on November 12, 2011
Toward the end of the Cold War, three very different books were published within five years of each other that sought to explain the likely contours of the inchoate new world order emerging from the implosion of the communist bloc: David Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" 1989); Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History and the Last Man" (1992); and Samuel Huntington's "The Clash of the Civilizations"(1994).
The second in this triumvirate is the deepest intellectually, one might even say profound, yet the most widely misunderstood and often ridiculed. The vast majority of critics, I'm convinced, never actually read the book, as Fukuyama's thesis is sober and thoughtful. Unlike Kennedy's thesis, which is based on relative economic growth rates, or Huntington's, which is rooted (I would argue) in cultural anthropology, Fukuyama's argument is built upon the foundation of modern western philosophy. For those, like me, who only have an armchair education in philosophy, "The End of History" will be both a primer on the basic tenets of liberal political theory and a compelling argument for the spread of both capitalism and democratic representative government.
Fukuyama's argument is direct, but cerebral, and fundamentally grounded in the political philosophy of early 19th century German philosopher Georg Hegel, and supported by the further interpretations of Hegel by fellow German Friedrich Nietzsche and the 20th century French-Russian philosopher Alexandre Kojeve.
At the dawn of the twenty first century, Fukuyama writes, there were two undeniable trends in global affairs: a movement toward market capitalism on the one hand, and a shift toward liberal democracy on the other. He notes that these two trends are not, at least superficially, mutually reinforcing. In fact, one could argue that they should naturally work against each other. After all, authoritarian regimes in East Asia (Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, China) have proven that dramatic, market-oriented economic growth does not rely on a liberal political order. Indeed, democracy may actually stymie the efficient allocation of central resources toward critical infrastructure projects. Fukuyama sees Hegel's "need for recognition" as the missing link tying liberal economics with liberal political democracy.
This book is broken into five parts. The first two provide a background on the philosophical argument behind "The End of History" as posited by both Hegel and Marx, who agreed on the basics but reached radically different conclusions on the end point. Fukuyama maintains that politics is more like natural science than art or literature - its trajectory is directional and cumulative, with each generation building upon the efforts of the past, unlike the more liberal arts whose value remains subjective across the ages. (e.g. Are paintings or architecture better today than in ancient Greece or fin-de-siecle France? Depends who you ask. Are we more advanced in physics than those societies? No doubt. Fukuyama claims government is more like physics than art.)
I found part three to be the most informative and fascinating. Fukuyama explains that part of the problem with Hegel's focus on "recognition" in political philosophy is that there is no one word in English that accurately captures the true meaning. Machiavelli spoke of "glory," Hobbes of "pride," Rousseau of "amour-propre," Hamilton of "fame," Madison of "ambition," and Nietzsche of "the beast with red cheeks." Fukuyama makes a strong case for Plato's Greek word "thymos," the same word and concept that Jonathan Shay uses to develop his convincing hypothesis on the nature of moral degeneration after close order combat in his brilliant piece "Achilles in Vietnam." In short, every man, no matter his station in life, has a natural sense of self-worth, of dignity, and when that sense of personal dignity is violated the reaction can be severe. When we don't live up to our own estimate of thymos we feel shame, and when we do we feel pride. And when someone else, especially those in positions of power or authority, fail to recognize our thymos we feel indignation (or, as Shay wrote about Achilles and soldiers in Vietnam, rage). Thus, a healthy political order needs to be more than a basic social contract between man and his government, exchanging some personal rights in exchange for the ability to acquire property (what the Founders referred to as "happiness"), a sort of mutual societal non-aggression pact. Rather, it must also somehow serve man's desire for recognition, of his dignity and worth.
In part four Fukuyama presents his central thesis of the desire for recognition as the motor of history, looking at the recent past and projecting into the future some of the different ways the desire for recognition will be manifest. He notes that it was present in the people who fought for greater representation in right-wing authoritarian regimes in the 1970s and 1980s (Spain, Greece, South Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, etc.) and against communist dictatorships at the end of the Cold War - and arguably what is driving the Arab Spring movement across North Africa and the Middle East. The governments rocked by pro-democracy movements span most continents and cultures, include nations that have experienced rapid economic growth and others that have been moribund for decades, and have sought to overthrow or dramatically reform regimes that range from the far left to the far right. The common denominator, Fukuyama argues, is that they failed to satisfy the collective thymos of their people, as only liberal democracy can do that.
The fifth and final chapter addresses the question of the "end of history," what the final end state looks like, the so called "last man," as liberal democracies wrestle with their inherent contradiction that they treat unequal people (i.e. based on talent and success) equally.
In closing, this is a marvelous, thought-provoking book that, in light of the Arab Spring (depending how that turns out), may come back into fashion nearly a generation after its initial publication. Huntington's "Clash of the Civilization" may still stand as the leading interpretation of the post Cold War international order, but "The End of History" is still very much in the race and gaining ground everyday.