Commentary Magazine

The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama

To the 21st Century

The End of History and the Last Man.
by Francis Fukuyama.
The Free Press. 418 pp. $24.95.

Educated people have an extraordinary appetite for absolute answers to historical questions, answers which wise historians know cannot be forthcoming. It is astonishing that Hegel’s reputation survived his absurd declaration that history had ended with Bonaparte’s victory over Prussia at Jena in 1806. Yet Hegel went on to hold what was then the most enviable academic post in Germany, the chair of philosophy in Berlin, and to write much more clever and influential nonsense. In due course his thoughts were transmuted by Marx not merely into a set of absolute answers about where history was heading but into a program for accelerating the process. Until recently this moonshine was believed by millions of comparatively well-educated people, and indeed there remain corners of university campuses where it is still upheld and taught.

There was a time, too, especially in the 1920’s, when Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West was the ultra-fashionable text for historical determinists, and that was succeeded, a decade or so later, by Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History. It sold in prodigious quantities, despite its offputting length, and I am old enough to remember a time when it was still taken seriously, even though Toynbee changed his entire theory fundamentally, halfway through it.

The latest intellectual entrepreneur to supply the appetite is Francis Fukuyama, whose 1989 article, “The End of History?,” with its notion that the collapse of Soviet Communism had opened the era of total liberal triumph and brought history to a stop, was a sensation in the United States and elsewhere, and so got the 1990’s off to a thoroughly muddled start. No doubt anxious to consolidate his perhaps fragile reputation as the guru of the decade, he has now produced a volume of 400 pages which says the last word on—well, everything, more or less.

Fukuyama here restates his original contention in less exalted, and therefore more acceptable, terms than in his original essay:

As mankind approaches the end of the millennium, the twin crises of authoritarianism and socialist central planning have left only one competitor standing in the ring as an ideology of potentially universal validity: liberal democracy, the doctrine of individual freedom and popular sovereignty.

This proposition is, at any rate, worth debating. The only trouble is that its assumption of the imminent triumph of liberalism was a 19th-century commonplace, shared alike by John Stuart Mill and Woodrow Wilson, Mazzini and Kossuth, Gladstone and Thiers; indeed, it was pretty generally held, among “enlightened” people, as late as the Versailles Conference in 1918-19. Unfortunately, such complacency was succeeded by the totalitarian era, from which we are only just beginning, rather tentatively I would say, to emerge. Even in its watered-down form, Fukuyama’s optimism appears presumptuous.

Moreover, it gets him only as far as page 42, and he still has more than 350 pages to fill. Fukuyama is himself a Hegelian, and the thoughts of the Master keep popping up in his text, rather as King Charles’s head intrudes into the memorandum which Mr. Dick, in David Copperfield, is writing to the Lord Chancellor. To make matters worse, Fukuyama is also bedazzled by a now-obscure French philosophy expert, Alexandre Kojève, here described as “Hegel’s great interpreter,” and he too keeps popping up, behind and sometimes in front of Hegel, rather like Sancho Panza squiring Don Quixote.

As I say, the book goes on to cover a lot of ground, and the author enjoys conjuring up fancy chapter headings, such as “The Mechanism of Desire,” “The Beast with Red Cheeks,” and “The Coldest of All Cold Monsters.” But these promise more than they perform, and much of the book is anodyne in effect, ranging through conventional poli. sci. to standard futurology, with a tendency to waffle at critical points. Perhaps the fairest comment I can make is to recall the exchange between the High Court Judge and the sharptongued barrister F. E. Smith. Judge: “I have listened carefully to your exposition, Mr. Smith, and I am none the wiser.” “Possibly not, my lord, but considerably better informed.”

Alas, “considerably” would be out of place here: Fukuyama does not deal widely in facts, and the key table he presents, “Liberal Democracies Worldwide,” tracing their increase through the years 1790,1848,1900,1919,1940,1960, 1975, and 1990 seems to me a minefield of misunderstandings, both historical and contemporary. In the bound reviewers’ galleys of this book, Yugoslavia was rated as a “liberal democracy”—that country riven by half-a-dozen civil wars, with a million homeless refugees, its rump still run by a heartless Communist dictatorship; in the nick of time, the listing was removed from the final published version. But is it right to call Romania a “liberal democracy”? Or Paraguay? Or genocidal Sri Lanka? There are a dozen other countries Fukuyama complacently lists in his “end of history” column which do not belong there.



