Almost thirty years ago, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man, a highly influential and often misunderstood work of political philosophy that declared an end to history in the sense that humanity had discovered the final and optimal form of human government: liberal democracy.
Thirty years later, not only do we have competing political models in China and Russia, but we are also experiencing the weakening and decay of liberal democracies throughout the world (most notably in the US and Brittain) due to a resurgence in authoritarian populism, nationalism, and religious fundamentalism. As Robert Kagan put it, these recent developments seem to spell the end of the end of history.
Or are we simply misunderstanding Fukuyama’s original point?
In After the End of History, the reader gets to hear Fukuyama address this question himself. Through a series of interviews, Fukuyama defends and elaborates on his original thesis, in addition to reflecting on his classical education and early intellectual development, his research interests and published works, the current state of the world, and the future of history, granting the reader access to the mind of one of the greatest political theorists of our time.
As Fukuyama explains, confusion regarding “the end of history” thesis stems from misreading it as an empirical statement rather than as the normative statement it was intended to be.
Considered as an empirical statement, the end of history is interpreted to mean that, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, history itself was supposed to end and the world would inevitably become ever more liberal and democratic. Since this clearly didn’t happen, many consider the “end of history” thesis to be the prototypical modern example of a failed historical prediction.
But this is not what Fukuyama intended; as a normative statement, one can think of the term “history” in “the end of history” as a synonym for “development” or “modernization,” as in “the end of political development.” In this reading, humanity has simply discovered the most effective, stable, and universalizable political system that satisfies the majority of the citizenry’s needs. The various forms of authoritarianism and communism ultimately failed to produce successful societies in the way that liberal democracies can, and, therefore, humanity has found the ideal political system to strive for (even if, in practice, it isn’t universally achieved).
This normative interpretation is far more difficult to argue against. As Fukuyama said:
“The most significant criticism isn’t on the Left because most people on the Left had at that point given up on communism. Nobody was willing to argue that there’s a higher stage where we’re going to nationalize all private property and have a centralized Leninist state. There’s a species of criticism that says you still have these big contradictions in capitalism, and that you need to somehow move to a different economic system, but I’ve never really understood what the alternative is other than greater regulation of the capitalist system and stronger social protections. You can have a little more, you can have a little less, but you’re still basically within a market economy. The only alternative is getting to the point where you start seriously trying to abolish private property, and not very many people are willing to go that far except in certain limited sectors.”
Fukuyama makes a valid point here. If “the end of history” is simply suggesting that liberal democracy is the ideal system of government—but, for a host of reasons, one that the world will not necessarily adopt—then as a normative statement, the thesis is well-founded. There is simply no viable alternative that would be appealing to the majority of people, or that, historically, has been shown to work.
But ideal does not mean inevitable, and even once a country adopts a liberal democratic system, there is no guarantee that it can keep it or that it will function without issue. As Fukuyama said:
“The ‘last man’ sections of The End of History are all about what could go wrong in a successful liberal democracy. The problem is the fact that peace and prosperity will not ultimately be satisfying to many people who will continue to seek recognition and community. For this reason I said very clearly back then that neither nationalism nor religion would disappear from world politics, but few people remember that now.”
Unfortunately, few people today grant Fukuyama this more charitable interpretation, and “the end of history” is considered nothing more than another failed historical prophecy. But this is unfortunate, because Fukuyama’s larger point is that liberal democracy is the form of government that we should be striving to establish or trying to protect, not that it will inevitably appear throughout the world due to uncontested historical forces. That’s why Fukuyama dedicated a large portion of his subsequent career to studying how effective states are built and how to prevent their ultimate decay—a possibility the US now faces in dealing with right-wing extremism and Trump’s attacks on the institutions of democracy.
Fukuyama is hopeful that the strength of US institutions is enough to withstand the assaults from the right, that liberal democracy will win out in the end against authoritarian populism, and that a richer conception of freedom will develop that includes a sense of duty and obligation to others and to the common good. But, of course, no one can predict the future, and, as Fukuyama has always maintained, to preserve liberal democracy, we must fight for it against the forces that seek to destroy it from within.
What’s also interesting to note is how far left Fukuyama has turned in terms of his politics and economic positions. Once associated with the neoconservative movement, Fukuyama has, in his own words, “definitely moved further to the left.” Reflecting on the war in Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis—both products of certain conservative ideas—Fukuyama began questioning his more conservative positions, and now believes inequality to be a much more significant problem, recognizes the limits of the free market, and embraces more robust social welfare and redistribution policies. Fukuyama also believes that the idea of freedom without a corresponding sense of duty to others is an impoverished view that is fundamentally inconsistent with the country’s founding principles.
Hopefully, this book goes a long way in clarifying Fukuyama’s political positions and drives home the point that liberal democracy, while ideal, is not inevitable, and must be fought for and protected from those who wish to destroy it (which today come almost exclusively from the right).
Francis Fukuyama’s catalogue of works is extensive, but the following four books should provide a solid understanding of his core ideas: