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The End of History and the Last Man

Francis Fukuyama.  Los Angeles: Avon Books, 1992.

Note: passages that are "in both quotations and italics" are quoted verbatim from the text.  Other uses of italics are for emphasis, and other uses of quotations mark colloquial or informal usage.

Executive Summary

1. The weakness of strong states and the emergence of liberal democracy as the only unchallenged universal form of legitimate government

Democracy is succeeding, and will be the endpoint of political evolution, because it is the only governmental system that enjoys long-term legitimacy from the governed (and therefore has a reserve of goodwill to carry it through temporary crises).   Other governments, in particular "strong states" such as interim dictatorships, absolute monarchies, and Communist totalitarianism, have not been able to muster legitimacy:

The only remaining alternative, and in fact the only form that has survived intact to the end of the twentieth century, is liberal democracy.  Liberal systems protect the rights of individuals and the minority, including political, religious, and economic (the last of which leads directly to free-market economies);   democratic ones assure each citizen of a voice in the political process.  A society can be liberal without being democratic (e.g. 18th c. Britain) or vice versa (e.g. democratic Islamic state).  The principle of sovereignty of the people stands as the only unchallenged universal principle that gives the government its legitimacy among the governed.  (The Islamic state may be an exception, but it is not expanding--it certainly cannot challenge liberal democracy on the plane of ideas, and the religious ideology on which it rests does not resonate with traditionally non-Islamic people, nor with some younger-generation Muslims.)

A universal history

There have been previous attempts to answer the question whether human history as a whole has an emergent pattern, and if so, what the prerequisites might be for a stable endpoint:

Is there such a thing as a universal history?  As a starting point, consider the scientific method approach to modern science, the first unidirectional (non-cyclical), universally accepted, and universally accessible process, that has had two important effects:

  1. Because adoption of science and technology has military implications for preserving sovereignty, in its military role science paradoxically serves to unify states by spreading itself as a universal ideology and spawning the economic and social structures that support it.  Countries rich in natural resources can be a temporary exception: Islamic "science" could not produce F-14's, but oil can pay for Islam's "worldwide Islamic revolution".
  2. Science can be used to harness nature in the satisfaction of human desires, an effect intertwined with the "increasingly rational organization of labor" and the corresponding surprisingly homogeneous large-scale social and economic changes, such as the undermining of tribal/religious/etc. bonds in favor of economic ones.  Like science itself, the performance of this effect can be measured according to universal metrics (material standard of living).  Marxism's failure stems from the attempt to forcibly abolish the distinctions between different "stratified classes" of the division of labor.

Given that history is influenced so profoundly by a unidirectional natural science, can it be reversed?  For example, Rousseau argued that man's own vanity leads him to envy what his neighbor has rather than to be satisfied with what he himself has, and as a result man would be happier if he could just get "off the treadmill", hence the case against industrialization. There are two main problems with this: first, industrialization is closely tied to other real benefits such as standard of health care and subsistence, and second, a stagnant economic pie with essentially fixed resources (as opposed to an ever-expanding one) is more likely to foment economic instability and therefore social unrest.  Unfortunately for the radical environmental movement, the luxury of a healthy environment is best afforded by the affluent (witness Mexico).  Even were modern science "destroyed" by a cataclysmic event, the memory of how it was achieved, and of its effects (including defense), is now too pervasive to expect that it would be permanently banished.   Truly cyclical history, then, can only occur if an entire civilization can vanish without imprinting its successor in any way; but natural science has already permanently imprinted us in several ways, for better or worse.  [For an interesting twist on this idea, read Larry Niven's classic science fiction novel The Mote in God's Eye.]