The truth is that though Fukuyama repeatedly refers to “the recent worldwide liberal revolution,” it is at present one of aspiration rather than reality. What is true is that, for the first time in history, every single nation in Western Europe is now, theoretically at least, a democracy under the rule of law, and there has been a strong movement toward political and economic freedom in Eastern Europe, too. But with some exceptions, much the same could have been said of Europe in 1918-19, and look what followed.

Even in Western Europe, the credentials of some countries need examination. In France, for instance, the ability of citizens, either as individuals or through their puny parliament, to resist the overweening power of the state is minute—though perhaps Fukuyama, as a Hegelian, and so a state-worshipper, would approve of that. In Italy, only last year, the special anti-Mafia prosecutor told parliament in despair: “Whole provinces of Italy and Sicily are now beyond the law.” Moreover, as Britain, where liberalism originated and which has been a country under the rule of law since at least the mid-17th century, is discovering to its cost, the European Community is slowly enmeshing twelve nations in a labyrinth of bureaucratic regulations which is profoundly undemocratic and illiberal.



Elsewhere, the outlook is much darker. The likelihood of working democracies, where all are equal under the law, emerging in any part of the Muslim world is not great, and Fukuyama’s listing of Turkey as a “liberal democracy” seems to me quite false, as the author would discover for himself if he went there in the guise of a Kurd or an Armenian. The only successful democracy in the Arab world was Lebanon—it worked well when I first visited it in the 1950’s—and it was so by virtue of its Christian majority, which has since vanished, along with democracy and law. The first free elections ever held in “liberated” Algeria, after 30 years, produced an overwhelming first-round victory for Islamic theocracy—the negation of liberal democracy—at which point the experiment was aborted.

The one liberal democracy in the African continent, the Republic of South Africa, has a parliamentary democracy, albeit limited to the white race, and a rule of law which extends to all; it is now threatened by black power under an unreconstructed Stalinist-type party. There are democratic stirrings in Africa, after a long night of Marxist and collectivist failure, but they are no more than stirrings.

In South America (if not in Central America), the skies are a little lighter, at any rate for the present, though that part of the world specializes in false dawns. And it must be pointed out, as Fukuyama half-admits, that the present wave of economic liberalism is almost entirely due to the success of the seventeen-year military dictatorship of General Pinochet in Chile. The freeing of what had been an economy strangled by collectivist regimentation and bureaucracy could only have been achieved by a masterful man of his stamp, able to do as much as he pleased by virtue of his bayonets. And, though many neighboring countries currently going through a democratic, parliamentary phase—such as Argentina—have taken courage to follow suit, it remains to be seen whether their governments have the stamina to go on with it. In the Latin American context, I fear, democracy and economic liberalism tend to be mutually exclusive, a point not lost on that wise old Pole, Joseph Conrad (cf. Nostromo).

As for Asia, who will be bold enough to predict the political future of the three key peoples, the Japanese, the Indians, and the Chinese? Believing, as I do, that political freedom and economic freedom are ultimately indivisible, and that if you embark on one the other must eventually follow suit, I assume that if the Beijing regime reverts to its program of commercial liberalization, as it seems inclined to do, moves toward political democracy must follow. But I would not bet one Kuomintang dollar on it. Again, India has now practiced a form of democracy—by no means a liberal form, despite what Fukuyama’s table states—for nearly half a century, thanks to a useful foundation of British institutions. But its survival, amid all the stresses of race, region, and religion, is a kind of daily miracle, a gift from God.

Then there is Japan, another half-century-old democracy. Fukuyama classifies it as a liberal one, and so in certain technical respects it may be; but in other, much more important respects, it is not, or not yet. To me, Japan is the most elusive and impenetrable nation on earth, which in some ways has more in common with the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt than anything in contemporary society. Far more than Stalin’s Russia, it fits Churchill’s description, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Japan, so far, has clung to democracy because it is convenient, and safe, and has proved mighty profitable. If these conditions should change, will Japan, a country with a large and now-affluent population and few natural resources, look elsewhere for political salvation? Has democracy, let alone liberalism, struck deep, self-sustaining roots in Japanese civic habits and attitudes? How can we possibly say? The Japanese, or so many of them tell me, do not even know themselves; or if they do know, are not saying.



This tour d’horizon leaves out North America, and the United States in particular. Fukuyama assumes that America is intrinsically and incorrigibly liberal-democratic, the fons et origo of the concept. Of the 64 countries in his table, it is the only one to score full marks all the way through from 1790 to 1990. Yet because a state may formally qualify for the status of a liberal democracy, it does not follow that all its inhabitants enjoy the benefits. Can we say a society is democratic if democracy is not in fact practiced, or is under the rule of law if law is not, in reality, available?

One problem Fukuyama does not consider is the way in which liberal democracy, or liberalism tout court, breeds its own nemesis. Let us take an illustration from a recent examination of the state of the U.S. economy, The Great Reckoning, by J.D. Davidson and William Rees-Mogg. They cite Dodge City in 1871 as an example of a primitive, pre-civil society, without representative government, police, courts, or justice of any kind. Its murder rate was, accordingly, high. But it was only half, per capita, of the murder rate in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, in 1990. In large parts of Washington today, fewer than one in ten adults vote; one person in sixteen will be murdered over a life-span, and among children under twelve murder is now the leading cause of death. To a lesser degree, such conditions apply to portions of other major cities in the richest, most democratic, and most liberal country on earth. To someone in a U.S. ghetto, or for that matter in a big-city housing complex in Britain or France, the consequences of liberalism may themselves be a tyranny, and life for many is liable to be, in Hobbes’s words, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”



History does not end; it simply becomes more complicated. Whereas capitalism, judged by its historical performance over two centuries, is a self-correcting system, being a form of economic activity which tends to occur at a certain stage in human development unless you do something specific to stop it, liberalism is an intellectual concept which to some extent has to be imposed on societies by its better-educated elites: no large democracy, for instance, has ever abolished capital punishment by referendum. That, of course, is why liberalism tends to be self-defeating—because it often runs across the grain of popular sentiment, based on harsh experience. Similarly, such concepts as racial equality and nondiscrimination, buttressed as they usually are by practical measures like quotas, busing, and positive law, are imposed by elected elites, often responding to pressure groups or “expert opinion” rather than being demanded by mass opinion.

Ordinary men and women favor freedom of speech and movement; all want the right to sell their labor in the highest market, to spend their money as they please; they welcome the right to vote, and most support freedom of the press, and even religion. But the more sophisticated forms of liberalism are less popular, and some are downright unpopular. If countries like the United States and Britain had government by referendum—something which is now technically possible on a day-to-day basis—they would become radically less liberal in a short time. Over a huge range of issues, from what is taught in the schools and how, to the treatment of criminal offenders, public opinion, so far as one can see, would insist on a harder, harsher society, but also one which would become more industrious, and safe. Such are the orders of human priorities in the mass.

In short, it is not only in South America that there tends to be a conflict between democracy and liberalism. In fact, “liberal democracy” is to some extent a contradiction in terms. The more democratic it is, the less liberal; and vice versa. I cannot, for instance, honestly call Britain a democracy, though it is certainly a liberal-led society. There, 30 years ago, capital punishment—an issue on which virtually every adult has, and is entitled to have, strong opinions—was abolished, not indeed by referendum but by parliamentary vote. On the evidence of polls, public opinion has continued to demand its return, usually by majorities of 80 percent; parliament has continued to ban it, by almost equally large majorities.

It occurs to me, then—and it is the sort of point which Fukuyama, were he not such a blinkered Hegelian, might have considered—that over the next twenty years or so, the advanced societies will move further in the direction of liberalism, or will become more democratic; but not both. I foresee all kinds of tensions developing, as our cities grow richer, more violent, more hedonistic, and, if not more liberal, then more libertarian, and our countrysides (therefore) more threatened. As history grows in complexity, it becomes more fascinating, as well as more difficult to predict. Pace Fukuyama, we face new nightmares in the 21st century, as well as realized dreams, and the really disturbing prospect is that they will be nightmares of a kind we have never before experienced.

About the Author

Paul Johnson is the author of Modern Times, A History of Christianity, and A History of the Jews, among many other books.

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