End of History
“”What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
|Oh no, they're talking about|
The End of History hypothesis, first proposed in 1989 by ex-neoconservative and political scientist Francis Fukuyama (1952–), infamously holds that, with America's hegemony following its victory in the Cold War, liberal democracy as an ideology had triumphed over fascism and communism, thus ending the history-driving Hegelian Dialectic. This eye-roller became popular in the early part of the 1990s, but the rise of religious extremist ideas, the resurgence of an authoritarian Russia, and the increasing hegemonic influence of China have all posed great challenges, not only to Fukuyama's conjecture, but to the "democratic world" as a whole. Fukuyama himself has acknowledged the flaws in his initial argument. After 9/11, the "End of History" trend was, if not disproven, at least shown to be taking longer than Fukuyama may have hoped.
How the West won
Fukuyama's works can best be understood through his worldview. His interpretation of history is adapted from Hegel, and posits that the story of history is best understood as a long, long struggle to realize humanity's latent desire for freedom. What the "End of History" really means is that the West did it. They won. From the fall of the Soviet Union onward, ideological struggles would only further strengthen the dominance of Western liberalism.
Despite using a dramatic term like "The End of History," Fukuyama isn't saying that wars won't break out, or economic crises won't be triggered, or bad things will stop happening. His argument is only that no serious ideological threat would ever again rise to challenge the liberal capitalist world order, as it had supposedly proven itself superior to authoritarianism in all respects. Very early in his essay, Fukuyama actually very specifically rejects the idea that the West's victory would result in a perfect and peaceful world:
"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. This is not to say that there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affair's yearly summaries of international relations, for the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world. But there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run."
His essay, however, was largely inspired by his observations of then recent political events. The first version of the essay was published in 1989, when the Berlin Wall was crumbling, the USSR was collapsing, and the Second World was going nuts for a consumerist orgy of free market awesomeness. Fukuyama's introduction does a good job of explaining why he and his contemporaries viewed liberal democracy as the last ideology standing.
"The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism. In the past decade, there have been unmistakable changes in the intellectual climate of the world's two largest communist countries, and the beginnings of significant reform movements in both. But this phenomenon extends beyond high politics and it can be seen also in the ineluctable spread of consumerist Western culture in such diverse contexts as the peasants' markets and color television sets now omnipresent throughout China, the cooperative restaurants and clothing stores opened in the past year in Moscow, the Beethoven piped into Japanese department stores, and the rock music enjoyed alike in Prague, Rangoon, and Tehran."
In 2007, Fukuyama himself interestingly rejected the idea that his endgame world would be based around the American system, instead claiming the world would more closely resemble the European Union, saying "The EU's attempt to transcend sovereignty and traditional power politics by establishing a transnational rule of law is much more in line with a "post-historical" world than the Americans' continuing belief in God, national sovereignty, and their military."
How the West might lose
The greatest and most obvious criticism of Fukuyama's theory can be made by making simple observations about the world since the early-1990s. The West and its ideologies are under assault from all corners in a manner which highly suggests that the world might find itself in a titanic ideological struggle not seen since the Cold War. One problem is that several ideological challengers have risen to face Western liberals, and they cannot be brushed aside in the glib manner in which Fukuyama addressed Soviet communism and European fascism. The other problem is that internal weaknesses have also become seriously noticeable in the political systems of many nations, both within Europe and in North America.
Authoritarian capitalism: wealth without freedom
Probably the greatest factor that ended the Cold War was economics: the USA quite simply outspent the USSR. American leaders goaded the Soviets into an arms race that communist Russia's much smaller economy couldn't withstand. The great weakness that brought Russia down was its economic system. Fukuyama believed that the temptation of prosperity would draw authoritarian states onto the path towards democracy. However, there are now two major cases where this has not happened: China and Russia.
China, for instance, has very clearly transitioned into a capitalist nation, largely beginning with Deng Xiaoping's reforms in 1978, and resulting in a "communist" state where 70% of the economy is privately-owned, a large number of its population are billionaires (but not by percentage), and the economy's greatest challenges involve the stock market and real estate. However, in both China and Russia, the most strategically important industries are always heavily influenced by the state.