So natural science leads to capitalism in some form, but does it lead to democracy?   Post-industrial societies require a high level of "information professionals" (scientists, researchers, and the like) to sustain the complex division of labor and pace of innovation that is a direct result of the evolution of a free market.  Such activity proceeds best in an atmosphere of freedom, both intellectual and economic (e.g. the Soviet Union encouraged defense research but not research into how to make better TV's); attempting to provide "controlled freedom" to this segment within a totalitarian system either fails or eventually results in the segment escaping the control of the system (witness the recent role of the Internet as communication channels during the failed anti-Yeltsin coup and Tiananmen Square).  Likewise, the complexity of modern economies is simply beyond the capability of any centralized bureaucracy to effectively manage or invest wisely, and centrally planned pricing and economies make it impossible to realize economies of scale and may remove the work ethic by distorting the real value of personal labor, as has occurred in Communist nations.  Resistance to these concepts ultimately results in economic stagnation.  In other words, "no other path to full economic modernity has proven to be viable."

Non-capitalist endpoints to economic evolution

Dependency theory, the theory that the wealth of the developed/industrialized nations was inextricably bound to the poverty of underdeveloped/less-industrial nations that could be exploited for natural resources or cheap labor (a popular theory among Latin American intellectuals of the late 20th c.), has lost credibility in the face of the East Asian economic miracle: Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, latecomers with few natural resources, have deployed freewheeling capitalism, tied themselves to external markets, and singlemindedly focused on export-growth economics.  Although the transitions have taken a couple of generations and have not been painless, they are benign compared to the wholesale terror associated with Stalinism and Maoism.  Why hasn't this "miracle" happened in Latin America?  Once we discount dependency theory, there are two possibilities:

  1. It has never been seriously tried.  Latin American colonies of European countries were exploitative; in the twentieth century, emerging democracies tried to remedy this through massive and ultimately inefficient socialist programs (state-operated heavy industry, artificial price setting and wealth redistribution, import substitution and tariffs and resistance to international free trade), which are only now being privatized (e.g. Brazil) and coexist with illegal or extralegal sub-economies of people unable or unwilling to work within the system.
  2. There is some cultural difference between East Asia and Latin America that is an obstacle.  This argument is examined later.

It has been argued three different ways that economic development necessarily leads to democracy, but all the arguments are flawed:

  1. Democracy is best equipped to deal with the complex array of interest groups that arise during economic modernization.  Flaw: This is true in America because the immigrants explicitly abandoned their ancestral identities and assimilated into a society without well-defined social classes (and not even here: witness the failure to settle the slavery question via democratic means).  For class-polarized or ethnically/culturally polarized societies, liberal democracy may not be the most effective vehicle for resolving conflicts among interest groups.  (Witness the ethnic "cleansing" going on in various places.  American success in dealing democratically with ethnic diversity has been limited: it has not involved cases of distinct historical communities living on their traditional lands and with a memory of past nationhood or sovereignty, and in fact its major failure--Native Americans--has been outside this scope.)  For societies that are non-polarized (where everyone is "born equal"), it begs the question of how they got that way in the first place.
  2. Without the ability to change leadership democratically, an entire system might collapse under the poor judgment or gross self-interested excesses of an omnipotent but bad leader.  Flaw: Under this theory, democracy becomes a compromise between warring factions.  Being nobody's first choice, it is not likely to remain stable for long.
  3. Successful industrialization produces a large middle class that demands political representation and equality of rights (their basic survival needs having been fulfilled), and through education are informed as to what their choices are rather than becoming accustomed to obeying authoritarian orders.  Flaw: If it is true that educated middle-class people in industrialized countries do prefer liberal democracy, we must ask why they show this preference--there is nothing in the industrialization process itself that results in democracy being the preferred outcome, since some industrialization can and has been achieved by force.  In fact, an authoritarian state can be expected to do better economically than a democratic one: in times of crisis, it can prevent its citizens from sacrificing the free market to their narrow economic self-interests and its economic progress may be less hamstrung by various special interest groups.  In other words, authoritarian regimes can dictate that the market remain free no matter what, and in Japan we have evidence that state intervention is more than compatible with economic success up to a point.

Therefore, although the correlation between economic development and stable democracy remains high, we have not demonstrated causality, since economic success appears just as compatible with authoritarianism as with democracy.

