The recent rise of right-wing populist movements in the West has evoked a mixture of dismay and urgency amongst liberals, who had been led to believe that liberal democracy had solidified its authority over all other ideologies in the 21st century. As a result, the validity of one particular thesis, which garnered attention near the end of the Cold war, is being re-evaluated.
Reconsidering “The End of History”
In 1989, renown political scientist Francis Fukuyama published an essay with a strikingly bold title: “The End of History.”
Fukuyama’s thesis was simple: it did not allude to merely the passing of a particular period in post-war history, but rather the end of history as “the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Borrowing from the teachings of Hegel, Fukuyama argued that the contradictions that drive history can be understood in the realm of ideologies. Thus his argument depended on stressing the demise of other ideologies in the 20th century, most notably those of Communism and Fascism.
Yet the deterministic nature of Fukuyama’s argument can only be understood in reference to the context in which it was written: the Berlin Wall was being torn down, the Soviet Union was imploding, and the world was expecting a consumerist boom in an era of liberalization and privatization.
Everything at the time appeared to suggest that only liberal capitalist democracy would allow people to thrive in an increasingly globalized world, and that only the steady advance of “laissez-faire” economics could guarantee a future of free and democratic states, untroubled by want and oppression, and living in peace and contentment.
Anybody alive today could tell you that a lot has changed since then.
With the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union in June, Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections in November, and a number of other right-wing populist movements on the brink of elected success, Fukuyama’s thesis does not seem as convincing as it once was. That being said, before one can analyze these events in regards to Fukuyama’s thesis, key aspects of his thesis must be broken down, specifically the notions of liberalism and determinism.
Liberalism and determinism
The liberalism that Fukuyama predicted as being the “final ideology” is fundamentally defined by its commitment to liberty.
In its simplest form, liberty is grounded in the individual. It is the freedom to be all that one is, to actualize the fullness of one’s potential as a human being, endowed with the capacity for creativity and the ability to make autonomous value judgments.
Hence, it is a liberalism that depends on every individual’s maximization of their own material gain. However, this is where Fukuyama’s understanding of liberalism fails to support his thesis.
Voltaire reminds us that liberty in its purest form can be thought of as the realization of man’s inherent dignity as a human being. In short, liberal politics must be moral politics: liberalism will not work if too much emphasis is placed on total human autonomy at the expense of all others, nor if it is obsessed with materialism and consumerism.
This is where Fukuyama’s determinism comes in. He refers to Hegel in arguing that “history culminated in an absolute moment – a moment in which a final, rational form of society and state became victorious.” The summation of a material-oriented liberalism and a deterministic future did not prove to be compatible.
This incompatibility has materialized in the rise of right-wing populist movements – 2016 being the year that accelerated this rise.
2016 (and its consequences)
The rise of populist and nationalist movements can largely be attributed to a reemergence of what Fukuyama called “the class issue.” While there was no one cause for Trump’s victory – it was a perfect storm of racial grievances, disgust with the current political establishment, and declining educational standards – economic stagnation and rising disparities in wealth were indeed part of the problem.
In fact, in an article published following Trump’s election, Fukuyama conceded that “social class, defined today by one’s level of education, appears to have become the single most important social fracture in countless industrialized and emerging-market countries.”
This rift in the social fabric of many Western nations, he argues, has been driven primarily by the unique amalgamation of neoliberalism, globalization, and the march of technology – developments that have been accelerated by the consolidation of liberal democratic principles in the political spheres of the West following the end of the Cold War.
Hence, in 1989, Fukuyama correctly identified a unique relationship between the political and economic spheres of the liberal ideology; however, this relationship has become rather paradoxical since The End of History was published, because Fukuyama’s deterministic thesis rested on the central assumption that political liberalism must follow economic liberalism,
This same assumption can be used to undermine Fukuyama’s thesis itself. For example, Britain and the U.S., both avid promoters of neoliberalism and globalization throughout the past 25 years, have been experiencing alarming levels of marginalization within the lower social tiers. These nations though were also the first to have right-wing populist agendas materialize in their political spheres (Brexit and Trump’s election, respectively). Hence, the crumbling of extreme economic liberalism was followed by a crumbling political liberalism.
Why should I care?
What does this paradox mean for the future of history?
It means that history should not be viewed in a deterministic way. We now have rising right-wing populist movements, and their nativist attitudes pose a serious threat to liberal democracy and to the liberty of the individual. The nationalistic, xenophobic, and anti-immigrant nature of populist nationalists has put enormous amounts of pressure on those that do not fall in line with what is perceived to make a citizen “legitimate.”
In order to assure liberty and legitimacy to all citizens, we must attain a moral form of liberalism. That is, a liberalism that maintains its emphasis of liberty in all spheres (political, economic, social, etc.) while affirming the realization of man’s inherent dignity as a human being.
Whether this moral form of liberalism will achieve what Fukuyama’s liberalism could not and cause the end of history is unknown. For now, history is set to continue.