What makes this model dangerous is the combination of capitalist wealth with centralized authoritarian power. China's Xi Jinping may have a theoretically smaller (for now) economy to work with, but he can wield this economic strength far more effectively than an American president could, entirely due to the comparative powers of the two offices. When two nations have similar resources, but the leader of one nation has more freedom in how he can use these resources, one nation has a clear advantage. Like the United States, China can also use its money to buy friends. Illiberal regimes which seek to add to their own wealth are far more likely to seek guidance from a fellow illiberal regime rather than from a democratic nation which transparently seeks to create another democratic nation.
China especially, has successfully been gathering credibility for its own model versus the Western. Due to the fact that economic growth is easy in an authoritarian capitalist government as the government still controls everything. (As long as it's competent of course.) In the wake of the Great Recession, China's ability to create an economic plan and force the whole nation to follow it seems very attractive. This also allows China to use economics as a means to benefit national interest, as shown when they compelled their energy companies to invest in Africa, drawing much of the continent into a soft sphere of influence.
More recently, Fukuyama has made his triumphant return to US headlines, but now he seems to be singing a different tune. Fukuyama is now worried about a possible implosion of Western democracy from within, a fear which was heightened by the election of (who else?) Donald Trump. This has forced Fukuyama to address what is now apparent as an oversight in his initial hypothesis: democracies can backslide into authoritarianism. His primary concern seems to be with the president's willingness to attack the legitimacy of the democratic institutions which prevent him from having his way, like the courts, the media, and the very concept of a political opposition. However, he has also noted how the deep dysfunctions in the American political system, most notably money in politics and income inequality, has created the conditions necessary for the rise of a potential authoritarian populist.
Also typical for the man who wrote his first essay about the collapse of Soviet global leadership, his other great concern is the effect this democratic backsliding will have on American global leadership. Not only could the United States take a friendlier tone with the authoritarians who gnaw at the Western liberal order, Fukuyama fears, but a general withdrawal from the world stage could create a power vacuum that would be filled by the likes of Russia, China, and Iran.
Even as early as 2014, Fukuyama showed himself to be considerably less idealistic in this respect, acknowledging that countries like Thailand and Turkey turned against their liberal institutions, and noting the failure of the Arab Spring and the Orange Revolution.
Data also supports the trend of the world backsliding as Freedom House states that since 2005 more countries have been democratically backsliding then democratizing, with states such as Hungary, Poland, India and Brazil being cited as other major examples during this time. The U.S. itself in 2021 has dropped 11 points in the last 10 years, including 3 points in 2020 alone, but it is still rated as free.
Why the hypothesis was absurd to begin with
Fukuyama never said that wars, economic collapses, and other bad things would stop happening, just that liberal capitalism would be unchallenged, thus making the end of history. However, the problem is that in reality, wars, economic collapses, and other bad things would have to stop happening for the end of history to ever happen, because the existence of wars and economic collapses eventually will make people turn on liberal capitalism and replace it with a new system, especially if these problems escalate. And as long as bad things continue under any system, the system will ultimately be changed again and again forever and ever and ever until and unless bad things stop happening.
And another thing…
At the end of 1066 and All That, published in 1930, W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman state that World War I ended with the world in a situation where:
“”America was thus clearly Top Nation, and history came to a full stop.
Now, that's just tragic.
- What Is Fukuyama Saying? And to Whom Is He Saying It? James Atlas, New York Times. 1989. Archived.
- [chttps://www.wesjones.com/eoh.htm Text of "The End of History", The National Interest. Summer 1989.]
- The History at the End of History Francis Fukuyama. The Guardian. Tue 3 Apr 2007.
- How ‘Communist’ China has embraced capitalism but remains Leninist at heart Cary Huang. South China Morning Post 15.NOV.17
- Western Vs. Authoritarian Capitalism John Lee. The Diplomat JUN.18.19
- The Tipping Point Of China's Authoritarian Capitalism Anders Corr. Forbes Mar.16.116
- The growing appeal of China's model of authoritarian capitalism, and how it threatens the West Niv Horesh. South China Morning Post. Last Updated: 15.Nov.16
- China in Africa Elanor Albert. Council on Foreign Relations. July 12, 2017
- The man who declared the ‘end of history’ fears for democracy’s future Ishaan Tharoor. Washington Post. Feb.9.17
- Is American Democracy Strong Enough for Trump? Francis Fukuyama. Politico. JAN.23.17
- America: the failed state Francis Fukuyama. Prospect Magazine. January 2017
- At the 'End of History' Still Stands Democracy Francis Fukuyama. Wall Street Journal. JUN.6.14