We also cannot explain the emergence of liberal democracy solely on economic grounds, for that provides no explanation for ideological aberrations such as Khomeinism and Nazism, nor for the willingness of people to risk their lives for democratic principles even when prosperity might have been achieved without liberty (including the American revolution).  So we look to Hegel and his characterization of man's fundamental struggle for individual recognition.  Doing this may help us convince ourselves that the apparent absence of logical contradictions in liberal democracy as the endpoint of human evolution is not merely illusory, until such time as new contradictions are found, since we cannot otherwise prove some other kind of evolution will not occur.  (Example: modern feminists claim many benefits of "matriarchal" over "patriarchal" societies, which cannot be demonstrated by fact since there are no examples of such societies, yet we cannot prove that they're wrong either.)   In other words, we need some trans-historical (extra-historical?) invariant, not just the weight of empirical evidence, on which to base the conclusion that history has an endpoint.

Thymos and the need for recognition

Hegel's archetypal man is a fundamentally moral creature driven by a need for recognition; that is, he desires that his peers desire to be like him.  This is similar to Platonian thymos, "spiritedness", that causes people to be angry with themselves when they fall short of their own expectations (self-esteem).   Unfortunately, thymos is also the fundamental source of human conflict, and in its pathological manifestations ultimately leads to tyranny (megalothymia, as with Hitler).  What is usually left when megalothymia is removed from the picture is isothymia, the desired to be recognized as (at least) the equal of others.  In view of this, slave/master relationships are unsatisfying to both parties: the slave is unsatisfied because he will submit to the master rather than risk death, and the master is unsatisfied because he cannot receive recognition from a person who is his full peer.  (The same argument applies to extreme nationalism.)  Christianity was the first religion to explicitly stipulate that all men are worthy of dignity in the eyes of God, because of their capacity for free will and their freedom as moral agents: God grants all men isothymia but penalizes megalothymia.  But Christianity contained a self-contradiction in that it created such a God only for men to enslave themselves to, having been told not to expect liberation in this life.  Hegel's view of the French Revolution was therefore that it was the implementation on Earth of the correct concept of freedom embodied in Christianity.

For this reason--the thymotic urge--the democratic process is important not only for its results, but as a process per se, where individuals can be recognized for their moral autonomy.   This is the missing link between liberal economics and liberal politics, and is the reason that the only social system that "fully satisfies" man is the universal and homogeneous state that rests on the "twin pillars" of economics and recognition.  Reciprocal recognition in a liberal democracy occurs when the government recognizes individual dignity (by protecting individuals' rights), individuals agree to recognize each others' dignity (by not violating each other's rights), and individuals agree to recognize the dignity (legitimacy) of the government (by agreeing to abide by the laws it makes protecting individuals' rights).  As argued before, liberal economics is not enough to explain some social movements, including giving disenfranchised groups in the U.S. the right to vote (blacks, and later women): the argument was that the recognition of the dignity to vote and participate in the democratic process was an end in itself, not merely a means to economic self-interest.

Interestingly, the transition to and durability of a society based on such rational recognition appears to require the survival of certain forms of irrational recognition (such as megalothymia); this is discussed at the end.

Leaping Over Rhodes: Whither the State and Nationalism?

The realist view of politics (realpolitik or "power politics"), as espoused originally by Machiavelli and most recently by Kissinger, holds that the only relevant property in determining the behavior of a collection of nation-states is their respective military capabilities, because states have a universal and permanent tendency to expand as much as they can.  In other words, the internal constitution of the states is irrelevant for the purposes of determining how they will behave; consequently, the prescriptive goal of realpolitik is to avoid war by optimizing for balance of power rather than for any particular internal organization of the nations, and its descriptive goal is to explain the behavior of nations solely in terms of distribution of power.  But this is flawed in two ways:

