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The End of History and the last man by Francis Fukuyama

26/04/2015

Francis Fukuyama’s famous book The End of History and the last man is often considered the intellectual weight behind the Neo-conservatism which influenced foreign policy under US president George W. Bush.

Fukuyama has since distanced himself from the neo-conservative movement and explicitly rejected the so-called Bush doctrine’s desire to impose democratic values upon foreign states with vastly different cultural underpinnings.

His 1992 book was an expansion on ideas presented in an earlier 1989 essay by Fukuyama entitled “The End of History?” which was written in the wake of the Berlin Wall’s collapse and the imminent demise of the Soviet Union.

Given the expansion in the number of democratic states globally at the time he wrote The End of History, Fukuyama’s thesis was that liberal democracy now represented the ideological endpoint in the evolution of mankind’s socio-political structure.

History was over because man no longer faced severe internal contradictions which retarded his potential for full development. Building on Hegel’s notion of history as a series of constant struggles for recognition between the master and the slave, Fukuyama contended liberal democracy appeared to represent that most consistent system.

Overcoming contradictions

Fukuyama considered liberal democracy or market democracy had surpassed its ideological rivals as each competing system had inevitably been brought down by its own internal contradictions or inconsistencies. Communism preached equality but in practice those connected to the ruling regime were more equal than others, meanwhile ordinary people living in capitalist societies could more easily access a far wider range of consumer goods and services and enjoyed a greater quality of life.

The earlier feudal systems allowed for the development and recognition of the lord but only through his exploitation of the serf. Marx felt inequality would ultimately be the downfall of liberal democracy but the rise of fortunes of ordinary workers in those countries with such a structure coupled with the inability of communism to deliver on the subjective preferences of consumers and that system’s inevitable slide into totalitarianism consigned Marxism to the history books as a political idea.

Yet democracy is not a system absent contradictions and it is perhaps the limiting of its decision making apparatus to certain agreed areas and not into others that is responsible for its persistence. The great fear of early Classical liberals like Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill rested on the notion of the “tyranny of the majority” whereby a situation of mob rule would erode the individual rights of minority groups.

Yet democracy has by and large not resulted in revolution perhaps due to the burgeoning of a middle class comprised of workers who own property granting them a stake in societal stability. De Tocqueville recognised property owners would prevent democracy from leading to revolution:

Not only are men of democracies not naturally desirous of revolutions, but they are afraid of them. All revolutions more or less threaten the tenure of property; but most of those who live in democratic countries are possessed of property; not only are they possessed of property, but they live in the condition where men set the greatest store upon their property.

Furthermore he saw the growing middle class as resistent to revolution because they were aware of its potential costs:

Now, these eager and apprehensive men of small property constitute the class which is constantly increased by the equality of conditions. Hence in democratic communities, the majority of the people do not clearly see what they have to gain by a revolution, but they continually and in a thousand ways feel that they might lose by one.

So democracy hasn’t wrought revolution and an upending of society as we know it but this is not the end to democracy’s contradictions. It is apparent to anyone who has read a survey or witnessed political debate that some people are more informed than others.

The universal franchise means anyone can vote regardless whether they understand the main policies of the major parties, the economics of those policies or the status quo policy structure to be replaced. Public choice scholars have further argued the problem is endemic because voters have no incentive to be informed about politics because their single vote has a vanishingly small chance of being decisive in an election. As I have argued in an earlier post coercing people who are disinterested in voting to begin with risks magnifying this problem.

Nonetheless I believe Fukuyama added greatly to political discourse in building on understanding of where desire for democracy came from.

Thymos

A central idea in The End of History is thymos, an ancient Greek notion based on the desire for recognition. I think this idea of being heard which democracy can offer (albeit in limited fashion) not solely through voting but also by expressing opinions (which are much easier to do nowadays with blogs, youtube and other forums) gives weight to democracy. Fukuyama also argues, I think correctly, that because democracy allows people to be heard and to express themselves that it legitimates decision making (at least to a greater extent than preceding socio-political structures).

It is the need for people to be recognised, valued and heard which leads to an evolution towards liberal democracy. However 23 years on the rise of islamic extremism and doubt within established democracies about the validity of the system appears to have slowed the advance of democracy.

The rapid economic rise of a sleeping giant which has raised millions from a state of abject poverty without democratising also provides food for thought.

The elephant in the room

The People’s Republic of China continues to confound grand theories of democratisation. China’s market socialism/ authoritarian capitalism stands athwart history as a curious outlier.

Many within that state remain “unrecognised” in the Fukuyaman sense yet reforms since 1978 have provided much more economic freedom for China and delivered a higher standard of living for ordinary Chinese.

The curious element of the Chinese system to me is that in spite of the tight political control, the ruling Chinese Communist Party seeks to maintain their legitimacy by competence in state craft and some responsiveness to public concern. The CCP has in a sense “recognised” public concerns around environmental issues in particular where many Chinese are worried about air pollution and other environmental problems and the CCP have responded with a big push towards renewable sources of energy.

The End of History is not yet here

The End of History and the Last man presented a bold view of mankind’s socio-political evolution. Fukuyama did a stellar job in providing the philosophical heft behind the legitimacy of democracy drawing heavily on both Marx and Hegel for their interpretations of society and democracy’s superiority to previous structures in “recognising” ordinary people and their views.

Democracy by itself is in my opinion a flawed structure in that uninformed views carry as much weight as informed views and the “general will” is not a definite and obvious sentiment but rather subject to the changing whims of public opinion and susceptible to manipulation by interested parties.

Liberal democracy suggests by limiting the realm of democratic decision making we can combine the value of universal recognition and thumos without unduly constraining the rights of minority groups.

23 years on from The End of History, many people enjoy a higher standard of living but the pre-eminence of liberal democracy has come under greater scrutiny in particular with the rise of China’s market socialist structure which sits as a curious outlier defying the global spread of democratic institutions.

Fukuyama has now left behind the neo-conservative movement which used his work as a philosophical background and his latest works look at the evolution of socio-political structures in greater depth and question the political institutions in established democracies.

Despite my scepticism for democracy and its over advocacy since the end of the cold war, I found The End of History and the Last man extremely interesting for Fukuyama’s philosophical breadth and depth. It is a book which must still rank as essential reading for anyone interested in foreign affairs and the evolution of mankind’s socio-political structures.

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