that the combination of democracy and economic liberalism (i.e., capitalism or free markets) is "the end of history," the system that makes the most sense and that eventually will become universal (or universally striven toward).
As mankind approaches the end of the millenium, the twin crises of authoritarianism and socialist central planning have left only one competitor standing in the ring as an ideology of potentially universal validity: liberal democracy, the doctrine of universal freedom and popular sovereignty. Two hundred years after they first animated the French and American revolutions, the principles of liberty and equality have proven not just durable but resurgent. (p.42)

Indeed, he says, we have tried to imagine something better than liberal democracy, and we have failed (p.46). Liberal democracies, which by his criteria did not exist until 1776, have multiplied in the world. And this trend is important: "it constitutes further evidence that there is a fundamental process at work that dictates a common evolutionary pattern for all human societies -- in short, something like a Universal History of mankind in the direction of liberal democracy" (p.48).

History, he argues, is directional (see Chapter 6). (He acknowledges postmodern critiques of this thesis in Chapter 5, but brushes them aside rather than engaging with them; see p.69.) To explain this direction, he draws on Hegel's idealist dialectics, arguing that the "primary motor of human history" is "a totally non-economic drive, the struggle for recognition" (p.135). History comes to an end when dialectic does: when there are no more contradictions, when "the present form of social and political organization is completely satisfying to human beings in their most essential characteristics" (p.136).

Fukuyama's thesis of a universal history, then, rests on the underlying thesis of a universal, transhistorical human nature (p.138). And to describe this universal human nature, Fukuyama reaches for a surprising source: Socrates. Socrates argued that the desire for recognition and value is a universal characteristic, called thymos (p.163), a characteristic that is separate from the other two components of the soul, reason and desire (p.177). Thymos can take the form of isothymos, the desire to be recognized to the same degree as everyone else, which is the foundation of liberal democracy; and megalothymos, the desire to be esteemed above all others, which leads to competitions and striving but also to tyranny (Ch.17). It is this universal characteristic of thymos, and particularly that of isothymos, that makes liberal democracy so appealing, since it is the only system that makes thymos possible for all. Even though differences of a cultural and economic nature will persist (p.244), the overall system will converge toward liberal democracy as the most universally satisfying system. Liberal democracy, he says later, gives the fullest scope to all three parts of the soul: reason, desire, and thymos (p.337).

Based on this analysis, Fukuyama rejects realpolitik -- the school of foreign policy based on Machiavelli and premised on the notion that history doesn't change, war is eternal, and the balance of forces is the most effective way to avoid conflicts (Ch.23). This school of realism, he says, looks only at capabilities and not intentions (p.258); it is deeply pessimistic. Fukuyama, on the other hand, is idealistic: "The civil peace brought about by liberalism should logically have its counterpart in relations between states." Drawing on Schumpeter, he argues that democratic capitalist societies are not warlike or imperialistic (p.260). Indeed, the costs of war have increased and the costs of trade have decreased, making war much less attractive (p.262).

I, for one, find the overall thesis to be rather seductive. Is history on the side of liberal democracies? Has the US found the right combination, and is the rest of the world trailing after us, eventually becoming happier and better off as they become more like us? What a pleasant and flattering thought! But I am much less sanguine about the premises and evidence that lead Fukuyama to this conclusion.

In particular, grounding this thesis in a particularly Western conception of the human soul seems oversimplified to say the least. Fukuyama spends so much of his time grounding his arguments for universality in Socrates, Hegel, and Nietzsche that he neglects to substantially draw from other philosophical traditions to demonstrate that the concept of thymos in particular is truly universal. He does provide anecdotal evidence, including quotes from dissidents of various systems, but he doesn't do enough to ground these as universal rather than cultural characteristics. In fact, he moves very easily from the concrete to the abstract in discussing human nature; he really needs to spend much more time at the concrete level, establishing universality with comparative work, before making that leap to the abstract.

He also treats the notion of thymos as unproblematically scaling from individuals to states. Again, he really needs to put much more effort into this part, since complex systems often have very different characteristics from their components. The fact that individuals extend esteem and equality to each other in a democracy, for instance, does not mean that their democracy as a whole extends something similar to other democracies. If states' characteristics correspond that closely to individuals' characteristics, Fukuyama really needs to drive this point home with a broader empirical base.

And that brings us to the third, empirical part of the argument. Fukuyama asks us to observe the "trends," trends that started less than 250 years ago on the national scale, for evidence that liberal democracy is the end of history. When you're arguing a universal thesis, though, this small slice of human history doesn't seem like enough empirical grounding -- especially since the trend can potentially be explained materially, as the result of better transportation, communication, and economic networks. What is the evidence that this stage is not transitional, beyond the fact that we have tried to imagine something better than liberal democracy, and we have failed (p.46)?

This book has been incredibly influential, and I'm glad I read it. At the same time, I was surprised at how grounded the book was in philosophical concepts rather than in empirical evidence. (It could have easily been grounded in both.) Either I am missing something -- which I readily admit could be the case -- or the book's seductive thesis has overshadowed its arguments for many readers. In any case, it's still worth a read for anyone who is interested in how US foreign policy is evolving.


Alan Rudy said...

Sadly, perhaps, Fukuyama utterly fails to draw on Marx's critique of Hegel, on the one hand, and the shared Utilitarian foundations of liberal democracy and industrial capitalism -- including the implicit argument that the tendencies of the former lie in contradiction with those of the latter. As you less directly suggest, Fukuyama's practicing political philosophy while masquerading as a political economist (where political economy at least purports to a materialist rather than idealist foundation.)

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Alan -- that comment is much more succinct and perceptive than my critique! Thanks -- CS

Alan Rudy said...

Glad to be of service... you have no idea what praise it is to suggest that _I_ could be succinct. I'm about to look over your latest thoughts on Latour.