  1. Like giant thymotic individuals, the behavior of states suggests that they crave recognition of legitimacy, above and beyond military expansion.  Britain's surrender of India, the resignation of the Argentine junta in 1983, and the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact after the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany support this observation.  One can claim that this is a form of "power seeking", but doing so results in a definition of "power" too broad and vague to have any predictive value.
  2. The (historyless) distribution of power at any given instant is taken to be sufficient to predict behavior, without any account of history.  For example, what begins as a single ruler's megalothymia in his own state must logically continue by expanding his influence to subjugate other states; this must continue until his empire reaches steady state, or he is defeated or killed.  Even today, among the liberalized societies, there is no other good explanation for the gradual disappearance of capital punishment, the decreasing tolerance for civilian casualties in war, and the increasing seriousness of cause required for such states to go to war.  Furthermore, the economic cost of war has increased exponentially, potentially crippling the economy even for the winning side.  This observation was even made in 1988 in Kommunist, the theoretical journal of the Communist Party: "There are no politically influential forces in either Western Europe or the US [that contemplate] military aggression against socialism."  Megalothymia has found other outlets besides bloody battle in liberalized society.  "The argument is not that liberal democracy constrains man's natural instincts for aggression, but that it has fundamentally transformed the instincts themselves and eliminated the motive for imperialism."   (p. 263)

Nationalism.  One alternative outlet for thymos is the resurgence of nationalism, whether because of pre-existing tribal commonalities ("linguistic nationalism") or deliberate fabrications of nationalists as part of a larger agenda.  Historically, "fabricated" nationalism accompanies a country's transition from agrarian (in which nationalism is nonexistent) to industrial under circumstances that deny the newly-modernizing people both national identity and political freedom.  "Linguistic" nationalism appears to decline over time: in Europe, the conscious choice was made to opt for equal-but-universal recognition in the form of the European Community, after witnessing the devastating effects of linguistic nationalism during two world wars.  Linguistic nationalism may seem too elemental and visceral to be vanquished by liberalism, yet this is exactly what happened to European religion--which is no less elemental--after centuries of confrontation with liberalism: it was "taught to be tolerant" and relegated to private life.  A similar road may await nationalism: "The French can continue to savor their wines and the Germans their sausages, but...within the sphere of private life alone."   This has happened all over Europe and most recently in Turkey, under Ataturk.   Although there will doubtless be nationalistic flare-ups, especially in the newly-modernizing Eastern European countries, it is worth bearing in mind that the flares are unlikely to affect long-term evolution of these regions, because there are no longer any large powers who would think of improving their strategic position by exploiting such flare-ups--in fact most liberal countries try to avoid involvement beyond condeming atrocities during such incidents.  Also, because the circumstances under which such intense flares occur proceed from relatively recent historical conditions, there is no reason to believe that nationalism, however intense, is a permanent feature of the political landscape, though it may take a couple of generations to die out.

The post-historical world.  Even as integration of developing countries into the "post-historical world" continues, in parallel we may see coexistence of the "historical world" along two axes.  The first is oil production--the one remaining resource sufficiently centralized to be manipulated by a small contingent for political means, and sufficiently vital to liberal democracies that doing so could seriously disrupt their economies.  The second and more fundamental is immigration--international turbulence often fuels immigration into liberal democracies, whose very founding principles make them unable to reject immigrants and whose economies often benefit from the injection of inexpensive labor.  Because of the dichotomy between the "historical" and "post-historical" worlds, realism continues to have some prescriptive value,  but little descriptive value.  "what will produce peace in the post-historical world will not be the fact that the major states share a common principle of legitimacy. . . peace will arise instead out of the specific nature of democratic legitimacy, and its ability to satisfy the human longing for recognition."  (p. 279)  This suggests that "moralistic" American foreign policy is not entirely misplaced, and also explains why the League of Nations and the UN have been largely ineffective: unlike the Kantian ideals on which these were based, membership is permitted to non-republican states.  Under a well-implemented Kantian system, "international law" would just be "domestic law writ large".  In this respect, organizations such as NATO or the G-7 come closer to the Kantian ideal; they may have occasional internal disputes, but resolving these by force would be unthinkable.

The Last Man

So liberal democracy seems to be a preferred choice over the other alternatives today, but is it inherently worthy of choice per se?

The attack from the Left says that the economic inequality resulting from capitalism implies unequal recognition, hence capitalism is unable to properly satisfy thymos.  However, as a dynamic force that replaces conventional social relationships with economic labor-based ones, and one that can only operate effectively in a society with high social mobility and occupations open to talent rather than privilege, capitalism tends toward a strong middle class society, in which the problem of poverty has been transformed from one of material need to one of recognition based on career or professional achievements (and the concomitant possession of wealth).   That is, what is satisfying to material desire is not necessarily satisfying to thymos, and there is no way of optimizing for both; a stable liberal capitalist society has some latitude to find the right balance point.  As further evidence of this, consider that the response of many governments to the ADA was to make all public facilities handicapped-friendly, rather than provide special accommodations for the handicapped, even though the latter would probably have been less expensive: they were saving the thymos of the handicapped.  Such issues, along with discussions about gay Boy Scouts and whether men and women should be forced to pay the same amount for haircuts, arise in American society because of the smallness of the actual remaining inequalities--not despite them.  (The project of Communism manifestly tried to trade inequality for individual liberty, and even so, created a classed society of Party officials vs. everyone else.)

The attack from the Right, which partially echoes Nietzsche's argument, has to do with how desirable recognition really is if everyone automatically gets it and if there is no metric of the quality of who is bestowing it.  For example, to have self-esteem requires us to be capable of shame when we fall short of a certain set of expectations (whatever they may be).  But the program of cultural relativism to tell everyone that "I'm OK, you're OK" defeats this metric.  Similarly, most people desire the specific recognition of someone (or some group) whose judgment they hold in high regard.  Typically, then, the highest recognition comes from ever-smaller groups of people, so the "recognition" afforded by the state is worthless.  That is, the desire to be recognized as superior to others is necessary if one is to realize a personal goal of being superior to oneself.  Not everyone has this personal goal, but for those who do, merely being recognized as equal to other human beings is not enough.   Yet history is littered with the fallout from religions, political systems, etc. that believed their system of values and recognition was the only valid one; the acts of "courage" and "valor" committed to propagate or defend such systems are seen with hindsight to have been only silly prejudices.  Hence we are caught in the middle, particularly the generations who have grown up without experiencing the pain that preceded hindsight.  Since the "oppressed slave" (the First Man) has no longer anything to strive for at the end of history, he is bereft of the inspirations that sparked monumental works of politic and art.  Thus, Kojeve laments (in footnotes to his lectures on Hegel) that the end of history means the end of art and philosophy.

Things are perhaps not so grim.  Democracy hasn't banished megalothymia and isothymia, even though the framers of the Constitution carefully designed a set of checks and balances so that even the most megalothymic leader does not "rule" a democracy but rather reacts and manages (this is slightly less true in US foreign policy).   But liberal democracy combined with capitalism provides alternative outlets for isothymia:

The tension between thymos and liberal democracy led Aristotle to postulate that societies would exist in endless oscillation:the society of "last men" composed of desire and reason would ultimately give way to a thymotic society of bestial "first men".  Plato, on the other hand, taught that thymos, while the basis of the virtues, had to be trained to serve the common good, and it is here that liberal democracy allows the fullest scope of each of the three aspects of the ideal regime (reason, desire, thymos).

It is true that cultural relativism currently has our hands somewhat tied with respect to true realization of thymos, for the reasons described above; but this may be a transient condition.  "If, over time, more and more societies with diverse cultures and histories exhibit similar long-term patterns of development; if there is a continuing convergence in the types of institutions governing most advanced societies; and if the homogenization of manking continues as a result of economic development, then the idea of relativism may seem much stranger than it does now.  For the apparent differences between peoples' "languages of good and evil" will appear to be an artifact of their particular stage of historical developments."  Fukuyama compares the march of history under such a scenario to a wagon train: some wagons are in the vanguard, others get temporarily waylaid, some will not make it, but most of them will ultimately reach town.  The open question is whether, having got there, they will find their new surroundings inadequate and embark on another, more distant journey.